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What is Virtual Studio Technology? – Simplified!

What is this technology all about and what is it specifically designed for? If you have been involved in music production for a while, you might have noticed this technical term being thrown around a lot. As a serious audio engineer or producer, it is important that you know more about it. Hence, the big question of the day is – What is Virtual Studio Technology?

For today’s article, I will be breaking down the subject of discussion into various smaller sub topics, for an easier understanding of the overall concept (The things I do for my loyal readers!). Hopefully by the end of this, you will understand how the virtual studio technology actually works, and its benefits to audio practitioners. Let us begin learning!

The VST – What is it?

More commonly known as simply “VST”, the virtual studio technology is a software interface that allows software audio synthesizer and effect plugins to be integrated with audio editing and recording systems. VSTs and its counterparts utilises digital signal processing for the simulation of conventional recording studio hardware in software.

Plugins

Photo by Steinberg Media Technologies / CC BY-SA 3.0

You can literally find thousands of plugins out there, available in both commercial and freeware versions. There are also a wide variety of audio software and hardware applications that support VST under license from its creator, Steinberg.

Let us take a look at the topics that we will be going through:

  • Major functions
  • Types of plugins
  • VST host

Major Functions

You will typically find VST plugins being integrated within digital audio workstations (DAW) for additional functionality. However, there are very few existing standalone plugin hosts that supports VST. Most plugins (with VST support) are either instruments (VSTi) or effects, and some are designed for spectrum analyzers and various audio level meters.

Digital representations of physical controls found on audio hardware are often displayed by VST plugins in the form of a custom graphical user interface. Older plugins normally rely on the host application for their user interface. VST instruments are integrated with digital simulations of the appearance and sonic qualities of prominent hardware synthesizers and samplers.

Synth

VST Synthesizer / Photo by vstplanet.com / CC BY-SA 2.0

This allows music producers to obtain affordable virtual versions of high-end audio devices (that are usually more costly). VSTi receives notes as digital information (via MIDI), and output digital audio. Effect plugins however, receive, process and also output digital audio. (There are effect plugins that support “MIDI sync” to modulate the effect in sync with the tempo).

The parameters of both instrument and effect plugins (with VST) can be controlled by digital MIDI information. Most host applications (eg. audio editing software) allows for the routing of digital audio output from one VST plugin, to another VST plugin’s audio input (also known as chaining). For instance, signal from a VST synthesizer can be put through a VST reverb effect.

Types of Plugins

There are three types of VST plugins that you need to know about, and they will be explained further in this section.

VST Instruments

These plugins only generate audio. Typically, they are either virtual synthesizers or samplers. Many of these plugins are engineered to recreate the appearance and sonic characteristics of sought-after hardware synthesizers. Some well known VST instruments include Nexus, Sylenth 1, Massive, Omnisphere, FM8, Absynth, Reaktor, Gladiator and Vanguard.

VST Effects

Effects plugins only process audio, akin to the functions of hardware audio processors such as reverbs and phasers. Other effects plugins provide monitoring through visual feedback of the input signal without processing the audio. These plugin types are modelled after monitoring devices such as spectrum analyzers and meters that represent audio characteristics visually.

Delay

Delay effects plugin / Photo by ShalMusicFX / CC BY 3.0

VST MIDI Effects

These plugins receive and process MIDI messages (for instance, to transpose or arpeggiate notes) and also to route the MIDI data to the inputs of other VST instrument plugins or to external hardware devices.

VST Host

A software application or hardware device that supports and runs VST plugins is called a VST host. The host application has the function of presenting the plugin UIs (User Interface) and routes digital audio and MIDI to and from various types of VST plugins.

Software 

Some well-known hosts include:

  • Logic Pro
  • FL Studio
  • Pro Tools
  • REAPER
  • Steinberg Cubase
  • Ableton Live

Stand-alone dedicated hosts do not use VST plugins to extend or enhance their own capabilities, but rather, provide a host environment for VST plugins. These hosts are often optimized for use at live performances, and includes features like fast song configuration switching.

Logic

Logic Pro / Photo by beatslikeaslave / CC BY 3.0

Hosts that are inherently incompatible with VST plugins, may use a translation layer, or “shim”. For instance, FL Studio has its own internal plugin architecture, but an available native “wrapper” can be used to load VST plugins. FXpansion offers a VST to RTAS (Real Time AudioSuite) wrapper for Pro Tools, and a VST to Audio Units wrapper for Logic Pro.

Hardware

Hardware hosts run unique versions of VST plugins, and can be used without a computer. However, for editing purposes, some of them do require computers. You can find other hardware variations such as PCI/PCIe cards that are designed for audio processing. These cards take over audio processing from the computer’s CPU and free up RAM.

There are hardware hosts that can accept VSTs and VSTis, and either run Windows-compatible audio editing software such as Cubase, Live, Pro Tools, Logic, or run their very own DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). Others are VST Hosts only, and will need a separate DAW application.

Jupiter 80

Roland Jupiter 80 / Photo by Musik-store.ru / CC BY 3.0

Take for example, Origin from Arturia, which is a hardware DSP system that can house several VST software synthesizers in one machine, like Jupiter 50/80 from Roland. With the appropriate software, it is possible to send audio data over a network, allowing the main host to run on one computer, while VST plugins run on peripheral machines.

We have come to the end of this article folks. Hopefully the concept of VST no longer remain a mystery to you, and you’ll be more confident with using plugins for your audio projects!

Do leave comments or questions below and share this article with your friends!

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Farhan

When I'm not rocking out to great music, I'd prefer to be sleeping on a field on a windy day =)

6 Comments

  1. Wow, this is really cool and I’m an IT guy that has been working with virtual computers for years.

    I really like the idea of being able to virtualize conventional or even legacy components and recording systems.

    The digital representation of the analog interface is slick. Even though you have a digital interface there is no reason it cannot look a little retro.

    I really appreciate you mentioning the ‘shim’ software needed to allow some plugins work with some hosts. In my experience some of these types of fixes can be problematic.

    It’s interesting there are both software and hardware versions of VSTs. You mention the hardware VSTs are often used at live shows. Would a standard laptop running the appropriate software and hardware be more problematic than a hardware version?

    • Hi Britt!

      To be completely honest with you, I rarely see hardware VST hosts being used in live shows or concert venues nowadays. I am guessing that they are slowly starting to phase out, seeing that most production companies today, are using digital mixing boards that can be integrated with various music editing software.

      Maybe some keyboard players who have very elaborate setups, with various hardware controllers and synthesizers, might still find them to be useful. However, most musicians I’ve seen are just using laptops connected to their keyboard controllers either via MIDI or USB.

      Thanks for dropping by!

  2. I have the VST 3.5 that came out in 2011 and it works amazing! The performance flexibility and a more natural playing feel is what I love about it. I’m very interested in learning more about whats new out there for studio technology, I just haven’t had the time but your article gave me some very valuable info and I’m going to book mark your page because I do want to get back into music.

    • Hey there!

      Yeah, the later versions of VST did have significant improvements in terms of its performance and execution. Thanks for bookmarking my website, and feel free to leave more questions if you have any.

      Cheers!

  3. RECORDING IS SOOOO EXPENSIVE.

    I have friends with bands who are CONSTANTLY trying to avoid having to hire someone to do the final recording for an indie bands first CD for instance… even though they have a lot of recording tools, it’s super challenging to scrape together the funds to begin with.

    This system looks like it would not only allow home control over your recording, but if you invest in it you would basically have a money making business for all the other bands.

    Really good info. Technical and over my head but very recommendable!

    • Hey Alexx!

      Yeah, professionally producing your very own music can be very daunting and costly, especially for people who have no training in audio at all. But thankfully, with the advancement of technology in audio, together with an abundance of resources on the internet, it is now very possible!

      Thanks for reading!

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