Comparison of plugin formats

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Which plugin-format should I use?

There is a lot of misinformation created by 'experts' available on the web. Apart from this Steinberg's marketing claims that their VST3 format should have 'many essential new features' and 'advantages' compared to competing plugin-formats. We'll take a look at the real advantages and disadvantages from the customer's point of view.

Let's first take a look at the facts:

  • Steinberg is a big commercial enterprise with a dominant market position. Their goal is to get a financial advantage, and they want to keep the competition away.
  • Steinberg's VST standard is not open-source. Steinberg is not a benefactor. By using licensing contracts and by defining interface standards they can control the market.
  • By owning and frequently changing an important interface-standard Steinberg can keep competing DAW- and plugin-developers busy and always one step behind.
  • After more than a decade VST3 still has not replaced VST2.

We got over 20 years of experience in native development of VST2, VST3 and AU plugins. We're an independent company that doesn't get paid by Steinberg, Apple or anyone else to promote stuff. We also don't care which version of our plugin you use (VST2, VST3 or AU). It's completely your own decision. We're just giving a recommendation and are trying to clear some things up.

Tone2 plugins:

Q: Which version of a Tone2 plugin should I use (VST2/VST3/AU)?
A: We recommend using the 64 bit VST2 version if your host/DAW does support it.

General (concerns also many plugins from other developers):

Q: What is the advantage of 64-bit plugins compared to 32-bit plugins?
A: 64-bit plugins offer a higher performance than 32-bit plugins. We measured around 10%. 32-bit DAWs and plugins can also only allocate only 2 GB of RAM. This can be problematic if you use many samples. You can expericence crashes when you exceed this limitation.

Q: Should I migrate my 32-bit DAW to 64-bit?
A: Definitely. You should always prefer 64-bit. 32-bit operating systems are not longer supported by Apple and Microsoft.

Q: Should I migrate my VST2 plugins to VST3?
A: For you as a producer there is no need at all to migrate to VST3. All hosts that currently support VST2 will continue to do this also in the future.
Unlike what Steinberg advertises in their marketing, VST3 does offer no significant advantages for synthesizers compared to VST2. The opposite is even true frequently. VST3 does not offer proper MIDI support. Many people say that it's also less stable than VST2.

Q: I am on Mac. Should I use the AU or VST plugin ?
A: If you are on Mac you should prefer the VST version. Apple's AU validation is not reliable and has bugs. It does not always detect plugins properly. You may occasionally need to reboot the Mac before AU-plugins are detected.
Apart from this most developers use adapters that wrap VST plugins to AU. An adapter always offers lower performance and stability than a native version.

Q: Which plugin-format is the most reliable one?
A: The most popular plugin format is VST2. Nearly all hosts support it natively. As a result VST2 plugins are more well-tested and stable than AU or VST3.

Q: Which plugin-format is loading faster?
A: The VST3- and AU-interface is more complex than VST2. These formats have more overhead and the binaries are bigger. That's why they usually load slightly slower than VST2 plugins.

Q: Steinberg's marketing claims that VST3 plugins offer 'improved CPU performance' compared to other plugin-formats
A: Steinberg's marketing is misleading. They conceal that this is not true for synthesizers (a synth usually does not process incoming audio). In practice their claim is only true for very few effect-plugins that support this feature. Apart from this 'bypassing the processing when no input signal is present' is possible with any plugin-format. We supported this already a decade ago in various VST2 plugins. In practise the CPU performance of a plugin depends on the developer's implementation and not the plugin-format.

Q: After more than a decade VST3 still has not established properly. What's the reason for this?
A: VST3 does not offer significant benefits compared to VST2 for most plugins. Most developers don't like Steinberg's VST3 SDK (software-developer-kit). They say it's badly designed, complicated, over-engineered, doesn't come with a proper documentation and taylor-made just for Steinberg's own demands. Even experienced developers have problems to compile it and make it work. Adding VST3 support to existing plugins/hosts using the VST2 SDK is extremely difficult and laborious, since VST3 is not downward compatible at all. It is a completely different plugin-format with serious weaknesses.

Q: Does VST3 support MIDI?
A: The VST3-format does not offer proper Midi support. Steinberg continuously ignores the most important industry-standard that exists since decades and that was created by the major players in the music-industry. As a result many VST3 plugins do not offer MIDI-learn or the developers have to do ugly workarounds like exposing hundreds of 'Midi CCs' as automation-parameters. Steinberg is criticized heavily by developers as well customers for this design flaw.

Q: Are re-sizeable GUIs only possible with VST3?
A: Steinberg's marketing doesn't say the truth. GUIs with different sizes are possible with any plugin format. This is not a VST3 feature.

Q: VST3 offers 'sample accurate automation'. What's the benefit?
A: In practice: None, since there are only a hand full of plugins that support it. Extremely accurate automation without glitches is also possible with AU and VST2. The accuracy of automation depends mainly on the implementation of the plugin and not the plugin-format.

Q: Is 'Audio In' for synthesizers a new VST3 feature?
A: No. This is also possible with other plugin-formats.

Q: Is sidechaining only possible with VST3?
A: No. This is also possible with other plugin-formats.

Q: Is multicore-CPU support a VST3 feature?
A: No. This is possible with any plugin-format. We already supported this 20 years ago.

Q: VST3 offers hierarchical plug-in and automation parameter categorization. What's does it mean?
A: It is a useful feature that allows grouping automation-parameters like 'oscillator', 'filter' etc. Sadly there are still many hosts that do not support it.

Q: VST3 offers the possibility to change the number of out- and inputs dynamically. Why do not many plugins use this?
A: This feature is problematic. It can cause serious crashes if the host as well as the plugin do not use a completely correct implementation.

Q: To enforce more VST3 support Steinberg does not longer license VST2 to new developers. Will VST2 die now?
A: No. All well-known developers got valid contracts with Steinberg. These contracts allow them to support VST2 also in the future.
There exist also VST2 compatible open-source implementations of VST2 like 'FST'. Since 'FST' is not tied to Steinberg's contracts or trademarks any developer can use it freely.
The majority of customers prefer VST2 plugins. That's why they will be supported by the developers also in the future.
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