So, you’re starting to find your bearings as a budding music producer.
And if you’ve made it this far, chances are you know what a DAW is already (congratulations).
But we’re not going to lie – there’s a bit of a learning curve to producing music. And on that journey, you will need to learn about VSTs too.
So, whether you’re discovering VSTs for the first time, or you’re looking to go a little more in-depth, welcome. Let’s talk VSTs!
What Is A VST In Music? Definition
VST stands for Virtual Studio Technology.
A VST describes a piece of software – namely, an audio plugin. It usually takes the form of a virtual instrument (synthesizer) or effect. These audio plugins integrate with Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs), which are software applications designed with recording, editing, and mixing music in mind.
Some of the most popular virtual effects include EQ, compression, and reverb.
We’ll be looking at both virtual synths and effects in more detail throughout this guide.
There are both free and paid VSTs, depending on the functionality and quality of instruments and effects you’re looking for.
Why Are VSTs Important?
The process of recording, editing, mixing, and even mastering music has changed significantly with the evolution of technology.
From analog to digital recording was a significant leap all its own. But as digital recording continued to develop, it was only a matter of time before software recording would become viable. And become viable it did. Today, software recording is the most efficient and convenient recording process available (not the best, necessarily, but certainly the fastest).
And when I refer to “software recording,” I’m referring specifically to recording with computers.
Recording with computers used to be less viable because of hardware (and therefore software) limitations. As computers became more powerful, though, it was only a matter of time before the software market caught up.
And so, Digital Audio Workstations came along and fundamentally changed the paradigm around recording music for good. This doesn’t mean that DAWs made hardware (analog or digital) recording irrelevant. Rather, it proved to be perfectly complementary. Hardware and software could be used together to achieve the best results possible, and this is still true today.
But the evolution of tech seems to know no bounds. DAW software is beyond anything imagined even 10 to 20 years ago. No longer are prominent developers focused on the basics of multi-tracking, effects stacking, or MIDI sequencing. That’s child’s play by today’s standards – everyone offers that!
As DAWs continued to develop, so did virtual instruments and effects (VSTs). At first, VSTs were primitive, basic, maybe even a little crude. They worked, but they were often a pale imitation of the high-priced analog and digital gear they were supposed to be emulating.
Yet again, though, it was only a matter of time before VSTs started catching up. And today, there are both free and paid plugins that are used widely by amateurs and pros alike (Antares Auto-Tune, Valhalla Super Massive, Ozone, among many, many others).
The “best of both worlds” is generally a combination of software and hardware. It’s not unusual for professional studios to have Pro Tools or Logic Pro installed on their machines. But then they have other hardware gear like monitors, headphones, preamps, compressors, EQs, and of course things like audio interfaces, control surfaces, MIDI controllers, keyboards, guitars, and more.
That said, software based “inside the box” recording has gotten so good that whether you’re recording a singer-songwriter, band, or electronic music, you can do it all without much of a reliance on hardware. deadmau5, for example, does most of his work inside a DAW, besides the use of his modular synths (which can be a bit of a luxury for independent musicians, with each component costing $80 to $270 or more).
VST plugins are incredibly convenient, generally easy to use, and sound better today than they’ve ever sounded. Do they sound better than their hardware counterparts? In some cases, yes. In other cases, no. But it’s all a matter of what you have access to and what works for your creations.
What Are VST Instruments / Synthesizers?
Synthesizers existed before software recording. One of the most prominent examples is the Minimoog.
A synth is an electronic musical instrument that uses a variety of methods like subtractive synthesis, additive synthesis, as well as frequency modulation synthesis. The tone of a synth can be shaped using filters, envelopers, low-frequency oscillators, and the like. Synths generate audio signals on their own (while MIDI controllers do not). Synths can be played via keyboards or be controlled via sequencers.
A virtual synth or instrument describes the software equivalent. Usually, it boasts the same functionality as a hardware synth. You can play it using a MIDI controller, or you can sequence notes inside your DAW.
A virtual synth or virtual instrument basically describes the same thing, though synths are often thought of as separate instruments compared to anything else. They can produce a variety of sounds, usually categorized as leads, basses, pads, effects, and so on.
But nowadays it’s common practice to sample instruments and make them available as virtual instruments as well. That means you can find realistic sounding pianos, basses, organs, strings, drums, and a great deal more.
Most DAWs have a set of built-in virtual synths and instruments you can take advantage of. But you can also find plenty for free, and of course, paid products exist too.
VST instruments offer unprecedented flexibility, because even if you don’t have certain instrumentalists available to record their parts (e.g., string instruments or horns), you can reproduce them with surprising realism using modern VSTs. This means you can include all kinds of instruments on your music without the added time and cost of hiring musicians, booking studio time, setting up microphones, getting solid takes, and so on.
That isn’t to say instrumentalists aren’t valuable, mind you. It often depends on the style of music you’re creating, whether you can play the instruments yourself, and the budget available.
What Are VST Effects?
Effects have existed long before software recording. Some of them were achieved using rather unconventional methods (the first artificial reverb was created in a pop song by Bill Putnam Sr. using an echo room – chamber reverb).
Reverb, delay, compression, chorus, and other effects are used on tracks to create atmosphere, enhance parts, create better mixes, and more. Because of this, tracks are often recorded “dry,” in a quiet, noiseless environment. The wetness can be added in with effects later.
As with anything else, effects evolved from analog to digital hardware units, and from digital hardware consoles to software plugins.
Virtual effects were created to reproduce the sounds of hardware effects. At first, they were quite primitive and inferior, but today, virtual effects are high quality and incredibly usable.
The truth is that what’s built into your DAW is miles ahead of most of what was available to even the most prominent studio engineers in the 80s and 90s. Meaning – you can create something just as amazing, if not more so, even if you’re recording entirely from home on your own computer.
When it comes right down to it, there are basically only a few types of effects:
- Modulation. Chorus, flanger, phaser, and tremolo.
- Time-based. Reverb, echo, and delay.
- Spectral. EQ and panning.
- Dynamic. Compression and distortion.
- Filters. Amplify, pass, or attenuate frequency ranges.
More than likely, your DAW has your bases covered, but you can add free or paid virtual effects to your library if your DAW offers third-party VST support.
Which VST Plugins Should I Have?
This is going to differ quite a bit based on the individual.
If you’re looking to build out your library now, have a look at our guide on the best free VST plugins.
Either way, here are some of the essentials and what they can help you achieve.
EQ / Equalization
Equalization plugins allow you to enhance, cut, or attenuate certain frequencies.
Higher frequencies are often boosted on vocal tracks, so they cut through the mix.
Guitar tracks are often tweaked endlessly to produce the right presence in the mix.
EQ is used everywhere, even on the master.
This always comes with the caveat that you should start with a good source. If you’re not happy with the track you recorded or how it sounds, don’t expect EQ to fix all your problems. In most cases, the best solution is to work with your mics or equipment to get a better sound and re-record.
Most beginners will identify with the term “echo” rather than reverb (which is a shortened form of reverberation).
It doesn’t matter what type of music you’re producing, you’ve got to have a nice reverb, especially if you’re starting with a dry source. It will add a nice atmosphere to your tracks.
Delay is somewhat like reverb, but it’s basically more like a controllable echo. You can have a slap-back delay (where echoes happen in rapid succession), or a longer delays where the echoed parts are further apart (if it fits the song). Of course, everything in between is achievable.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that U2’s guitarist, The Edge, owes a great deal of his sound to delay.
Chorus, choir, choral. The easiest way to understand chorus is “multiple voices.” Whether it’s guitar, drums, or vocals, chorus can add depth to a track. If you use extreme settings, it can do some funky things too.
Phaser represents the absolute basics of modulation effects (there’s kind of an audible “rise and fall” – you can set the speed).
You probably won’t use it for everything. Guitars and synths are the most common applications.
Compressor / Compression
A compressor evens out a signal, and it can even “squash” it. Meaning – it will boost the quieter sections and ease the louder sections. Great for uneven vocal parts.
Compressors aren’t always used for this specific purpose, mind you, as they can also add color and character to a track, and compression effects are sometimes chosen on this basis.
A limiter can be used to bring up the level of the track (without causing clipping). Often used on masters.
I can’t imagine too many situations where pitch shifting would be “mandatory.” I think it has been used to excess in pop and EDM.
But for more subtle effects, changing the octave of a track, or even bringing an out of tune track in tune, it can be quite handy.
A filter is like an EQ, but it’s selective and depending on the filter, you can specify the range it will amplify, cut, or attenuate.
High-pass and low-pass filters are the most common, and they are kind of like the opposite of how they sound. A high-pass filter will cut off all lower frequencies, while a low-pass filter will cut all higher frequencies.
As an example, high-pass filters are commonly applied to guitars. Removing lower frequencies gives more breathing room in the mix for bass and drums.
Pitch Correction / Autotune
Modern day, glossy pop productions generally demand perfection. Drums, bass, and synth tracks are drawn to a grid. Hooks are created deliberately, repetition in full force. And vocals? Of course, they’re autotuned.
This doesn’t mean you need to use autotune like a robotic effect (T-Pain style). Subtle adjustments can be great, and sometimes entirely necessary.
But there is certainly a time and a place for raw, dry vocals too.
Synth / Synthesizer
Chances are there is a capable synth built into your DAW already. There might even be multiple synths.
Synths are good “catch-all” instruments for rounding out a track. Whether it’s bass, leads, pads, FX, or random noises, most synths can cover quite a bit of ground.
You might not use synths in every production or every musical genre, but it’s quite unlikely that, in a longer music production career, you won’t use a synth at all (especially with the current popularity of pop and EDM).
What Is A VST In Music? Final Thoughts
VSTs are a blast. I first heard about them on a podcast, unaware that there was an entire world of free and paid VSTs I could download, install, and use on my productions. Once I discovered that, I was off to the races trying out new things in my music.
Here’s wishing you a similarly exciting and fun journey!