Guide to plug-in instruments

In this column we cover the basics of virtual instruments: what they are, how they work and how to load them. We’ve even put some of the best free offerings on the PC World March 2004 cover CD to help you get started.

To use the plug-ins, you will need some sequencing software. There are basic free alternatives such as Pro Tools FREE (supporting only Windows 95/98 and available at www.digidesign.com), and one of the cheapest beginner options is the $100 Tracktion (www.rawmaterialsoftware.com). For the purposes of this article, we’ve put a trial version of FL Studio 4.5.1 (www.flstudio.com) — with all features enabled except project saving — on the PC World March 2004 cover CD.

It’s important to understand that plug-in (or virtual) instruments connect to a host environment (called sequencing software) for writing music. More advanced sequencing packages that I’d recommend investigating as your needs grow include Cubase SX 2 (www.steinberg.net), Cakewalk Sonar 3 (www.cakewalk.com) and Pro Tools (www.digidesign.com).

The two main ways of using plug-in instruments are as follows. First, you can play the plug-in instrument using any MIDI-equipped instrument (such as a music keyboard) or a dedicated MIDI con-troller keyboard available from outfits such as Evolution (www.evolution.co.uk). Alternatively, you can use your mouse to program out your musical score.

Most sequencing software supports proprietary instrument formats; if yours doesn’t support the format of an instrument you want to try, converters (also known as wrappers) are available from companies like Fxpansion (www.fxpansion.com). Arguably the most widely supported instrument format is the VSTi standard (Virtual Studio Technology instrument, as opposed to a VST effect processor) originally implemented in Cubase by Steinberg.

Types of instruments

In the same way that painters have a world of colour at their disposal, music producers generally use a variety of plug-in instruments to expand their sonic palette.

The majority of plug-in instruments feature a variety of unique sound algorithms, synthesis techniques, effects, sound-shaping capabilities, MIDI features and workflow. Many replicate instruments such as a guitar or piano, while others imitate analog keyboards and drum machines — in both interface and modelled sound.

Plug-in instruments offering strange new sounds also abound, along with those that function as virtual sound libraries to play back and manipulate large sample banks. Some allow you to construct your own synthesiser or effects through modular means.

If you plan to use your PC as a virtual instrument for performance, you’ll need software such as Steinberg V-Stack or Xlutop Chainer (www.xlutop.com), which allows you to run multiple VST instruments and effects independently of a sequencer.

The best place on the Internet to track down and read reviews of both high-quality commercial and free plug-in instruments is the K-v-R audio community (www.kvr-vst.com).

Getting started

As mentioned, we’ll be using FL Studio 4.5.1 to run the free plug-ins. Refer to the Here’s How Audio sections in the September 2003, May 2002, and August/September/October 2001 print editions for tutorials explaining FL Studio functions.

When you start FL Studio, you may wish to get a feel for what the program is capable of by listening to the demo tracks inside the folder \FLStudio4\Data\Projects\Cool stuff.

Otherwise, with the free plug-ins installed and FL Studio started, go to File-New. Select More... from the Channels-Add one menu. Then click the Refresh button (choosing Fast scan) to search for the newly installed plug-ins. Place a check next to those in red and close the window. You can now load the free instruments from the Channels-Add one menu (select Triangle II for now - see here for a screenshot).

Press -T and you will be able to press letters on your PC’s keyboard to ‘play’ and hear the plug-in instrument. Manually program in a sequence by right-clicking on the top left corner of the Triangle II window before selecting Piano Roll. Begin playback by pressing . Load a preset Triangle II sound by right-clicking on the word Program located at the top right of Triangle II’s interface. While you’re playing back a sequence, experiment with adjusting Triangle II’s many parameter knobs to manipulate the sound into something pleasing to your ear. Save your own preset by again clicking Triangle II’s top left corner before choosing Save preset as... .

With a little practice with FL Studio, some experiments with effects, and the specific and detailed help available on each instrument’s site, you’re now well on your way.

On the PC World March 2004 cover CD:
Rgc:audio Triangle II (www.rgcaudio.com/triangle_II.htm) is a mono synth with lots of control knobs and 128 sound presets. Run T2111.exe to install.
Green Oak Crystal 2 (www.greenoak.com/crystal) is a semi-modular synth. Install it by unzipping the file crystal.dll to the VST plug-ins folder of your sequencer. In FL Studio, this will be C:\Program Files\FLStudio4\Plugins\VST by default.
Ichiro Toda Synth 1 (www.geocities.co.jp/SiliconValley-SanJose/5005/softsynth/) has 128 presets and strong sound character. Install it by running setup.exe, then copying Synth1 VST.dll to your VST plug-ins folder.
IK Multimedia SampleTank FREE (www.sampletank.com/Main.html?STFreeDwn) offers all the features of the full version of this great-sounding virtual sound module, but without the huge sound bank. Instead, new instruments/samples can be downloaded each month from the site. Install it by running Setup.exe, making sure to enter the location of your VST plug-ins folder. Online registration required upon first load.
LinPlug Free Alpha (www.linplug.com/Download) is a polyphonic analog soft synth. Simply tell its installation program where your VST plug-ins lives.


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