Best VST Plugins – 2020 Buyer’s Guide

If you have been in a music studio over the last decade, chances that there was no plugin running on the computer during your visit are second to none. This is probably the best explanation of how significant and necessary VST Plugins became to modern music production.

Our Top Picks for VST Plugins

  • 14.000 synth presets
  • 500+ Oscilator Waveforms
  • 57 FX units and 34 filters
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  • All bass playing styles
  • 60 electric bass guitars
  • 333 synth bass sounds
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  • 15 mastering modules
  • Intelligent Master Assistant
  • Match EQ with 8.000 bands
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Comparison of the Best VST Plugins

IMAGEPRODUCT
  • The most resourceful VST instrument ever made
  • 14.000 synth presets
  • 57 FX units and 34 dual filters algorithms
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  • The most detailed bass guitar library
  • 60 electric bass guitars and 333 synth bass sounds
  • All bass playing techniques included
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  • Mastering plug-in with 15 modules
  • Match EQ module with 8.000 separate bands
  • Resizable and modern user interface
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  • Complete men & women choir library
  • 781 pre-programmed phrases
  • WordBuilder 2 turns any typed text into singing
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  • Physically modeled virtual drum software
  • 118 Drums pieces and 1000 MIDI grooves
  • Patterns performed by real drummers
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  • Emulation of 24 legendary synthesizers and keyboards
  • More than 8000 presets in Analog Lab browser
  • Integrated tutorial with tips for every control
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  • The best guitar amp and effects bundle
  • Handy Amp and Guitar Match feature
  • Contains bass guitar amps and effects, too
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  • Sample-based orchestral bundle
  • Incredible legatos and repetitions
  • Full FX engine including convolution reverb
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  • Software designed for artistic vocal manipulations
  • 5 modules and 7 virtual stompbox effects
  • Visually revamped user interface
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  • Physically modeled piano software
  • Includes other instruments and historical bundle
  • Advanced tuning and editing tools for every key
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What is a VST Plugin? 

VST plugin is an audio software with a graphical interface that allows virtual instruments and effects units to work under digital audio workstations (DAW) by using VST host applications. It can also work as a stand-alone application. This interface was created and owned by Steinberg and it’s being used on various OS platforms using the same protocol so you use the same VST plugin on any OS.

VST plugin uses digital signal processing to emulate the work of the hardware interfaces often found in a studio environment and may use other protocols such as MIDI to send or receive information. 

History of VST Plugins 

VST Plugins were the first audio plugins that could be applied and modified in real-time and today, it’s really hard to find a proper plugin that doesn’t support VST.

Version 1 was released back in 1996. In 1999, Steinberg made VST version 2 which allowed VST to receive MIDI data and so, the VST Instruments were born.

Almost ten years later, VST version 3 was announced in 2008. This version allowed audio input for VST Instruments and multiple MIDI information while version 3.5 from 2011 included note expression that significantly improved playing realism for certain VST instruments.

How to Choose the Right VST Plugin For Your Needs 

It’s easy to get confused with so many options. Let us give you some steps to pick the right one:

Define a Genre

Just like hardware units, not all VSTs work great for every music genre. Electronic drum machines won’t sound so good in jazz music and acoustic drums won’t work with house music. So, define what you’re working on and check what type of VSTs goes well there.

Skill Level

Some plugins are detailed and are made to be used by professionals. Others may not provide you with such depth but they will have a much more interactive and inspiring interface. It’s not so rare that it’s an environment that will provide you with better results eventually. That’s why you should be honest about your skills and pick the one that feels challenging to work with but comprehensive so you can progress.

Less is More

The VST Plugin market has numerous options for every type of effect or instrument. Try to narrow down your collection to the one you would actually use. Also, check how versatile they actually are. If you buy a VST effect, check if it can do more than just a reverb, for example.

Quick Take: 
Top 3 Picks

Review of the Best VST Plugins

As we’re going to cover Best VST Effects in another article, we’re mostly going to focus on VST instruments for this list:

PROS

  • More than 14.000 presets provided
  • 57 FX units and 34 dual filter algorithms
  • 500+ DSP Waveforms and Wavetables inside
  • The most detailed and powerful VST instrument ever made
  • Unique Hardware Synth Integration, Sound Lock and Sound Match features

CONS

  • Expensive and requires huge storage space
  • Overwhelming options may paralyze your workflow

Features and Specifications 

This plugin contains more than 14.000 presets. Every Omnisphere patch can have up to 20 Oscillators from the list of 500+ DSP waveforms and wavetables. Regarding the FX panel, there are 57 units to select from and you can apply one of 34 dual filter algorithms.

Preset browser allows you in-depth advanced search by keywords, categories, or tags. Sound Lock will allow you to lock certain sound parameters (such as arpeggiator) and apply them instantly to different presets during the search while Sound Match will provide you with the usual sounds that go with the one you picked.

Why it Stands Out to Us

This is the true showcase of how useful and powerful VST plugin can be. Countless ​synth sounds, outstanding sound quality, endless modulation and effect routings, all packed in a very convenient system that provides you with the possibilities that you could achieve only if you would own all the synthesizers emulated in this collection. 

There are no words to describe how good the Omnisphere can sound for any given music genre and the only limitation we can find is that you will have to pick from the hundreds of excellent presets. If it fits your budget, you simply can’t go wrong with it.

PROS

  • Very inspirative 32-step arpeggiator 
  • All bass playing techniques included
  • The best Spectrasonics FX engine with more than 32 modules
  • The most detailed library of acoustic, electric and synth basses
  • 60 electric bass guitars, 333 synth bass presets and a brand new Acoustic Bass

CONS

  • No stand‑alone version
  • Stack mode could utilize CPU resource better

Features and Specifications

This plugin contains bass sounds of acoustic, electric, and synth basses in a 34GB sampled-based library and it supports Disk Streaming mode that will load patches much faster.

It provides you with dozens of electric bass guitars and hundreds of synth basses in a user-friendly interface that changes the control surface found on the main page based on the preset that is currently active. You can combine up to eight sounds by layering, cross-fading, or splitting while using the Stack mode and blend and route them further in the Mixer page.

Why it Stands Out to Us

This is the most detailed bass VST collection on the market. It was made for both composing and performing thanks to straight-forward Live mode. No matter if you’re looking for modern or vintage, 4-string, or even 8-string bass guitar, acoustic, that versatile Fender Precision sound or typical Roland TB303 synth bass, this software has it all accompanied by very intelligent 32-step arpeggiator mode.

We love the fact that Spectrasonics didn’t spare any resources between their flagship products so they are integrated together and use the same resources, so you can find the same FX engine here and in Omnisphere, for example.

Best for the Money:
iZotope Ozone 9 Advanced

PROS

  • Mastering plug-in with 15 modules
  • Match EQ module with 8.000 separate bands
  • Fully resizable window with revamped user interface graphics
  • Intelligent Master Assistant with Modern and Vintage approach
  • Extremely useful Master Rebalance and Low-End Focus modules

CONS

  • Price might be too high for some users
  • Zoom controls would be appreciated for the trimming process

Features and Specifications

This plugin provides you with 15 advanced mastering modules in the modern and improved user interface that supports stand-alone mode and NKS format. It’s also fully compatible with other iZotope software such as Neutron, Nectar, or Relay.

Master Rebalance and Low-End Focus are especially useful as they allow you to tweak vocal balance and treat bass definition directly from the mixed stereo track. Match EQ can balance either the complete EQ based on the reference track given, or focus on the certain frequency range only using up to 8.000 separate bands. 

Why it Stands Out to Us

Mastering plugins will make a huge impact on any instrument or stereo track you’re working on and you should definitely have one in your plugin collection.

Master Rebalance and Low-End Focus features can save you hours of tweaking while Master Assistant will provide you with some interesting starting points for mastering. We were especially impressed by how this AI completely understands what colorized solutions should be when you pick the Vintage option.

If it seems that the price is too high for your budget, you can upgrade from smaller versions once you feel the need or time is right.

Best Choir VST Plugin:
EastWest Hollywood Choirs - Gold

PROS

  • 781 pre-programmed phrases 
  • Improved convolution reverb engine
  • Complete men & women choir library
  • WordBuilder 2 turns any typed text into singing
  • English, French, Spanish, German and Latin languages included

CONS

  • Crossfading between vowels not possible in real-time mode
  • Manual could be more detailed, especially WordBuilder part

Features and Specifications

Hollywood Choirs provides you with the 16GB of content for both men and women choir. It has hundreds of phrases recorded in various languages including English. 

Vowels were revisited while non-pitched consonants were recorded at different frequencies with an option to even manually pick the exact you prefer 

Consonants were treated with special care. In order to keep them at an intelligible level, it will calculate the number of notes in the chord, and consonants at the end of a word are now handled separately of those that begin a word.

Why it Stands Out to Us

The updated version of WorldBuilder allows you to type in any word and the choir will sing it for you in a very convincing way and this is definitely a composer’s dream-come-true. We also love how choirs automatically support each other in case the given note is too low or high for a specific gender to sing and sound natural.

So, lets sum it up - if we need to score some cinematic track, this would be our first choice for writing the choirs down. Dynamic range is exceptional and the language variety will cover all the situations you may find yourself in.

Best Drum VST Plugin:
BFD3 Virtual Drumkit

PROS

  • Physically modeled virtual drum software  
  • 118 Drums pieces and 1000 MIDI grooves
  • Up to 80 velocity layers per drum element
  • More drum kits and groove packs available as add-ons
  • Improved Groove Engine with patterns performed by real drummers

CONS

  • Windows 7 support recently stopped
  • Didn’t get impressed by “minimalistically clean” graphics of user interface

Features and Specifications

BFD3 provides you with three installation sizes depending on how much of the full velocity range you actually need. At full size, velocity can have up to 80 layers per drum element.

Speaking of drums, there are 118 parts to select from and more than 1000 MIDI pre-made grooves that you can drag-and-drop directly into your DAW

Sound-wise, tom resonance, cymbal swells, and natural bleed from the other components are expressed in a way never done before. Effects have been revamped and the offer is broadened with 8-band EQ, Distortion, and very useful EnvShaper that will help you modify the dynamics and transients of your drums.

Why it Stands Out to Us

The groove patterns coming with this software are awesome. You can create complete songs straight out of it and it will feel just right and organic what’s even more important. That’s why we would recommend you to take a look at those genre-oriented groove packs add-ons as they might squeeze even more from this software.

Overall, it works on all genres but it really shines when you hit it hard. Groove editor and especially the rudiments part was fun to play with and we have never seen such a comprehensive approach that will feel logical for both drummers and the rest.

Best Synth VST Plugin:
Arturia V Collection 7

PROS

  • Integrated tutorial with tips for every control
  • Keyboards classics such as B3 or Clavinet bundled
  • 24 legendary synthesizers and keyboards faithfully emulated
  • More than 8000 inspiring presets available in an Analog Lab browser
  • Beautiful and intuitive graphical interface with stand-alone and NKS mode

CONS

  • Some synths don’t support NKS format
  • Might lose workflow with so many presets and instruments

Features and Specifications  

This is a huge collection of perfectly emulated synthesizers and even iconic keyboard instruments such as Clavinet, B3, Farfisa, Vox Continental, Mellotron, and even acoustic piano.

All the classic analog synths are here - Solina, Jupiter 8, CS-80, Prophet, MiniMoog, ARP 2600, and even digital synths like Synclavier, Casio CZ and DX7. Arturia profiled more than 8.000 presets for these 24 instruments and you can access them all from a single browser called Analog Lab which also provides you with the tips that guide you through controls and parameters if needed. 

Why it Stands Out to Us

Every synth emulation from this library is a magnificent piece of art that had its place in music history. No matter what level of skills you have, this might be the only software you’re going to need regarding analog synth emulation.

We love that Arturia approached these instruments with such respect that everything was emulated as real as it gets aware that certain limitations existed only because of the era that synth belonged to. But, they were brave enough to modernize them further in a way they feel the original companies would if they had the chance and resources.

Best Guitar Plugin:
Positive Grid BIAS Pro Combo

PROS

  • Handy Amp and Guitar Match feature
  • The best guitar amp and effects bundle
  • Contains bass guitar amps and effects, too
  • Thousands of presets available at ToneCloud service
  • Dozens of amps, cabinets, speakers, stompboxes and rack effects

CONS

  • BIAS Pedal could be included in the bundle, too
  • Guitar Match presets are hit & miss at this moment

Features and Specifications

BIAS Pro Combo is made from two completely internally integrated software - BIAS Amp 2 Professional and BIAS FX 2 Pro. Former one takes care of extreme amp modeling, while the latter provides you with the additional content of amps, pedals, and rack effects designer with quite intriguing guitar modeler. There are hundreds of effects included with not so often found harmonizers and advanced delay effect units. 

IR file loader is another part of the treatment and it provides you with wonderful official Celestion speaker simulations while allowing you to load your own files as well.

Why it Stands Out to Us

Positive Grid made a quite versatile bundle that will cover all your guitar needs no matter what genre you’re playing. Also, it will work great no matter what editing skill you have thanks to Amp and Guitar Match features. This way you don’t have to know almost anything about sound and if you load a reference track software will provide you with the excellent headstart solution for that particular sound. 

The same goes for Guitar Match. As a matter of fact, this is the only software where you can say “hey, make my guitar sound like Gibson Les Paul!” and it actually happens.

Best Orchestral Plugin:
EastWest Hollywood Orchestra Gold

PROS

  • Sample-based orchestral bundle
  • Incredible legatos and repetitions
  • Orchestral Percussion also included
  • Full FX engine including convolution reverb
  • The biggest number of articulations captured in a software

CONS

  • Upgradeable Lite (or Silver) version would be nice
  • Solo instruments version could be included in a bundle

Features and Specifications

This software is actually a bundled set of EastWest Hollywood sample libraries for Strings, Brasses, Woodwinds, and Percussions. It has 100 gigabytes of samples with a wide range of captured articulations played with a round-robin method and quite a powerful FX engine including top-grade convolution reverb. Some of these articulations are available as presets and others can be triggered by using key switches.

In case you need more, there is a Diamond version of this software that provides you with an audio blend from 5 microphone positions in 680 gigabytes of sampled content in 24-bit format.

Why it Stands Out to Us

If we play audio tracks made with this plugin there is no way you could tell that this is not played by a real orchestra. That’s how natural the Hollywood Orchestra can sound. There are no weak spots and given the fact, all instruments were recorded at the same venue by applying the same recording techniques there is no need to additionally tune them all together.

Articulations may require careful and detailed programming but the outcome will be more than rewarding. It may be demanding regarding CPU power, but it’s one of those software that will actually utilize all the power from the modern processors.

Best Vocal VST Plugin:
iZotope Vocal Synth 2

PROS

  • Extremely playful Shred effect
  • 5 modules and 7 virtual stompbox effects
  • Software designed for artistic vocal manipulations
  • Can work with automated settings, MIDI tracks or by side-chaining
  • Beautiful and modernized user interface with optimized CPU usage

CONS

  • Odd decision to include delay but omit reverb
  • Visual solution of the user interface may not be approved by professional users

Features and Specifications

This software is a vocal effect that allows you to heavily edit or change your vocal tracks. It has five synthesis modules and seven virtual stompboxes that can be played in three modes. Auto mode will apply changes within the mixing panel of the Vocal Synth, MIDI will allow you to send MIDI signals so you can create custom vocal harmonies as you play while Side Chain will treat your audio track as the “carrier” and will work the best for effects such as Vocoder or Talkbox.

Why it Stands Out to Us

Vocal Synth 2 is modern software, oriented towards younger users that will approve the visuals provided. They are also the ones that will compose the actual mainstream music the most and it requires a lot of vocal manipulations to remain catchy and unique. 

That’s why we love how creative this plugin actually can be. While it’s a VST effect, the options it provides are purely artistic and allow you to create something completely new. You can create almost any “new instrument” by applying certain parameters so you don’t have to buy a talkbox pedal or a vocoder to get that effect.

Best Piano VST Plugin:
Modartt Pianoteq 6 Pro

PROS

  • Advanced tuning and editing tools for every key
  • Convolution reverb and multi-effect panel included
  • 10 different pedals including progressive sustain pedal
  • Includes other instruments and historical sound collection 
  • Physically modeled piano sound approved by Steinway & Sons

CONS

  • Add-on packs might feel too expensive
  • Interactive piano lessons mode would be awesome

Features and Specifications

This software is a collection of 49 physically modeled instruments including not just from the various piano but electric piano, harp, steel drum, and some historical instruments from the 18th century. 

Every note and every part of the piano can be edited including mallet bounce, sympathetic resonance, and mechanical noise among others. Even piano condition can be altered so it matches mint or worn status. 

It also provides you with the unusual set of 4 pedals on which you can assign 10 different pedals while the tuning panel allows you to create temperaments or microtonal tunings.

Why it Stands Out to Us

If you’re a trained pianist and you want to practice at home, this is your software. Piano sound quality will certainly raise your brow regarding digital piano experience especially if you allow yourself a decent MIDI keyboard and the historical instruments provided will make you occupied for a while, too. 

For a live musician, honestly, such software might be an overkill. Luckily, there is a wonderful Pianoteq Stage version that loads in a snap while delivering such a sound quality so that differences between Pro and Stage version will remain inaudible during your performance.

Types of VST Plugins 

VST can be split into three categories:

VST (Audio) Effects

VST effects are digital audio processing units that either modify the sound in a certain way such as reverb and EQ or act as utility tools for certain audio parameters such as spectral analyzers. They are applied in real-time without any noticeable lag and improve the overall audio track quality.

VST Instruments

VST Instruments allow you to play a specific instrument by using a MIDI Controller in a DAW software. They usually come in the form of drums, analog synths, or any orchestral instrument or ensemble from piano to Big Band Brass ensemble. Most of the time. they sound so convincing that they minimize the need of recording the real instrument in the studio.

This type of VST usually provides you with the stand-alone versions that can be used without DAW.  They may also contain certain built-in effects and additional features that can be utilized with other tracks and instruments.

VST MIDI Effects

These VSTs transfer MIDI messages that contain certain relevant info such as Quantizer or MIDI Control. They also route the MIDI data to other VST instruments or hardware. These are the least used and often the most forgotten VST plugins. 

How to Use VST Plugins Live 

The easiest way is to turn your favorite DAW on and load the VST plugin you want and assign a certain MIDI controller or output channel. But, this can bring you numerous technical limitations, like switching presets, for example. That’s why a dedicated VST host designed for live performance would be a much better solution.

Apple users have a Mainstage, very stable software that was a real game-changer that made a live performance with Virtual Instruments possible.

Windows users had to wait for a long time to get software that provides the same reliability, unfortunately. Luckily, there are several VST options you can pick nowadays such as Cantabile or Freestyle. But, our favorite is a Gig Performer. It resembles the Mainstream workflow regarding visual aspects, and provides you with some advanced MIDI functionality and is specially optimized to use the least CPU resource possible.

So, in order to perform live with VST, all you have to do is to configure MIDI devices, assign MIDI controls you’re going to use within the software, define the number of outputs based on the audio interface you have and pick your favorite VST plugins. You can even organize them per song basis and then load in a second.

Check these videos to find out more about it:  https://youtu.be/r2t5_3QBnro

Conclusion 

VST plugins are used everywhere today. It’s used so often that we honestly can’t name any modern song that doesn’t have at least some VST inside. And it was not so long ago that visualizing signal paths we see today in all VST plugins were pictured as some futuristic utopia.

People Also Ask

There are many confusions regarding VST plugins and even more things that sound like everyone knows about them… until the time comes to tell it to someone else. That’s why we’re going to try to cover all of the basic usual newbie’s questions for you:

What Does VST Stand For?

VST stands for Virtual Studio Technology where the following number indicates the version (VST2 or VST3). If there is an “i” (VSTi), then it’s referring to VST instruments. While being the same thing, Logic software found on Apple uses an AU format instead and it stands for Audio Unit.

Where Do I Put VST Plugins?

VST plugins are put inside of the VST Host software and nowadays, DAW is the most frequent place where VSTs are being used. From that point you can add them on several places - directly on the track you want to modify, on a mixing bus or master track.

Do I Need VST Plugins?

While they are not mandatory for creating a decent song, the sound quality of your tracks could be improved drastically. If you have a bunch of expensive hardware effects and equipment, you can disregard them as those will probably sound superior compared to VST Plugins. 

What is the Difference Between a VST and a Plugin?

Conversationally, there is no difference. But, VST is just one type of audio plugin that almost became a music industry standard. However, there are also DirectX plugins, Pro Tools’ RTAS, Presonus ARA, or Logic’s AU, and most companies create their plugins in all available formats.

Are Free VST Plugins Any Good?

It’s not that rare to find a free VST plugin that will work great. Depending on the plugin type we’re talking about, it’s safe to say that you can find some decent free VST effects in every category. However, we wouldn’t recommend recording an orchestra with a Free VST instrument, for example.

Who Invented VST?

Steinberg Media Technologies invented VST in 1996 along with Cubase 3.02. 

It was invented to apply effects in real-time to promote the idea of using the computer as an all-in-one recording solution. The first version was designed for effects only, however. VST instruments (VSTi) came later in version 2.

What Was the First VST?

First VST is actually a bundle of four effects made by Steinberg - Espacial, Choirus, Stereo Echo, and Auto-Panner. First third-party however VST was Dan Brown's ProDelay, basic tempo-based delay and it came only 10 hours later after the official release of Cubase 3.

Is FL Studio a VST?

No, FL Studio is a DAW software. DAW stands for Digital Audio Workstation. It’s a digital platform that is mainly used for audio and MIDI recording and production. VSTs are designed to be used in a DAW environment, so you can use them within FL Studio or any other DAW.

VST Plugin Buyer Guides

In the market for a new VST plugin? Luckily, we've compiled all of our buyer guides related to VST plugins and related content. Feel free to review each guide and find the one that fits exactly what you're looking for. Be sure to check back soon as we'll be updating this page frequently.