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What’s the difference between VST and VST 3?

VST, or Virtual Studio Technology, is a file format that came out in 1996 as a way to digitally emulate various pieces of hardware, like compressors, EQs, and synthesizers. It quickly became the standard for various software developers, and there have been a number of improvements to the code, resulting in VST 1.0, 2.0, 2.4, and now VST 3.

In short, VST 3 is just an improvement to the existing VST code, adding a lot of additional functionality which we’ll learn about in this article.

VST 3 and VST 2 difference

VST 3 saves CPU

One of the biggest features of the new code is that when there’s no signal coming through a VST 3 plugin, it can essentially turn itself off, which saves your CPU power to process the things that are receiving signal.

For example, if you have a huge reverb on a cymbal sample that happens at the very end of your track, the reverb plugin won’t suck up all the power until it’s needed. Similarly, a synth pad that’s used as a lead-in for the intro will play, and once it’s done, the VST 3 can switch off, saving CPU for the rest of the track.

It functions the same as automating plugins and instruments to turn on and off, but with no work required on your end. So layer those synths and throw on the 7th EQ!

Multi-channel/surround capabilities

VST 3 can now support multi-channel and surround 5.1 outputs, and can change automatically, depending on the track they’re placed on.

You can now drag a plugin from a stereo track, which has two outputs, directly to a surround 5.1 track, which has six outputs, without worrying about having to tweak settings.

Additionally, it works the same for multi-bus routing, such as with samplers.

Resizing windows

Everyone uses different monitors to work, whether it be a laptop screen, a huge, widescreen monitor, or even a TV! We all know how obnoxious it is when a plugin’s window is too small to decipher the text, so we should all be grateful that VST 3 makes it easy as pie for developers to include window resizing in their VSTs.

It’s important to note that not every plugin and instrument will have this feature automatically just because they are in VST 3 format. Developers need to make the decision to include it in their software. However, it is much easier for them to do so, and the way to accomplish it has been standardized.

Still, some developers might just port their existing VSTs over to VST 3 format without adding that function, so don’t count your chickens before they hatch.

Automation categorization

Apart from just being fun to say, VST 3s include a truly genius feature, which is that they can organize the automation parameters of a plugin or virtual instrument automatically.

This means that the filter-related parameters like cutoff, resonance, drive, etc. can be grouped together, saving you the hassle of hunting down the right parameter in a sea of chaotic options.

You won’t have control over the way things are labelled behind the scenes though; it’s still up to the creators to organize it in a way that makes sense.

Broadening the scope, plugins even have the ability to organize themselves by function too! You can keep all your distortions in one place, and hunt through all your reverbs instead of searching by brand for everything.

MIDI inputs/outputs

Prior to VST 3s, a virtual instrument could only support one source of MIDI data. Now, several different MIDI sources can be routed through one instrument or plugin.

We’re not entirely sure how we would personally benefit from this, but we imagine we’ll see developers take advantage of this with new technology implemented with this idea in mind. In the meantime, get creative!

Standardized language support

The text in VST 3s that’s shown on the GUI has been updated to be in Unicode format, which means that it’s simpler than ever for plugins and synths to have their controls in various different languages, depending on developer support and implementation.

Unicode means that just about any language in the world is covered and easily encoded into the software.

Special MIDI functionality

Imagine that you are playing a chord on a MIDI controller. Three notes, all sustained, let’s say it’s a minor triad. If you want to subtly shift that triad to major, you may want a pitch bend, but using the bend wheel will take the entire triad and move it up, instead of just the third scale degree. What ways can you think of to circumvent this?

Currently, there’s not a great way to do it. The most intuitive solution for us is to duplicate the instrument on a new track, have the duplicate play only the third scale degree, and bend that pitch up, while the original track plays only the root and the fifth. Now, you have two of the same synths taking up CPU, and to edit the sound of one, you have to remember to open both. It’s clunky, and a huge hassle.

VST 3 allows for discrete MIDI event handling, so this scenario has a much simpler solution. Each MIDI event is assigned its own unique ID, and can be processed and manipulated separately from the other MIDI events, letting you bend that middle note without affecting the others.

There’s even more practical use for this new feature too; as the Steinberg website (the originators of VST) says, “With VST 3, Note Expression is able to break free from the limitations of MIDI controller events by providing access to VST 3 controller events that circumvent the laws of MIDI”.

As opposed to regular VST which processes much of the MIDI data per channel, VST 3 can process data, including articulations, by event or by note, even when several notes are playing at the same time.

Audio signal processing

Have you ever wished that setting up a vocoder could be fast and easy like making toast, instead of confusing and slow like sudoku (no hate to our sudoku-loving friends out there, just not our thing)?

A new feature of VST 3s is the ability for them to process audio signals, which means you can send a bus straight to your software instrument track and use it as a vocoder, without all the side-chain routing nonsense.

Sample-accurate automation

You can now be sure that your automation lines will be as close to perfect as possible, as VST 3 can get specific down to the individual sample, which is the smallest unit in which audio is recorded.

You may be familiar with the sample rates, like 44.1 KHz, which is 44,100 samples per second. Yeah, it’s that specific. If you record your automation via a performance (rather than drawing it by hand), it’ll capture every morsel of that natural feel you provide.

Other considerations

As we mentioned earlier in this article, none of these features are hard-and-fast rules for every VST that happens to be in VST 3 format. Some developers may opt to essentially copy and paste their old plugins into the new format, without making the changes needed to allow them to have resizable windows, or accept audio signals. Developers might also utilize a handful of features, and not others.

More modern releases will likely have at least a couple of these new bells and whistles, but there’s no guarantee. VST 3 leaves the door open wider than it was before, but software developers are the ones who decide to take advantage of it, or not.

It’s still fine to use VST 2.4 plugins and instruments! More than likely, they’ll be perfectly functional for a long, long time to come, so there’s no need to immediately switch and update your arsenal of downloads to be VST 3s.

If you’ve heard the rumor that VST 3s are more buggy than their counterparts, we have some good news! Back in 2008 when this file format was introduced, things weren’t perfect, and many of the plugins and instruments that moved to VST 3 did have bugs.

Given thirteen years, developers have fixed the vast majority of bugs, and now running into any issue outside of the normal scope of what can be expected is highly unusual.

Just about all of the main DAWs support VST 3 format, with the exception of Pro Tools by Avid. Pro Tools exclusively uses AAX software, not unlike Logic by Apple, which uses Audio Unit, or AU format. VST 3 can still be used on Mac though, in programs like Ableton, FL Studio, and Cubase.

VST 3 supports 64-bit processing! Many software applications have made the switch from 32-bit to 64-bit lately, and this format has joined the parade.

In summary

Like the latest smartphones, there’s a new technology that’s quicker, easier, and all-around more capable than it’s predecessor. Also like the latest smartphones, just because it exists doesn’t mean that what you have in your pocket is suddenly obsolete.

VST 3 is a great new platform to continue to expand the ways in which we make music (especially if we let developers catch up a bit more), but there’s nothing wrong with sticking to what you know.

We hope you’re all able to benefit from the advent of VST 3 tech, should you so choose!