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What is a Virtual Instrument?

A virtual instrument or software instrument is a software application that enables the user to produce or play sounds on a computer. Programs of this kind can be run on the computer as plug-ins hosted by a so-called sequencer software (e.g., Steinberg’s Cubase, Logic or GarageBand by Apple, etc.) or as stand-alone applications. Similar to a multi-track tape recorder, a sequencer allows the user to record, program, arrange and play music on the computer.

There are two kinds of virtual instruments. The first type generates sounds by creating and modulating waveforms like a synthesizer. The second type are sample-based, i.e., they trigger recorded tones, loops, and phrases performed by musicians. These “samples” are edited and assembled for use in a sample library, which can be accessed in real-time by the software instrument. In the case of an orchestral sample library, single notes and tone sequences (phrases) are recorded in several variations such as expression, tempo, articulation, etc., for each instrument as well as whole instrument groups. These recordings are edited in the studio and processed for use in a sample library or a virtual instrument.

As opposed to virtual instruments, pure sample libraries like the Vienna Symphonic Library’s PRO EDITION or HORIZON SERIES depend on so-called software samplers (e.g., GigaStudio, Logic’s EXS24, Kontakt, HALion); the user has to load his sound libraries into these samplers in order to be able to play the sampled instruments. As of September 2007 the Vienna Symphonic Library has discontinued distribution of its sample libraries. Starting in 2006 these libraries have been replaced, little-by-little with Vienna Instruments – software instruments that enable much simpler and more intuitive handling of the thousands of samples required to create realistic performances.

Vienna Instruments are sample-based virtual orchestra instruments that combine sound data and their sequential arrangement (which is determined by the musical context) with the player software. They enable the user to arrange his or her composition on the computer so that, in many cases, the results cannot be distinguished from a real orchestral recording.