A question from an Audio Masterclass reader…
“I am making a production only with virtual instruments. How can I begin? What instrument? – What techniques?” – Demilson Alves de Souza
The answer to the question in my headline is an easy “yes”. I wouldn't go so far as to say that virtual instruments can do everything that real instruments are capable of. But I have no doubt that virtual instruments can provide a sound palette broad enough to express almost any musical thought.
But I have this irritating habit of always wanting to look into things a little deeper…
One of the interesting features of real instruments is how difficult they are to record well. Unless you have a good player, good instrument and good studio acoustics, you'll work hard to get a decent sound. If you have all the elements of 'goodness', then getting a professional sound is straightforward. But microphone positioning can offer an incredible range of alternatives. How many different ways could you mic a piano for instance? When a change in positioning of one foot (30 cm) can make an audible difference, then a studio that is 20' x 20' x 12' offers 4800 possibilities for just a single mic.
From this we can see that the same piano in the same studio can be recorded in literally thousands of different ways. And then there are different pianos, and different studios. And even one piano doesn't sound the same on different days.
Contrast this with a digital piano however. I have a Roland V-Piano, which in my opinion is the best digital piano there is. But it's the same as any other Roland V-Piano. And since it would normally be recorded directly from the line outputs or digital output, it will always sound the same. There is no influence from microphones or studio acoustics. The same applies to instruments that exist only within the computer.
So if you produce using only virtual instruments, the amazing variety of tonal qualities available, almost automatically, from real instruments is lost. The result can easily turn out rather textureless, and much the same as anyone else's virtual instrument production.
How to really produce using virtual instruments
I could say at this point that I feel that I have made an incontrovertible argument that real instruments are better than virtual instruments.
But that isn't so.
With real instruments, you have to engineer and produce a recording. A good recording won't happen by accident. Indeed, it takes considerable skill and experience.
But with virtual instruments, a blandly professional recording happens automatically, given decent musicianship. You can't go wrong, or at least you would have to work hard to. But the result will be dull, and the overall sound will be pretty much the same as anyone else's virtual instrument production.
The solution to this is to be found in a realization that with real instruments, you are forced to produce. With virtual instruments you have to force yourself to produce. See the difference?
So with my Roland V-Piano for example, I can choose from the 30 factory presets. Or I can delve into the editing pages and make a piano sound that is all my own. (The V-Piano is so flexible you can tune every individual virtual string of the instrument. This makes an amazing difference in itself, and there are so many other ways of editing.)
When I have achieved a unique sound from the V-Piano, I can consider how I record it. I might consider putting it through a loudspeaker and miking it. Or at least creating some real acoustic reverb in my stairwell and mixing that in. No-one else has my stairwell (Except my neighbor, whose house is a mirror image of mine. But he doesn't record, as far as I know) so no-one else's recording can ever sound the same.
Extend this line of thinking to every virtual instrument and you can end up with a recording that is fully as rich in texture as any recording of real instruments.
P.S. Part of the original question that prompted this article was what instrument to start with. I'd say a metronome. After that, whatever you feel is the most important instrument of the arrangement.