Despite 2020 being a very difficult year for so many, music software manufacturers all around the world have yet again managed to deliver another fantastic year of VST plugin releases.
From faithful instrument recreations and stunning playable vocals to creative orchestral tools and unique oddball synths, find it all here as we look back at some of the most highly-rated releases to arrive at Time+Space this year.
In no particular order, here are our virtual instrument plugin highlights of 2020...
Released in May, EZBass is the latest addition to Toontrack's incredibly popular EZline, along with EZDrummer, EZMix and EZkeys. EZBass features 2 carefully sample bass guitars, a vintage model and a modern model and comes with its own expansive library of MIDI grooves that span a broad range of genres and playing styles.
Using the song arranger you can drag clips, rearrange them, change the chord sequences and structure entire bass parts from within the software. Some other exciting features of EZBass include the Audio Tracker, which will seamlessly convert both Bass and Rhythmic audio into MIDI, and a Grid Editor which allows you to add fine details to your bass part to make it sound as natural and realistic as possible. To take EZBass further, you can purchase additional EBX and Midi expansion packs to build up your library of MIDI grooves!
“EZBass sounds sensational right out of the box but, spend some time programming your own material, and you’ll be rewarded off-the-charts realism.” – Music Tech
Zero-G's Ethera series is by far one of the most viable choices for vocal virtual instruments available and the latest update to Ethera Gold brings a huge collection of both female and male cinematic vocals, hybrid instruments, hits, bass synths, ambiences and percussion.
Ethera Gold’s true legato engine allows you to create the most natural sounding soaring vocal lines and truly feels like a real instrument. Along with the True Legato engine, you can find over 1600 vocal phrases in different styles, keys and BPM, Sustained vocal notes perfect for creating pads, and a Builder, which features short vocal one-shots of syllables, great for sequences and arpeggios.
The 3 synths included in Ethera Gold 2.5 are the perfect accompaniment to the vocals with big cinematic textures from synths, strings, brass, percussion and more. Expand Ethera Gold 2.5 with the recently released preset expansion pack, CyberWorld. Or try two completely different legatos with the new standalone Ethera Gold Intimate Vocals! For a taster of what is on offer you can download the Lite version for a very small price and try Ethera Gold for yourself.
"It is not an overstatement to say that Zero-G’s Ethera Gold 2.5 is one of, if not the absolute best virtual instrument value on the market today. With loads of snapshot presets featuring lots of varied hybrid instruments, and some of the best male and female vocals you can find in a virtual instrument, Ethera Gold 2.5 has only increased its status as one of the best hybrid instruments out there." - SAMPLELIBRARYREVIEW
Keeping in the realm of virtual vocals is another excellent release from EastWest. Hollywood Backup Singers has everything you need to add soulful, pop-heavy vocal harmonies to your music.
Recorded using a special collection of vintage tube microphones, Hollywood Backup Singers offers 87 vocal instruments, 588 solo phrases, and an award-winning WordBuilder that will sing whatever you type.
The Phrases instruments feature solo phrases and sub-phrases from 3 vocalists that were recorded over a drone in multiple root note positions for use in a variety of keys and modes whilst Combo MOD includes a variety of instruments that use the Mod Wheel (CC1) to switch between multiple layers of regular and expressive vowel types, or in the case of the 'Xfde' sub-folder, use the Mod Wheel (CC1) to cross-fade between these layers.
"Another stupendous package from EastWest that has plenty to offer those in need of powerful and pliable backing vocals. Hollywood Backup Singers scores where it needs to, sounding both big and small where necessary and boasting a dazzling level of real-time control." - Dave Gale (MusicTech)
Yes, we know this isn't technically a virtual instrument but it is too good not to mention! Presonus Studio One is a DAW that uses a single-window, drag-and-drop workflow that is very easy to learn and comes with it’s own set of virtual instruments, samplers, synthesisers and more.
Version 5 of Studio One strengthens it capability and intuitivity by introducing new features such as VST/AU support, Score View for traditional notation and a completely re-designed Native Effects suite. Studio One allows you have unlimited audio and instrument tracks which means you can make music with no boundaries and restrictions.
"Studio One 5 once again spoils with very good new features that make the workflow of the fastest DAW on the market even faster" - Tobias Homburger, Bonedo.de
"It’s quite incredible how far Studio One has come in the decade since its launch, and version 5 is mature, stable and an awesome update to an already superb DAW bands and performers will have a ball with the Show Page." - Computer Music
If you're looking for an exceptional cinematic solo instrument, Wavelet Audio treated us this year with the release Ashen Scoring Cello, a stunning, emotive playable cello suitable for all your media composition needs.
On top of the 12 meticulously recorded articulations, Ashen Scoring Cello features a unique Performance Designer engine that can bring life and a unique atmosphere to your composition as well as control over the textures. Use it to create harmonies, play melodies, or generate interesting rhythmic patterns that will perfectly complement the basic rhythms of your composition.
From dark ambient and experimental to orchestral and trailer music, Ashen Scoring Cello has the flexibility to work across numerous contexts with a highly expressive and emotive playing style.
"Perfect for modern cinema scoring and trailers, horror soundtracks, and really any piece of music that needs a touch of that unique solo cello magic." - Bedroom Producers Blog
One of the most exciting virtual synth releases of 2020 is Applied Acoustic Systems Chromaphone 3, a multitimbral VST that uses physically modelled acoustic resonators at the core of its architecture. This means you’re able to choose from 8 different resonating objects including strings, metal plates, drumheads, tubes and more, and the sound becomes defined by the way in which it resonates through these objects.
What Chromaphone is really amazing at doing is both replicating real life instruments and also forming hybrid instruments that blend the line between real and synthesised sound. You can expect sharp plucks, precise percussive hits as well as glassy and metallic textures. Chromaphone 3 really is a unique synthesis engine. Other features include an intuitive GUI with a preset organiser tab and an in-depth editor tab that boasts the newly updated two-voice system which allows you blend presets and multiple resonators at once.
"The science behind acoustic object modelling and resonators is fascinating yet quite complex. But we don’t need to be an engineer to appreciate a musical instrument like Chromaphone 3. The AAS team did all the work for us so that we can simply play and enjoy the tones and the nuances of their synth. Chromaphone 3 is a big leap forward and more inspiring than ever." - audionewsroom.net
Toontrack's EZkeys Hybrid Harp was perhaps one of the most strange and wonderful releases of the year. This expansion to Toontrack's EZkeys line features a mismatch of 5 unusual instruments that comes together to create a completely new and unique sounding keyboard instrument that can't quite be described in words, you'll need to go have a listen yourself!
The undisputed star of the group is an iconic Style 23 harp. In addition to this, a traditional Swedish nyckelharpa (or “keyed fiddle”), two harmoniums, a bowed glockenspiel and a set of ocarinas were sampled. Find an array of professionally-crafted presets organised by characters such as 'Atmospheric', 'Distorted', and 'Percussive', this is a very unique library!
“The most creative of the EZKEYS releases yet, Hybrid Harp is glistening with inspiration with its sound designed presets, unlike anything we have seen from Toontrack.” - SampleLibraryReview
Blade 2 was released in October and adds to Rob Papen's well-loved collection of virtual synths. Blade 2 is a unique synth that is focused around additive synthesis and allowing deep control over waveform harmonics.
Featuring the iconic XY pad, used for generating interesting modulation patterns, Blade 2 allows you to create evolving pads and soundscapes, huge sounding basses and complex arpeggiator patterns. Blade 2 features two different synth engines, Harmolator and Additive, along with an analogue-style oscillator and noise oscillator. In the middle of the GUI is the XY pad which can also be switched over to the arpeggiator, modulation page and more.
"With a solid arpeggiator, plus an array of pitch, modulation and effects parameters to explore, Blade offers a rich palate of possibilitiess for both sound design and performance." - 9/10 Future Music (Original Blade review)
Spectrasonics bought a fantastic version 1.5 update to their versatile acoustic, electric and synth bass instrument Trilian. The update ships new synthesis options such as new filter types and enhanced FM synthesis, enhanced browsing features and a re-designed arpeggiator.
If you're an Omnisphere user you're also in luck because the Trilian 1.5 update introduces Trilian Creative, a special library of over 200 unique patches specially designed for users who have both Trilian and Omnisphere. The richly detailed bass sounds of Trilian have been dramatically transformed using Omnisphere’s deep synthesis capabilities.
Watch this video below of legendary musician Greg Phillinganes showing off Trilian 1.5 in a jam with drummer The Pocket Queen!
Sound Yeti Ambition presents a powerful and versatile synth engine perfect for creating anything from deep whirling soundscapes to complex anamorphic rhythms. Features include dedicated LFO per channel, expressive XY performance effects, intuitive sample browser menu and much more!
Ambition runs within Native Instruments Free Kontakt Player and is equipped with NKS compatibility, meaning you can control it from your NI hardware such as Maschine and Komplete Kontrol keyboards!
"Particular to note is, of course, the quality of the sounds and the ease to which the sound can be modulated, manipulated and, yes, even mangled." - Sample Library Review
At the end of November, ProjectSAM released Colours Adaptive Runs, an incredibly useful library for composers that allows you to effortlessly synchronise your orchestral runs to the next downbeat or any custom number of beats or seconds. It is powered by the Adaptive Sync engine which automatically picks the best matching recording for you, then tweaks it further so that it hits the mark exactly.
The included instruments (strings, flutes, piccolos, oboes, clarinets, bassons, trumpets) in Colours Adaptive Runs were of course recorded in the same, lush concert hall environment as many of their other libraries and offer multiple microphone mixes allowing you to tweak the recordings to your taste.
Read a T+S exclusive review of Colours Adaptive Runs written by media composer Dave Gale here!
"It sounds natural and fluent, with an innate ability to fit in with other libraries with relative ease.This package does exactly what it says on the tin, with incredible detail and laser-accuracy." - Dave Gale
That brings us to the end of our 2020 Virtual Instrument Plugin Highlights, we hope this has made you aware of, or reminded you, of just some of the amazing libraries you might have missed this year. We are all excited to see what software 2021 has in store for musicians, composers and producers - keep your eyes peeled and happy music making!