What is Virtual Studio Technology (VST)?

Nowadays it is easier and more affordable than ever to get a full orchestra, tons of modular synths, drums and various ethnic and rare instruments for your music compositions. And the best thing is: you can fit your whole collection in your tiny student home and always have every single instrument right at your fingertips! This is all possible thanks to the development of VST.

So what is VST? VST is short for Virtual Studio Technology and is an audio plugin software that you install to use with your Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). VST is split into two categories: the VST Host and VST Plugins.

The VST Host allows the VST Plugins to work properly and makes it possible to create realistic emulations of real instruments. The VST Plugins are divided into three different types, which we will have a closer look at in this post.

But the VST is just a part of the solution. It gives you great tools to make a beautiful music piece, but it all depends on your knowledge of how they work. This post will hopefully help you out.

Common Example: how you use VSTs

Let’s say you use Cubase and you buy a VST like the Grandeur Piano from Native Instruments. 

In addition, you get the Kontakt Player, a graphical user interface that allows you to choose which piano sample to load as well as having various faders and other controllers. So, you have multiple options on how much reverb, compression, pedaling, etc. you will add to the sample. 

Oh! And Cubase already features multiple different effects like delay, echo or equalizer, which you also could add to your instrument. 

  • Cubase is the VST Host
  • The Grandeur piano sample, Kontakt Player and the featured effects in Cubase are VST Plugins
An illustration of VST Plugins and VST Host.

Origin

The music software and hardware company Steinberg is a very innovative company. Founded by Manfred Rürup and Karl “Charlie” Steinberg, they are especially known for their creation of Cubase, which would turn out to change and define music creation for the following generation. 

They released the very first VST plugins back in 1996 and have made a huge impact on the way you and I can create music today.

And how cool is that? When I first discovered film music and wanted to become a film composer, I had no idea how people made all these orchestral tracks online. I thought they had rented a whole orchestra to play or something. So when I discovered VST, a whole new world opened up to me!

Steinberg was also the first company to incorporate the VST into a DAW. This DAW was, of course, Cubase, making it the very first software VST Host. 

(for a greater detailed overview of the history of Steinberg, I recommend reading this article by Ask.Audio)


VST Host

The VST Host is typically a software like your DAW. In case you are brand new to music production –  A DAW is th software you record your music in. It can be Logic Pro, Cubase, FL Studios, Reaper or GarageBand.

If you have wondered how good GarageBand is for using with VSTs, I reveal some useful tips on the topic in this post. A VST Host can also be portable hardware that you don’t need a computer to run. 

An important function of the VST Host is to present interface plugins such as Kontakt Player and to send the MIDI information and digital audio to and from the VST Plugins.

Think of the VST Host as the boss who provides the perfect conditions for the employees (the VST plugins) to do their job properly.

Cubase is one of many DAWs out there who functions as a VST Host.

VST Plugins 

The VST Plugins run under the VST Host. If you have ever loaded an instrument sample in Garageband, you have probably messed around with the different sounds and effects, like reverb, arpeggiator, and compressor.

Or maybe you have tried to slide some of the faders or knobs within Kontakt Player to increase the legato or vibrato of a cello sample?

All these functions, including the instrument itself, are what we call VST Plugins.

VST Plugins are divided into three different types:

  • VST Instruments (VSTi)
  • VST Effects (VSTfx)
  • VST MIDI Effects (VSTfx)

1. VST Instruments

The VST Instruments generate audio

VST instruments are sampled or synthesized instruments most often created with the purpose of emulating the sound and identity of the actual, real instrument it has been sampled from. Each note of the instrument is mapped to your keyboard keys, so you can produce big orchestral tracks with only a keyboard connected to your computer!

But this is often where you need to pay up. There are thousands of options out there for you, but more often than not, the very best, quality sampled instruments will be more pricey.

The great quality of certain samples may fool even the most trained professional. Especially when you combine an already great sample with the VST effects that follow.

On the left side you can see my instrument libraries. When you load an instrument, a control panel is visible (on the right side).

2. VST Effects

The VST Effects process audio, rather than generate it. 

VST Effects are a valuable addition to your music production. Typical examples of what the VST Effect can be are reverb, phasers, compressors, delay, etc. The VST Effects does not always need to process audio. It can also display visible meters, such as the input signals. Most VST Hosts out there allow for multiple VST Effects to be chained. That means that you can use reverb, phaser, delay and other effects on the same track.

Typically, both your DAW and user interfaces like Kontakt Player feature multiple VST effects for you to explore.

However, different sample libraries come with different options and the number of choices to make with effects. So be sure of what you are getting by reading the information on the product before you buy it.

The VST Effects are extremely important to use when you want to give the listener the illusion of this instrument being recorded in a specific place. You can make the listener believe that it has been recorded in a church, asmall concert hall or in a small studio.

The VST effects may also help you add something new and different to an instrument, making it your very own sound signature.

If you want to know the best free VST Effects that will massively improve your music production, you should check out this post.

Most DAWs come with built-in reverb, phaser and other effects.

3. VST MIDI Effects

The VST MIDI Effects process MIDI messages. It sends MIDI data to a VST instrument. 

Have you ever used faders, knobs or wheels to make the sound of the instrument sample a little bit different? If that is the case, you have triggered the VST MIDI Effects. For example, if you adjust the faders connected to a cello sample in Kontakt, you may choose to adjust its attack, legato or vibrato. You can also use the MIDI Effects while recording.

This means that when you move the faders or knobs, it will sound like someone is playing the sampled cello softer, harder and more emotional as well as adding to the unexpected turns or  ́flaws ́ a real player might make. 

As you probably have figured out, this is an extremely important addition to the realism of the instrument sample. Because here you can take it to the next level, further making us believe that the instrument is actually performed by a real instrumentalist. 

Adjusting the different controllers will give you a more authentic performance.

Summary

VST is short for Virtual Studio Technology and was introduced by Steinberg in 1996. It has radically changed the way we produce music today and you can now, thanks to the VST, have thousands of instruments in your pocket.

The VST is divided into two categories:

  1. The VST Host is the boss that provides optimal working conditions for the VST Plugins. The host can either be a software and hardware, but most commonly it is your Digital Audio Workstation, such as Logic Pro or Cubase. 
  2. The VST Plugins runs under the VST Host and is further divided into three types:
  • The VST Instruments are sampled instruments often aimed to recreate a truthful emulation of the real instrument it is sampled from. 
  • The VST Effects adds the possibility of putting multiple effects on your instrument, like reverb, phaser, delay, echo, etc. It can also be visual, showing input signals and other metering features. 
  • The VST MIDI Effects are connected to the faders, knobs, and wheels in the graphic user interface such as Kontakt. You can map your midi controller to do the commands you like thanks to the VST Midi effects. In addition, it is perfect to make your VST instrument feel like it is actually being played by a real person. It makes the instrument breathe and feel organic. 

I hope this post was helpful to you. After reading this you should now know what types of VSTs that are out there and what they do. This is important to know so you can better your producing skills. For example, be aware of how one VST plugin affects the other. If you add small changes to the vibrato on the cello while you record, it will sound a lot more realistic. 

By having knowledge of how they work, it is also much easier to troubleshoot potential technical problems that might occur on your road.

Recommended Further Reading:

Thomas Leypoldt

Hey there! My name is Thomas and I have been a film composer for over 10 years, delivering music to feature films, documentaries, video games, and commercials. I share everything I have learned on this website, to hopefully be of help to your own development as a musician.

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