What is a VST Plugin?

It’s never been a better time to record music at home. Not only is audio hardware and software cheaper than ever before, the variety of products and the companies making those products is staggering. The musical digital realm has really evolved and flourished during the past few decades, giving us access to different DAWs, MIDI, hardware, and VST plugins. But what is a VST plugins? In this article I’ll talk about the different types, their purposes, and how they work.

VST LogoVST stands for Virtual Studio Technology. Easier enough to remember, right? VST plugins are at the heart of creating, mixing, and mastering professional sounding music. They can spark creativity, transform sounds, and open a whole new world of possibilities in the studio. They are also exceptionally powerful. Early audio engineers could only have dreamt about what we have at our fingertips today. Modern day plugins can even duplicate old analog gear that would cost a fortune to buy as hardware. There are actually two types of VST plugins. I’m going to go through each type in detail and list what kind of plugins you can find in each category.

VST Instrument Plugins

Virtual instruments have come such a long way from early audio gear that tried to replicate real instruments. If you’ve ever played an old electric keyboard or organ, you’ll know exactly what I mean. These types of instruments would have pre-sets on them with titles like ‘orchestral strings’ or ‘electric drumkit’. Most of the time they sounded absolutely awful! They would do their best to mimic real instruments but the technology just wasn’t up to the task.

Nowadays, the technology used for virtual instruments is a world away from early keyboards, synthesisers, and samplers. I say virtual instruments, but VSTi plugins don’t just try to mimic real instruments. The best ones are actually sophisticated samplers, that play samples of the instruments themselves.

What do I mean by this?

Take a company like Spitfire Audio, one of my favourites. They have created hundreds of VST instruments by using real musicians in a recording studio. For example, they have a lot of orchestral VSTs. To do this they literally hire out a full-blown orchestra and bring them into an appropriately sized recording studio. They will then instruct them to play individual notes of different lengths, velocities, and playing styles, such as legato and staccato etc. Each note is recorded and edited before being created into a VST plugins. Once you open it up and play a note on your MIDI keyboard, you are playing back those notes that the orchestra recorded. You literally have a full orchestra at your fingertips. Incredible right?

That’s why VST instruments sound so real, because well… they are real. This process is exactly the same regardless of the instrument, it takes a lot of work and extreme patience. When a company wants to create a VSTi of a beautiful sounding piano, just think about what they have to do. One person has to sit behind the piano pressing each note separately at different velocities, whilst being extremely careful not to make any noise or breathe too loudly. Otherwise the microphone will pick it up and that sample will be unusable.

That’s 88 notes at different velocities, plus a piano has a mute pedal and a reverb pedal. So, the process will need to repeated again three times. According to Spitfire they record each note at 10 velocities, so let’s do the maths. That’s 880 notes recorded with no pedal, 880 notes recorded with the mute pedal, and 880 notes recorded with the reverb pedal. That makes a total of 2,640 notes to be recorded whilst making as little noise as possible… Would you like that job? VST instruments also come in the form digital instruments like synthesisers, there must be thousands of these available on the market. So, don’t fear synth junkies, your needs are also being met.

What instruments have been made into VSTi Plugins?

Musical Instruments

Name an instrument and it’s probably been sampled and made into a VST. There are hundreds of VST companies, some not so great, some utterly brilliant. VST plugins have opened up a whole new world for musicians, composers, and producers like never before. They’re so effortless to use, fun and satisfying to create with, that you’ll never look back. Of course, in my opinion it’s always better to get a real musician who play the real instruments, but when that’s not possible, VSTi plugins are a practical and brilliant solution.

VST Effect Plugins

Audio Plugins

Next we have VST effect plugins and this is a list that can get pretty comprehensive. VST effects can include delays, reverbs, EQs, phasers, flangers, distortion, and saturation. If you’re a guitar or bass player, you’re probably already very familiar with most of these effects. New to effects? Then you’re in for a world of fun. Nowadays, a lot of DAWs come with a tonne of stock VST effect plugins for free.

VST effects also include plugins that can alter the dynamics of your audio such as a compressor or limiter, read more about that in my article ‘What is a Compressor?’. You can also find VST effects specifically for use with vocals, which can automate volume, transform a vocal into a sound different, and correct pitch; the most famous example being autotune, which has sort of become its own sound all together when over processed.

As I mentioned earlier, there are a lot of VST plugins that replicate vintage high-end analog gear and they do a superb job. In fact, you probably won’t even be able to tell the difference between the real thing and the emulation. Over the past couple of decades, the software has really surpassed expectations. It’s also become much more affordable over the years, which is a great news for you.

How do VST plugins work?

Creating VST plugins is incredibly complex, but luckily for you, using them is easy. To use a VST effect, you simply insert the plugin on your desired track within your DAW, for example, on a guitar track. Then you open it up, tweak the controls, experiment and enjoy. To use a VST instrument, create a MIDI or instrument track and insert it on a sampler like Kontakt. Use your MIDI keyboard or controller to play the VST instrument and again tweak it until you get the sound you like.

VST Plugins Are Essential for Making Great Music

What is a VST plugin? Now you know. VST plugins come in either effect forms such as reverbs, delays, and compressors, or in virtual instrument forms such as a piano, synthesiser, or an orchestra. There are thousands of VST plugins on the market, so you won’t strapped for choice. Want my advice? Play around with the stock plugins that come free with your DAW first. Get familiar with them, learn how to use them effectively with YouTube tutorials first and then look to expand your collection later by purchasing better ones. Be warned though, buying VST plugins can get incredibly addictive. It can begin to become an expensive hobby, but you’ll never be bored exploring new VSTs, that’s for sure.

What instrument would you like to be turned into a VST instrument? Let me know in the comments.