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Plugin Formats Explained

Plugins are the lifeblood of modern digital audio workstations (DAWs), enhancing their functionality and creative potential. They come in various formats, each with its unique features and compatibilities. This guide will delve into the primary plugin formats, VST, AU, and AAX, shedding light on their differences and usage.


VST (Virtual Studio Technology): Steinberg revolutionized music production in the mid-90s with VST software. This format quickly became the industry standard. VST plugins operate on Windows and macOS systems, making them incredibly versatile. Particularly noteworthy is VST3, an advanced iteration that excels on Mac devices with Apple Silicon Chips. Renowned DAWs like Cubase, Reason, Ableton Live, Studio One, FL Studio, MOTU Digital Performer, and Reaper seamlessly integrate VST plugins, offering various options for music producers.


AU (Audio Unit): Exclusively tailored for macOS, Apple developed AU plugins after their acquisition of Emagic, a software company integral to their DAW development. AU plugins are intricately linked to the Core Audio environment of macOS, creating a fixed file path for the plugin folder that cannot be altered. Logic Pro, Ableton Live, Studio One, FL Studio, MOTU Digital Performer, and Reaper are some DAWs supporting AU plugins. If an AU plugin needs to be used within a VST-only DAW, tools like Element can be employed to wrap the plugin, akin to using 32 Lives.


AAX (Avid Audio Extension): Avid Pro Tools users are familiar with AAX, a format compatible with versions ten and later. AAX plugins come in two variants: AAX Native, utilizing the system’s CPU, and AAX DSP Standard, which necessitates Avid DSP Software. Like AU, AAX plugins have fixed file locations, ensuring their stability and integration within the Pro Tools environment.


32-bit vs. 64-bit Plugins

One crucial distinction in the plugin landscape is the bit depth. 64-bit plugins, compatible with the latest and most capable operating systems, offer enhanced performance and access to more significant amounts of RAM. In contrast, 32-bit plugins can utilize only four GB of RAM. Should you find yourself in a scenario where a 32-bit plugin must coexist with a 64-bit DAW, solutions like Soundradix’s “32 Lives” can upgrade the plugin to 64-bit.


Choosing the Right Plugin Format

Selecting the appropriate plugin format hinges on the DAW you use and your preferred operating system. If you’re a Windows user or require cross-platform compatibility, VST plugins are the go-to choice. On the other hand, macOS users will naturally gravitate toward AU plugins for optimal integration within the Core Audio environment. Pro Tools enthusiasts, however, will find solace in AAX plugins tailor-made for their preferred DAW.

In conclusion, understanding the differences between VST, AU, and AAX plugins empowers producers and musicians to make informed decisions about their creative toolkit. The plugin format should align with your DAW and production needs, enhancing your workflow and allowing you to unleash your musical potential.

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Video Credits: Audio Tech TV Youtube Channel


DJ/Producer from the United States. - University of the Arts, Philadelphia PA. Opened for Martin Garrix, Steve Aoki, Justin Bieber, and Lil Uzi Vert.