What are VST Plugins and How to Use Them

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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. 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.

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.

Plugin Formats

Reaper does come with a built-in plugin suite that utilizes Cockos proprietary REA or JSFX plugin format. However, all other free or paid plugins will come in different formats.

We have focused on the VSTs for our guide, but it’s good to know a little about different formats.

Here are the most commonly used plugin formats and the popular DAWs that support them.

  • VST – Virtual Studio Technology, developed by Steinberg (variations like VST2, VST3 – newest and popular, VSTi are also used).

Cubase, Ableton Live, FL Studio, Reaper, Studio One, Reason.

  • AU – Audio Units, developed by Apple.

Logic Pro, Ableton Live, Studio One, Reaper.

  • AAX – Avid Audio eXtension, developed by Avid.

Pro Tools 10 and newer.

  • RTAS – Real-Time Audio Suite, developed by Digidesign.

Pro Tools 10 and older.

MacOS or Windows?

The native macOS plugin format is AU, but it will run compatible VST/VST3, AAX/RTAS formats, too.

The native Windows plugin format is VST, but it will run compatible AAX/RTAS plugins in Pro Tools.

Since some formats are compatible with different operating systems (macOS, Windows, Linux, etc), make sure you select the OS-appropriate file when downloading.

It sounds obvious, but it’s an easy mistake to make (especially with free plugins). Paid plugins typically bundle all available OS install files in your download, then you just run the correct installer.

When installing, you’ll often be asked which plugin formats you want to use/install, and it’s wise to leave them all checked.

Some people use multiple DAWs for different purposes, and leaving all formats checked means your plugin will work on all compatible DAWs without further installation.

Even if you don’t use more than one DAW, you might do in the future, and de-selecting unwanted formats won’t save you much space or CPU anyway.

32-bit or 64-bit

In terms of sound quality, there is absolutely no difference between 32-bit and 64-bit plugins.

64-bit plugins can access more memory, and there are some computer architecture differences, but we don’t need to get into that here.

All that matters here is compatibility. When downloading 32/64-bit plugins, download the version that matches the version of Reaper that you’re currently running.

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.

JSFX plugins

JSFX files are simple text files that take the form of fully-featured plugins when loaded in Reaper.

These particular plugins are distributed in source form, which means users can edit them or create their own JSFX plugins from scratch.

Beyond the JSFX plugins already included with Reaper, hundreds of user-created plugins are downloadable from the Reaper Forum and Resource Stash.

Using Reaper plugins in another DAW

If you’ve found yourself here but aren’t yet using Reaper (or no longer), you might want to try out some Reaper plugins before making the switch.

Cockos, rather kindly, has made a bunch of its Reaper plugins available for download in VST format to use in any compatible DAW.

You should note that it’s a limited selection that omits some of Reaper’s best plugins.

Here’s how to add a new VST synth/plugin to Reaper in 5 easy steps

Reaper is a DAW that has been around since August of 2006. In the 16 years since, it has gained somewhat of a cult status amongst musicians, producers, and engineers.

Ardent Reaper fans stick with it because it’s highly customizable and offers sophisticated routing options.

In this guide, we will show you step by step how to add a new VST synth/plugin to Reaper.

Step 1

Once you have Reaper open, you want to find the Preferences screen. You can do so by clicking Options from the menu bar, then Preferences from the drop-down menu.

Alternatively, you can use these shortcuts.

Step 2

Scroll down the Preferences list, and near the bottom, you’ll see Plug-ins.

Under the Plug-ins heading, you’ll see VST, and that’s what you want to click.

Step 3

Direct Reaper to the folder containing the VST plugin.

To do this, start by clicking the Add button at the top right of the Preferences panel.

Now, you need to navigate to the correct folder and click Open.

The default paths for macOS and Windows are as follows.

  • macOS: Library/Audio/Plug-ins/VST
  • Windows: C:\Program Files\VSTPlugins or C:\Program Files\Common Files\VST2 or C:\Program Files\VST3

It’s normal for VST, VST2, and VST3 plugins to have a separate folder.

Note: Some plugins will look to install to a custom folder. You can change this before installation, but Reaper must be directed to the custom folder if you don’t.

Step 4

Click the Re-Scan button, and Reaper will scan the selected directory for new VST plugins.

It will then add any found VST plugins to its list of available choices.

Step 5

If you have installed a synth/instrument, click Insert from the menu bar, then select Insert Virtual Instrument on New Track.

From the pop-up menu, choose either VST or Instrument, and select your new item from the list.

If you want to add your newly installed instrument or FX plugin to an existing track, simply click the FX button on the desired track.

Next, choose VST from the pop-up menu, and select your new item from the list.

That’s all you need to know to add your new VST plugin to Reaper. Here are a few things that you should keep in mind:

  • Reaper can search multiple directories for new plugins, which means you can add more than one.
  • Reaper will scan any added directories for new plugins every time it launches, so you don’t have to repeat the whole process every time.
  • Reaper will scan all plugins in the added directories, so you don’t need to add and scan one plugin at a time.

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 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 Types of VST Plugins Are There?

There are basically three types of VST plugins, as outlined below:

VST Instruments

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

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.

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.

Beginners Guide to VST

Producing your own music has become easier and more accessible over the last 20 years. You used to need a full-fledged recording studio with hardware equipment worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to get a halfway decent sounding tape.

Recording used to be a long, drawn-out process, where mixing took complicated cable running. Knowing how to do all of it took years of training.

Today we have instant access to top-of-the-line recording technology on our computers. Successfully recording a track still takes a bit of time to master, but now anyone with a laptop (or a smartphone for that matter) can record.

One of the tools that should be given credit for this newfound accessibility is virtual studio technology or VST for short.

How To Utilize Sends

Whatever computer you’re using has a finite amount of CPU and RAM it can offer while you’re mixing, and some of the more complicated VST plugins can start to really suck up that amount.

That’s why it’s important to know how to make the most out of what you have by taking advantage of auxiliary sends.

This method is reflective of how engineers used to work in the studio- They obviously wouldn’t have a separate reverb device for every channel they wanted the effect on. They would have the reverb exist on one (or two, if you wanted stereo) channel that they would then send audio into and route back out.

Every DAW does this differently. But essentially, what you’ll be doing is placing your effect like a reverb or delay onto a single channel, which has its output routed to the master channel.

Then you’ll split the audio output of another channel that has something you want to hit the effect. Doing this lets you control how much dry signal goes straight to the master and how much wet signal comes out of the effect send.

This technique reduces the number of effects that you need for your project. Instead of placing a reverb on every vocal sample–which you’re probably using from this sweet vocal pack from Aaron Richards–you can have one reverb that you send every vocal to.

Conclusion

There are a ton of VSTs out there. Between instruments and effects, you could easily spend tens of thousands of dollars building up your collection.

But if you’re a beginner looking for the essential tools to pick up, then the list narrows down a bit. You don’t need to spend a massive amount of cash on any of them, but here’s some VSTs we would recommend to any beginner looking to expand their toolkit.

Compressor: Most DAW’s will come with their own stock plugin effects, and a compressor will probably be in that folder. And you can get away with using a free compressor.

But when you finally end up using a high-quality digital compressor, you will almost immediately notice a huge difference. Cheap compressors will have sensitive thresholds and mangle your audio when you push them even the slightest bit.

High-end compressors will be able to actually mold your dynamics the way that you want while maintaining the quality of your audio. Just make sure you know what you’re doing when you start compressing.

Reverb: Again, stock plugins might do the trick in a pinch, but a well-crafted reverb can be a major step up. And there are plenty of different reverbs out there to use. Plate, spring, and hall reverbs will give your mix a bit of variety and let you really play with the character of the reverb until it’s just right for your track.

Multi-Instruments: Especially if you’re a beginner producer, you will want to start looking for some decent instruments. The stock piano plugin will never sound the way you want, trust us.

But if you’re looking for a good value for the money you spend, look into using multi-instruments. These VSTs contain several different instrument emulators in one instead of trying to lock in on one that you might use every now and then. This type of VST is great for experimenting and expanding your library of sounds.

Retro Synth Emulators: If you’ve used cheap or free synth plugins, then you’ll recognize the flat, artificial tone that they usually come with. If you’ve wondered why your tracks don’t sound like the rich pop-hits on the radio, it’s because they’re using high-quality synthesizers.

If using synths at all interests you, it’s worth the investment to pick up a decent VST.

FAQ for What are VST Plugins Guide

What are VST plugins?

VST plugins are software or plug-ins that allow you to use your computer’s audio processing capabilities to create new sounds. They typically come with an interface that allows the user to define parameters for the plugin and then have it produce a sound.

VST plugins are available for a variety of platforms and DAWs, including Windows, macOS, Linux, iOS and Android. They can be used in any DAW that supports VST plugins.

VST plugins allow users to use the power of digital signal processing (DSP) techniques to create audio effects for their music or sound design projects.

What are VST plugins for?

VST plugins are used for a variety of purposes, such as:

  • Creating musical instruments and effects
  • Making audio recordings
  • Mixing sounds and creating mixes
  • Creating beats and loops
  • Generating sound effects
  • Automating tasks
  • Enhancing audio quality.

VST plugins are a powerful tool for music production, but they also have a lot of use outside of music. VST plugins can be used to create sound effects, vocal effects and even entire scores.

VST plugins are the most popular and widely used audio plugins in the market. They are used by professional producers, engineers, and home users to create music, sound effects, and voiceovers.

The most popular VST plugins include:

  • Valhalla DSP
  • Waves
  • Steinberg
  • Izotope
  • FabFilter
  • Avid Pro Tools

How much do VST plugins cost?

VST plugins are quite expensive.

But with the help of these plugins, you can make your work easier and more efficient.

There are a lot of free VST plugins available online which you can use for free.

Some of them come with in-built presets that will help you to start creating sounds right away.

VST plugins are a popular tool for music producers. They allow users to create and manipulate sound in a way that would otherwise be impossible.

There are many different types of VST plugins that can be used for different genres of music. Some popular examples include:

  • Reverb
  • Pitch Shifter
  • Delay
  • Compressor
  • EQ

How to choose the right VST plugin for your music production?

A VST plugin is a software that helps in the production of electronic music. They are used by DJs and musicians to create sounds, melodies and beats.

A good VST plugin should have the following features:

  • Good sound quality
  • Easy to use interface
  • Low latency (less than 16ms)
  • Audio inputs/outputs for multiple sound sources
  • A good interface for editing sounds
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