In this guide, we will go over something that is essential to every music producer: VST plugins. By the end of this article, you will know what VST plugins are, their different types, what they do, their various controls, features, and parameters, and what you can use them for. Read on to find out more about VST plugins.
What exactly is a VST plugin?
A VST plugin is a piece of digital software that allows you to use audio effects and virtual instruments in a DAW (digital audio workstation). VST stands for Virtual Studio Technology.
What does a VST plugin do?
A VST plugin processes audio or MIDI as it plays in a DAW, and either applies certain audio effects to it or makes MIDI notes sound like they are being played through a musical instrument.
What are VST plugins used for?
VST plugins are used for creating new sounds and making a mix sound better during the recording and mixing processes.
Types of VST plugins
There are two main types of VST plugins: audio effects plugins and virtual instrument plugins. Let’s go over the different types of VST plugins, the subcategories of those plugins, and what they all do and how to use them.
Audio effects plugins
There are quite a few different types of audio effects plugins. The ones we will go over in this guide are as follows:
What is an EQ?
An EQ (equalizer) plugin is a plugin that allows you to boost, remove, increase, decrease or leave frequencies in an audio file unchanged. The changes in frequency cause changes in your mix, and you can use that to create a space for every element of your track in the mix so everything can be heard properly without competition.
What can an EQ plugin be used for?
An EQ plugin can be used to create experimental sounds, keep your mix from getting muddy and crowded, and help elements of a track to better fit into the mix or stick out more.
Controls and features of an EQ
An EQ usually has a few different controls on it, but depending on the type, that may differ to varying degrees. A typical EQ has the following controls:
- Frequency: this setting adjusts the center frequency range for a specific frequency band.
- Q: the control that widens or narrows the frequency band curve.
- Gain: increases or decreases the volume of each frequency band.
Types of EQ plugins
There are several types of EQs, but in this guide I am only going to talk about the most popular ones used in music production. They are:
- Parametric EQ
- Dynamic EQ
- Graphic EQ
The parametric EQ is the most commonly used EQ in music production. The parametric EQ is a multi-band EQ, which means that there are controls specific to different ranges of frequencies in the plugin. As for features and settings, a parametric EQ has several frequency bands, which adjust the center frequency range for the specific band, or the start or cutoff for high pass or low pass bands.
A parametric EQ also has a Q, which is a setting that widens or makes the frequency curve more narrow. Higher Q values make the frequency curve more narrow and lower values make the curve wider. Due to its controls, you can very easily cut out or boost certain frequencies with a high level of precision. Another setting on a parametric EQ is the gain. Gain will increase or decrease the volume of the frequency bands.
Finally, there is filter slope and filter type. The filter slope sets how steep the slope of the low or high pass filter will be, and the filter type controls the shape of the filter. Typical filter types include low pass/high cut, high pass/low cut, notch, and bell.
A dynamic EQ is the same as a parametric EQ, but with the added feature of compression, expansion, or both. This makes dynamic EQs much more flexible. Dynamic EQs treat audio based on the internal audio source if it passes a certain threshold, whereas parametric EQ settings stay the same no matter what, unless you automate it. Dynamic EQs will have a compression rate and a threshold setting along with all the settings of a parametric EQ. Stay tuned to learn more about compression.
A graphic EQ is an EQ that boosts or reduces fixed frequencies. The more bands a graphic EQ has, the more accurate it will be, as more bands means there is a narrower amount of space between each frequency band. Graphic EQs are not good for mixing if you need to do precision type EQing, but they are good for making changes to the overall mix of a song or track.
Breaking down filter types
As mentioned above, there are several different types of EQ filters:
- Low pass or high cut filter
- High pass or low cut filter
- Band pass filter
- Bell curve filter
- Notch filter
- High shelf filter
- Low shelf filter
A low pass or high cut filter completely removes all frequencies in the spectrum above the cutoff point you set it at. As the name suggests, it cuts out the high frequencies and lets the low frequencies pass through.
A high pass or low cut filter does the opposite; it allows all high frequencies in the spectrum below a certain frequency cutoff point to pass through and cuts out the low frequencies.
A band pass filter cuts out frequencies on either side of the cutoff point. By using a band pass filter, you can get a very narrow sounding piece of audio, much like how it would sound if you were talking to someone on an old phone.
A bell curve filter boosts or reduces frequencies around a center point. This type of filter is one that you will most definitely use while using an EQ plugin when mixing.
A notch filter removes frequencies around a center point and the frequencies on either side of it are kept intact.
A high shelf filter boosts or reduces frequencies above a specific point while allowing the frequencies below that to also pass through.
A low shelf filter boosts or reduces frequencies below a specific point while allowing the frequencies above that point to pass through.
Knowing how to use these types of filters and what situation to use them in will help you to use an EQ quickly and efficiently, and in turn speed up your mixing process.
Compressor and limiter plugins
What is a compressor plugin?
A compressor is a plugin that reduces the dynamic range of an audio signal. Dynamic range is the difference between the loudest and softest parts of an audio signal. Compression plugins are necessary for taming dynamics so each element of your track sits in the mix exactly where it needs to, both in terms of volume and frequency.
What can a compressor plugin be used for?
A compressor plugin can be used for taming and managing the dynamics of instruments and vocals; it can also be used to help elements of a track sit in the mix better or stand out more.
Controls and features of a compression plugin
Compressors may have any or all of the following controls:
- Attack: setting the attack level determines how quickly the compressor starts working after detecting an audio signal above the threshold.
- Release: the release level determines how quickly the compressor stops or reduces its effect on the audio signal.
- Threshold: the level that the audio signal needs to rise above in order to get the compressor to kick in.
- Knee: determines how aggressively the compressor kicks in once reaching or surpassing the threshold.
- Ratio: controls how much dynamics decrease is applied once the audio signal reaches or surpasses the threshold.
- Output gain: allows you to make up for any volume reduction caused by the compressor.
Types of compressor plugins
Like EQs, there are different types of compressors. They include:
- VCA compressors
- FET compressors
- Optical compressors
- Tube compressors
- Multi-band compressors
VCA compressors are a versatile type of compressor that seems to be the jack of all trades. They are known for having a fast response which makes them good for controlling peaks on rhythmic tracks or tracks that have a lot of transients. VCA compressors may or may not retain original tone depending on the settings you have on them.
FET compressors have even faster reaction times than VCA compressors do, and they were designed to emulate tube circuitry. Typically, FET compressors do not have a threshold setting, and instead have an input gain and an output gain. With no threshold or ratio, the audio signal is compressed based on how loud the input is (higher volume input equals more compression).
Optical compressors are extremely smooth and transparent in the way that they process audio. They are ideal for vocals and for adding warmth to guitars. Usually there is a fixed ratio of 3:1 on them and the only controls they have are a gain control and a control for reducing peaks. Since they are smooth and slower, they are not as ideal for transient-heavy tracks.
Tube compressors are the oldest type of compressors around. They have a slower attack and release compared to other types of compression, but this gives them a vintage sound that is hard to emulate with other compressors.
Multi-band compressors work with frequency bands and allow you to apply different amounts of compression to different bands. Because compressors change dynamics of frequencies, an EQ is usually part of a multi-band compressor. A multi-band compressor (or dynamic EQ) will process the audio signal as it comes in and then treat each frequency band in response to what you have it set as, almost like an automation type of feature.
What is a limiter plugin?
A limiter plugin is similar to a compressor. They both control dynamics. A compressor, however, controls dynamic range after it reaches or surpasses a threshold, whereas a limiter prevents the audio signal from reaching and going over the threshold. Limiters are mainly used during the mastering process.
What can a limiter plugin be used for?
Limiter plugins can be used to prevent clipping and distortion, and they can also be used to increase the volume of a track.
Controls and features of limiter plugins
Limiter plugins pretty much have the same controls as compressors do: attack, release, threshold, input gain, and output gain. A knee and ratio control is not needed, as the audio signal will (or should) never surpass the threshold. The only main difference of a limiter plugin is that the threshold is called a ceiling because it is the highest point that the audio signal is allowed to reach, just like the ceiling is the highest point you can get to in a room without breaking through it.
What is a reverb plugin?
A reverb plugin is an audio effect plugin that makes instruments and vocals sound natural in terms of space. Reverb makes audio sound like it was created or played in a certain space rather than having been recorded in a room with no type of natural reverberations or reflections of sound waves.
What can a reverb plugin be used for?
Reverb plugins can be used to make instruments or vocals sound like they were recorded in a specific space. It can make them sound farther back in the mix and help them to fit in the mix better.
Controls and features of reverb plugins
Reverb plugins have a lot of different controls to help you get a variety of results out of them. Controls include:
- Pre-delay: the amount of time it takes for the sound to leave its source and make its first reflection off an object.
- Time: the total amount of time the reverb lasts from start to finish.
- Dry/wet mix: allows you to choose how much of the audio signal without reverb you want mixed with the audio signal that has been processed with the reverb.
- Decay: the amount of time it takes for the reverb to completely go away.
- Early reflections: the first set of echoes/reverberations that are produced when sound waves hit an object.
- Damping: a feature that allows you to make the reverb sound less shrill if it has a lot of high frequencies in it.
- Shape: refers to the shape of the space you are emulating and how many walls it has.
- Size: refers to the size of the space you are emulating.
- Diffusion: controls the density of the amount of reverberations and echoes.
Types of reverb
There are a few main types of reverb that are categorized by room size, and they will all have a different effect on the audio you’re trying to process. It is important to choose wisely when processing reverb so that your instruments and vocals don’t make the whole mix muddy or jumbled and distracted.
- Room reverb: the smallest and most basic type of reverb. Room reverb provides a liveliness and natural coloration, one that does not hide imperfections.
- Hall reverb: refers to a concert hall rather than hall in someone’s house. Hall reverb is designed to produce minimal echoes and sound balanced in tone.
- Chamber reverb: opposite of hall reverb. Chamber reverb has a lot of texture and adds energy and color. It is ideal for keeping things interesting.
- Plate reverb: balanced in terms of echo density. Gives a smooth sound and works best for vocals and in tandem with other reverbs.
- Ambience reverb: does not really emulate any specific space; it rather gives more of an atmospheric feel and is more experimental.
What is a delay plugin?
A delay plugin is a time-based effect that records the audio signal going into the plugin and repeats it back over a duration of time that you’ve chosen.
What can a delay plugin be used for?
Delays can be used to add movement into the mix, to highlight certain parts of a track, or to make a mix sound fuller and richer.
Controls and features of delay plugins
- Delay time: the length of time between each delay.
- Rate: the amount of time it takes for the audio signal to bounce between the left and right stereo channel when using ping pong delay. This is usually expressed in note increments like 1/4 notes.
- Feedback: the amount of time it will take for the delays to fade away.
- Delay mode: changes the type of delay.
- Dry/wet mix: determines how much of the original signal will be mixed with the processed sound.
Types of delays
- Stereo: the most common type of delay. It produces a wide delay that presents itself on each side of the stereo field at the same time.
- Mono: creates a more narrow, focused type of delay.
- Ping pong: the delay that bounces back and forth between the right and left sides of the stereo field.
- Slapback: a very short delay that creates a bouncy, extremely quick doubling type of effect.
Distortion and saturation
What is a distortion/saturation plugin?
A distortion (or saturation) plugin is a plugin that adds distortion (or saturation) (white noise, brown noise, in other words… static) that provides dynamic warmth and cohesion to an audio track, usually (but not always) from clipping.
What is clipping?
Clipping is when the volume meter goes over 0 dB, causing an overdriven static to sound.
What is the difference between distortion and saturation?
Distortion describes a more extreme sound, while saturation adds a warm tone to a sound without drastically changing it. Distortion can make things sound fuzzy or it can make a sound completely unrecognizable. Saturation adds a pleasant static that fills in the gaps in the frequency spectrum.
What can a distortion plugin be used for?
Distortion plugins can be used to completely change sounds, and they can be used to add qualities like crunch or static and things of that nature.
What can a saturation plugin be used for?
Saturation plugins can be used to fill spots in the frequency spectrum that need to be fuller, they can be used to add warm, vintage tones to instruments, and can be used to create brightness in your tracks.
Controls and features of distortion and saturation plugins
Some distortion/saturation plugins have a lot of controls and others don’t have so many, but usually they have at least the following in common:
- Drive: increases the amount of distortion or saturation.
- Character or color: allows you to switch between certain colors and tones of saturation like brown noise, pink noise, and white noise.
- Low and high frequency (also referred to as band or frequency): allows you to adjust the frequency band within the brown, pink, or white noise, etc.
- Tone: gives you more tools to work with the frequency spectrum of the saturation and distortion.
Vocal processing plugins
What is a vocal processing plugin?
A vocal processing plugin is a plugin that directly transforms vocals, whether it be by pitch, turning vocals into a synthesizer, or something else.
What can a vocal processing plugin be used for?
A vocal processing plugin can be used for correcting vocal pitch, controlling volume, controlling vocal reverb, emulating a synthesizer or other instrument, doubling a vocal, or transforming it in another creative way.
Controls and features of vocal processing plugins
Since there are so many different types of vocal processing plugins and we’ve already covered things that can be considered vocal processors, like reverb and delay, in this guide we’re just going to focus on autotune plugins. Autotune plugins typically feature the following controls and settings:
- Song key: determines what key you’ll be singing in. You should match the key of the song to the key you’ll be singing in.
- Scale: determines the scale you’ll be singing in.
- Vocal register input type: usually has soprano, alto, and bass. Depending on the type of vocal register, the autotune plugin will process vocals differently based on the input setting.
- Correction/retune speed: controls how quickly or slowly off-key notes are corrected.
- Humanize: controls how natural the processed voice will sound (leaving vibrato vs sounding robotic, etc).
- Natural vibrato: controls how much of a natural vibrato is created if you want to digitally create it.
- Dry/wet mix: controls how much of the unprocessed and processed audio signal you want blended together.
Spectral analysis plugins
Spectral analysis plugins aren’t exactly a main type of audio effect plugin in terms of popular or common use, but they are extremely helpful in the mixing process, so I wanted to include a section on them.
What is a spectral analysis plugin?
A spectral analysis plugin is a plugin that shows a graph of a spectrum of information. Spectral analysis plugins can show collisions in frequency, how wide a track or instrument is, and things like that.
What can a spectral analysis plugin be used for?
A spectral analysis plugin can be used for finding collisions in frequency with EQs, finding out how wide or narrow the stereo image is of a track or instrument, or to see how well mixed your song is based on a pink noise curve.
Controls and features of spectral analysis plugins
In general, there are a couple main features:
- Graph window: this is the area where the information being analyzed is shown in a graph form.
- Graph display controls: these are for looking at different elements of the graph.
Virtual instrument plugins
Virtual instrument plugins are plugins that emulate different instruments. You use them with MIDI tracks, and as the plugin receives the MIDI information, it will process it and output the audio as if a musical instrument was playing those same notes.
Drum VST plugins
Acoustic drum VST plugins typically have an interface with a virtual drum set. Each drum has samples of real drums assigned to it. Using a MIDI keyboard, piano roll editor, mouse, or computer keyboard, you can play the drum samples as if you were playing a real set of drums. There is usually also a window where you can tweak the settings and effects of each drum, like reverb, compression, and even the type of drum.
In the case of electronic drums, like drum pads, samples are assigned to pads rather than a virtual drum set. It works the same as an acoustic drum VST, the design is just a little different.
Synthesizer and keyboard VST plugins
Synth and keyboard plugins work a bit differently than drum plugins do. Synthesizer plugins sometimes get their sound sources from samples, but more often it’s from oscillators. Oscillators shape voltage which causes the synth to emit a pitch at a certain frequency. This is what determines the waveform. Oscillators are controlled by the keys of a synth, and the other knobs shape the sound further through LFOs and modulators. Synth VSTs work like this and you can easily customize the sounds you’re trying to get out of it just by tweaking things here and there.
Keyboard and piano VSTs are usually sourced from samples of real pianos, unless you are working with a synthesizer type VST. Like the drum VSTs, there is usually a page in the plugin interface where you can tweak the sound of the piano or keyboard further to your liking, and you can also control the keyboard through MIDI.
Guitar and bass VST plugins
Guitar and bass plugins are similar to synths in that sometimes they use samples and other times oscillators and very basic waveforms are used. If you find a good-quality plugin company that has any guitar plugins, it’s likely that they use real samples of guitars.
Basses, on the other hand, depend. Some bass VSTs are sample based and others are more synthesizer-like in that they use oscillators and are controlled through a piano or keyboard type interface. It really just depends on whether or not you’re using a bass guitar or a bass synth.
How to choose a good VST suite or plugin bundle?
There is a wide variety of audio effects and virtual instruments out there and so many great companies that make them and sell them. It can be really challenging to figure out which companies produce packages of good-quality VST plugins. Here are some of my favorite VST companies that I encourage you to check out.
Audio effects plugins:
Waves is one of the world’s leading VST companies. They have several different packages of their VSTs, all at different price points, so if you are on a budget you can still get a good amount of plugins. You can also buy plugins individually, but I would not suggest that if you plan to buy a lot of their plugins, as buying a package of them will save you a good amount of money.
Most of Waves’ stuff can be quite expensive, but that is because they have top-rated, award-winning VSTs. However, if you do decide to spend the money on Waves plugins, it is extremely worth it (although there is somewhat of a learning curve on some of them). I use them every time I mix and I have yet to be disappointed.
- The best must-have Waves plugins (ultimate list)
FabFilter’s suite of plugins is much more affordable. They are a smaller company but the plugins sound great and are especially nice if you are more of a visual mixer. Because of their more graphic intense VSTs, I personally find FabFilter’s plugins to be extremely easy to use, in fact more so than Waves plugins at times. It really just depends on what plugins you are using, but a lot of the time FabFilter’s seem to be more user friendly, especially for those who are just starting out.
MeldaProduction has some nice plugins, especially their spectral plugins. They offer some virtual instruments too, which aren’t as high quality as others, but they still sound good. They’re all very affordable. The plugins aren’t as modern in appearance but they work well and there are a lot of them which takes out the hassle of buying from a ton of different companies.
iZotope’s plugins are all really sophisticated and made for producing, mixing, mastering, and repairing audio. My favorite plugins from them are Ozone (for mastering) and Neutron (for mixing). A lot of iZotope’s plugins use an effects chain but can also be used individually, which makes them extremely convenient.
Native Instruments is one of the leaders in virtual instruments. They’re also another company that is pretty expensive, and understandably so because the VSTs all sound awesome.
They have a program called Kontakt that allows you to play third party instruments that other companies have made and you can also find plenty of presets online for their existing instruments, so I’d say they have a good balance between producing their own VSTs and allowing accessibility to ones from third parties.
XLN Audio mainly has plugins for drums and keyboards, but they also have a retro tape effect that makes your tracks sound distorted like they’re being played through an old record player. All of their plugins are worth checking out; their virtual drum suite and keyboard suite are really nice, affordable, and they have a great variety of presets and sounds.
Spectrasonics has three really amazing virtual instrument plugins that they sampled from live instruments: Omnisphere, Keyscape, and Trilian. All of them are incredibly responsive and realistic-sounding. If you play bass or keys, there are a ton of presets, different articulations, and full MIDI compatibility. They’re extremely expensive but absolutely worth it if you want realistic sounding instruments with crazy playing flexibility.
Similar to Native Instruments, 8Dio has really high-quality samples that they use with their instrument plugins. The interfaces of 8Dio instruments are always extremely easy to use and very pleasing to the eye. The virtual instruments they make are meant to be used with Kontakt, which is a Native Instruments plugin.
How do I use VST plugins?
Aside from dragging and dropping the VST plugins into the designated areas of your DAW and pairing them with the correct channels, I can’t really give you a guide on how to use VST plugins because there’s no real ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to use them. It all depends on what you think sounds right.
If you want to put a certain reverb plugin on a drum track because you think it sounds good, go right ahead. If you want to use a certain virtual instrument for a piece of MIDI you’ve composed, by all means, be my guest. Don’t be afraid to experiment and deviate from using VST plugins in traditional ways. If you think it sounds good, do it.
I will say this, however: make sure you are educated on what your VST plugins do and how to use them so you can easily tweak things to get the sounds you want without spending hours on a single thing.
Some frequently asked questions about VST plugins
Do I need a lot of plugins?
No. In fact, I strongly suggest sticking with one or two main suites of plugins (depending on the size of the plugin bundles). Having too many plugins can get really overwhelming and distracting. It’s extremely common for producers to get excited about plugins and buy as many as they can and then end up not using over half of them because sorting through them all and actually using them all is just too tedious and overwhelming.
Should I use stock VST audio effects and instruments?
This is completely up to you. Some DAWs don’t have very good stock plugins, and others do. Pro Tools has some great ones, while FL Studio does not. It depends on the DAW. If you want to find out, go by trial and error or look up some demos on YouTube. Honestly though, if you can use stock plugins well and make your tracks sound great, I don’t super discourage using them. It’s a personal preference for most people to use third party VSTs, but some stock plugins aren’t bad at all.
Can I use free VST plugins?
As long as they’re compatible with your computer’s operating system, yes, you can use free VST plugins. Most of the free ones out there might not be as high quality as you’re looking for but there are some out there that are nice. Stay tuned for future articles about VST plugins, we’ll have more material on the best ones out there, both paid and free.
Do VSTs work on any operating system?
VST plugins are common among multiple operating systems, but certain DAWs and operating systems have different plugin file formats that only work with those specific ones. For Windows, VSTs are compatible, but so are AAX and RTAS plugins, which are specifically for Pro Tools. For Mac, VSTs are compatible, but also AAX, RTAS, and Audio Units. Linux is much more limited with plugins, but considering not many (if any) people use Linux computers, they shouldn’t be a problem.
VST plugins may be hard to understand at first, but with continued learning and use, you’ll catch on easily. Whether it’s sample based instruments, audio effects plugins for mixing and mastering, or vocal processors and spectral analyzers, there are VSTs for everyone. With such a wide variety, you’re sure to find the right VSTs for your music production needs.