Producing your own music has become easier and more accessible over the last 20 years. You used to need a full-fledged recording studio with hardware equipment worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to get a halfway decent sounding tape.
Recording used to be a long, drawn-out process, where mixing took complicated cable running. Knowing how to do all of it took years of training.
Today we have instant access to top-of-the-line recording technology on our computers. Successfully recording a track still takes a bit of time to master, but now anyone with a laptop (or a smartphone for that matter) can record.
One of the tools that should be given credit for this newfound accessibility is virtual studio technology or VST for short.
Virtual studio technology can be a lot of different things. Imagine the VST as a virtual box containing and operating a type of hardware for you within your computer and DAW, or digital audio workstation.
They could be an instrument or an effect of pretty much any type you can think of. Not all VSTs are created equally- The quality can certainly range from cheap toys to professional equipment.
VST Instruments are digital emulators that developers make in an attempt to capture a real-world instrument. They probably hold a certain amount of data like high-quality recordings or samples of the real-world instrument it represents. Some might not have any recordings. Instead, they may have complex code that processes waveforms similar to an FM synthesis device.
You can get a VST instrument of pretty much any existing (or fictional) instrument imaginable. Except for the hurdy-gurdy–no one has made a decent hurdy-gurdy VST yet.
To use them in your DAW, you first need to load them up however your DAW requires. Then you access the instrument itself by channeling in a Musical Instrument Digital Interface protocol- Otherwise known as MIDI.
MIDI can come from within your DAW, either penciled in or imported from one of these killer MIDI Chord packs or an external controller.
But you have to make sure that the VST is reading the source of the data stream. This ensures the DAW reads the output from your external keyboard or double-checks the output port number on your DAW’s MIDI sender.
VST Effects emulate physical hardware, either directly or in inspiration. Any reverb, compressor, delay, flanger, stereo splitter, or any other kind of effect you can think of, were all most likely originally based on a physical piece of gear.
Every DAW operates slightly differently when it comes to using VST effects, but more often than not, you’ll have to make sure that the VST install package is in a specific folder that the DAW can scan.
Then you’ll load the effect onto a channel with audio running through it and begin adjusting your effects.
Whatever computer you’re using has a finite amount of CPU and RAM it can offer while you’re mixing, and some of the more complicated VST plugins can start to really suck up that amount.
That’s why it’s important to know how to make the most out of what you have by taking advantage of auxiliary sends.
This method is reflective of how engineers used to work in the studio- They obviously wouldn’t have a separate reverb device for every channel they wanted the effect on. They would have the reverb exist on one (or two, if you wanted stereo) channel that they would then send audio into and route back out.
Every DAW does this differently. But essentially, what you’ll be doing is placing your effect like a reverb or delay onto a single channel, which has its output routed to the master channel.
Then you’ll split the audio output of another channel that has something you want to hit the effect. Doing this lets you control how much dry signal goes straight to the master and how much wet signal comes out of the effect send.
This technique reduces the number of effects that you need for your project. Instead of placing a reverb on every vocal sample–which you’re probably using from this sweet vocal pack from Aaron Richards–you can have one reverb that you send every vocal to.
As we’ve mentioned, every DAW does these things differently, some more conveniently than others.
Some DAWs were created with original recording engineers in mind and offered a massive amount of control over your project setup–but these often come at the cost of a steep learning curve.
Others might be a bit more straightforward, but they usually sacrifice potential for what they offer in convenience. By being more limited in their functions, they make it easier to do certain things.
People might try to convince you to use this or that DAW because they “sound better” or “perform better,” but the truth is they pretty much all do the same thing, just a little differently from each other.
The important part of picking a DAW is how well you understand its interface and how easily you can use your VSTs. Here’s an article covering some of the major options to get you started.
There are a ton of VSTs out there. Between instruments and effects, you could easily spend tens of thousands of dollars building up your collection.
But if you’re a beginner looking for the essential tools to pick up, then the list narrows down a bit. You don’t need to spend a massive amount of cash on any of them, but here’s some VSTs we would recommend to any beginner looking to expand their toolkit.
Compressor: Most DAW’s will come with their own stock plugin effects, and a compressor will probably be in that folder. And you can get away with using a free compressor.
But when you finally end up using a high-quality digital compressor, you will almost immediately notice a huge difference. Cheap compressors will have sensitive thresholds and mangle your audio when you push them even the slightest bit.
High-end compressors will be able to actually mold your dynamics the way that you want while maintaining the quality of your audio. Just make sure you know what you’re doing when you start compressing.
Reverb: Again, stock plugins might do the trick in a pinch, but a well-crafted reverb can be a major step up. And there are plenty of different reverbs out there to use. Plate, spring, and hall reverbs will give your mix a bit of variety and let you really play with the character of the reverb until it’s just right for your track.
Multi-Instruments: Especially if you’re a beginner producer, you will want to start looking for some decent instruments. The stock piano plugin will never sound the way you want, trust us.
But if you’re looking for a good value for the money you spend, look into using multi-instruments. These VSTs contain several different instrument emulators in one instead of trying to lock in on one that you might use every now and then. This type of VST is great for experimenting and expanding your library of sounds.
Retro Synth Emulators: If you’ve used cheap or free synth plugins, then you’ll recognize the flat, artificial tone that they usually come with. If you’ve wondered why your tracks don’t sound like the rich pop-hits on the radio, it’s because they’re using high-quality synthesizers.
If using synths at all interests you, it’s worth the investment to pick up a decent VST.
VSTs are just tools for you to use in your DAW. They could be instruments or effects of a wide variety.
Always keep an eye on your CPU usage, and don’t be scared to invest in decent quality tools- Just do your research first. Most companies will allow you to demo their products before you pull the trigger, and while it can be a hassle to set them up, it can definitely be worth it.