Category Archives: virtual instruments

RECORDING: Technology, Sound Quality, and bad marketing

I suppose you could call this another rant….

Lately I’ve been researching a lot online (well, when don’t I… I’m a music teacher by day, so I gotta know my shit 24/7)….. and I’ve found out some truly disappointing things.

Let’s talk about 88-key digital pianos, for instance. For decades, the sound was improving, as was the feature set. Something that manufacturers NEVER cared about until recently though was having actual, usable sounds. What do I mean by usable?

Fender Rhodes
Wurlitzer 200
Grand piano
Upright piano

Good emulations of all of these instruments can be included in all of these digital pianos, even the ones for $600 (Yamahas). Yamaha recently made a tiny little toy called the Reface CP, which has great-sounding Rhodes, Wurly, CP80, Clavinet…. and some GREAT built-in, USEFUL effects, for $500. The catch? The things are tiny, with 37 mini-keys. But… the sounds are there, and quite convincing.

Now, the major gripe I have with the major digital piano manufacturers (Yamaha, specifically) is that as of a couple years ago, they removed their standard MIDI in/out ports for their pianos less than $700. Standard MIDI in-out ports are common for a reason. MIDI lets you connect one device to another. For instance, you can get a nice 88 weighted-key digital piano with standard MIDI in/out, and have it control the Reface CP, so you have superb-sounding Rhodes, Wurly, and Clavinet sounds at your disposal (without having to use the mini-keys). A blessing, live (you ever try to pick up a Rhodes piano by yourself?)

So again, Yamaha removed their standard MIDI in/out ports on all digital pianos (under $700) since 2013. Casio did, too, on their Privia line (PX-130, etc, etc). Now all they both have is “USB to HOST”, which means, they can connect to other keyboards, but only if there’s a laptop, in between.

What if you want to avoid the laptop use, especially in a live setting?

Yamaha’s P-45 is less than $400, new. Great key feel, great piano sound. No MIDI I/O. Just USB to HOST port (side note– USB is often flaky and sometimes unreliable, and never securely attaches to anything on the device-side.)

Why not put the USB to HOST port on their unmovable pianos? Happily connect your ipad to it, or your laptop, as you’ll never move those gigantic beasts, anyway (the ones with the built-in stands, like the Clavinova series). Standard MIDI I/O should definitely be on the more portable pianos and keyboards.

It always baffles me that no one has tried to make a true all-in-one product, that actually sounds damn good. The only people who have done this ar Clavia, with their Nord Stage and Electro series (specially the weighted-key versions), and then Korg, with their much-loved SV-1.

Why hasn’t Yamaha or Casio done this yet? The Casio Privia PX-5S is definitely a NICE board for the money, and the sounds are tremendous, but it’s a bit ugly, and too much button-pushing through menus.

If Yamaha merged their P45 digital piano with their Reface CP…. and put a price tag of $800-1000 on it, I’m sure thousands of (non-rich) performing musicians would pick it up.. A Nord Electro with weighted keys is nearly $3000. That’s just insane. I know the pros swear by them, but they have the money to do so. What about the rest of us?


In short, find the need and fill it. Ya know?



RECORDING: the truly best VSTi plugins (virtual instruments)

And, the best CHEAP ones…..

I hate and have hated looking for VST plugins. When I first discovered them in the early 2000s, I was addicted to finding the best free ones. Occasionally I get addicted still today, searching for newer stuff I may have missed. Let me give you a list of the absolute best… and, in the interest of saving time, I’m not going to include a screenshot of each. Just trust me when I say, these are the best free ones, and the best cheap ones. If I didn’t include a link, just google it, you’ll easily find where to download them.


FREE Grand Piano

PianoOne (by Yichi Wang). Download from It needs a little tweaking of the “release” fader (bump it up from minimum, just a little beyond it) and enjoy the wonderful (and quite realistic) piano sounds you get from it.
mda Piano (by Maxim Digital Audio). Extremely lightweight. Very nice. Make sure you click the “VST Synths” link at the top (hard to read).


FREE Electric Piano (Rhodes and Wurlies)

Lazysnake (by Andreas Ersson). Destroys most others. Has wah, tremolo, overdrive, etc. Sick-sounding Rhodes and not-quite-Rhodes. They always sit in a mix perfectly. Extremely useful plugin.

Legacy Collection by GSi/ MrRay73 and MrRay73 version II are GREAT Rhodes emulators, as well as Mr Tramp, fur Wurlitzer 200 piano sounds. Also included in the collection is a great Hammond B3 emulator called Organized Trio. When you first insert the plugins, they nag you to donate, but there are no sound limitations. You just have to wait a few seconds to edit the parameters, but they work, and they work great. Download at


FREE Synths

Synth1 (by Ichiro Toda). This is one of the first, and the best. The presets and banks (made by users for over a decade) can be difficult to install/add, but this thing is so programmable and so damn good-sounding, it’s a shame to pass it up. Also has a step arpeggiator built-in. Sick. Gives Nord Leads a run for their money, no doubt.

ANYTHING and EVERYTHING from Togu Audio Line (TAL). Specifically the TAL UNO-62 (a perfect Juno-60), and Noizemaker, which is so insanely useful, I can’t even get into it. Plus, nearly all parameters are MIDI-learnable (if you have a nice midi controller with lots of knobs/faders). Download all their completely free plugins (for Mac AND PC!) here—-

Aethereal (by Psychic Modulation) – ambient/pad heaven. Gives Atmosphere a run for its money, and then some. The demo is limited to two notes polyphony, and one audio output, but it’s worth it, believe me. And the price is right for the full version. Lots of great presets.

Crystal (by Green Oak) – mentioned EVERYWHERE online. A must-download.


FREE Drums

This is a tough one. There aren’t many good ones at all. I’d recommend using a free sampler such as ShortCircuit. You can load your own wav samples of drum one-shots, and it’s pretty easy to get the hang of, once you do. There are tutorials on YouTube on how to use it. Stick with version 1.1.1, and stay away from ShortCircuit2, as it’s very unstable and crashes constantly.


FREE arpeggiators

Kirnu (by Arto Vaarala). This is one of the most easy-to-use, beautiful-looking, and powerful arpeggiators, PERIOD! Throw it before your favorite synth plugin in your DAW, and have tons of fun.


CHEAP, amazing stuff

For drums / sampling / hip-hop production

Poise ( Windows-only (but hopefully Mac, soon!) Who the hell needs an MPC anymore, or even Native Instruments’ Maschine? (I love Maschine, for the record)… but, if you’re on an insanely tight budget, all you need is Poise and an Akai MPD18. Poise is $49. The MPD18 is $99 new. Watch tutorial videos I made, on YouTube, to see how freakin’ awesome it is. I can never live without this amazing plugin.

Cheap arpeggiators

CTHULHU by Xfer Records. It’s like Kirnu, but 1000 times more powerful, fun, and intuitive. If you like arpeggiators…. you NEED this. Comes with a shit-ton of classical chord sequences, that you can arpeggiate, or create your own (playing songs essentially with one key at a time). INSANELY awesome. Only $39.

Also, when you subscribe to (or buy a physical copy of) Computer Music magazine, you get the “CM COLLECTION.” LOTS of great stuff, in there, too. That magazine introduced me to the absolute power of recording with a computer, when I first bought an issue in early 2000. The technology has moved so fast, though. So new issues can be intimidating… however, they always include a chapter (in EVERY ISSUE) called CM Basics or whatever, and they cover everything you need to know, if you’re new to this.

What are some of YOUR favorites?

RECORDING: Things you probably don’t need to use

Happy holidays, gang.

As I record music, I find that sometimes, certain pieces of gear hinder my progress, more than help it. You might be using the same pieces of gear, with worse results than without.

Here’s a short list:

1. A hardware compressor. Despite me having a great, USA-made hardware compressor, I find that it makes vocal tracking sound worse (and sound clipped, even without the waveform visually clipping) than without. Don’t worry, I’ve set everything totally right and it’s in the correct order in my effects chain. But, for some damn reason, it sounds like crap when I am tracking vocals live, whether it’s my vocals, or tracking other people. Do you NEED one? Probably not.

2. An expensive mic. Neumann makes a mic called the TLM-103 (it’s about $1200). A lot of the “pro” YouTube musicians out there tend to use it. I’ve tried it for a solid week (borrowed from friend) and did a lot of A/B comparison recording, and I think it sounds like a tinny piece of garbage. I honestly prefer the sound of my MXL v67g (sub-$100 Chinese condenser mic). I’ve said it to countless people… you don’t need an expensive mic. Order of importance: quality of performer, quality of song, quality of audio interface, quality of mic.

3. Expensive cymbals (for the drummers). The other day I received a demo recording from a student who attends the school I teach at, who’s been experimenting with his own music for many months. He’s recorded his (admittedly) crappy drumkit, with the 2-mic method that I demonstrated on my YouTube channel (modified Glyn Johns technique). He doesn’t have great cymbals, and complains the kit sounds like crap. As I listened the demo in my car, I was like “Whoa. This sounds really good.” I’ve recorded stuff with my kit and $250-300 cymbals, and hated the sound. Whatever he has… whatever he’s using… he should stick with it. #1 it saves money, and #2, it sounds great and gets the job done.

4. An expensive acoustic guitar. I know a few people who own $2000 Taylor acoustics, two of which I’ve recorded at my studio. And then, I know some students who own those HPL Martins (made from recycled materials). Those Martins sound like a million bucks to my ears, truly (and I’m probably going to pick one up soon). I have an $800 Yamaha acoustic that I basically hate the sound of, even though it’s almost 20 years old (and acoustic guitars usually sound better with age). I also have a $300 2012 Takamine that in my opinion, is one of the best-sounding guitars I’ve ever played (I recorded quite a few songs with it, in recent months). Do you need an $8000 Taylor, or a $6000 Martin? No. Oh, and another example– my roommate/friend received an Alvarez acoustic for free years ago, as it had a crack in it, and his neighbor couldn’t sell it even for $50. Now, about 15 years later, he plays the Alvarez all the time, and man, that guitar sounds lovely. He put a Fishman-style pickup in it and it records beautifully and stays in tune wonderfully. The crack has never gotten bigger or anything. Perfect-sounding guitar… old as hell, cracked, and sounds gorgeous recorded. Here’s a video of a dude doing a demo of the Martin 000x1AE (the most affordable full-sized Martin acoustic). Tell me this doesn’t sound damn amazing:

5. A real grand or upright piano. I’ve used countless sampled pianos throughout the years, from Steinberg’s “The Grand”, to Synthology’s “Ivory”, to ArtVista Virtual Grand, and most recently– EZ Keys “Upright” and “Grand” pianos, by Toontrack. In my opinion, they’re all perfect, and deliver the sound/vibe you need. My favorite these days is the Upright Piano by EZKeys. You don’t need to mic a real grand piano (plus it’s a pain in the ass), and chances are, the sampled pianos are going to sound better. Check the video out (by the way, you DON’T have to use the pre-made parts/loops. You can just play the piano live, via MIDI.)

6. “Real” drums. I’ve gotten a complaint recently, from a songwriter who didn’t like that I was using Toontrack’s Superior Drummer 2.0 for drum arrangements of her songs. She said they weren’t “real.” They are more real and better-sounding than miking a real kit. I explained to her that these companies go to pro studios (legendary studios), and pro engineers and drum techs tune the drums, and painstakingly mic them, just as if a real band was to record an album there. Then, a pro drummer hits each piece of the kit over 1,000 times, from extremely light, to extremely hard. They hit various parts of the head, or the cymbal, and each hit is meticulously recorded and mixed by the engineer. What you get is professionally-recorded drum performances than can be played with a midi controller or keyboard, or, you can use thousands of loops. So nothing is more “real”, than using these drum samples. Who has the money to go to a million-dollar studio, pay $150/hr to record their drumset, and be stuck with recordings, and not being able to change the beats/performances after the fact? Superior 2.0 gives you complete creative flexibility, and it’s especially useful for people who may not be able to play drums at all. It costs around $300 (or less), and expansion kits can be bought from $40-80 each (and they always have sales, from major online retailers, etc). That’s a hell of a deal, considering the quality and flexibility you get. Yes, I do mic my acoustic kit sometimes (depending on my needs), but 98% of the drums in my recording are from Toontrack’s Superior 2.0. Watch videos and learn about it at And check out this video to show the process:

7. Real vintage synths. Over the last 10 years, I’ve owned a Roland Juno-60 five separate times (yes, five times). The first time I bought it, it was $350, and had a broken pitch bend/mod stick. Sold that, bought it again 3 years later for about $500 (mint condition). Repeat the process a few times, upping the price each time. Last one I bought for about $650 in 2011. Turned around and sold it for $850 in 2012. Why did I keep buying and selling it? Because I kept finding virtual instrument versions which rivaled it, for either free, or a fraction of the cost. Bonus- the virtual instrument has complete midi flexibility (quantizing, arpeggio sync, etc). The real Juno-60 does not have this, and needs a $300 retrofit kit, on top of the cost of the synth (which averages at $1000 used, these days). At first, I was using the Togu Audio Line “Uno-62”, which is a freeware emulation of the Roland Juno-60. Then, I discovered his commercial synth, the “Uno-LX” version 1, and now version 2. Once I routed my M-Audio Oxygen 49 midi controller to control most of the most-used parameters on the Uno-LX (sliders and buttons controlling the synth/arpeggiator stuff, and the 8 knobs controlling the ADSR envelope, and other functions), it is the exact same sound as a real Juno-60, with so much more midi capability and functionality. Cost? Around $50. You do not need a real vintage synth. They’re cool, aesthetically, but if you’re on a budget, these emulations are exactly the same. Listen to hardware/software comparisons here:

Happy holidays!