Even if you are new to the world of digital audio workstations you’ll have probably already come across VST & VSTi’s. As a music producer, it’s important to understand and know the difference between the two.
When you first open your DAW you’ll have a range of stock instruments and audio effects to choose from, however, these can be limiting in terms of quality. A VST plugin allows you to integrate third-party audio effects and instruments into your DAW, which can be used to bring a more professional and creative flair to your music. In fact, almost all music producers use VST plugins.
As technology has progressed, VSTs have become better at emulating hardware devices and are arguably used more often. In our home studios, we solely use VST and VSTi plugins.
Compared to a hardware device, the cost of such plugins is significantly cheaper and their almost equal level of quality makes them an obvious choice.
In this article, we’ll discuss the difference between VST & VSTi plugins and explain why it’s important to know.
VST vs VSTi – What’s The Difference? (Quick Answer)
The difference between VST and VSTi plugins is: VST plugins are audio effects used to process an audio signal (like reverb, delay etc.) VSTi plugins are software instruments that use MIDI data to generate sound (like a synth or sampler).
VSTs were first on the scene in 1996 and were developed by the music technology company Steinberg, who also make the digital audio workstation, Cubase.
In essence, VST and VSTi are both different applications of virtual studio technology. One affects audio, the other takes MIDI data and creates audio.
VST allowed you to integrate software versions of hardware audio processors into your digital audio workstation, giving it new audio processing capabilities, providing different compression tools, EQ, reverb and more!
With the turn of 1999 came VST 2.0, which bought us the invention of VSTi plugins (or VST instrument plugins controlled using MIDI).
This upgraded the ability of the original VST effects plugins format, allowing plugins to receive MIDI data and generate audio, which introduced virtual instruments to the world.
What Is VST? (Virtual Studio Technology)
VST stands for Virtual Studio Technology. It’s an audio plugin software interface that allows you to integrate virtual audio effects and instruments from a third-party software application into your DAW.
Before the invention of VST, professional studios were equipped with hardware audio units, which were costly for independent producers. Through the use of digital signal processing, VST plugins can reproduce these hardware audio units in software form. Nowadays, both amateur and professional producers use VST plugins as an essential part of their setup.
In 2022, many music software companies produce countless VST effects plugins, such as reverbs and delays, that use virtual studio technology to ‘plug in’ their products into your DAW. The great thing about this is that it gives your DAW new capabilities, which can give your music a more professional quality.
What Is A VSTi?
VSTi (Virtual studio technology instrument) uses the same technology as VST plugins to integrate third-party plugins into your DAW, however rather than processing audio, VSTi plugins generate audio.
VSTi plugins input notes as MIDI data and can output that data as audio, giving us virtual instruments. Like VST plugins, many VSTi plugins are software emulations of hardware synths, drum machines, and samplers.
For example, the music software company Arturia has produced many software recreations of famous hardware synthesizers such as the Sequential Prophet-V and the Roland Jupiter 8.
The advancements in VSTi bought latency down to under 10 milliseconds for the first time, meaning you could connect your MIDI keyboard to your computer and use these virtual instruments in a playable way, without having to worry about connectivity issues. This renovated the process of music creation substantially and virtual instruments are now a staple of any studio.
What Is VST3?
VST3 is a major upgrade of VST software and has been around since 2008. The VST3 software improves upon its predecessors in several ways, including more efficient functionality, audio inputs for VST instruments, as well as allowing multiple MIDI input and outputs.
What’s The Difference Between VST, VST2 & VST3 Plugins?
VST, VST2, and VST3 are all versions of the virtual studio technology but with important differences and improvements between each.
Although VST3 has been around since 2008, there is still some confusion about the differences between each software. What’s more, with Steinberg officially no longer supporting VST2, and many developers releasing VST3-only versions of their plugins, lots of music producers wonder if they should still be using VST2 software at all? Here, we will clear that up for you.
As mentioned before, VST is the first instance of Virtual Studio technology. Although it was revolutionary and changed music production at the time, it does have some drawbacks.
Some of the limitations of VST were that they couldn’t process audio data in 64-bit format, only worked by processing audio and were unable to take an input, and were not very economical when it came to CPU usage.
VST2 – VSTi
VST2 added the ability to input MIDI data and then output the data as audio. Again this took the world of digital music creation to the next level through the introduction of virtual instruments.
One limitation of VST2 however, was the fact that you could only have one mid input/output at the same time. Another was that due to the nature of MIDI controller information, articulation data meant for one note would also affect any simultaneous notes on the same track. This meant that if you wanted to apply a controller message, such as pitch bend, to just one note within a chord, this would not be possible and the modulation would be applied to all notes in the chord.
VST3 improved upon VST and VST2 in numerous ways.
As well as being able to process audio data in 64-bit, VST3 also made CPU usage more efficient by only applying processing to plugins when their inputs are receiving an audio signal, rather than constantly processing plugins and affecting CPU performance.
It also allowed for adaptive inputs/outputs rather than a fixed amount. Whereas before you had to run multiple instances of a plugin for stereo and surround processing, VST3 can adapt to the channel figuration it’s inserted on.
For example, if you insert a plugin onto a stereo channel it will automatically adapt to stereo mode, or switch to 6 channels when inserted onto a 5.1 channel.
VST3 also included the capability for audio inputs on instrument tracks. Let’s say you have a synth plugin with a vocoder effect and you want to modulate a separate audio track with that effect. By adding audio inputs to VST instruments, VST3 allows you to route an audio signal to the input of a VST3 instrument and use it for modulation, allowing you to modulate your audio track with the synths vocoder effect.
To tackle the limitations of MIDI controller events, VST3 has a dedicated event handling bus allowing you to go beyond the functionalities of traditional simple MIDI messages. This lets you apply modulation information for individual note events, even in polyphonic arrangements, so applying controller messages like pitch bend to one note in a chord is now possible thanks to VST3.
Is It Better To Use VST, VST2, or VST3 Plugins?
From reading about the improvements made by VST3 in the above section, it should become apparent that VST3 plugins are your best choice.
The improved technology in VST3 allows for quicker and more versatile workflows, greater compatibility of projects, and an overall improvement in performance.
This doesn’t mean that you should completely stop using VST2 plugins. Although there is talk that VST2 is becoming obsolete, many developers still produce VST2 versions of new plugins that will still do the job.
If there is a choice between VST2 and Vst3 then go for Vst3. However, be wary that some developers are still getting used to using the VST3 software, meaning sometimes VST3 plugins can be prone to problems. It’s best to have the VST2 version of the plugin as a backup just in case your run into any glitches.
Where Can I Get VST Plugins?
At this point in the article, you might be wondering where you can get the best VST plugins, so we’ll leave some pointers below for you.
For mixing and mastering purposes, Waves Audio is a great and affordable choice. If you want something a bit more top of the range, then FabFilter is the way to go. Izotope and SoundToys are two other fantastic options for Audio effects.
If you’re looking for virtual instruments, take a look at Spectrasonics, especially their synth Omnisphere and their Keyscape Pianos. Native Instruments is also great for virtual instruments, and investing in the Komplete bundle will save you a lot of money and will cover all bases.
Splice is another one to look into, as they have some brilliant royalty-free sounds as well as their rent-to-own plugins, such as the ever-popular Serum.
Do I Need To Get VST Plugins As A Beginner?
Third-Party plugins do make your music sound more professional and they are needed if you are 100% serious about music production. But if you are a beginner, they aren’t must-haves.
Buying lots of cool plugins at the start can be overwhelming and even off-putting. If you don’t understand the fundamentals of music, production, and your chosen DAW then it is likely that these plugins won’t work in the way you expect.
Before parting with your money, get to know the ins and outs of your chosen DAW and their stock plugins as best as you can. You should also get your understanding of the fundamentals of music itself down as well as some basic knowledge of music and mastering techniques. Finally, figure out what kind of music you want to make as this will influence which plugins are best for you. Once you have done all these things, the next step would be to invest in some quality plugins to take your music to the next level.
Adam is a TV & Film composer who is an avid music theorist. He plays the Guitar and Piano to an expert level, with over 10 years of experience and classical lessons under his belt. He heads most of the Orchestral Library Review Content and Music Theory Tutorial content on our site. Give Adam any task related to chords, scales, progressions, and composition, and he’ll return an absolutely stellar result. Adam is also a Songwriting graduate from BIMM Institute.