The Ableton Live digital audio workstation can run any software instrument that uses Steinberg's Virtual Studio Technology, or VST, standard. Thousands of software instruments are available for download; some are free or shareware, while others can cost hundreds of dollars. Using a software instrument in Ableton, you can create any sound that you can imagine.
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"Synthesizers" is the broadest category of software instruments that you can use in Ableton. Many different methods of synthesis exist: a subtractive synthesizer, for example, creates sounds by removing parts of a pure sound wave using a filter, while an FM synthesizer creates sound by modulating one sound wave with another. The Synth1 software instrument is a powerful, freely downloadable subtractive synthesizer, while the Crystal software instrument is capable of both subtractive and FM synthesis. Commercial software instruments often have unique capabilities: Native Instruments' Massive synth, for example, generates many unique sound waveforms, while Rob Papen's Blue synthesizer combines FM, subtractive, waveshaping and phase-distortion synthesis in one instrument.
While a traditional synthesizer generates sound waves, a sample synth uses prerecorded samples to create sounds. Once you've loaded a sample into a sample synth in Ableton, you can alter it with filters, LFOs and envelopes as you would in a normal synthesizer. Native Instruments' Kontakt, for example, uses specially-formatted ".nki" samples to create software instruments, while Camel Alchemy generates sound using SoundFonts. Some synthesizers are capable of both types of synthesis: Spectasonics' Omnisphere, for example, can both generate sound waves and use the recorded samples from its sound library to create sound.
A drum machine is a specialised software instrument designed for creating drum beats and loops in Ableton. Drum machines can either use recorded samples of physical drums or generate drum sound using synthesis. XLN Audio's Addictive Drums, for example, uses drum samples, while AudioRealism's Drum Machine uses synthesis to emulate classic drum machines like the Roland 808 and 909. DSK Music's Mini Drumz 2 is a freeware sample-based software instrument that can recreate the sounds of vintage drum machines.
Acoustic Instrument Simulators
Adding recordings of physical instruments can make your Ableton music productions sound more fluid and realistic. If using a real instrument isn't possible, try a software instrument modelled on a physical instrument. IK Multimedia's Miroslav Philharmonik software instrument, for example, recreates an orchestral section using string, woodwind and brass samples, while MusicLab's RealGuitar emulates an acoustic guitar. The free Cellofan instrument simulates a cello, while PianoTeq uses physical modelling synthesis to create the sound of a concert piano.
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