What Are VST Instruments? Everything You Need to Know
Free License: Taken from my studio
Introduction to VST Technology and Instruments
We all know music is a treat to our ears. Listening to your favorite music relaxes your mind and releases endorphins (sometimes called happy hormones) which provide a holistic satisfaction to your brain. Now let us give a deep dive into how the recorded music is being made and packaged together. It is an exciting feeling to understand the mechanics of music production, composing, and the source of the sounds that we hear.
The majority of the music tracks we hear are composed in studios – both professional and home-designed in nature. With the advent of high-technology software in the music industry, there are breakthrough innovations in modeling the music instruments into a plugin or container for PC / MAC systems with higher sound depth and tonal quality.
Yes, we are talking about the flagship technology called VST. VST stands for VIRTUAL SYNTHESIZER TECHNOLOGY which is the heart of composers and musicians who make music using software in-studio nowadays. VST was introduced to this world by Steinberg Company as an SDK in 1996. It gained immense popularity, went through major breakthrough improvements, and now is widely used everywhere in all forms of music production.
The Virtual Synthesizer Technology (VST) helps to emulate and replace the sounds and nuances of various musical instruments for a song recording and composing exercise. It comes usually in two forms –
- VSTI – VST Instruments (Example: Strings, Guitar, Violin, Tabla, Vibraphone to name a few) These are actual musical instrument sounds that help in creating the music in the composing process.
- VST FX – VST effects (Example: Delay, reverb, autotune, phaser, flanger, echo, etc) These are processing plugins which help to modify or add ornaments or effects to an existing sound or melody within the songs or music pieces.
The below infographic shows how VSTI replaces musical instruments in the composition process and how VST FX plugins modify the existing sounds used in the music composition process:
(VST Logo is an exclusive trademark of Steinberg Media GmBH)
(The below infographic shows the VST Evolution and growth Timeline from VST 1.0 SDK Release to the present day VST 3.7 version).
How VSTs are revolutionizing Music Production and Design ?
VST Plugins are truly providing a wholesome solution for today’s digital musicians who wish to make music from scratch or want to use some cool instrument tracks in their songs. With the improvements in the VST Technology to the latest version of VST 3.X, VST instruments are highly expressive and capture the maximum nuances of the original musical instrument with very minute detail.
Back in our 80s and 90s era, music used to be recorded with a full floor musicians who contributed their portions for developing a song or a mix. However, in the present day world, all of that is being replaced with the highly sophisticated VST plugins to produce similar sounding music or modifying tracks as and when required. Music production and mixing has been truly seamless now with the advent of music softwares, VST effects and VST Instruments in the audio space.
Here are some of the key pros and cons to consider during upgradation to a VST compatible system and using VST Plugins
- VST Plugins are a complete replacement solution for most of the musicians or song writers who wish to get high quality instrument sounds which sound like original instruments.
- VST instruments and effects are highly portable and scalable solutions to replace tons of instrument hardware and effect processors that were used earlier for music production and editing.
- VST instruments are available widely for all budget musicians and highly cost effective. They help in lowering musician costs, overall production budgets and hence highly sort over by most of the digital music producers across the world.
- The power of VST Effect plugins are many times higher than the hardware effect processors and hence used in most of the production studios world-wide.
- Although VST technology has been replacing hardware instruments and effects processors gradually, yet they have not been able to produce the exact nuances of many instruments played live or for a recording session
- VST technology has reduced revenue and income flow to full time instrumentalists who used to depend on recordings for their livelihood. Now every composer is using VSTs for their projects and hence the demand for instrument players is declining gradually.
- VST instruments and effect plugins are subject to piracy, duplication and illegal distribution using warez software sites and torrent sites, which causes revenue losses to the music software designers. Millions of dollars are being spent to design robust security dongles and mechanism to safeguard software piracy in the music industry.
The above picture is just an illustration about the impact of VST instruments and effects on a studio, kind of a One Man Show after the advent of VSTs into music software industry.
How to use VST Plugins in your Song or Mix?
Now let us understand the simplest way on how to use the VST Plugins (effects and instruments) in our music projects or mixes. The below step-by-step process will help you understand how to make best use of your plugins and get high quality sound from your recorded and composed content.
Step-1: Choosing you perfect DAW (Digital Audio Workstation)/Recording Software:
As a musician, you should make a conscious decision on choosing your DAW-based on your budget, needs, and quality content you are going to design. You have wide variety of options to choose from – Cubase, Nuendo, FL Studio, and ProTools to name a few. Check out our DAW Review Article for more information about selecting the right DAW for your needs.
Step-2: Choosing VST Instruments for recording:
Once you have purchased and downloaded the VST Instruments from the Sound designer websites, you need to scan the VST folder in your DAW Plugin area so that the plugins installed will show up in the Software.
Step-3: Recording MIDI Content using VST inside your DAW
Use your MIDI / USB Keyboard connected to your music computer to record the notes, phrases or parts of the song with the VST instruments you wish to use. Post recording, you are advised to use the Quantize option to align the MIDI notes properly so that the project is synced up with the tempo and BPM Rate of your music tracks.
Step-4: Putting VST Effects on the Recorded Audio Content
- Once your MIDI and audio tracks are finalized, you need to use the appropriate VST effects plugins (such as reverb, delay, EQ, auto-tune etc) on the Mixer Bus section of the DAW to make your music project sound more vibrant and authentic.
Step-5: Mixing and Mastering your Project
- The last step in music production is mixing and mastering the audio piece so that it sounds perfect across all audio devices (be it a mini radio or a huge loud speaker array). There are a plethora of VST mixing and mastering plugins which you can choose to mix and master your project.
For a detailed insight on Music Production, Mixing and Mastering, please visit our website A-Z Song Production Series <Call to Action, Link>
The Top 10 VST Plugin designers of all time
There are hundreds of VST Plugin developing companies that have come up with innovative VST Instruments and VST effects that are catering to numerous music producers across the world. After a thorough review and analysis we have curated a list of the top 10 most versatile and high-quality VST Plugins which have proved their presence so far:
Native Instruments (NI)
The most sort over VST plugins are always from Native Instruments (NI). Their award-winning Kontakt software with fully customizable VST plugins, stand out from other competitors in the music software space. They are the world leaders in VST plugin design and have created the highly customizable Kontakt scripting platform which has enabled music software designers to create highly efficient VST plugins for the benefit of musicians and record producers.
This company is acclaimed critically for its highly world-class sound design libraries and VST instruments which have been a part of many movies, jingles, and hit songs worldwide. Since 1994, Spectrasonics has been innovating the music software space and provided great sounding VST plugins like Stylus, Omnisphere, Keyscape, and Trillian to name a few.
An interface GUI from Spectrasonics Omnisphere VST Plugin (Source from Spectrasonics Website)
East West is also a leader in VST, Audio software, and background music libraries for music composers and has been in the sample library business for the last 3 decades. Their flagship product includes Quantum Leap Libraries, which are used by movie composers for background film and music scores in their projects
An excerpt image of East West Quantum Leap Silk Ethnic VST Instrument (Source from Plugin.Deals website)
Nexus is a flagship award winning VST instrument from the creator REFX Sounds. It is a powerhouse of 1000s of authentic sounds which are bread and butter instruments used for most of the regular composing work of musicians. It has garnered highly positive traction due to its innovative design, authentic and unique instruments and variety of sounds. Its latest addition Nexus 4 is one of the best selling VST Libraries designed by REFX.
An image of Nexus 4 VST Instrument (Source from Refx Sounds website)
This London based music technology company is quite a new entry to the VST business. However, with its unparalleled audio quality, high quality instrument sounds and simplicity (ease of use), Spit Fire Audio has climbed to the top 10 charts in almost all VST instruments review discussions and forums. Some of the most popular products from SpitFire are Soft Piano, Labs, Orchestral Symphony, Abbey Road to name a few.
An image of SpitFire Audio Soft Piano VST Instrument (Source from SpitFire Audio website)
A leading brand known to everyone in music software industry, Antares Tech is easily one of the top contenders for the Top 10 spot due to its classic effects processing VST plugins. Antares Autotune plugin is a saviour for musicians and composers as it helps to correct the vocal pitch for any vocal track or portion.
An illustrative image from Antares Autotune Pro VST Effects Plugin (Source: Antares Tech Website)
Waves has a massive collection of VST effects processors. You name them and they have most of it in their VST collection bundles. Waves plugins are used almost in every studio for processing of audio, mastering and mixing content as well. Some of the popular products are the mixing bundle, vocal bender, compressors, reverb, delay and dynamic EQ plugins.
(A Picture of the famous CLA 76 Waves Compressor modelled into a VST Plugin with Waves)
A rather new entry into the VST Space in Embertone Media. This sound and VST designer company has proved that authentic VST can completely emulate bowed and plucked instruments such as Violins, Dulcimers and Saxophone. They have made extensive use of the Kontakt Instrument Script editor and have designed VST instruments par excellence. Such stunning realism is very evident from its Solo Violin VST which sounds like a real bowed violin with infinite articulations possible.
(A picture of the celebrated Joshua Vell Violin VST from Embertone Media)
The most sort over plugins for mastering and mixing a project are from this company Izotope. This audio technology company provides end to end solutions for vocal mixing, project mastering and adding sound effects to the mixes which are very soothing and a treat to the ears of the listener. The core products from Izotope are Ozone, Neutron, Nectar, RX9, Vocal synth and Neoverb to name a few.
A picture from the Ozone 9 Izotope preset reference and storage window (Source: Izotope Website)
If you think of guitar, the innovation comes with Ample Sound company. They have modelled the nuances of Bass, Electric and Acoustic guitars as much as possible and come up with beautiful products such as Ample Guitar, Ample Metal, Ample China and Ample Slide Lapsteel to name a few.
A screenshot from the Ample Ethno Ukulele GUI (Source – Ample sound website)
For a detailed overview on VST plugins, please visit our Website VST Section, which will help to understand and pickup the right VST plugins you need for your music production needs. https://musicdetailed.com/vst/
Final Verdict and Conclusion
VST Technology has revolutionized music production and composing by reducing the music production cost, operations and logistics involved to use various musical instruments and instrumentalists for studio recording sessions and live sessions to a great extent. Although VST cannot replace the live feel and nuances of musicians by a 100 percent, yet they have proved to be authentic replacement of instruments most of time.
We also urge our readers to review the list of VSTs that have been detailed out in this article and choose the ones that suit for your music making needs.
Finally last but not the least, there is a lot of pain and effort taken by the VST sound designers to create amazing products for musicians and composers. Hence it is highly ethical on the part to purchase the VST software that you like to use in your projects and avoid using pirated or cracked products. This will keep the VST sound design companies motivated to bring new and authentic products for the users in the near future.