VST3 is a relatively new format for most plugins designed for more modern computers and DAWs. Most times when you install a new plugin, it will prompt you which version you want to install, VST2 or VST3. Let’s talk about what is VST3 and if you should be using it over VST2.
What is VST3
First let’s answer the most important question: what is VST3?
VST3 is simply the new standard in “Virtual Studio Technology” (VST) plugins. New is a relative term, as VST3 officially debuted way back in 2008.
Introduced by Steinberg (a subsidiary of Yamaha) who first pioneered the concept of VSTs back in 1996, VST3 is an update to the previous generation VST2.
Existing VST2 plugins have been updated to VST3 by their developers particularly in the last few years to ensure future compatibility with the most modern DAWs moving forward (more on this later).
It’s not just an update version for the sake of a newer version; VST3 comes with a number of notable advantages over its predecessor VST2 (really VST2.4).
VST2 vs VST3 Difference
Let’s cover a few of the practical differences between VST2 vs VST3 in terms of capabilities.
Note that for some of these features it’s up to the developer of the plugin to take full advantage of the VST3 format’s capabilities and actually implement them into their plugin. Generally speaking, though, these are features you’ll find on most if not all VST3 plugins.
Resource Usage Efficiency
Arguably the biggest improvement of VST3 vs VST2 is that VST3 plugins only consume system resources (CPU and RAM) when there’s audio playing on that track.
This is compared to VST2 plugins which “idle”, applying the same resource tax regardless of the situation.
Open a dozen VST2 plugins while your mix isn’t playing and check the CPU load meter, then do the same with a dozen of their VST3 equivalents to notice a huge difference.
Incidentally, check out my recent overview on reducing CPU lag in mixing for a full list of things you can do to make playback smoother while mixing.
When plugins only consume system resources when they’re actually doing something, your entire set runs much more efficiently.
I like this one in particular as in the past you were typically stuck with whatever size the interface for the VST came in was. This didn’t always translate well across multiple resolutions and monitors.
Heck, sometimes you just wanted the plugin to take up more or less real estate in your DAW.
With VST3 plugins this is generally an option.
Many plugins like FabFilter’s Pro-Q 3 can be expanded or contracted just by dragging in any corner. This feature is only available on the VST3 instance of the plugin.
Added Automation Parameters
Another one of my favorite improvements, there’s now additional automation parameters for virtually every single setting on most VST3 plugins.
An excellent example is when I found myself in an instance where I wanted to automate the formant on my vocal via Auto-Tune from Antares.
There were zero automation features on the VST2 instance of the plugin, so I had to use resampling to achieve this effect but manually turning the knob live while it printed to a new track.
The results weren’t perfect to what I wanted even after several attempts. It would have been much easier had I just had the ability to adjust the envelope in my DAW until I got it where I wanted.
The VST3 instance of this plugin now allows you to automate every feature associated with this plugin:
This is a huge improvement which will have limitless practical applications as we use automation to keep our mixes lively.
With VST2 you’d have to run multiple instances of a plugin to achieve the channel routing you needed.
VST3 plugins adapt automatically to your routing, negating the need for multiple instances and saving resources.
In the same vein, VST2 limited users to a single MIDI input/output. This limitation is removed with VST3, so you can apply the same plugin to multiple midi instruments, making it especially useful for efficiency in a live setting.
Speaking of MIDI , the level of control you have over MIDI input and data and how you process them is much finer with VST3.
For instance, you can assign pitch bend only to a single note using an ID tag.
It’s a much deeper and granular level of control which leaves future room for additional advancements, none of which was possible with VST2.
Add in additional benefits like its greater compatibility with remote parameter controllers, better multilingual support for easier translation to different languages, and being more accurate at reading and writing sample information, and VST3 is clearly superior.
Should You Use VST2 or VST3
If you have the option between both VST2 or VST3, install the VST3 version of the plugin for increased efficiency and functionality (including added future functionality).
For older VST2s that you have, check with the developer to see if there’s a VST3 version. Oftentimes providing your purchase details from when you got the VST2 version will be honored for redemption for the VST3 version.
If you’re on the fence, main takeaway in the VST2 vs VST3 debate is that where VST2 was full of limitations, VST3 leaves endless room for new implementations, features, and improvement.
With it being an open source technology, we’re likely to see additional notable benefits of VST3 as independent developers continue to bring creativity and innovation to the medium.
When Will VST2 Support End?
Of course, this all also begs the question, is VST2 obsolete? Or perhaps better said, how long will you still even be able to use VST2?
Note that while the last few remaining popular plugin developers have rolled out VST3 updates of their popular VST2 plugins over the last year or so, you won’t have to say goodbye to VST2 anytime soon.
The transition to VST3 has been a slow one, as the technology was introduced over 15 years ago, and virtually all DAWs still fully support VST2 with no plans to change that in the near future.
Admittedly much of THE REASON the transition to VST3 has been so slow is due to most DAWs maintaining compatibility for them.
Cubase is the only DAW which has begun to seriously phase out compatibility with VST2 which makes sense considering Steinberg makes Cubase and are the ones leading the VST3 transition.
We can expect VST2s to still be fully supported by most DAWs for the next couple of releases each which could take us up into the next decade.
Still, the sooner you begin (or finish) transitioning to VST3, the more prepared you’ll be when compatibility for VST2s has ended.
More importantly, you’ll have access to all the features listed above!
One last thing to mention, even after VST2 plugins stop being supported by your DAW, you can still use a bridging plugin like Blue Cat’s Patchwork to open your VST2 plugins within an instance of the VST3 version of that plugin:
This is a great way to keep those plugins alive for years and years to come. This is especially relevant for the older and obscure but useful plugins which aren’t going to see any further updates to get them up to VST3 form.
It’s also worth mentioning that Patchwork also works in the reverse way, opening VST3 plugins in a VST2 instance of the plugin for software which only supports VST2.
So if you’re working in an older version of a DAW possibly due to computer limitations or a different kind of software where it doesn’t support VST3, Patchwork will make that bridge just fine.
This was a godsend for me recently as I found myself wanting to use the latest instance of Izotope’s RX Suite on some audio in a video I was working on, but my software still doesn’t support VST3 plugins. I pulled up an instance of Patchwork and was able to run the RX plugin I wanted through that. Crisis averted!
It’s a specific and admittedly less common problem these days, but it’s worth mentioning that it does bridge both ways.