What Are VST Plugins and What Do They Do?

Discover Virtual Studio Technology and how to use it

Virtual Studio Technology (VST) plugins are used by both amateur and professional recording engineers and artists to enhance their audio projects. A plugin is a type of software that works inside another piece of software. Instead of working on its own, you plug it into something else.

In the case of VST plugins, they are designed to work within the sort of digital audio workstation (DAW) applications that you can use to make music in both home and professional studio settings.

While VST plugins are all designed for use with DAW applications, different types of VST plugins have different purposes. VST instrument plugins allow you to insert a massive variety of virtual instruments into an audio recording without having access to physical versions of those instruments, and VST effects plugins allow you to alter sounds in new and exciting ways.

Used together, different types of VST plugins can help you create a significantly more compelling final product.

A man using VST plug-in with FL Studio.
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What Are VST Plugins For?

The original method of recording and mixing required physical instruments and physical hardware to accomplish effects like compression and reverb. The equipment required for this type of work is prohibitively expensive and takes up a lot of space.

Virtual Studio Technology was developed to replace, or compliment, physical equipment. Instead of investing a bunch of money in instruments, synthesizers, effects hardware, and other expensive gear, you can use VST plugins that are capable of performing the same basic functions.

In fact, you can create an entire song from scratch, using VST plugins and the DAW of your choice, without ever touching a physical instrument at all.

A woman sitting on a bulky studio rack.

Types of VST Plugins

VST plugins are typically divided into three main categories:

  • VST instruments: These plugins are capable of generating audio that sounds like it was created by a synthesizer or a more traditional instrument like a piano or guitar. A lot of VSTi plugins are designed to sound, and look, like popular hardware synthesizers, many of which are prohibitively expensive or no longer available.
  • VST effects: These plugins take audio and modify it in a variety of different ways. They can't create new audio on their own, but the can add reverb and other effects. This category also includes plugins that provide different types of visual feedback.
  • VST MIDI effects: These plugins are designed specifically to work with Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) data, either on their own or in concert with other VST plugins. If you're a musician who is interested in connecting an instrument like a keyboard to your DAW via a MIDI connection, these are quite useful.

VST Instrument Plugins

VST instrument plugins, also known as VSTi plugins, are used to emulate various instruments within digital audio workstations. You can emulate just about any instrument with a VSTi for a whole lot less than the cost of buying the actual instrument.

A screenshot of the Synth1 VSTi plugin.

The benefit of VSTi plugins is that they allow you to essentially make music from scratch that sounds like it was played on an instrument, like a piano or saxophone, or created with a synthesizer.

One of the most attractive things about VSTi plugins is that they're capable of emulating synths like the Moog Voyager, Yamaha CS-80, Hammond B3, and many others. These synths are famous for their iconic sounds, and they're so expensive that buying one isn't something that most people will ever be able to do.

You can find a lot of great VSTi plugins for free, and even premium VSTi plugins tend to be a lot more affordable than the physical hardware they're designed to emulate.

The other benefit of using VSTi plugins over physical instruments and synths is space. If you don't have a large studio space to record your music, a computer equipped with the right VSTi plugins can effectively collapse your operation down small enough to fit in your home office.

VST Effects Plugins

Where VSTi plugins create audio from scratch, VST effects plugins take that audio and alter it in a huge variety of ways. These plugins are often modeled after real, physical effects hardware in the same way that a a lot of VSTi plugins are designed to sound like real instruments and synthesizers.

A screenshot of the Krush, PanCake, and TDR Nova VST effects plugins.

Most DAWs come with some built-in capabilities to add effects and fine tune your mix, but VST effects plugins take it to the next level. They perform the same functions that are handled by the kind of expensive, bulky hardware audio processors that you would normally find in a studio rack.

Any kind of effect that you can apply to an audio track can be accomplished with a VST effects plugin. Whether you want to add a simple reverb or pan, or mimic the sounds of the 80s in a synthwave track, you can do it with effects plugins.

VST Midi Plugins

VST MIDI plugins are like effects plugins in that they don't create audio, but they're designed to work with midi data. These plugins can process MIDI data on their own, or modify it and then pass it to other plugins.

A screenshot of the Hypercyclic MIDI effects VST.

VST MIDI plugins can perform relatively basic tasks like transposing or arpeggiation, but that's just the tip of the iceberg.

MIDI is a powerful tool, but chart-based MIDI compositions can sound artificial to the practiced ear. With the aid of the right VST plugin, you can actually make MIDI inputs sound more natural, and alter them in all sorts of other ways.

How to Use VST Plugins

Virtual Studio Technology is designed in such a way that some VSTs are capable of operating on their own, but VST plugins are specifically meant for use within digital audio workstations. If you want to use a VST plugin, you first need to download and install a DAW like Ableton Live, FL Studio, or Sonar.

A screenshot of using the SQ8L VST in the FL Studio DAW.

It's pretty easy to get started with VST plugins. Typically, the process goes something like:

  1. Locate a VST plugin you want, and download it.

  2. If the plugin is contained in a ZIP file, unzip it.

  3. Place the unzipped VST plugin files in a folder where you will be able to keep track of them.

    If the VST comes with an executable file, run it. This will initiate an installation process that will typically allow you to choose the installation folder for the VST.

  4. Launch your DAW, and have it search for new VSTs.

  5. Create a new project in your DAW, and select your new VSTi as an instrument, or place your new effects VST on a track using the mixer.

Where to Find VST Plugins

If you're ready to start adding some VST plugins to your digital audio workstation, check out our list of the top 15 free VST plugins. This list is far from exhaustive, but we've got a bunch of VSTi and effects plugins to help you get started.

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