2022 Guide: What Are Music Plugins?

Music plugins, or plugins instruments and effects, can enhance a sound, just like how an effect pedal can change the quality of a guitar. Even some pedals can do things like adjusting input gain and audio threshold. In addition, standalone effects are compatible with your keyboard’s input without needing other gear. 

Music plugins come in VST, AU, AAX, and many other file extensions or formats. However, they all work on similar principles and differ in their features and interface platform (more on that below).

A music plugin is a small computer program that works within your music software to process and produce sound. Music plugins can make existing sounds more interesting, add new effects to an instrument’s signal, or generate entirely new sounds (often referred to as ‘synthesized sounds’). Plugin instruments operate in the same way as standard midi instruments. 

How Plugins Work With A Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)

Plugins can be installed and used within any music software that supports them, but their primary function is to work within your DAW.   Your DAW is the piece of software that you use to create and record music. It contains unique tracks or ‘busses’ that plugins can manipulate. By adding plugin effects such as reverb, delay, EQ, compression, etc., to these busses, you can control how your digital audio sounds in terms of loudness, tone, and feel.

All DAWs will come with some built-in plugins (such as EQ), but third-party manufacturers also produce plugins compatible with the major DAWs like Ableton Live, FL Studio,  Logic Pro X, and Pro Tools. These plugins usually come in the form of VST or Audio Units.

As well as using VST and Audio/Units, there are other plugin standards that you should know about: LADSPA, LV2, DSSI, and AAX. The first three run natively on Linux platforms, whereas AAX is used only by the Pro Tools DAW, which, as you might expect, is only available on Mac OS X.

What is a VST (Virtual Studio Technology)?

VST stands for Virtual Studio Technology. Steinberg created it as an open standard plugin platform that could substitute the hardware synthesizers found in many studios to give musicians access to more effects from one location.

Many professionals, including producers Simon Stockhausen and Jean-Michel Jarre, have used VSTs to make their music. It’s also easy for beginners to learn, with many plugins offering friendly interface designs similar to where you’d usually find an equalizer or reverb.

Types of Virtual Instruments In VST Form

Many virtual instruments are available in VST form, such as drums and synthesizers. You can add sounds to your music with a drum machine virtual instrument or use loops from another source while recording on the fly. VSTs are helpful when you’re making music on the stage and want to change up songs during a live set without having to stop and start. A virtual synthesizer can recreate an analog sound, with oscillators being the electronic components that create your tones.

Having so many options when creating music might seem confusing, but VSTs offer many benefits. If you’re making music with a group or just by yourself, they can provide you with an array of sounds to use in your songs. You can even record drum beats or loop instruments when you’re not using any musical tracks. In addition, VST plugins will save you time when creating music during the busy holiday season when it’s easy to become overwhelmed with tasks.

You can also create custom sounds and textures with digital synthesizers applied directly to analog sounds. This customization means that you can alter the sound of another instrument to make it something completely new.

VST effects plugins and vst instruments, when combined, can provide an almost infinite number of possibilities for re-creating or remaking sounds. You can open several plugins simultaneously and process the sound through various effects to create an entirely new instrument out of thin air. VSTs are compatible with any modern digital audio workstation (DAW) program, typically used to record music.

Instruments Often FOund In VST Format:

  • Guitar Plugins: Virtual guitar amplifiers and effects pedals for creating virtual guitars.
  • Drums Plugins: Used to create custom drum samples, this type of vst plug-in is a one-stop-shop for building a complete kit.
  • Synths: Synthesizer VSTs allow you to change the waveforms to your need and customize your sound.
  • Instrument Racks: A rack of VSTs that create a complex instrument.

What is an AU?

An AU plugin file stands for Audio Unit. Be aware that this comes in both 32-bit and 64-bit versions, just like your operating system does! ProTools uses the 32-bit version while Logic Pro uses the 64-bit version of AU, so be sure to check which type your host supports if you’re looking to purchase a specific plugin.

The biggest thing you should know about AU is that you can purchase AU plugins by plugin type. VSTs are often sold individually or in bundles, which means you’re likely to find plugins for individual instruments like piano and synthesizer all over the place. Producers use this software interface store to see what’s available!

Types Of AU Audio Plugins

Like VSTs, AU plugins can be simple effects processors or advanced instruments that emulate real-world instruments.

Synths are some of the most popular audio plugins out there, and their popularity is easy to explain: synths make it easy to create unique sounds. With your creativity (or the help of another person), you can create unique sounds that don’t exist in nature and get exciting results.

The marketing language used by plugin developers can be like the marketing language found on websites selling dietary supplements: it’s all hype. It may sound logical to some, but there is no evidence to support these claims about AU plugins beyond the plugin developer’s word.

Not all plugins are equally costly, but some plugins are costly is simple: brand name. Also, you can find some unique AU distortion plugins, delay plugins, reverb plugins, compressor plugins that are not available as VST plugins.

Some plugins work only in a particular DAW, leading to headaches and wasted money. Be sure to research whether an au instrument plugin is compatible with your DAW before making the purchase.

The plugin may sound good when it’s in demo mode, but no one has yet to develop a way for you to test how it sounds in your song because the full version of almost all AU instruments is not free.

‘AU plugins’ can harm your CPU if not used properly. For example, an AU flanger plugin that causes your CPU to go above 100% will cause the song to glitch and skip as it fights for resources.

Types of Effects In AU Plugin Format

  • Delay plugins are pretty standard in the music production world. They can help you give your song depth or create rhythmic effects, and they sound great if used correctly.
  • Distortion plugins are another standard plugin for music producers.  This type of plugin can change and alter your sounds and give your song a unique feel.
  • Filter plugin is like an AU EQ, giving you control over the highs and lows of any sound. They are great for creating new feels in particular instruments or the whole mix.
  • EQ plugins (AU Equalizers) will help you balance your sounds’ low, mid, and highs to create a perfect sounding mix. These are always useful in creating professional mixes.
  • Reverb plugins can help fill out the sound in your mix by adding some depth to specific sounds or instruments. They also make anything you put them on sound more professional.
  • Limiter plugins help pull your song together by preventing clipping and other nasty sounds entering your ears. They are the final piece of the puzzle in making a good mix.
  • Vocal processing plugins work by enhancing vocals and giving them a better sound. Some will allow you to form your custom presets, while others are preset to make your vocals stand out.
  • Compression plugins help fix issues in your mix. For example, they reduce the loud parts of your song and make the quiet parts louder. In addition, compression helps make everything level out in the end, which can help your mix stand out.
  • Mastering plugins are heavy-duty pieces of equipment that take your songs to the next level. They get rid of unwanted sounds like hiss or static or add special effects like reverb.

What Is An AAX?

An Aax plugin stands for AAX plugin, which is another format of a music plugin file. Avid created it specifically for ProTools users unsatisfied with using AU plugins. While they resemble their 32-bit counterparts closely, AAX files also allow you to use 64-bit effects without needing to purchase them twice.

However, one thing separating them from other platforms is that some plugins are only available in the AAX format. This is because the AAX format can make it hard to use many effects at once if you don’t own ProTools, but Avid has made it very clear that this is their intention. So keep that in mind before purchasing any new plugins!

Types of AAX Plugins

The final thing that needs about AAX plugins is there are three types. First, there are the effects only, plus all-in-one, and finally, third-party bundles.

To explain this better, let’s look at a few examples. First, the effects-only AAX  plugin is much like a standard Pro Tools plugin where you can add a single effect to a channel strip. The effects plus all-in-one AAX plugin also has an instrument, however, it does not run as a separate track within the mixer window. Third-party bundles are similar, except they usually include multiple separate instruments and effects bundled together.

Top AAX Plugins On The Market

  • The Sauce Bundle plugin is an all-in-one third-party bundle that provides not only effects but also instruments. The bundle includes a variety of virtual instruments such as drums and strings available within the project view to provide backing tracks or additional sounds.
  • Reason 11.1 is a plugin designed for use in Propellerhead Software’s music creation program, Reason. As with other separate plugins, it’s available with third-party effects both in the mixer window and project view.
  • Universal Audio UAD plugins \work with the Universal Audio Apollo series. These include various effects and instruments that can be used within your DAW when equipped with an Apollo interface.
  • Waves plugins are compatible with several DAWs (and also stand-alone). They are primarily designed for use with Waves’ hardware interfaces, though they are compatible with third-party software.


Final Thoughts On Plugins For Music Producers

These music plugin file formats are available for both Mac and Windows systems with appropriate hosts. The best way to find out where you’re able to access each type of file is simply to look them up on Google or Wikipedia or ask an audio plugin developer for advice on your specific needs.

Music plugin files make digital audio processing possible for anyone who uses them. If you want to try out new effects without buying expensive hardware, plugins are the way to go! Simply find a free download or purchase plugin bundles from your favorite software host and try out the tools available today.

A music plugin is a software application intended to emulate the sound of an analog musical instrument, digital audio processor, or another effect. They are tools in mixing and mastering compatible with most digital audio workstations. Bay Eight Recording Studios offers professional recording and music production services with state-of-the-art equipment, and we’d love to hear from you if you need help producing your next track!





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