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MRT University: What is a VST plug-in?


Music and Recording Toolbox Special: What is a VST Plug-in?

Level: All skill levels


My goal is to make this blog a place that people with any level of experience can get excited about. The last thing I would want to hear from someone is "Well this is all fine and nice, but what the heck is a VST anyway?" It is for that reason that I have written this post today!

VST is an abbreviation for Virtual Studio Technology. It was invented by the German pro audio company Steinberg, most famous for their Cubase line of recording software. A plug-in is software that plugs in to another piece of software, thus extending the other's functionality. Steinberg's idea was that they didn't need to spend all their resources attempting (and most likely failing) to make Cubase all things to all people. They could instead sell a core product that could then be shaped into anything the customer needed through the use of plug-ins. If you own a vocal production room, you may only want a few specific kinds of processing available. But if you record and mix rock bands, you will probably need a wide palette of tools available to you at the push of a button. It surely wouldn't make sense for any company to design countless versions of their software hoping to cater to every possible client. So they addressed the monumental problem of meeting every client's needs by simply creating a standard that any software developer could freely write plug-ins for, and any customer could easily find those plug-ins by looking for the VST logo.

I don't think Steinberg knew what "VST" would come to mean in the world of computer-based recording when they imagined it. It has grown from an attempt to create a standard that people would gravitate to, to the most popular studio plug-in format in the world, and that by far. Probably the single most important contribution to VST's current dominance came from a man by the name of Jeff McClintock. In 1999, Jeff released a software package titled "SynthEdit", and it went on to change the entire landscape of computer recording dramatically. You see, the most help that Steinberg offered developers for writing VST's was their SDK, which is a Software Development Kit. It is useful because it provides an environment in which to write the plug-in. It provides organization, code shortcuts, and more.

But SynthEdit was much more than this: it was an entire graphical development environment like Dreamweaver or Photoshop. Before, developers would try to create a digital copy of an oscillator for a synth, for example, by typing lines of code that were approximations of an analog oscillator. Then they would have to write the code that would connect that oscillator to a filter, which was also coded line by line. And after you went through the entire process of creating a synth, you then had to use a separate layout program to create the GUI (Graphical User Interface) that the user would see to make those oscillators and filters work! This was a prohibitively overwhelming process for anyone with the exception of those with extraordinary patience and programming skills. Unfortunately, that ruled out nearly every creative person with a good idea for a VST!

The appeal of SynthEdit was that it turned that nightmarish process into a point, click, and drag operation. To work with an oscillator, you simply had to select one of the pre-coded oscillator modules (which are graphically represented) and connect it to a similar filter module. This took no programming knowledge; only a click, drag, and VOILA - instant signal path! Not only that, but SynthEdit had an entire graphic layout workspace that conformed to the VST standard built right in. Now anyone with $50 and a little curiosity could create their own synth, EQ, reverb, or any other VST they could imagine from start to finish - all with one simple and intuitive tool. And just as importantly, it could all be done with a fraction of the skill and time it would take to work with Steinberg's SDK.

It didn't take long before VST's were being created and offered for free by the hundreds via the web. This phenomenon not only popularized Steinberg's VST plug-in standard, but their recording software as well. Now anyone could buy Steinberg's Cubase and also get any number of add-on plug-ins to customize their virtual studio for free!  Later, other DAW developers began supporting the VST standard as well as the then-ubiquitous DX standard from Microsoft.  Currently, most PC DAW dev's support VST only.

You might be thinking "If it's so easy for someone to make a VST, aren't there just a bunch of amateurs releasing nothing but crapware out there?" This is a valid question, and that conclusion is partly true. Creating a high-quality plug-in, especially an emulation of a high-quality hardware synth or audio processor, is usually no simple feat, though this depends on the complexity of the gear attempting to be emulated. Just because it is easy to connect an oscillator to a filter in SynthEdit does not mean it will automatically sound musical! (Can you imagine connecting random traces together on a circuit board and expecting pleasing results?) There is a reason certain pieces of hardware sound as good as they do, and much of that is the result of a well-conceived signal path and architecture, which is in turn the result of enormous hours of research and development!

The best sounding components on an analog hardware audio processor, or 'outboard gear', as studio lingo goes, may be extremely complex and full of many smaller components, but the modules included for free in SynthEdit are not as likely to include something that exotic. Thus emulating exotic gear could require a high degree of skill because one may have to code the component themselves. There would also be the possibility that another programmer had created that particular module and had it for sale. As I said earlier, much of this scenario depends on the original design that is attempting to be emulated. There are some pieces of outboard gear that function well that also have an unusally simple but clever design, even manufactured with common, inexpensive parts. Things like these are common in the world of free VST's. In fact, one can find the same classic piece of gear independently developed by several different people, and the only tangible difference is in the way they laid out the GUI! I guess if I had to pick something to complain about, I'd gladly have it be that I had too many choices of free stuff and I needed to choose the best one for me. :-)

It should be also noted that more and more VST developers that cut their teeth with SynthEdit are becoming serious programmers and learning how to code their own oscillators or other "modules". This makes their VST's sound more unique because they no longer solely rely on the pre-assembled code within SynthEdit. There are also developers who code the entire audio portion of their VST with the Steinberg SDK or even the C++ programming language, then use SynthEdit only for it's easy graphical layout capabilities. I am grateful that SynthEdit hasn't solely become a tool to create a world of prefabricated add-ons, but has instead offered interested developers an unintimidating and welcoming environment to begin and grow their talent. This hand-held first step has grown beginners into talented developers releasing some of the most unique and high-quality software we have available today!

So in review:

VST stands for Virtual Studio Technology.
VST is a plug-in format (the most popular one!)
VST plug-ins extend another software's functionality.
VST's are where they are today largely because of SynthEdit.
VST's are what we discover and present to you through VST Discovery!


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