How Do VST Plugins Work?

How Do VST Plugins Work?

So, you’ve probably heard about VST plugins, and you might even know a thing or two about them.

But how exactly do these seemingly magical plugin modules work?

In this guide, we’ll explain what VST plugins are, how they work, where they come from, and more!

What Are VST Plugins? – Quick Answer

VST stands for Virtual Studio Technology.

As you can probably guess from the name, “virtual” implies software-based components designed for use with audio recording applications, also known as Digital Audio Workstations (DAW).

VST plugins are represented by three major categories – software synthesizer (virtual instrument), effects units, and MIDI effects. These plugins are designed to integrate with your DAW.

VST plugins are meant to simulate traditional recording equipment.

For example, there’s a free VST plugin called Minimogue VA. This plugin, of course, simulates the legendary Minimoog analog synthesizer.

Another example is Eventide’s SP2016 Reverb, which was originally launched in the early 80s as a hardware unit. Nowadays, you can find the SP2016 Reverb VST plugin on Plugin Boutique.

What Types Of VST Plugins Are There?

Although we’ve alluded to the three types of VST plugins already, here we’ll look at each in a little more detail:

  • VST instruments: A virtual instrument designed to generate audio. From software synthesizers to orchestral instruments and guitars, there are VST instruments emulating a variety of sounds, generally with increased competency and authenticity over time, as developers continue to iron out the kinks.
  • VST effects: Effects do not generate audio but rather process it. Basically, they serve the same function a hardware effect unit would, whether it’s reverb, delay, phaser, or otherwise. There are also other types of VST effects that don’t process the audio but rather offer visual feedback for mixing and mastering purposes (spectrum analyzers, meters, etc., that allow you to monitor audio characteristics).
  • VST MIDI effects: MIDI effects process MIDI messages and can route the data to a VST instrument or hardware device. You can, for example, arpeggiate or transpose the MIDI data using a MIDI effect. Your host may already have a competent piano roll or MIDI editor that lets you perform most of these jobs with ease. Modern sequencers and arpeggiators are still popular, though, as they can add rhythm-based effects to your instruments, suggest chord progressions, feed you melodic ideas, and more.

Where Do VST Plugins Come From?

German musical software and hardware company Steinberg – most known for their DAWs Cubase and Nuendo – released the VST interface specification and SDK in 1996 to coincide with the release of Cubase 3.02.

At the time, there were just four effects – Espacial (reverb), Choirus (chorus), Stereo Echo, and Auto-Panner.

Virtual Studio Technology Instrument (VSTi) was soon to follow in 1999, with software synthesizers, samplers, and even drum machines.

VST technology continued to evolve through the years and is still being updated today.

Where Can I Find VST Plugins?

VST plugins – free and paid – are more popular than ever, so they aren’t hard to find.

You can download free plugins on sites like PLUGINS 4 FREE or KVR Audio Software.

And you can purchase premium plugins on sites like Plugin Boutique, Waves, or Splice. Oftentimes, you can purchase and download plugins directly from the developer website as well.

How To Install A VST Plugin

Installing a VST plugin usually follows one of three paths.

The first is where you download the file, unzip it on your hard drive, and drag and drop the files into your DAW’s VST plugin folder.

Once the plugin has been moved to the appropriate folder, your DAW may automatically prompt you to scan for new files. If not, you can manually scan for new plugins in the settings, and your DAW will do the rest of the heavy lifting, installing your plugin and making it available inside your menu.

Note that if there are any compatibility issues with the plugin and your setup, the installation may fail, and your DAW will probably let you know. If you downloaded a version of the plugin that’s incompatible with your system settings (e.g., Mac vs. Windows), you may be able to find an alternative. Some plugins, however, simply won’t be compatible with your system.

The second path is where you download and unzip the file just as you did in the first example. But in this case, the plugin has its own installer.

Run the installer, and you’ll be able to choose what folder the plugin should be installed in.

As with before, you may still need to scan for new plugins inside your DAW to complete the process (or you will be prompted by your DAW to do so).

The final path is where you download a proprietary third-party application, such as the Spitfire Audio app.

Installation is probably required, but all you need to do is follow the wizard to install the plugin.

Once installed, you’ll be able to download plugins using their application. How well this works depends a lot on the developer, but it’s fair to say many major developers have their own system for downloading and installing updates nowadays.

How To Use / Activate A VST Plugin

If the installation was successful, your plugin is now available for use inside your DAW.

The exact process to activating a VST plugin will differ from DAW to DAW, but usually it follows that you’ll need to add it to the track’s output (e.g., from the VST plugin menu).

In Waveform (a popular DAW), all you need to do is drag and drop the “+” box from the upper right corner of the screen onto the track you want to add the instrument or effect to and select the plugin you want to use from the dropdown.

If it’s a VST instrument, then it should be MIDI keyboard compatible. So long as your MIDI keyboard is connected to your computer, your DAW recognizes it, and the appropriate track is enabled, you’ll be able to control the virtual instrument with your keyboard.

If you selected a VST effect, you should be able to adjust the effect in real time using its proprietary graphical user interface.

With a plugin like reverb, for instance, you’ll probably have parameters like pre-delay, space, time, width, EQ, and wet / dry to adjust (of course, these parameters will also vary from plugin to plugin).

The effect will sound different depending on the settings you land on.

Most plugins also have presets. These are usually good starting points, and in some cases work nicely as is.

Can You Use Multiple VST Plugins Simultaneously?

This depends on the host (DAW) you’re using, but most do allow you to chain multiple effects together.

The reality is most tracks benefit from multiple effects during the mixing process.

With something like guitar, bass, or a synth, if you’re happy with the source, you might not need to process the signal to the nth degree.

But drums and vocals arguably don’t even “sound right” until after you’ve applied EQ, compression, reverb, etc.

So, it wouldn’t be at all unusual if your DAW lets you chain effects together on a per track basis. The only limitation, then, would be your CPU.

Do VST Plugins Work Without A DAW?

It’s a bit of an obscure question, but the answer is technically “no.”

That said, there are virtual instruments that come with their own interfaces. Some are Kontakt instruments or libraries.

These can sometimes be used in isolation, without the host (because they are hosts unto themselves). You wouldn’t be able to do any recording with them, of course, unless the plugin has a built-in recorder.

Here’s a comparison that might ring a bell for you:

WordPress is the most popular content management systems / blogging software.

There are many WordPress plugins that allow you to extend its functionality. Some would even say the plugins are essential to unlocking WordPress’ true potential.

But the plugins generally don’t work without WordPress.

Likewise, most of the time, VST plugins do not work without a DAW.

What Are The Benefits Of VST Plugins?

VST technology

There are a variety of benefits to VST plugins, but they can all be summarized under the headings of time, cost, and space savings.

What do I mean by that? Consider the following:

Save Time

Let’s say you were setting up to record an acoustic guitar.

Eave if you already had a player lined up, you would still need to:

  • Set up your room for recording
  • Position your mics (pencil condenser pair with XY technique, as an example)
  • Connect your mics to your preamps / audio interface with XLR cables
  • Set the gain for recording
  • Record until you’re happy with the performance

A virtual acoustic guitar may not have the same sound or feel of a real acoustic guitar. But you could bypass most of the above.

All you would need to do is connect your MIDI controller, activate the plugin, and you could start composing.

Time is of the essence in most recording situations nowadays. If you can work quickly, you can release more projects and increase your earnings. And if you’re ever called upon as a composer, you will probably need to produce a lot of music in a relatively short window of time.

VST plugins allow you to work faster.

Save Money

Now, hardware effects, orchestras, session players and the like are far from extinct.

But here’s the thing. Something like the SPL PQ Mastering Equalizer could easily run you $9,000 or more.

Meanwhile, you could probably find a mastering VST EQ that does most of what the SPL EQ can do for a fraction of the price.

Now, again, this shouldn’t be taken to mean you can find a VST plugin that will sound as good as classic outboard gear. We’re coming closer these days, but most producers will tell you that there’s an intangible something to hardware that software simply cannot replicate.

What I am saying is that while you might rack up a hefty bill with plugins, it will be nothing compared to the cost of multiple hardware units.

With VST plugins, you can save a lot of money while still creating excellent quality projects.

Save Space

The Nord Electro, Moog Minimoog, and API 5000 are much sought after pieces of gear. But in addition to costing a lot of money, they also tend to take up a lot of space.

Imagine what your studio space would look like after purchasing dozens of keyboards, rackmount effects, guitar amps, and other pieces of gear. Trust me, it adds up fast.

And god forbid you ever need to move your studio or haul your gear around for gigs and rentals. Let’s just say that, after a while, it’s not a whole lot of fun!

Now, if you’re a gigging musician, some of this is par for the course. Although you can minimize or downsize your rig, chances are you will still need to load in and load out at each gig you play.

Nevertheless, in a studio context, if you don’t have a plan for storing your equipment, it’s going to take up a lot of space, and fast.

VST plugins can help you save on a ton of space. Think of it this way – each plugin could be a piece of hardware or outboard gear. And most producers have dozens if not hundreds of plugins!

If your computer, audio interface, a pair of headphones, and a desk are all you’ve got, no problem – you can still do amazing things with VST plugins.

Are There Any Downsides To VST Plugins?

While there aren’t too many downsides to VST plugins, as with anything else, they aren’t perfect.

First, there can be compatibility issues with VST plugins. The technology has gotten a lot better over the years, but depending on your operating system, DAW, and other factors, specific plugins may or may not work on your machine. Of course, developers are generally good about laying out requirements.

Second, while VST plugins effects and instruments sound better than they ever did, that doesn’t mean they sound as good as the hardware gear they’re often emulating.

Finally, as with any other industry, the money motive is real, and sometimes you can find yourself locked in proprietary ecosystems requiring monthly subscription fees, license keys, activation, and so on. It’s not all bad, of course, but at times it can be a nuisance when you just want to use the plugins in your favorite DAW.

How Do VST Plugins Work? Final Thoughts

VST plugins are amazing tools for music production. And at the end of the day, it’s all about how you use them that makes all the difference.

My recommendation? Experiment lots and study well. The better you know your gear, the better results you’ll be able to achieve.

With that, I wish you all the best on your recording journey.

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