In the great, big world of audio and recording, there’s a million and a half acronyms and terms that can get jumbled and confused quite easily, but VST, or Virtual Studio Technology, is one worth learning.
Back in the days of analog recording on tape machines, before computers, sounds needed to be processed using different pieces of hardware, like compressors, equalizers, reverbs, and more. These generally took the form of weighty boxes with buttons or knobs on the front, not unlike a VCR tape player you might have watched the Lion King on when you were a kid.
A sound would be routed through a cable from a source at a microphone, to a preamplifier (or preamp), then to those pieces of hardware, and finally landing and the mixing console, where it would join the signal of all the other instruments and microphones and be played back via speakers.
If you wanted to switch the order of the hardware processing, for example to go from equalizer (EQ) -> compressor to compressor -> EQ, you had to unplug some cables from the patch bay, flip the order around, and plug them back in. To tweak the settings, you had to go over to the neat stack of boxes and turn some dials or twist some knobs. It was a complicated process!
As you can surely imagine, doing all of this by hand was tedious, and could distract from the music making process. No one wants to get caught up in trivial logistics when the creativity is flowing!
Enter the modern computer: fast and compact, it allows us to walk across the mixing room and turn dials with a simple click-and-drag. Virtual Studio Technology is a game changer, and has become a staple for music-makers everywhere, replacing heavy and inconvenient analog gear with downloadable software.
What is a VST?
To be specific, a VST is a piece of software that can either create or alter a sound signal virtually, without the need for a physical piece of equipment.
VSTs are used in just about every piece of music made with a computer (Macs have their own version of VSTs, called Audio Units or AUs, which are basically the same, but formatted for Apple operating systems).
You may have heard VSTs called plugins before, and they can be used interchangeably, but it’s important to note that while both a plugin and a virtual synthesizer can be VSTs, a synthesizer is not the same as a plugin.
Types of VSTs
There are a few different types of VSTs:
- Virtual instruments, synthesizers, and samplers
- MIDI processors
These types of VSTs generate a sound, whether that be a new sound created by a virtual oscillator coded in the software (a synthesizer), or a recreation of a sound obtained as an audio file (a sampler).
Different VST instruments have different sounds, and can have different features to alter sounds too, for example most synths have a filter of some sort already as part of the synth.
Some synths try to recreate classic analog synths, like the Roland Juno-60 (pictured below), or the Minimoog, while some are better fitted for modern electronic dance music, or EDM.
The result is a whole array of unique synth VSTs with sound possibilities all their own. Similarly, samplers might try to recreate old Roland drum machines, or just strive to be easy for the beginner to pick up and use right away.
Since the user puts their own sounds into a sampler, there’s not as much variation in sound, but more focus on the user interface or ways to tweak sounds afterwards with built-in effects.
For more information, check out our article on the best VST synths.
Effects, FX, or sometimes plugins, are used for changing, mangling, correcting, or subtly tweaking a sound. Popular ones include EQs, compressors, phasers, flangers, reverbs, delays, distortions, filters, and even the infamous Auto-Tune, a pitch-correcting VST plugin from Antares.
Unlike VST instruments, effects plugins don’t create their own sound, which means that if a compressor plugin is by itself in a forest and no one is around to hear it, you can rest assured it won’t make a sound anyway.
With EQ, you can selectively boost or cut the volume of specific frequencies of a sound. Compressors will listen for any moments where the volume of a sound passes the threshold that you set, and bring the volume down by a variable amount, decreasing the total dynamic range of the signal.
Distortion plugins are fun, as they emulate what happens when a signal overloads the circuits of analog gear, by making the sound brighter, fuzzier, grittier, and overall nasty.
Reverb plugins can recreate the feeling of being inside a specific space, whether or not that space actually exists somewhere on earth.
The main two effects most likely to be used for mixing music are EQ and compression. These are the bread and butter of the audio world, so it’s worth the time and effort to understand these as best as you can.
There’s tons of plugins out there, like VocAlign, which can sync your different vocal harmonies together in terms of both time and pitch, and iZotope Vinyl, which make a sound like it’s being played through a record player.
Even the plugins that seem similar and basic, like EQs, all do their job slightly differently, which means there’s almost infinite ways to alter your sound. Explore and have fun!
When you play a virtual instrument, you may notice that you’re able to change instruments without having to re-record the part. This is thanks to MIDI: a way of recording the timing, pitch, and sometimes velocity of a performance without committing it to audio.
For more information, check out our article on what MIDI is, how it works, and how to use it.
MIDI data is how your virtual instrument knows what pitches to play, when, and at what volume, but the instrument itself decides the sound that gets played.
If you want to change the MIDI performance, you’re in luck! There’s a bunch of VSTs that will take the MIDI data you record, chop it into pieces, stretch it out, flip it upside down, or do almost anything else to it. These VSTs don’t create a sound or alter it, but change the way that the sound is performed.
A very common use for MIDI processors is taking a sustained note or chord and chopping it into various rhythms, which can provide motion to an otherwise-dull instrumental part.
One limitation of MIDI processors is that they don’t typically work with audio files, meaning the vocals you sang into a microphone won’t be affected by them. A way around that is to chop your vocals up into samples, throw them in a sampler, and use MIDI to play the sampler. Sometimes, you just have to get creative!
The last type of VST plugin you might encounter is an analyzer. These are completely transparent, meaning they don’t impart any changes to your signal, but they show you, in one way or another, some characteristic of your sound.
Spectrum analyzers show the volumes of various frequencies making up your sound in real-time, and can help you compare the balance of your mix to another mix visually.
Loudness meters do exactly as the name suggests: they measure loudness. Some can analyze the average loudness of various segments in different algorithms that work with streaming services, YouTube, or TV and other media, which is useful when mastering your music before distribution.
How to get VSTs?
If you’re looking for VSTs, that means you likely already have and use a DAW. If not, you’ll want to get one as soon as possible! A DAW, or Digital Audio Workstation, is software that lets you interact with audio, whether you’re making music, editing a podcast, or simply recording your nephew’s first band concert, but trying to cut out all the other kids’ solos.
Without a DAW, VSTs are useless, and can’t be used unless they have a standalone mode (disclaimer: most do not).
Some popular DAWs include Reaper (open-source and free!), Ableton, ProTools, Studio One, and Cubase. They all do more or less the same things, but some have functionalities better suited to certain workflows or genres of music. A few of them even come with some VST plugins built-in!
More to the point, once you have a DAW, it’s not too hard to find VSTs. Waves, Native Instruments, Cymatics, Output, Voxengo, Xfer, Slate Digital, and Sweetwater (a great place for all music gear and tech) all sell VST instruments, plugins, MIDI processors, and analyzers, and they all sound and function differently.
If you’re torn between two different compressors and are unsure which one to get, check out YouTube for comparison videos, or see if the company is offering a free trail! Some will give you a week for free with unlimited use, and some will give you unlimited time to use the plugin but restrict the features until you pay for the full version. Either way, it’s not too difficult to test the waters and see what you need.
I recommend making the most out of the plugins and synths that come with your DAW (if any), and learning what you use the most. Maybe you hardly ever use a flanger, for example, but find yourself wishing your compressor had a little more spirit to it. Or maybe your DAW’s best synthesizer doesn’t have a “resample” feature and you can’t make your favorite dubstep growl without it.
Once you know what you’re looking for, you can get a better picture of which VSTs are right for you, since getting a whole armada can be quite expensive, and won’t necessarily make your music any better.
You can also check our pick of the best software synthesizers available on the market today.
Of course, if you want to stop your wallet from crying in agony, wait for a sale! You can sign up for an email list of the companies whose products you think you’d like, and whenever they go on sale, you’ll be sure to know.
How do VST plugins work?
Once you’ve acquired your assorted plugins, you’ll see them appear either as downloads on your computer that will need to be installed manually by double-clicking, or inside of the company’s product portal, which you can download from their website.
Installing VSTs through a product portal is generally pretty straightforward; you’ll see a list of all the ones you own, with an install button somewhere. Clicking that will take you through a couple of dialogue windows, and at the end it will install without any further hassle.
You will likely need to at least close your DAW application and re-open it in order for the VSTs to appear, and if that doesn’t work, a full restart of your computer may be in order. If the VSTs still aren’t showing up, check the company’s website for an FAQ article on installing plugins.
Keep in mind, this is how most VSTs work, but not all! It can be tough to keep track of where all the plugins live in your computer too, so writing down the locations/product portal names can be very helpful in case you want to uninstall or update via the portal.
Using your VST
You’ve done it! You got your VSTs all set up on your computer, and you’re ready to make music!
To find your shiny new toys, you’ll want to put them on the channel strip in your DAW. This can look pretty different depending on your DAW, so it might be worth glancing at the manual if you can’t find your VSTs right away.
For most DAWs, there will be a list of plugins, and you’ll first see the name of the company, with a list of all the VSTs from that company nested deeper in. Clicking one of those should add it to the channel strip, and probably bring up the interface for changing the settings of the VST.
From there, make creepy alien noises, chop some MIDI up to high heaven, or just watch the frequencies dance, unaffected, as you listen to your nephew play his trumpet without interruption. The world is your oyster now!