A VST is a Virtual Studio Technology. It is a protocol for computer-based digital audio developed by Steinberg in the ‘90s to integrate processors (plug-ins) to a Digital Audio Workstation (DAWs) to extend new features to DAWs that were not originally built into them.
In Ableton, VST 2 and VST 3 are fairly similar, however, have different functions and applications in different contexts. The main differences are:
- They were released 10 years apart to address digital audio production needs
- VST 2 allowed for MIDI interface with DAWs while VST 3 took this a step further with multiple input and output configurations, and addressed some of the shortcomings of the VST 2 format
- VST 3 improved the plug-in performance of DAWs and plug-ins while reducing the CPU load on computers, all while visually looking better and with an adjustable plug-in window size
- Program files for both VST 2 and VST 3 will have different suffixes when installed on your computer
Why do you need a VST?
It is a common misconception that a VST is the same thing as a virtual instrument (VSTi) or virtual effects plug-in. A VST is basically how your audio production software interprets and distinguishes, which of your installed software and programs are for audio production. They make it so you can use your computer without relying on external hardware effects, instruments, or processors.
Most plug-ins come in the VST format, and depending on DAW and computer brand, you will find plug-ins in different formats such as AU – Audio Units for MacBook, AAX, or the older RTAS for ProTools. For Ableton, your plug-ins will come in the VST format. Most of the features of the VST 3.0 plug-in format are a refinement of VST 2.0 plug-ins with a few new additions.
Highlights of the VST 2.0
The VST format 2.0 was developed to enable plug-ins to receive MIDI data from a MIDI controller. This feature led to a flurry of Virtual Studio Technology Instruments development. With this format, manufacturers have been able to develop countless digital instruments and emulations and as a result, have pushed the needle when it comes to digital audio production.
Highlights of the VST 3.0
Initially, most plug-in developers did not opt to make the switch to VST 3.0 at first because there were no significant changes from VST 2.0 format, and were also prone to crashes and bugs. However, with further development and feature refinements, VST 3.0 has been adopted by nearly every plug-in manufacturer, with some even moving to phase out the VST 2 format for their plug-ins because of the more powerful features of the VST 3 format.
- For VST 2.0, 32-bit system integration, and VST 2.4, 64-bit system integration for whichever version of Ableton you are using
- VST 2.0 plug-ins Install as a .dll file for windows and .vst for MacBook
- 64-bit system integration and support for higher processing power
- VST 3.0 plug-ins install as a .vst3 file for both windows and MacBook
- VST 3.0 versions of VSTi (Virtual Studio Technology Instruments) plug-ins can take in audio inputs to make emulations of instruments like the vocoder possible. VST 2.0 instruments initially did not have this feature, and you were limited to the sounds that came with the plug-in
In Ableton, you can see this feature in action with the Simple sample editor when you load audio into Simpler, and play your audio sample as an instrument of its own. For more on Ableton Sample Editor, please visit the Sample Editor Tutorial.
- VST 3.0 supports multiple MIDI inputs which will provide utility in live performances when working with 2 or more MIDI instruments allowing for high-level side-chaining capabilities. With VST 2.0 plug-ins you could only use one MIDI input per plug-in by the time of the VST 3.0 release
- VST 3.0 plug-ins were initially developed to patch the shortcomings of the VST 2.0 format when it came to dynamically adapting to multiple audio signal inputs and outputs allowing for mono, stereo, and surround sound recording, mixing, and playback
- Both VST formats are capable of parameter automation. VST 3.0 offers smoother and much more accurate automation, especially when recording automation. Have a look at how to automate tempo in Ableton.
- Though most developers have updated their VST 2.0 plug-ins, the adjustable window for plug-ins feature was initially developed in the VST 3.0, for high-resolution plug-in GUIs. This means you can resize the plug-in GUI to your liking to make it smaller or bigger to optimize your workflow
- Most importantly, VST 3.0 effects optimize your computer’s processing power by only processing signal if there is an audio signal input when mixing and during sound design
Depending on your computer’s software specifications and the version of Ableton you have installed (32-bit or 64-bit), and the version of Ableton you shall need to know which VST version to install your plug-ins to prevent crashes and ensure optimal plug-in performance. Also, keep in mind that Steinberg no longer supports the VST 2.0 format. I recommend that you install your VSTs in both 2.0 and 3.0, as you transition to the VST 3.0 format.