by Anders Johanson October 11, 2020 12 min read
If you are getting into music production, you’ve probably heard other producers throw the term VST around. You might even know it has something to do with sounds, instruments, effects, and synthesizers, but if you want the juice on what VST stands for, the best plugins, and the VST plugins top-notch producers use, then buckle up.
VST is an acronym for Virtual Studio Technology, introduced by Stenberg Media Technology around 1996 around the same time they introduced their Cubase Sequencer and Digital Audio workstation software or what’s commonly referred to as DAW.
VST adds real-time audio effects to a track using a computer, transforming the machine from a simple MIDI sequencer and audio recorder to a powerful audio recording, mixing, and producing platform. At the time, this was a revolutionary tech, but as you can guess, we all take it for granted these days.
What makes VST valuable is that it’s an open format so other companies can use and develop their software based on it. Obviously, other DAWs know this and use VST to write compatible effects that can run on whatever recording software they use. This makes it super convenient for any producer.
Originally, recording and producing meant having physical instruments and hardware to accomplish effects such as reverb and compression. This was an expensive affair that also took up too much space. VSTs were created to solve this problem by creating, replacing, and complimenting physical equipment, so you don't have to invest tons of money to buy effects hardware, instruments, synthesizers, and other gear.
Today, the tech is so good that you can create an entire song from scratch using VSTs and DAWs of your choice without touching an instrument.
VST plugins come in two categories; VST instruments and VST effects.
These plugins, also known as VSTi, are somewhat self-explanatory. They basically generate audio that sounds like it was created by an instrument such as a piano, guitar, or violin. The plugins receive information from the MIDI tracks and process it to produce audio so clear that you’d think the instrument was playing the notes.
Drum VST plugins have an interface with a virtual drum set, where each drum has samples of real drums assigned to it. You play the drum samples as if playing a real set of drums using your keyboard, mouse, MIDI keyboard, or piano roll editor.
Electric drums are a little different, though. Here, samples are assigned to pads instead of having a virtual drum set, but it is the same as that of an acoustic drum. The only difference is the plugin design.
Synth and keyboard plugins work a little differently than drum plugins. In some instances, synth plugins get their sound from samples, but the most common source is oscillators. The oscillators shape the voltage and cause the synth to give a pitch a specific frequency determining the waveform. The keys of the synth control the oscillators, which enables the knobs to shape the sound through modulators and LFOs or Low-Frequency Oscillators. Synth VSTs allows you to customize sound by tweaking things to your liking.
Keyboard VSTs, on the other hand, get their sound from real pianos, unless, of course, you are working with a synthesizer-type VST. These work more or less like drum plugins and give you the freedom to tweak sound on the piano to your liking by controlling everything through a MIDI.
These work almost the same as synthesizer VSTs. Both use either samples or oscillators, but these strings have basic waveforms. The best guitar and bass plugins source their sound from real samples of guitars.
Basses, however, usually depend. Some plugins are sample-based, while others are synth. Synth bass samples are controlled through a piano interface. You can switch between the two depending on whether you are using a bass synth or bass guitar.
Audio effects are the heart of how producers shape sound into music, turning a somewhat nice song into a great finished track. VST effects are designed to mimic the hardware effects found in studios so you can produce effects like reverb that allow you to give your audio a sense of space, modulate the chorus, wobble to a signal, or delay an echo.
VST effects offer all sorts of sound changing effects. While physical hardware limits you in terms of mixer channels available and external effects boxes, software only limits you if you don't have a powerful CPU.
There are tons of audio effect plugins that may make choosing the best ones a daunting task. Since they are so many, we will only cover a few in this article.
An EQ plugin allows you to increase, decrease, boost, remove, and leave frequencies unchanged. It's used to adjust your audio's loudness and alter the response of frequencies in the audio. These plugins allow you to create space for single elements in your mix so you can hear everything without competition.
You can also use EQ VSTs to create experimental sounds that keep your track from getting messy. This way, you know which element fits best into the mix. You can remove resonance or offending peaks and adjust the sound's sibilance and bass content, so you have clear and balanced tracks.
EQs have several controls. The frequency control adjusts the center frequency range for a particular band while the Q widens or narrows the band curve. Gain, on the other hand, increases or decreases the volume of each band.
Compressors reduce the dynamic range of a track or the loudest and softest part of an audio signal. They tame the instruments and vocals' dynamics so elements can settle exactly where you need them to be in terms of volume and frequency. They also help the track stand out.
Usually, compressors have several controls. The attack control determines how quickly the compressor will start working after an audio is detected above the threshold. The release stops or reduces the compressors effect on the audio while the threshold determines the level the signal needs to rise above so the compressor kicks in.
Knee determines the compressor's aggressiveness once it reaches or surpasses the threshold, while the ratio controls the dynamic decrease. Output gain helps you make up for volume reduction.
While most compressors will have all these controls, some will only have a few combos.
A limiter plugin is somewhat similar to a compressor since they both have dynamic controls. The difference is compressors control the dynamic when it reaches or surpasses the threshold, but a limiter will do the opposite; It ensures the audio signal doesn’t reach or go over the threshold. Limiters come in handy during mastering to prevent clipping, distortion, and to increase the volume of a track.
Compressors and limiters have the same controls; that is, release, attack, input gain, output gain, and threshold. Because the audio signal isn't allowed to surpass the threshold, limiters don't need a knee and ratio control. Unlike the compressor, the threshold in a limiter is called a ceiling since that's the highest point an audio signal will reach.
You need to sprinkle a reasonable amount of vocal effects to the sound, so its lively and enjoyable to the listeners. Obviously, it would be best if you didn't stack effect after effect as too much of everything is poisonous. Instead, have the right balance to transform pitch, control volume, and emulate synthesizers and other instruments. You can also double vocals and transform them in other creative ways.
As the focal part of a mix, vocals need the uttermost attention. We will look at the best vocal VSTs to use a little later, but you will interact with the following controls when using this plugin. First, the song key, which determines what key the lead is singing in. The key the singer sings in should match the key of the song.
Scale determines the scale used while the Vocal Register Input processes the vocals based on their input, that is, whether they are soprano, alto, or bass. Correction or Retune Speed controls determine how fast or slow off-key notes are corrected while the Humanize controls how the processed voice sounds. This simply means it controls whether you sound vibrato or robotic.
The natural vibrato controls determine whether you want to create the natural vibrato digitally. Finally, the dry and wet mix control how you blend the processed and unprocessed audio signals.
While these are usually categorized separately, they are more or less effects plugins. Instead of creating audios, midi plugins work with midi data and process it independently, deciding whether to modify it or pass it to other plugins.
Although they perform basic tasks like arpeggiation, midi plugins process midi data, create note echoes, and sweep key changes. Usually, they sit next to other instruments, your synth, and samplers, but their function is entirely different. Using midi plugins, you can create an entire sequence and pipe it out into another plugin to make the sound.
Midi plugins inspire you to be creative, are fun, and are a worthy road to coming up with ideas you wouldn’t have conceived. The context determines the midi plugin's output, so expect a great, plucky bassline may sound terrible on a pad sound and vice versa. Although the sound won't be good on every source, midi plugins compensate by offering you experimentation than any other software.
Xfer Records are known to create some of the most useful LFO tools. Their wavetable synthesizers produce high-quality sounds, and the workflow interface is user-friendly. Although Serum is their first synth, it has become a favorite for many music producers since it was released.
It stands out because of it's complex, high-quality, and easy to use user interface that makes production easy and fun. With Serum, you can create the exact sound you need. That’s not all. Beginners and producers who aren’t interested in creating their own sound design get a humongous variety of presets.
Serum doesn't complicate production with obscure functions but keeps you in the know, so you are aware of what's happening to each sound you generate. It comes with ultraclean oscillators with crispy clear audio that's not crowded with unwanted frequencies. You can modulate as many times as you wish using the drag and drop connection, making it easy to adjust the connections. If you prefer using a list, Serum has this option as well.
If you are a veteran, you'll enjoy the advanced unison that allows you to stack up around sixteen voices in a single oscillator. Although it comes with only 10 inbuilt effects, you can purchase and add as many as you wish.
Sylenth 1 is a golden oldie that was originally launched in 2006 by LennarDigital. It's an analog synthesizer that comes with tons of unique sounds, some of which you've already heard. Because of its fabulous sounds, Sylenth 1 is also a favorite for many music producers. In fact, it’s pretty successful in the EDM circle because it produces the needed sound remarkably well, generating sound with presence and punch. To expand the sound pallet, there are tons of free inspirational presets available.
Sylenth 1 houses four oscillators, generating analog shaped waveforms and producing eight unison voices in full stereo. Combine this with its sixteen notes of polyphony, and you can play 512 voices simultaneously. As a plus, Sylenth has two analog filter sections consisting of four filter stages with nonlinear saturation. It easily mimics the warmth you get from a real analog filter. For modulation, you get two ADSR and LFO’s offering multiple options.
Sylenth 1 has seven sound effects and an arpeggiator, strategically grouped in an LCD panel structured for ease of use. You get ten melodic modes on the arpeggiator, five different distortions, 6-stage stereo chorus, delay mode, bass and treble adjustments by frequency and amplification, smooth reverb with adjustable damp, size, stereo, and pre-delay, and a stereo compressor with attack, release, threshold, and ratio setting.
With such functionality, this VST plugin gives you enough to experiment with to produce high-quality sounds.
Massive has come to define the sound of electronic music since it's introduction in the market in 2007 by Native Instruments. As expected, competition kicked in, and the dominance of Massive slowly started weathering away. With the introduction of Massive X, you can expect NI to strongly contend for its position as the de facto wavetable synth known for the most ubiquitous softsynth.
As a wavetable at heart, Massive X comes with tons of wavetables to choose from, but it doesn't allow you to upload your own, something producers are looking forward to having in the next release. Most wavetables are new, but I remastered some favorites from the original set. You can still modify the wavetables in different ways using the ten modifiers with multiple sub-modes and separate controls. This helps you wrap the sound at the oscillator level, which is an advantage.
Massive X has one filter, but you also get a parallel and Serial State Carriable filter if you need to have multiple filters. On the master effects section, you get more effects slots with dedicated controls on most of them. It has a flexible reverb with seventeen algorithms, so you'll never be stuck with two sounds again.
The best feature on the Massive X is by far the routing tab. Although NI says it’s semi-modular, it works like a Full Modular System because you can connect almost anything with everything. You have to patch things up to get sound, route LFOs to the audio outputs, and add a VCA to any signal tab, which is a lot of flexibility that’s not seen in most synth designs.
NI highlights their modulation feature since it always goes above and beyond anything in the market. Massive X has nine modulation slots with one fixed as an amp envelope. You can set the others as modulation envelopes, random LFO, Switcher LFO, or an exciter AR envelope.
Even with this, the new Performer has to be the icing on the cake. The three Performer Modulators are perhaps the most customizable modulation source with multiple shapes to choose from. You can easily bend draw-in shapes and deform then however you wish using the Bezier Curve editing capabilities.
Vocals are everything in a mix. Get it wrong, and it will stick out. The best approach is to always experiment based on what you want and the genre and to play around with different plugins and gear until you shape the tone. So, which plugins are best?
Antares will always be known for kickstarting automatic tuning back in 1997. Like its predecessors, autotune pro takes an incoming monophonic signal and corrects it by removing any wayward pitch. It puts your out-of-tune singer in tune either through transparency or Cher/T-Pain.
Autotune pro operates in two modes, auto or graph. Auto mode allows real-time parameters repitching while Graph allows you to edit ‘offline.’ The auto mode comes with basic and advanced views to cater to beginners and veterans. The basic view has the essential controls where you can choose a voice (soprano, alto, etc.), select a key, scale, and set the pitch you need to be removed, while the advanced view is a refresh of Auto-Tune 8's auto mode.
The Pro-Q2 plugin is considered legendary by music producers because of its elegant workflow, sound quality, gorgeous easy to use interface, and extensive feature set. The Pro-Q3, an upgrade of the Pro-Q2, offers the same great value with a few additional packs.
For instance, the plugins window shows you the loudest frequencies and makes it easy for you to identify where nodes are gathering. You can quickly grab one of these and start making adjustments within minutes, speeding up your workflow. The Pro-Q3 also has new filters that allow you to create linear slopes from one frequency to another. The biggest inclusions are definitely the Dynamic EQ mode and the External Spectrum Visualization. These features allow you to see where frequencies are conflicting. The most common is obviously where the bassline and kick drum are at war, but you can use it in other areas.
DC1A is a reduced version of the DC8C advanced compressor. This plugin adds a touch of magic with a few tweaks. You control almost everything with the ‘input and output’ knob as opposed to a dedicated threshold control. It's simplicity in character, and use makes it the perfect plugin for beginners. It also comes in handy when you want to do something with the bass and drum, as the performance is excellent. The DC1A performs pretty well in most situations, making it one of the few decent free compressors online.
Because of how widely used FL Studio is, it only makes sense to mention some of the best VST plugins to use. FL Studio comes with included plugins, but you can also add some third-party plugins if you wish.
Some of the included plugins worth mentioning are; Maximum, Vocodex, Effector, Gross Beat, Edison, Sytrus, among others. Third-party plugins include, Xfer OTT, Voxengo Span, u-he Tyrell N6, Xfer Serum, iZotope Ozone 8, and many more.
Also widely used, Ableton comes in with pre-installed plugins but gives you the liberty to install third-party VSTs of your choice. Some of the external plugins you can install include TAL-Noisemaker, Camel Crusher, iZotope Vinyl, Glitch 1.3, TAL- Reverb 4, among others. Ableton has amazing VST plugin selections, so don't kill yourself over external VSTs. The stock plugins are efficient and functional for music production, and they don't overwork your CPU.
Some of the most appreciated stock Ableton stock plugins are Operator Synth, Wavetable Synth, and Analog Synth.
Writer and musician based in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he lives with his wife, Hannah. Extensive career as both a writer and a musician previously working with brands such as Fox Sports, Yahoo Sports, and Sports Illustrated. As a musician, Anders has played in several bands throughout the last decade, and has experience in touring, booking, band management, engineering, producing, mixing, and composing. Anders has recently composed music for short films and media presentations in universities, and has launched a podcast focusing on giving musicians and artists a place to talk about their work and the process behind their creation.