How VSTs work

Tuesday, 17 December 2019 3:50 pm

We see lots of questions about VSTs and it’s clear there’s quite a bit of confusion about this technology.

So, here is a quick guide to VSTs – or Virtual Studio Technology.

The formal definition of a VST is an audio plug-in software interface that integrates a software synthesizer and effects in digital audio workstations.

Still confused?

VSTs are a software solution that plays sounds when it is triggered.

Let’s look at what you need for drum VSTs.

Obviously, you need the VST software itself. That’s a program like Superior Drummer or Addictive Drums.

These programs consist of samples or sounds and some tools to tweak them.

But you still need to be able to make the sounds happen. And there are two ways that works. Some VSTs operate as stand-alones, which means they don’t need any other software to make them play – and others need a host to run in the background. The host is also known as a DAW (digital audio workstation).

Definition: A digital audio workstation (DAW) is a software program used for composing, producing, recording, mixing and editing audio and MIDI. DAWs facilitate mixing of multiple sound sources on a time-based grid.

In plain speak, a DAW is a virtual audio mixer and one of the best-known is GarageBand.

So, the DAW actually sits between the trigger and the VST.

Next, clearly, we have to discuss the triggers. You can use almost anything to make notes in a DAW – but most musicians use a keyboard to send MIDI to the program.

MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is a communications protocol – like a musical description that tells the DAW what notes, what instruments and what volume to play.

Drum modules can also send MIDI data, with each drum or cymbal having a different MIDI note. But there are other MIDI messages which tell the DAW if you’re playing the head or rim and how loud or soft you’re hitting the drums.

You don’t really have to understand MIDI to use VSTs, but you do need to know how the hardware and software fits together.

VSTs in action

So, let’s look at how you connect your drums to a VST. First, you’ll need a TMI (trigger to MIDI interface). That’s a device to turn your strokes on the kit into MIDI messages. Today, most drum modules have built-in MIDI, and you can connect them via USB to your computer. Older modules might not have this easy connectivity, and you might need to connect the MIDI Out from the module to a separate interface, which then connects to the computer. But pretty much every module built in the last five years will have a direct connection to the computer.

Once you’ve connected the module to the computer, you need to make sure that it is selected as an audio device. On a Mac, you do this using the Audio MIDI setup app, which you’ll find in the Utilities folder. Depending on your module, you might also have to load a driver which you’ll find on the manufacturer’s website.

Let’s assume you’re using a VST that needs a host. One of the easiest and cheapest is Reaper which even offers a free trial.

The first step is to open the DAW and select your MIDI device (most likely your drum module) and make sure your audio device settings are also correct (so that the audio is directed to where you want to hear it).

Then create a new project and insert your VST, which should appear under the Virtual Instruments tab. (This, of course, assumes that you have installed and activated your VST.)

Once you’ve selected you VST, it should open up with a screen that lets you choose your input instrument (under MIDI devices) and, just as importantly, load a MIDI map that directs all your triggers to the appropriate instrument. In other words, when you hit a snare rim, it should tell the VST to play a snare rim sample.

If you’ve loaded the correct map and it doesn’t work, the most common cause is that the computer is not looking for MIDI data in the right place – specifically, the right “channel”. Most modules send e-drum MIDI on channel 10, so try selecting that or “omni” (any channel) and you should hear the right sounds.

Once you’re hearing sounds, you can start digging around in the VST, where you can select different kits, different instruments, various tunings and a bunch of other controls and effects.

There’s much to learn about VSTs – and although there are lots of similarities between the common ones, there are also lots of differences, and you’re best to look for further instructions relating to your specific VST.