What Are VST Plugins and What Do They Do?

Brainworx bx_Clipper

This article will cover all details about what VST plugins are and what they do. 

If you’re new to music production, words like VST, AAX, plugins, etc. must confuse you. I remember starting out as a producer and hearing others talk about this and that plugin, VST, effects, etc. I also wasn’t sure what the exact VST is and how it’s different from a plugin.

I used to use the term plugin and VST interchangeably. While in some contexts, that is not wrong, a VST and a plugin mean different things. So, to understand VST, let’s first understand plugins.

A plugin is a software component that adds specific functionalities or features to a larger software application, enhancing its capabilities without altering its core structure. In the context of digital audio workstations (DAWs) or other software environments, plugins extend the functionality of the main software.

There are plugins, not just for DAWs but also for photo editing software, video editing tools, and other software. Now, let’s come to the main question.

What Are VST Plugins and What Do They Do?

VST (Virtual Studio Technology) is an interface that lets virtual instruments and effects communicate with the music production software or a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) and adds the ability to integrate third-party plugins in a DAW.

It was launched in 1996 by Steinberg to emulate hardware audio recording and production technology in a digital format.

A VST plugin, on the other hand, is an entire piece of software that integrates into the DAW and offers tools like virtual instruments (VSTi) to generate sounds or effects (VST effects) to modify or enhance audio. Yes, the overall workflow of a DAW can be divided into these three distinctions:

  • Instruments/VSTi: These include software synthesizers, sample-based instruments that work on libraries, and any plugin that generates audio.
  • Audio Effects/VST effects: These include plugins that manipulate an already generated sound and create a derivative sound. Plugins for harmonic effects (saturators, distortion, etc.), dynamic effects (compressors, gates, etc.), equalizers, etc., are included in this category.
  • MIDI effects: Manipulates MIDI information and not audio, such as altering pitch or creating arpeggios, and directs this modified MIDI data to other VST instruments within the software or external hardware devices.

Please note that not all DAWs support VST plugins. Some DAWs like Logic Pro and Pro Tools use different interfaces to communicate with virtual instruments and effects. For example, Logic Pro uses AU (Audio Units) interface technology, and Pro Tools uses AAX (Avid Audio Extension) technology to do so.

Hence, to run a VST plugin, you require a VST host.

What are VST Hosts?

VST hosts act as platforms where VST plugins operate. They manage the plugin interfaces, handle the flow of digital audio and MIDI data to and from these plugins.

Various software applications or hardware devices serve as VST hosts, like media players such as JRiver Media Center and foobar2000. Some hosts are exclusively designed to create an environment for VST plugins, prioritizing live performance with quick song configuration changes.

In scenarios where compatibility issues arise, a translation layer or shim is employed. For instance, FL Studio supports its internal plugin architecture but can load VST plugins using a native “wrapper.” FXpansion offers tools like a VST-to-RTAS (Real Time AudioSuite) wrapper for Pro Tools and a VST-to-Audio Units wrapper for Logic Pro, enabling VST plugins to function in otherwise incompatible environments.

VST Host

SaviHost – a plugin host

There are also Hardware VST hosts that can utilize specialized versions of VST plugins. These devices are portable and functional independently of a computer, although some may need one for editing. Additional hardware options include PCI/PCIe cards crafted for audio processing, which assume the audio processing responsibilities from the computer’s CPU, thereby liberating the RAM.

Certain hardware hosts accommodate VSTs and VSTis, operating either with Windows-compatible music software such as Cubase, Live, Pro Tools, Logic, etc., or with their dedicated DAW. Others exclusively function as VST Hosts, necessitating a separate DAW application. Arturia’s Origin is an example of a hardware DSP system housing multiple VST software synthesizers within a single unit, akin to Roland’s Jupiter 50/80.

What is the difference between a VST and a plugin?

VST is a specific format of audio plugin that conforms to Steinberg’s VST standard, allowing it to be used within compatible hosts (like DAWs) to process audio, whereas a plugin is a broader term encompassing any software component that extends the functionality of another software application.

VST is just one type of plugin format among many others (such as AU, AAX, RTAS, etc.) used in the audio industry.

What is the difference between a DAW and a VST?

A DAW is the software that serves as the workspace for music creation, while VSTs are the modular tools that extend the DAW’s capabilities for sound design and processing.

A digital audio workstation (DAW) is comprehensive music software used for recording, editing, arranging, mixing, and producing audio. It’s an all-in-one platform where you can create entire music projects, from recording live instruments to arranging MIDI sequences and mixing tracks.

On the other hand, a VST (Virtual Studio Technology) is a plugin format that integrates with DAWs, providing additional functionalities like virtual instruments or effects. VSTs expand the capabilities of a DAW by offering a wide range of tools such as synthesizers, reverbs, compressors, and more.

VST v/s VST2 v/s VST3

VST, VST2, and VST3 are just different versions or iterations of the Virtual Studio Technology developed by Steinberg. Each version introduces advancements and improvements in functionality, efficiency, and capabilities.

VST2, an upgraded version of VST, introduced features like more flexible routing, MIDI capabilities, resizable interfaces, and improved efficiency in terms of CPU usage. In today’s terminology, VST2 is referred to as VST plugins only.

What Are VST Plugins and What Do They Do? | pluginova.com

What Are VST Plugins and What Do They Do? | pluginova.com

VST3, launched in 2008, offers improved performance, better handling of multi-core processors, more extensive MIDI capabilities, increased stability, enhanced sample-accurate automation, and improved plugin management.

VST3 also introduces features like VST Expression, which allows plugins to better handle articulations and expressive control of instruments. It provides more robust support for high-resolution displays, side-chaining improvements, and better handling of audio processing.

.dll v/s .vst3

.dll (dynamic link library) files are used to store code and data that multiple programs can share simultaneously. In the case of VST plugins, .dll files represent the plugin in its compiled form, containing the necessary code and resources to run within a compatible audio host/DAW.

.vst3 (Virtual Studio Technology 3) extensions, on the other hand, specifically pertain to VST3 plugins. .vst3 files are a newer format introduced by Steinberg as part of the VST3 standard. These files contain the code, resources, and metadata required for VST3 plugins to operate within compatible DAWs or audio hosts.

To round up, VST plugins’ code and data is run through .dll files, and VST3’s information is run in your system and DAW through .vst3 files.

How to install and use VST/VST2/VST3 plugins?

You can install a VST plugin by either using an installer that the plugin manufacturer/developer provides, or you can find its .dll or .vst3 files and place them in their respective folders, which typically are:

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 use an installer, the installer will automatically place the plugins in these folders and do all necessary code changes/programming by itself. Once you have done that, just open your DAW and ask it to find the plugins. For example, in FL Studio, this is how you do it.

How to install and use VST plugins in FL Studio?

After you have installed the plugin and placed its .dll/.vst3 files in the respective folders in the C Drive, go FL Studio to the channel rack and click on the plus button.

What Are VST Plugins and What Do They Do? | pluginova.com

Alternatively, for effects plugins, go to the Mixer window and click on the drop-down menu beside any slot for any insert.

What Are VST Plugins and What Do They Do? | pluginova.com

Then click on “More plugins.”

What Are VST Plugins and What Do They Do? | pluginova.com

The following window will open, on which you have to click on “Manage plugins.”

What Are VST Plugins and What Do They Do? | pluginova.com

Then, the Plugin Manager window will open, on which you have to click on “Find plugins.”

What Are VST Plugins and What Do They Do? | pluginova.com

Once you do that, the plugin manager will start scanning its dedicated directories to locate the .dll/.vst3 files of the plugin.

What Are VST Plugins and What Do They Do? | pluginova.com

After it has found the plugin, it will highlight it and color it in yellow. Simply click on “star” beside the plugin if you want it to show on your plugin browser in the channel rack or mixer window.

VST Host

Then, you double-click on the plugin, which will open it for use.

Install and use VST/VST2/VST3 plugins in Ableton

Install and use VST/VST2/VST3 plugins in Cubase

Install and use VST/VST2/VST3 plugins in Studio One

Don`t copy text!
Scroll to Top