As with any industry or niche, music production comes with a lot of proprietary jargon.
Terms like “track” and “fader” might be basic and easy to understand, but then you have things like “NLE” and “VST,” which might cause some confusion. What is a VST plugin?
In this guide, we look at what VST stands for, as well as how they work. But some of your other questions about music production and engineering will also be answered throughout.
So, let's have a look.
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What Does VST Stand For? – Quick Answer
VST stands for Virtual Studio Technology. VSTs are synthesizer and effects unit plugins that integrate with Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) like Pro Tools, Logic Pro, Ableton Live, and FL Studio.
How Do VST Plugins Work?
Most VST plugins work within a DAW environment, although there are standalone plugin hosts, and these can also be used to take advantage of VST plugins.
Most plugins fall under the category of instruments or effects, though we will define and look at the different types of VSTs a little later.
Once installed (we’ll also offer some tips on this later), VST plugins can be applied to individual tracks and the master within your DAW environment.
DAWs all work a little differently, which is one of the reasons there are so many out there. To a large degree, it's a matter of personal preference, workflow, functionality, and price point.
But within some DAW applications, you can “drag and drop” VSTs onto tracks, and within others, there may be a dropdown list that can be triggered from a menu, by clicking on “plugins” (or equivalent), or by right clicking in specific sections of your interface.
VST instruments (or virtual instruments) would be used when you plan to play a part on your MIDI controller or “draw it” into a MIDI track within your interface. The great thing about this is that you get easy access to instruments you might not have in your studio, or even through your extensive network and contacts.
For instance, you might have a song that could use some cello, except you don’t know anyone who plays cello, or can’t afford to bring them into your studio. You could simply download and install a cello VST and use the previously mentioned methods to get a realistic sounding cello in your track.
When it comes to VST effects, they will do nothing unless you apply them to specific tracks where you’ve already recorded a voice or instrument (they can be used on MIDI tracks too).
Let’s say you have a guitar track, and you want to apply some reverb to it. So, you’d take your best reverb VST, apply it to that track, and tweak the settings until you are happy with it.
That’s something I have yet to mention, though. Each VST typically has its own custom Graphical User Interface or GUI. Many of them have been made to look like their hardware counterpart, or like a hardware unit you would find in a studio.
So, it’s common to see controls that look like physical knobs, switches, faders, and so forth.
Each VST has its own unique interface. If you’re using plugins from just one developer, however, then they may all have a similar interface, but in most cases, you will probably be running plugins from multiple developers. Which means it may take you a while to feel comfortable with all your VST plugins.
Many DAWs have built-in VSTs, in which case they may not have a custom interface, so much as a built-in interface that reflects the esthetics of the DAW application itself.
Benefits Of VSTs
VST plugins are great because they can help you save time, space, and money.
Setting up instruments within a studio always takes time, as you would need to set up your mics and tweak placement until you’re happy. Instead, you can simply select the plugin and begin recording your MIDI track.
VST plugins help save space, because if you had to buy every instrument under the sun, your studio would be mighty crowded.
And VST plugins can help you save money because hiring session musicians can be expensive. That said, there is an upfront cost associated with some VSTs.
It would be important to note, however, that VSTs are generally software emulations of hardware synthesizers, samplers, and effects units. So, they may look, feel, and even sound like the real thing, though at times you sacrifice some tonality and authenticity.
What Types Of VST Plugins Are There?
There are basically three types of VST plugins, as outlined below:
These types of plugins generate audio and are generally under the umbrella of virtual synthesizers or samplers. Many emulate the sound of their real hardware counterparts.
Through the years, many keyboards and synths have gained a bit of a legendary status, be it the Minimoog, Nord Electro, Fender Rhodes, or otherwise. Buying each of these keyboards could cost you several thousand dollars. So, you can see where getting VST counterparts could be more efficient.
Some well-known VST synths include Discovery, Nexus, Omnisphere, FM8, Gladiator, and so on.
VST effects are different from VST instruments in that, instead of generating audio, they process it.
They serve the same purpose that effects units do in the studio, and function much like the specific audio processor (EQ, reverb, etc.) you’re using.
Some VSTs have been designed to let you monitor visual feedback (such as an input signal), in which case they do not process the audio. These types of plugins can be helpful for mixing and mastering and can guide decisions regarding panning, EQ, levels, and so forth.
Within most DAWs, you can chain multiple effects on one track. This is common practice with hardware units, and vocals alone tend to receive quite a bit of treatment in the studio (effects chains), so if you’re not using a DAW that allows this, you may want to keep looking.
VST MIDI Effects
One final category is VST MIDI effects. These process MIDI messages (e.g., transpose or arpeggiate) and route MIDI data to other VST instruments or hardware units.
Are There Other Audio Plugin Formats?
Yes. VST, AU, and AAX are the most popular formats. But they all work much the same in that they use digital signal processing to simulate recording studio hardware.
Studio hardware is still quite popular, and in some cases is preferred. Analog vs. digital is a near endless debate, especially when it comes to things like preamps, compression, limiters, EQ, reverb, and more.
That said, the studio engineers I know generally use a mix of hardware and software to achieve best results.
Anyway, let’s get back to plugin formats.
VST (or Virtual Studio Technology) is one of the most popular plugin formats. It was developed by German musical software and hardware company Steinberg in 1996. This format has evolved through the years and is in its third iteration – VST3.
VSTs are commonly used on Windows machines and are supported by most DAWs as well as Non-Linear Editing systems (or NLEs).
AU (or Audio Unit) is basically Apple’s VST equivalent developed with Apple platforms and software in mind. Further, it is only compatible with Mac OS systems.
AAX (or Avid Audio eXtension) is a plugin format developed by Avid, the developers of Pro Tools. AAX plugins work with Pro Tools and Media Composer.
How Do I Install VSTs?
This is going to depend at least somewhat on your DAW interface.
I will walk you though how I install VSTs on the Tracktion DAW, though Tracktion is now a little outdated (their current DAW is Waveform). As well, the exact steps may differ based on the DAW application you’re using.
First, I download the VST. This is relatively straightforward.
Most free VSTs come in a ZIP file. Some VSTs come with an executable (.exe) file/installer. An installer is relatively self-explanatory, especially since it will walk you through the steps necessary to get it up and working. Here we’ll focus on the ZIP file scenario.
Second, you’ll need to unpack the ZIP file. Most OS platforms let you unpack archives (ZIP, RAR, etc.) without additional software, so you shouldn’t need to download anything.
Next, save the contents of the unpacked ZIP folder in a place you’ll remember. Might be a good idea to set up a VST folder if you haven’t already. Sometimes your DAW will already have created a VST folder for you, so you can save your files there.
It can be helpful to create different folders based on the category of the plugin as well (EQ, reverb, bass synths, etc.).
Now, unpacked folders often contain text files and things like that. These usually aren’t critical and just contain developer info or installation instructions (which you can refer to if you like). The plugin itself often has a DLL or .dll extension, though not always. That's the file that's most important.
Once you’ve saved the files to an appropriate location (that you will remember), open your DAW software and navigate to plugins. Chances are it is somewhere within nested menus, or perhaps in the “settings” section of your DAW.
The last step is to initiate a scan within your DAW for new plugins (you should see this command or something similar within your DAW).
If your DAW is successful in installing it, then it should be added to your plugin library automatically.
If it is unsuccessful, you should receive a notification. Note that some plugins simply will be incompatible with your DAW. But you should also check whether it’s a 32-bit or 64-bit VST, based on what OS you’re running on your machine.
How Many VST Plugins Are There?
There are literally thousands! Some are commercial (paid), while others are freeware.
Native Instruments, Spitfire Audio, and iZotope are among some of the most well-known premium plugin developers, though in some cases they also make freeware.
But independent developers are a dime a dozen (and in some cases make excellent free plugins), and some of their works can be found on aggregation sites.
How Do I Figure Out Which VST Plugins To Buy Or Download?
I think the best place for most users to start is with built-in plugins. If your DAW comes with plugins, then mess around with these before you worry about downloading or adding additional plugins.
The default plugins may not be the best sounding ones, but they should at least give you a sense of what each instrument or effect does, as well as how to use them.
Now, once you’ve had the opportunity to experiment with built-in plugins (if your DAW has them), it’s a good time to check out free VSTs.
The sheer volume of options can be overwhelming. So, it’s always best to search for specific things – maybe instruments or effects your DAW doesn’t have. Or maybe you need a choir track on your latest song and your DAW doesn’t have a built-in option.
Searching for something specific takes the pressure off combing through endless options and bypasses questions like, “what does this one do?”
Not to worry, though. As you continue to engage in music production, you will learn more and more and begin to figure out the various VST instruments and effects you’ll need to make your music great.
Finally, we have premium VSTs. There’s a lot you can do with free plugins, and no word of a lie, a lot of professional producers and engineers do use free plugins in their software mix. That said, if you’re a composer, or if you need next level instruments and effects (quality piano, choir, strings, etc.), premium is always your best option.
You can easily spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on premium plugins, so that’s something to look out for as you’re shopping around. But it’s inevitable you will be lured in by the promises of alluring plugins because that’s what it’s like to be a producer. Just don't go into debt!
With all that in mind, you should also note that there are a ton of videos, demos, tutorials, reviews, and articles online about various VSTs. We even have a guide about free guitar VST plugins and others.
So, you don’t need to wade through a sea of options. You can go looking for recommendations, and even listen for yourself to see which VSTs seem to produce the best results overall, based on what you’re trying to achieve in your tracks.
What Is A VST Plugin? Final Thoughts
See? That wasn’t so hard; now you know what a VST plugin is.
Your DAW is basically the brains of the entire operation. VST plugins are essentially added functionality, and they allow you to do all kinds of things, be it adding virtual instruments to your tracks, or applying virtual effects to them.
If you’re in music production or sound engineering, then it’s essential that you know what they are and what they do, because more than likely, you will be using them as part of your workflow.
If you’re new to music production, then have plenty of fun experimenting. The journey can be a long one, so you may as well enjoy every step of the way!