Which plugin format is the best

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Comparison of synthesizer plugin formats

Marketing people spread a lot of misinformation on the web. We don't get paid by Steinberg, Apple or AVID and spent over 20 years with developing synthesizer plugins as a full-time job. We got deep knowledge about the different interfaces.
The table with the most important plugin formats should help you to decide which one is the right one for you. It is a summary of facts, not opinions. Some of these facts are only known by developers and concealed by the marketing.

What you should know:

  • Unlike what marketing people advertise there is no significant difference in sound quality between the plugin formats in practice. All of them sound excellent.
  • All plugin-formats got a very similar feature-set.
  • There are also only very small differences in CPU performance.
  • However, there are big differences in stability and reliability.
What plugin-format do you recommend?

Newer does not always mean better. :-(
We currently recommend using the VST2 format for synthesizers and Midi-plugins if your DAW supports several formats. While VST3 works well for effects, it is not a plugin-format that is really suitable for complex synthesizers: Sadly, Steinberg's VST3 format is the only one that does not come with proper Midi support. As a result, the developers need to do ugly hacks to make things work as expected, or they are forced to drop features.
The AudioUnit format is technically very similar to VST2, but is not as reliable. You may already have experienced it for yourself, that you needed to reboot your Mac before your DAW detects a recently installed AudioUnit. So if your're on the Mac and your DAW supports several plugin formats you really should concider using VST instead. VST is also a cross-platform format. This means that your songs and patches most likely do also work on PC (if you should decide to migrate one day or got a friend that uses a PC).
In a couple of years the new CLAP format might be a good choice.
green=good
red=unsupported/bad
yellow=neutral
VST2
VST3
AudioUnit
AAX
RTAS
CLAP
available for Windowsyesyesnoyesyesyes
available for macOSyesyesyesyesyesyes
available for Linuxyesyesnononoyes
64 bit Intel supportyesyesyesyesnoyes
32 bit Intel supportyesyesyesyesyesyes
M1 ARM supporttechnically possibleyesyessince 2.4.1noyes
works well for synthesizersyestechnical limitationsyesyesyesyes
works well for effectsyesyesyesyesyesyes
full MIDI supportyesnoyesyesyesyes
supported by most DAWsyesnew ones support itonly Maconly ProToolsonly ProToolsBitwig, Reaper, ...
sound-qualityexcellentexcellentexcellentexcellentexcellentexcellent
cross-platform compatibilityyesyesnoyesyesyes
CPU usagevery low overheadvery complex interfacegoodiLok requires CPUiLok requires CPUvery low overhead
stablility (plugins)excellentcomplexity causes issueswrappers are usedpossible driver issuespossible driver issuesit is still new
robust and reliable technologyexcellent since VST2.4strange interface designunreliable AU detectionrequires iLokrequires iLokyes
MIDI 2.0 supportyessince VST 3.7yesyesnoyes
MPE supportyesyesyesyesno plugins availableyes
Properly working event-systemyesnonoyesyesyes
developer-friendlyyesnonononoyes
future proofnot for Steinberg DAWsyesyescompeting formatsdeprecatedit is still new
proprietary technologyyesyesyesyesyesno

What will happen in the future?

RTAS: RTAS is a dead format, as it does not come with 64 bit support.
AAX: It is likely that AAX will also vanish soon, since development is complicated and there are better competing plugin formats. Dongles and iLok are not popular among customers either. Furthermore, native Apple M1 support has been missing for too many years.
AudioUnit: The future of AudioUnits is pretty safe - at least as long as Apple doesn't seriouly break things... again. :-(
VST2: A few years ago, Steinberg decided to stop licensing VST2 to new developers in order to enforce their own VST3 format. It first appeared as if VST2 would disappear now as new developers are not longer able to develop VST2 plugins. However, the developers have found ways to get around this. Over the past few years, several open-source projects (FST, RST, ...) have emerged that can (hopefully) legally replace the simple VST2 interface without requiring a licence from Steinberg. These projects do not use any of Steinberg's source code. Instead, they use their own API that is "VST2.4 compatible". Courts have ruled that this is legal and does not violate any copyrights or patents. Unlike Steinberg the competing DAW developers got no interest at all to drop VST2 support, as this would mean, that they would loose customers and income. In practice, this means that VST2 is here to stay and will not be abandoned in the future.
VST3: Steinberg's VST3 SDK was and is still not popular among developers. Even after a decade VST3 still has not replaced VST2. The main reason is that native VST3 development is much more difficult, time-consuming and expensive than for the competing formats. To get around this, the majority of developers use abstraction-frameworks. This means in practise, that VST3-exclusive features are rarely supported. Usually only the minimum feature set of VST3 is supported and VST3 plugins offer no significat advantages compared to the other plugin formats. Sadly even the opposite is true sometimes.
CLAP: The CLAP is rather popular among developers, since it is simple, well-designed, cross-platform and has very fair licensing condidtions. It is raising the market-share slowly. Sadly only a hand full of DAWs support it.

Must I migrate to VST3?

If you don't use a DAW from Steinberg - no! For you as a musician there is no reason at all to panic. You don't need to migrate from VST2 to VST3, since nearly all non-Steinberg DAWs will support VST2 also in the future. The developers either got valid existing licensing contracts with Steinberg or they use their own API that does not require a license at all. From the DAW's side VST2 support has only been dropped for Cubase (Mac in M1 mode) and Native Instruments Maschine (Mac in M1 mode). Unlike Steinberg the competing DAW developers got no interest at all to drop VST2 support, as this would mean, that they would loose customers and income.

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