The Best Virtual Instrument Libraries for Songwriters
If you are a songwriter that is starting to write songs or make demos on a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation), and you are looking to start your library of instruments to use in your productions, this post is for you.
Let’s begin by stating that many songwriters choose to write and produce their songs entirely themselves including instruments they don’t play such as orchestral, folk or percussion.
It’s really useful to have a good library of software instruments to experiment with different sounds so you can create demo’s, do pre-production or even full productions yourself. So we’re going to look at some software instrument libraries and help you find what you will get the most out of for writing songs.
We’ll look at libraries with multiple instruments and also a few music genre specific options as well.
In general the best virtual instrument libraries for songwriters are those that have a wide range of musical instruments such as strings, orchestra, percussion, synthesizers, and more, to allow for the most freedom when composing. Native Instruments KOMPLETE is a great example. Any libraries that cater to a specific musical genre are also ideal.
Due to this my top recommendation would be Native Instruments KOMPLETE and specifically, the Standard package. More on this further below.
Keep in mind that depending on the type of music you make, you will need to choose the library that has the most instruments that fit what you are trying to do. Sound selection is very important when writing and producing songs.
Best libraries with multiple instruments
Let’s start with the biggest chunk. Most likely your first library will need to have the widest range of instruments so you can experiment and learn the type of sounds you will use the most.
Once you know what kind of sounds you prefer in your songs, you can move on to more specific libraries, but right now what you need is something broad and preferably not expensive.
Free Bundle Virtual Instrument Libraries
Let’s start with the free options for libraries that have tons of different instruments.
Logic Pro X stock instrument library
If you are a Mac user you can save a ton of money by just buying Logic Pro X as your DAW because it already comes with a ton of great free instruments and plugins. Logic is obviously not free but it is a great DAW with very good stock instruments.
Most DAWs come with some instruments and plugins but in my experience Logic Pro X has the best sounding ones. The other DAWs instruments tend to sound a bit lower quality a lot of the time.
The synthesizers that come with Logic are especially great in my opinion.
Spitfire Audio has a whole section of their website where they give out many virtual instruments for free.
At the time of writing this, they have 60 different instruments including all kinds of keyboards, synths, percussion, drums, strings, orchestra and many more and the quality is actually very good.
They give these out as a test sample for you to play around with and eventually you’ll be more likely to upgrade to their premium libraries. The premium ones range in price points from just $30 to hundreds of dollars.
You can check out the free instruments here:
- LABS: https://labs.spitfireaudio.com/?sortBy=prod_products_labs_latest
- BBC Symphony Orchestra Discover: https://www.spitfireaudio.com/bbc-symphony-orchestra-discover#overview
Native Instruments has a starter option for their software instruments bundle that is totally free. It comes with a few things including some acoustic instruments like flutes and reeds, bagpipes, plucked instruments and some percussion. There’s also some electric pianos, synths, vintage synths and keys, drum loops and even a small library of children’s toys sounds.
Personally I like Spitfire’s free instruments more but it doesn’t hurt to get this one too. Free is free.
Premium Bundle Virtual Instrument Libraries
Now we get into paid libraries and really there is only one main library to recommend here that has a wide variety of all kinds of software instruments and that is Native Instruments KOMPLETE.
If you are looking for the one library which will give you the most quality instruments in one go, look no further because this is it.
This library comes with tons of instruments including pianos, strings, percussion, orchestra and more
Depending on the tier of KOMPLETE you get (there’s 5 tiers), they come with expansions that even go into genre specific libraries like middle eastern, indian and west african traditional music, but also funk, soul, EDM, synth pop and more.
With a library like this you could pretty much produce any kind of music and I think for the most value all at once, this is the way to go.
As I said there are 5 tiers which at the time of writing this are priced as follows:
- KOMPLETE Start – Free. Mentioned earlier on this blog post. Very limited.
- KOMPLETE Select – $199. Not bad, but still on the starter side.
- KOMPLETE Standard – $599. Recommended. Studio-grade and brings enough instruments to produce pretty much anything.
- KOMPLETE Ultimate – $1,199. Has everything prior plus also some plugins from iZotope, Plugin Alliance, and Brainworx. Also has some premium orchestral and cinematic tools. This could be a nice upgrade for later but too expensive if you’re just looking for songwriting instruments to start with.
- KOMPLETE Collector’s Edition – $1,799. This has everything Native Instruments KOMPLETE has to offer. All out tools for composers and cinematic scoring.
My recommendation here is the Standard package. Considering how much you might spend over time buying individual libraries, I think if you start here you’ll have everything you need to experiment for a long time until you decide to buy more focused libraries for specific reasons.
Music Genre-Specific Libraries
Here are a few other instrument libraries that are more focused on particular music genre’s. I will mostly recommend paid libraries with multiple instruments since you will get more out of that in the beginning as you experiment.
Keep in mind there are also libraries that focus on individual instruments which may sound better for that specific instrument.
If you find yourself gravitating a lot towards a specific instrument, go deeper in your research. I will cover more instrument specific libraries later as well, so check back on this website later.
Folk Instrument Sample Libraries
Songwriters looking for multiple acoustic plucked folk instruments will be quite satisfied with the Hearth and Hollow Plucked Folk Ensemble library. It has samples of 7 folk instruments:
This library was created by Hunter Rogerson – a Pianobooks artist – and is also available on the Spitfire Audio website. The price is not crazy either.
The interface is easy to use and provides different articulations including plucked, brushed as well as some grooves. You are also able to control the position of the instrument in the room of the ensemble by dragging it around the screen and you even get a Bleed knob which will control the amount of audio bleed from one instrument to the others for added realism.
For a full walkthrough of this library check out this video by Hunter Rogerson:
All-in-One Orchestra Instrument Sample Libraries
So the thing with orchestra instrument libraries is that they tend to be very expensive, often hundreds of dollars.
I’ll try to recommend something that won’t leave you out on the street and you won’t outgrow quickly in terms of audio quality.
One caveat with the two recommendations I show below is that if you are looking for a more realistic orchestra that sounds like they are playing in the room with you, the BBC Symphony Orchestra is the way to go.
However, if you are looking for something that is more geared towards making soundtracks, trailers and film scoring, you might prefer Nucleus. Also Nucleus has the option to toggle between a traditional orchestra sound and a more modern and epic orchestra sound.
Earlier in this post I mentioned Spitfire Audio’s BBC Symphony Orchestra Discover. This is the free entry level version of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. I recommend you start there.
If you want something with more instruments and more control in how they are played, then you can check out the next tier which is the BBC Symphony Orchestra Core edition. As far as sound quality, both tiers have the same sound quality, the free one is just meant to let you try out some of them.
While the Discover edition brings 34 instruments The Core edition brings 44. Where the difference really is, is in the techniques of the instruments (how the instruments are played).
While Discover only brings 34 techniques, Core brings 344. So the Core package lets you get more specific in how the instruments are played, which can result in more realism and control.
Here’s a full comparison between all editions.
Like the Spitfire Audio BBC Symphony Orchestra, there are different editions. The entry level one is the Audio Imperia Nucleus Lite which is only $99, and the Audio Imperia Nucleus Core edition which is $449.
As you might expect, the sound quality between the editions is the same. The difference is in how much you get. The Lite version has a smaller amount of instruments curated from the Core version.
The Lite version brings 69 instruments while the Core version brings 110 instruments and additionally 8 solo instruments. They don’t say the specific number of techniques for the instruments (they show a screenshot of them).
Ethnic and World Music Instrument Sample Libraries
This is actually a pretty broad classification of software instruments because ethnic could be referring to many different ethnicities. For example, it could mean instruments from Asian, Middle Eastern, European, Medieval, Celtic and more cultures. So you see the problem with such a broad label.
There are also a lot of sample libraries for this type of instrument bundle.
Since I want to keep this post as short and concise as possible I’m just going to cover some of the libraries I thought not only had some of the coolest sounds but also will sound familiar because you’ve likely heard these instruments in movies before. These are the most likely you’d be to use in your songs.
IMPORTANT: Some of the ethnic instrument libraries I mention below by Native Instruments come included in the Native Instruments KOMPLETE Standard bundle, along with a ton of other instrument libraries. That’s why I recommended KOMPLETE earlier in this blog post as your first instrument library. You can also buy them separately as well so I included their standalone pricing.
Eduardo Tarilonte Instrument Libraries (roughly around $119 to $259)
So this is actually several libraries. Eduardo Tarilonte is an award winning sample library developer. He’s created several ethnic libraries from different cultures which sound really amazing. His libraries are distributed by Best Service.
Here’s a few of his libraries:
- NADA – library for Meditation, New Age, and Relaxation sounds.
- Dark Era – ancient pagan music and the sound of the Vikings.
- Desert Winds – oriental soundscapes with wind instruments.
- Forest Kingdom – new age instruments with a foresty vibe including Native American instruments.
- Epic World – cinematic ambiences including drones, pads, forest sounds, instruments and voices.
- Era II Medieval Legends – as the name implies, medieval instruments and sounds. Think knights, dragons, and faeries.
- Celtic Era – think bagpipes, celtic harps, flutes, and so on.
As you can see there’s tons to choose from, and the sounds are phenomenal.
This library covers instruments from Balkan music. It’s tough to describe the sound but you can check this youtube video below that walks you through it.
You’ll probably recognize the sounds as the type of things you would hear in an adventure movie when they go to the super exotic place where the ancient treasure is hidden.
Native Instruments India Spotlight Collection ($99) **included in Native Instruments KOMPLETE Standard bundle**
This library features traditional Indian instruments including percussion and strings. Very cool library at a decent price, worth checking it out.
Native Instruments Middle East Spotlight Collection ($99) **included in Native Instruments KOMPLETE Standard bundle**
This library includes instruments from Arabic, Turkish, and Persian music. The instruments are different types of percussion, melodic, and string instruments.
Native Instruments West Africa Spotlight Collection ($99) **included in Native Instruments KOMPLETE Standard bundle**
This includes a variety of percussion instruments, mostly drums but also some percussive pitched instruments.
Cinematic Sounds Sample Libraries
Although the orchestral and ethnic instrument libraries we just went over can all be used to make cinematic music and scores, there are also libraries that provide other types of cinematic sounds.
Things like cinematic soundscapes, ambient, granular and sequencer sounds are often blended with orchestral instruments for a modern epic movie score/trailer aesthetic rather than a real classical music orchestra. These really lean more on the side of sound design rather than instruments.
Maybe you make electronic music, ambient music or cinematic pop songs. I think these would be the type of sounds you would be interested in getting.
Native Instruments Damage 2 ($249)
This is a cinematic percussion library. Think of the epic drum sounds you hear in movie trailers and film scores. This is the type of library that brings those sounds.
This library brings the type of ambient sounds you might hear in sci-fi films that are not quite an instrument per se. They might be based on synthesizers, strings or vocals but could also be things like metallic sounds, electronic sounds, and more
It’s hard to describe, other than otherworldly cinematic ambient sounds and sound effects. They are definitely worth checking out.
Native Instruments Ashlight ($199)
This library is similar to the one we just mentioned above in that it has a lot of ambient sounds that are not quite instruments. However Ashlight is different from Straylight in that the sounds it brings are more intense, colder, and darker. More like an action movie rather than a sci-fi movie.
The page describes it as immersive atmospheres, pulsating bass textures, and evocative keys. The sounds are rougher, more edgy.
Wrapping it up
As you can see the world of software instrument libraries is quite large and covers all kinds of music genres.
For anyone who writes songs I think it’s critical that they can understand music production and get their hands on some software instruments. You don’t have to become an audio engineer but having and knowing how to use these tools will give you so much more freedom when writing.
You’ll be able to experiment with instruments, textures and atmospheres so that you can have a clearer vision for your songs as well as know what production tools can and can’t do to make that sound you hear in your head out into your music.
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