VST, AU and AAX: 3 common types of audio plug-in formats

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Plugins are vital extensions to our DAW software.

Whether you strive to be a singer-songwriter, music producer, sound designer, or mixing/mastering engineer, you’ll use plugins at one time or another.

But there are a few things you need to consider when deciding which plugin format is best for you.

For example, are you a Windows or Mac user? Do you use Pro Tools, Logic Pro or another DAW?

We explore all this and more with the following topics:


What are plugins?

Generally speaking, a plugin is an extension or additional software tool that you can install in host software.

But what is a plugin in music?

So, in digital audio, an audio plugin is a software tool that you can insert into your host DAW software – a digital audio workstation.

Additionally, there are a few types of Digital Audio Workstation plugins. But most DAW plugins also allow you to run them in standalone mode, regardless of the plugin format.

In any case, we can control these plugins with our mouse and keyboard or a MIDI controller.

Since different software companies make their DAWs, they often have different specifications than others.

And because different big tech companies — Apple and Microsoft — create their own operating systems, they also have their own requirements.

For example, Apple’s DAWs – Logic Pro and Garageband – can only read the AU plug-in format. And even Apple’s macOS could only read AU plugins until not too long ago!

However, Avid’s DAW Pro Tools can only read AAX plugins.

The three most common types of audio plugins are VST, AU, and AAX.

In other words, audio plugin formats are associated with different DAWs and operating systems. Accordingly, there are different types of audio plugin formats.


Plugin formats for different operating systems

This brief introduction shows you that the battle of operating systems – Windows and macOS – affects musicians and music producers like the general public.

Plugins for Windows

The common plug-in format for Windows is VST/VST3. Unlike the AAX and AU plug-in formats, the VST format is pretty much universal.

However, AAX plugins are also compatible with Windows operating systems. But Pro Tools is the only DAW capable of reading this format.

Plugins for macOS

Once upon a time, macOS could only read AU plugins and not VST.

However, macOS can also read VST and AAX plugins. Many Mac users make music with Logic Pro X, so AU plugins are their plugin format of choice.

And the AU format remains the standard plug-in format that Apple systems read, despite how they can also read VST plug-ins now.

Why? Well, let’s dive into the details…


The Difference Between Plugin Formats

At this point, you’re probably wondering “surely there’s some reason why we have all these plugin formats that don’t relate to operating systems?”

Aside from AAX, the biggest difference between VS and AU plugin formats was the fact that macOS only read AU plugins the longest.

What are VST plugins?

VST stands for Virtual Studio Technology and they are compatible with most DAWs except Pro Tools.

But you can use VST plug-in instruments standalone without a DAW, whether it’s a VST synthesizer or a sample-based VST instrument.

In short, this is the most popular plugin format out there. Whether for virtual instruments or effects, the VST format is the best known plugin format.

In reality, “VST Instruments and Plugins“has become the common way of discussing”virtual instruments and plugins“. “VST instruments” and “virtual instruments” are used interchangeably!

In practice, you can use VST plug-ins in DAWs such as Ableton Live, FL Studio, Cubase and many more.

Steinberg released the VST format in 1996 with their Cubase DAW. At that time, VSTs only worked with Windows. Now, however, they work with both Windows and macOS.

Since 1996 it has become the industry standard plug-in format.

Make way for VST3…

VST3 (version 3.02) is the latest iteration of the VST plug-in format.

VST3 plugins use 64-bit processing, unlike VST plugins which use 32-bit processing.

The biggest difference between this version and previous VST formats is how VST3 plugins only add processing when an audio signal is playing.

Despite this, some plugins are still available as VST 2.0 and 2.4. But these 32-bit plugins are being phased out as they don’t work with many new DAW updates.

So what are AU plugins?

The AU plug-in format – which stands for Audio Unit – is Apple’s proprietary audio technology. Specifically, the tech giant created the AU plugin format itself.

Therefore, AU plugins are designed to work specifically with macOS. And the format is part of the Core Audio provided by macOS – the AU format is part of the macOS operating system!

It therefore makes sense that Logic Pro/Logic Pro X and Garageband only read AU plugins as they are also Apple products.

Despite its exclusivity, the AU plugin format offers very low latency and stability (and therefore faster processing) for users.

That said, other DAWs like Ableton Live, Reaper and Studio One now also support AU plugins!

What are AAX plugins? The plug-in format for Pro Tools

AAX stands for Avid Audio Extension. And Avid introduced this plugin format because they designed a 64-bit version of Pro Tools.

As a result, they needed a plug-in format that could handle 64-bit processing in their DAW. But AAX plugins only work with Pro Tools and no other DAWs.

Although proprietary, the AAX format allows you to share sessions between different instances of 64-bit Pro Tools DAWs and still use the same plugins with all settings in place.


Native plugins vs. DSP plug-ins

All plugins are divided into two categories, regardless of the format of the plugin. These categories are native plugins and DSP plugins. And what sets them apart is how they draw power from the computer they’re installed on.

A native plugin derives its power from Computer CPU (processor).

And DSP plugins consume power a separate processor which may be an audio interface.

Native plugins are much more common, despite how a DSP plugin could save our computer system a lot of work.

Although a native plugin shouldn’t be a problem if you have a CPU capable of the heavy lifting of music production – an Intel i5 or equivalent.


What plugin format should I use?

Now that you’re an expert on how plugins work, it’s time to think about what determines which plugin format is right for you.

To do this, you will need to ask yourself a few questions.

  1. Are you using Windows or Mac?

    If you are a Windows user, install the VST plugins. On the contrary, if you are a MAC user, install the AU plugins.

    Although Mac now supports VST plugins, AU plugins provide Mac users with better user experience.

  2. Does your DAW support VST format?

    If so, use VST plug-ins. Well, unless…

  3. Does your DAW support VST3?

    Always use VST3 plugins if your DAW supports them. If your DAW does not currently support VST3 but does support VST, install both. Your DAW software will inevitably support VST3 in the future.

  4. Are you a Pro Tools user?

    If you use Pro Tools, always install AAX plugins.


Final Thoughts: what is the best plugin format?

Thanks to their almost universal application, VST3 is the best plugin format in my opinion. Now, VST plugins work on both Mac and Windows, in addition to almost all DAWs except Pro Tools.

But Apple’s AU plug-in format works great on Mac computers. Their stability and low latency processing make them a steal if you’re a Mac user (which I’m not).

Finally, AAX plugins allow Pro Tools users to share their projects with other PT users without losing any information during transfer.

So if you are a Pro Tools user or a Mac user, VST plugins might not be the best plugins.

But if you’re using another DAW besides Logic Pro or Pro Tools on a Windows system, VST plug-ins are the plug-in format for you.


FAQs

Do VST plugins work in Pro Tools?

No, VST plugins do not work in Pro Tools. AAX plugins are a specific plugin format for Pro Tools DAW.

Does a VST work with Garageband?

VST plugins do not work in Apple’s Garageband. Garageband users should use AU plugins.

Do VST plugins work in Logic?

Like Garageband, VST plugins do not work in Logic Pro. If you are a Logic Pro user, you should use AU plugins.

Does VST work on Mac?

VST3 plugins now work on Mac. However, AU plugins will give you more stability on Mac systems than VST plugins.

What advantages do VSTs offer over AU and AAX?

If you’re a Mac user or make music on Pro Tools, VST plugins won’t give you any real benefit.

However, if you are a Windows user with a DAW that is not Pro Tools, then VST plugins seamlessly integrate software synthesizers, software instruments and audio effects into your DAW.

How do VST plugins work?

Virtual instruments use samples or algorithms to generate sound (or both) while audio effects apply processing to digital audio signals at their input. Then the effect outputs the signal with the new processing applied.

On the user side, we can use MIDI controllers to control VST plugins such as virtual instruments and audio effects with faders and physical buttons to control the pitch of the instrument sound or the intensity of the audio. ‘effect.


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