Digital Music Production – Plugins and Plugin Formats

What is a plug-in? The Wikipedia entry on plug-in says: “In computing, a plug-in consists of a computer program that interacts with a host application to provide a certain, usually very specific, function on demand”. In digital music production software, plugins have a certain function in the production process, whether that be for creative and artistic purposes or for engineering purposes.

To use a plugin, first you need a plugin host. The music industry standard for these hosts are the Digital Audio Workstations (or DAWs) that are widely available today, in both proprietary commercial software or open-source freeware. Such DAW’s include Steinberg Cubase or Nuendo, Cakewalk Sonar, Digidesign Pro Tools (the DAW considered to be THE industry standard), and Apple Logic Studio. There are other less familiar DAWs but as powerful nonetheless such as MAGIX Samplitude and the newcomer Presonus Studio One. Other than the major name DAW’s, there are minor DAW’s that are proprietary with a certain hardware purchase or freeware DAW’s that are light but have limited capabilities.

By installing a DAW on your computer, you can then use the power of plugins to enhance your creative and engineering palette. Creative use of plugins include instrument plugins or plugins that give special effects and sounds such as unique delays, vintage filters, and hard compression. Engineering use of plugins constitute the majority of plugin usage – to glue the sound of the music together. Depending on whether a plugin is designed for creative or engineering use, the capabilities of that plugin will vary. For example, some engineering plugins focus on efficient GUI (user interface) and reproduction fidelity while other plugins are highly colored and feature only one knob that does all sorts of unorthodox things to your sound. Either way you can spend hours just tweaking to get that right sound.

Plugin Formats

Certain DAW’s only work with certain plugin formats. Let’s look at the various standard plugin formats and their corresponding DAW that supports these formats:

1. VST/VSTi. Stands for Virtual Studio Technology (i for instrument) made by Steinberg. Primarily for Cubase, though many of the other DAW’s support the VST format (it is in fact the widest format in use). Works both for Mac and PC.

2. DX/DXi. Stands for DirectX, made by Cakewalk and Microsoft. Works best with Sonar. PC only.

3. RTAS & TDM. Stands for Real Time AudioSuite and Time Division Multiplexing, made by Digidesign. Format for Pro Tools. Both for Mac and PC.

4. AU or Audio Unit. Made by Emagic and adopted by Apple. Format for Logic Studio. Only for Mac.

To understand better the compatibility between hosts and plugins, it’s best to check the specifications of the host software on what formats it supports. There are workarounds to format support limitations, such as the RTAS to VST adapter for Pro Tools (important because there are many good and free VST’s, but not so many RTAS’ that are good AND free). The various plugins available may also come in more than one format e.g. a channel strip plugin set consisting of EQ and compression may come in VST, DX, and also RTAS for ease of use between various DAW owners. A great source to look at when searching for plugins is the KVR Audio website where they keep up to date with commercial and free plugins (sometimes the free ones are better than the commercial ones *hint).

What used to take a large box of hardware can now be done in a small box of software. Take advantage of the technology to produce the music that you want. But remember to put some limitation on yourself or you could get lost in the palette of plugins available at your fingertips.

To your music success,
Endy