VST vs VST2 vs VST3: What’s The Difference?

This article will discuss the difference between VST, VST2, and VST3 plugins and which one is better.

Plugin manufacturers and developers provide plugins in various formats, including AU, AAX, VST, VST2, VST3, etc. These formats are simply interfaces by which the plugins communicate with the dedicated Digital Audio Workstation. However, it could get slightly confusing, especially with three versions of VST.

Firstly, let’s understand what a VST is. VST, or Virtual Studio Technology, is an audio plugin that lets you use third-party instruments and effects software/plugins in your DAW, extending its capability and functionalities. You can use these for producing new sounds or transforming existing sounds.

VST vs VST2 vs VST3: What’s The Difference?

VST, VST2, and VST3 are different versions of the plugin interface VST (Virtual Studio Technology), which differ in processing capabilities and have different levels of advancements and software stability, with the latest VST3 being the most evolved version.

How did VST evolve to VST3?

VST was first launched in 1996 by Steinberg, along with the release of Cubase. Initially, only effects plugins for chorus, reverb, and other effects were launched. Then, in 1999, Steinberg enhanced the VST interface to version 2.0, introducing a notable feature: plugin capability to accept MIDI data.

This advancement facilitated the birth of the VSTi format (Virtual Studio Technology for Instrument) plugins. VST Instruments have the capability to function independently as software synthesizers, samplers, or drum machines.

Then, the VST interface specification received an update to version 2.4 in 2006, introducing the ability to process audio with 64-bit precision. This led to the development of a free software replacement for LMMS, subsequently adopted by other free software projects.

Finally, VST 3.0 debuted in 2008, bringing significant changes such as audio inputs for VST Instruments, multiple MIDI inputs/outputs, and SKI integration.

Following this, VST 3.5 launched in February 2011, introducing note expression—a feature offering detailed articulation information in individual note events within polyphonic arrangements. Steinberg highlighted its support for enhanced performance flexibility and a more natural playing experience.

Subsequently, in September 2013, Steinberg discontinued maintenance of the VST 2 SDK and ceased its distribution in December of the same year, prioritizing the higher versions.

VST 3.6.7 was released in March 2017, introducing a preview version of VST3 for the Linux platform.

Aspect VST VST2 VST3
Release Date Mid-1990s 1999 2008
Upgrades – receptive to MIDI data
– Introduced VSTi
– VST2.4 version introduced 64-bit processing capability
– Audio inputs included for VST instruments
– >1 MIDI inputs/outputs
– 3.5 version included Note Expression
Benefits Improved functionality Enhanced processing efficiency, sample-accurate automation, efficient MIDI handling, resizable GUI, scalable windows, multilingual support
Hosts Support Almost all (FL Studio, Cubase, Ableton, etc.) except Pro Tools and Logic Almost all except Pro Tools and Logic Widely supported by modern DAWs, including Logic Pro, but not Pro Tools
Operating System Windows, Mac Windows, Mac Windows, Mac, Linux
Installation .dll file .dll file Single .vst3 file format for multiple OS support
CPU Usage Continuous processing Activated processing, efficient resource usage when idle
Automation Standard automation Sample-accurate automation, hierarchical parameter categorization
MIDI Handling Limited MIDI support Superior MIDI handling, multiple MIDI I/O, detailed note-based control
Audio Signals MIDI-driven Direct audio signal support
Plug-in Stability Reliable and stable Improved stability, earlier concerns mitigated
Developer Support Widely adopted Growing adoption, developer-dependent feature implementation
Scalability Fixed window sizes Resizable GUI, adaptable window sizes
Multilingual Support Unicode (UTF-16) support, multilingual design

Which is better VST2 or VST3?

You must use VST3 for various reasons, including faster load time, faster processing, higher stability, easier integration, scalability/reliability, multi-lingual support, etc. However, since manufacturers are still adapting to VST3, there may be a few bugs, but that occurrence is very rare, as it has been quite a while since VST3 was launched.

Here are some more elaborate reasons why you should go for the VST3 version of the plugin.

  • Efficient Processing: VST3 optimizes CPU usage by processing only when audio is present, unlike VST and VST2, which constantly engage resources.
  • Adaptive Input/Output: It dynamically adjusts inputs/outputs, eliminating resource wastage seen in fixed-input plugins.
  • Enhanced MIDI Handling: VST3 introduces dedicated event handling for extensive control beyond conventional MIDI. It offers note-level modulation, revolutionizing polyphonic contexts like chord play.
  • Multiple MIDI I/O Support: Unlike VST2’s single MIDI input/output, VST3 allows several MIDI ports, enabling flexible routing, ideal for live performances.
  • Organized Automation Parameters: VST3 categorizes plugin parameters, streamlining automation within the plugin, and keeping projects organized.
  • Audio Inputs for VST Instruments: It empowers VST instruments to process audio inputs, unlocking new possibilities like sidechaining and cross-modulation.
  • Resizable GUI: VST3 plugins can be scaled, adapting to screen space and enhancing usability, especially in crowded sessions.
  • Sample-Accurate Automation: With VST3, you get precise automation even at minute levels, enhancing accuracy for rapid changes.
  • Remote Control via VSTXML: Supporting portable control surfaces, VSTXML offers expanded flexibility in controlling plugin parameters.
  • Multilingual Support: Using Unicode (UTF-16), VST3 allows for diverse language support, aiding plugin localization.

How do I know if my VST is VST2 or VST3?

In your DAW, look at the source file with which the DAW interacts and check its extension. .dll extensions are VST or VST2 files, while .vst are usually VST3 files. Most DAWs also explicitly show the VST format in the plugin settings.
For example, in FL Studio, you can go to the plugin Settings > VST Wrapper Settings and read the “plugin type” under “info.”
VST vs VST2 vs VST3: What’s The Difference? | pluginova.com
Alternatively, you can also click on “More plugins” from the channel rack or the mixer window and see the “format” information in the “Select (generator/effects) plugin” window.
VST vs VST2 vs VST3: What’s The Difference? | pluginova.com

How to install and use a VST/VST2/VST3 plugin?

Installing and utilizing VST plugins involves a few steps. Typically, you can either use an installer provided by the plugin’s manufacturer or manually place the plugin’s .dll or .vst3 files into specific folders on your system.

The installation paths for these plugins often reside in specific directories:

64-bit 32-bit
VST/VST 2 plugin C: Drive > Program Files > VstPlugins C: Drive > Program Files (x86) > VstPlugins
VST3 plugin C: Drive > Program Files > Common Files > VST3 C: Drive > Program Files (x86) > Common Files > VST3

If you’re using an installer, it automatically handles these placements and any necessary configurations. Once installed, you’ll need to prompt your Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) to recognize these plugins.

For instance, in FL Studio, you can use the following steps to install a VST/VST2/VST3 plugin.

For instruments, navigate to FL Studio’s channel rack and click the plus (+) button.

VST vs VST2 vs VST3: What’s The Difference? | pluginova.com

Alternatively, for effects plugins, access the Mixer window and click the dropdown beside an insert slot.

VST vs VST2 vs VST3: What’s The Difference? | pluginova.com

Choose “More plugins.”

VST vs VST2 vs VST3: What’s The Difference? | pluginova.com

In the subsequent window, select “Manage plugins.”

VST vs VST2 vs VST3: What’s The Difference? | pluginova.com

Click on “Find plugins” in the Plugin Manager.

VST vs VST2 vs VST3: What’s The Difference? | pluginova.com

The manager will begin scanning its dedicated directories to locate the .dll/.vst3 files.

VST vs VST2 vs VST3: What’s The Difference? | pluginova.com

When found, the plugin will be highlighted, often shown in yellow. You can mark it by clicking the “star” icon if you want it to appear in your plugin browser within the channel rack or mixer window.

VST vs VST2 vs VST3: What’s The Difference? | pluginova.com

To use the plugin, simply double-click on it, which will open it up for use within FL Studio.

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