What is a VST Plugin (How Do I Use It)?

by ReverbLxnd in Mixing

If you're just getting started in music production, you're probably wondering what a VST plugin is and how you use it, this guide is what you need.

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You may have heard of VST or plugins before, you may still be wondering what they are.

This article looks at what a VST plugin is, how to use it, and why you may want to experiment with VST as some point in your music production journey.

We’ll also look at how to install them in your DAW so you can start experimenting with them, and how to get free ones because a lot of VSTs or plugins will be paid piece of software.

We looked at what is a DAW in an earlier guide. Have a look at that if you haven’t.

Let’s discuss that.

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What is a VST Plugin?

VST stands for Virtual Studio Technology.

Generally, a VST, or plugin, is essentially a digital piece of equipment, or program, that extends the functioning of your DAW. Generally speaking, it is a virtual piece of audio equipment or virtual instrument, you use inside your DAW.

More accurately, VST is a specific plugin format but we’ll look at that later.

That program, in some cases, is a synthesizer, or an effect unit such a compressor, an EQ, and so on.

You may have heard of some of the most popular ones before such as Serum, and FabFilter or iZotope — both of which dedicate a lot of time to making these virtual instruments.

Typically, you will install a VST and “plug it into” your DAW. You’ll host them inside of Ableton, or Pro Tools, for instance, and use the capabilities inside of Ableton.

You may, when you’re are a beginner, be quite happy just using the builtin, or stock, effects that come with your DAW, but after a certain point, you’ll likely decide that you want to bring in different features.

It might also be that you’re looking for a wider range of capabilities, different sound character, and so on. Some VSTs will come with more parameters for you to get more unique sounds.

VSTs or plugins give you more possibilities in general.

Even though VSTs are worth looking at once you feel you want to start experimenting with musical ideas, they are can be overwhelming for new students.

So perhaps, diving into VSTs when you are trying to learn your DAW isn’t the best idea.

Standalone Applications vs VST Plugins

Some VST or plugins, especially synths, will come as either standalone applications or plugins.

You can download them, install them, and run them outside your DAW.

The only problem with standalone applications is that you can record them into your mix because you’re not using your DAW.

In music production, you want to use an application along with other sounds. More often than not, you can do this with standalone applications.

That’s what plugins are for.

Fortunately, most software shops will make both standalone and plugin versions of their software.

However, once a plugin is installed, you won’t see it in your applications or program files. You can’t just open it directly.

It’s only designed to be opened in your DAW and each DAW does it’s layout differently.

Typically, the standalone and plugin versions will have the same features, and often the same interface, inside and outside your DAW — the same controls, same exact sound.

Once you open the VST or plugin version of the software, you can record it, and bring in other plugins.

That is why plugins are such a huge part of electronic music production — they are the sounds, they are the instruments.

You end up with an endless variety of plugins, that you can chain together to create whatever sound you want.

On the flip side, a standalone application or version of a plugin does not require a DAW to work, which is sometimes convenient for live performances.

What is an Audio Plugin Format? VST vs AU vs AAX vs LV2 vs LADSPA

You’ve probably come across different plugin formats, especially VST and AU.

A plugin format is simply just a file type.

The term VST is used, generally, as a term for any plugin. But, the VST format is a specific format designed by Steinberg — creator of Cubase DAW.

The main types of plugin formats available today are—

  • VST
  • VST2
  • VST3
  • AU
  • AAX
  • RTAS
  • TDM
  • LV2

Let’s look at each of these briefly.

VST / VST2 PLugin Formats

VST plugins are available for Windows and Mac, and sometimes Linux.

Most of what we’ve talked about so far is been about the VST format. VST is the most widely used and supported plugin format. VST has been the most popular format for as long as DAW plugins have existed.

Perhaps, most of this popularity stems from it being the first free plugin format.

This idea of wide support is very important because it makes interoperability between many different audio applications easy.

On Windows, it is the standard format and you can be pretty certain your Windows DAW will support it. It comes as a .dll file on Windows.

The format is also designed for Mac though it is slightly less widespread. It comes as a .vst file on Mac.

For a list of the DAWs that currently support VST and VST2 plugin format, see their Wikipedia pages.

VST3 PLugin Format

VST3 is the most recent format designed by Steinberg.

VST3 is an entirely different format — a complete redesign. It is slightly more powerful than VST2.

Many Windows and Mac hosts do not support VST3 plugin format yet.

Even though VST/VST2 is widely used and available in almost every DAW today, VST3 is slowly catching up. We even have VST3 only hosts now.

The idea is for VST3 to eventually replace its predecessors.

AU Plugin Format

AU plugins are available for Mac only.

Audio Unit (AU) is a plugin format designed by Apple. It is a design equivalent of VST2, although it is not compatible with it.

Apple doesn’t often like to standardize things —. It’s no surprise that they stuck to AU format for years, making it the only format available for Mac.

On Mac, instead of being called a plugin, they’re often referred to as extensions.

AU plugins come with a .component file.

It is the only plugin format supported by Apple hosts, such as Logic Pro X and Garage Band, out of the box. Essentially, AU is for Mac users that VST is for PC users.

Luckily, there are a lot of converters and wrappers for these two formats. This means that, possibly, VST plugins can be adapted in AU plugins with no real differences between the two versions.

AAX, RTAS and TDM Plugin Formats

AAX plugin format is available for both Windows and Mac. It is unique to Pro Tools.

Avid Audio Extension (AAX) is the new plugin format for use with Pro Tools. It is made by Avid Technology — the creator of Pro Tools.

Pro Tools was the first widely used DAW for electronic music. It is still prevalent in big music studios today but that is changing.

Real-Time AudioSuite (RTAS) and Time-Division Multiplexing (TDM) are two other plugin formats by Avid Technology. RTAS and TDM formats have now been replaced by the more powerful AAX format as of Pro Tools 10.3.8, support was also been dropped in 2013.

All these three Pro Tools formats haven’t had much reach outside of Pro Tools because it is impossible to make a wrapper to popular VST or AU formats — both technically and legally.

Also, TDM is infamous for using expensive DSP equipment, relegating it to adoption by large studios only.

LV2, LADSPA Plugin Formats

LADSPA and LV2 plugins are native to Linux.

In the Linux world LADSPA in an early, simple, lightweight plugin API for audio effect plugins only. LADSPA plugins typically have no editors/GUI of their own (they use the DAW GUI)…

…LV2 is the new extensible, full-featured plugin API. LV2 plugins can have their own GUI.

Perhaps, the most common Linux host for LADSPA plugins is LMMS. For LV2 plugins that would be Ardour because LMMS doesn’t support LV2 plugins, yet.

Even though VS2 plugins for Windows can sometimes work on Linux hosts, such as Ardour, they will typically not be supported for normal builds.

32-bit and 64-bit Plugins

32-bit and 64-bit are computer architectures.

Every new computer these days comes with 64-bit architecture.

The thing to keep in mind here is that DAWs that run on 64-bit architecture do not always host 32-bit plugins.

It’s important to find out if your DAW can host both 32-bit and 64-bit plugins, otherwise, your 32-bit plugin will simply not work.

Fortunately, most DAW and plugin manufacturers are upfront about computer architecture support.

Installing Plugins

Installation of plugins varies quite a bit depending on the platform and how the plugins were obtained.

Most native Windows and Linux plugin will come with their own install manuals.

Most native Linux distributions that are good for audio work will have most of LADSPA and LV2 plugins out of the box. Otherwise, finding and installing plugins in Linux typically requires using repositories.

Except for particularly technical users, building native Windows (VST) plugins for Mac or Linux, or native Mac plugins for Windows or Linux, or Linux for Windows or Mac, is probably not worthwhile.

Native plugin formats tend to just work.

In Conclusion

Despite the format you get your plugin in, the plugin itself will be identical. It’ll be exactly the same.

Where this matters is with your host — your DAW.

Each DAW supports different formats.

You need to check what plugin format your DAW allows.

As I said earlier, VST is the most commonly supported across the board.

But that alone means nothing because you’ll typically have your favorite DAW chosen beforehand. The question then becomes, “what plugin formats does your DAW support?” and by extension “Are you making music on PC, Mac or Linux?”

The answer to these two questions determines what specific plugins and what plugin formats are available to you, more than anything else.

That’s it for this article.

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I've been a musician and brought in my stuff for mixing and mastering, I've been my own producer where I wrote, recorded, mixed and sold my own stuff. Now, I'm *mostly* an audio engineer, where I only record and mix for clients. I'm currently based in Berlin, Germany, where I operate ReverbLand out of. Got a question? DM me on Instagram or Twitter @reverblxnd everywhere, or shoot me an email [email protected]. I'd love to hear from you.

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