Recording artists and producers today use Virtual Studio Technology (VST) plugins to craft and customize their sounds. VST effect plugins and synthesizers emulate the sound - and often the visual interface - of their hardware counterparts in software. The result for modern producers is a studio full of high end signal processing and synthesis all inside the computer (or “in the box”, to use industry lingo), and at a fraction of the cost. The vast selection of plugins available - both paid and free - give artists and producers nearly limitless sonic possibilities.
VST plugins include effects (e.g. reverb, chorus, distortion), virtual instruments (e.g. emulations of trumpets, guitars, and drums), and synthesizers that can be inserted - or “plugged in” - into Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs), which act as hosts for said plugins. Steinberg, Apple, Ableton, Image-Line, and Pre-Sonus are amongst some of the more notable manufacturers of DAWs. When hosted within a DAW, VST plugins can be used as sound generating instruments, or as effects to process audio.
To clear up a misconception, VST itself is a plugin format - that is, it is one of several types of software connectors used between a plugin and its host. Other formats include Audio Units (abbreviated as AU), Real Time Audio Suite (ARTAS), FL, and DirectX (DX). These days, however, VST and “plugin” have become for the most part interchangeable.
In 1996, the first true VST was released. Steinberg offered three plugins with its Cubase software: reverb, chorus and stereo echoer. Using these plugins allowed producers and artists to create unique sounds during the mixing process.
In 2008, Steinberg released the first full standalone VST instrument. (Steinberg had released several standalone products prior to this, but the 2008 version was the first to offer full functionality). This standalone VST device offered multiple MIDI inputs and outputs and audio inputs for VST instruments. More recent changes in 2011 allowed for note articulation, which gives users the ability to change the sound of individual notes and make the instrumentation sound more natural. Although standalone VST instruments are very popular, many VST plugins are still run from within a DAW.
VST instruments simulate the sound of instruments commonly used in music - e.g. a drum machines VST creates drum sounds, a piano VST emulates the sound of an acoustic piano, and a synthesizer VST can sound like a vintage Roland TB-303.
How close these software emulations come to the original remains a hotly debated topic; some argue the warmth of analogue hardware is impossible to emulate digitally, while others praise the VST plugin revolution for allowing them a cost-effective way to amass a complete collection of synths and effects within the confines of their laptop.
VST plugins (both effects, instruments, and other utilities) can be used throughout the music production process.