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Virtual Studio Technology, VST plugins, VST effects


VST plugins are generally run within a Digital Audio Workstation, providing the host application with additional functionality. Most VST plugins can be classified as either instruments (VSTi) or effects, although other categories exist. VST plugins generally provide a custom GUI, displaying controls similar to the physical switches and knobs on audio hardware. Some (often older) plugins rely on the host application for their UI.

VST instruments include software simulation emulations of well-known hardware synthesizer devices and samplers, emulating the look of the original equipment and its sonic characteristics. This enables VSTi users to use virtual versions of devices that may be otherwise difficult to obtain.

VST instruments require notes to be sent via MIDI in order to output audio, while effect plugins process audio data (some effect plugins do require a MIDI input too though, for example they might use MIDI sync to modulate the effect in sync with the tempo). MIDI messages can often also be used to control parameters of both instrument and effect plugins. Most host applications allow the audio output from one VST to be routed to the audio input of another VST (known as chaining). For example, output of a VST synthesizer can be sent to a VST reverb effect for further processing.


The VST interface specification and SDK was released in 1996. Coinciding was the release of Steinberg Cubase 3.02. Included with Cubase were the first available VST format plugins. Espacial, Choirus, Stereo Echo and Auto-Panner.

The VST interface specification was updated to version 2.0 in 1999. One of the additions was the ability for plugins to receive MIDI data. This allowed for the introduction of VSTi (Virtual Studio Technology Instrument) format plugins. VST Instruments can act as standalone software synthesizers, samplers or drum machines.

Neon was the first available VST Instrument (included with Cubase VST 3.7). It was a 16-voice, 2-oscillator virtual analog synthesizer.

The VST interface specification was updated to version 2.4 in 2006. Changes included the ability to process audio using 64 bit precision.

The VST interface specification was updated to version 3.0 in 2008. Changes included:

  • Audio Inputs for VST Instruments
  • Multiple MIDI inputs/outputs
  • Optional SKI (Steinberg Kernel Interface) integration

The VST interface specification was updated to version 3.5 in February, 2011. Changes included, among others, Note Expression where "each individual note (event) in a polyphonic arrangement can contain extensive articulation information, which creates unparalleled flexibility and a much more natural feel of playing."

VST plugins

There are three types of VST plugin.

VST instruments generate audio. They are generally either virtual synthesizers or samplers. Some, such as Native Instruments' Pro-53, specifically recreate the look and sound of famous synthesizers from years past (in this case, the Prophet-5).

VST effects, such as reverb and phaser effects, process audio input. Other monitoring effects provide visual feedback of the input signal without processing the audio. Most hosts allow multiple effects to be chained.

VST MIDI effects process MIDI messages prior to routing the MIDI data to other VST instruments or hardware devices; for example, to transpose or create arpeggios.

Hardware VST hosts can load special versions of VST plugins. These units are portable and usable without a computer, although all editing is done on a computer. Other hardware options include PCI/PCIe cards designed for audio processing, which take over audio processing from the computer's CPU and free up RAM. Examples of hardware VST hosts are RECEPTOR (Muse), Plugzilla and V-Machine (SM Pro Audio).

Audio data can also be sent over a network using appropriate software, allowing the main host to run on one computer and VST plugins to run on peripheral computers.

VST plugin standard

The VST plugin standard is the audio plugin standard created by Steinberg to allow any third party developers to create VST plugins for use within VST host applications. VST requires separate installations for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux. The majority of VST plugins are available for Windows due to both Apple's proprietary Audio Unit software for OS X and the lack of information and patent encumbrances that make development difficult for Linux platforms.