Insights into VST and its virtual instruments
By Yuya Watanabe, November 17, 2015
Virtual Studio Technology or VST is a standard plug-in format for native DAWs. Developed by Steinberg, the technical information for this plug-in format was made available to the public as an open standard without any licensing fee involved, which resulted in the format rapidly spreading throughout the digital audio world. Although VST was originally a plug-in format for effects, version 2.0 enabled reception of MIDI data from external sources, therefore evolving into a software sound source platform. VST-compatible software sound sources are referred to as VST instruments, and, similar to the effect plug-ins, they became an industry standard right away.
Icon.jp talked in depth with Matthias Quellmann, Senior Marketing Manager, and Yvan Grabit, Technical Lead, about VST instruments and the technology behind them.
Would you mind introducing yourself and tell us a little about your background?
Matthias: I started working at Steinberg just over four years ago, it was about the time of HALion version 4, I think. Before coming to Steinberg, I worked in production at a record label. Currently, I am involved in the development of VST instruments and sound libraries, and recently I was spending most of my time with the HALion development team.
Yvan: I am originally from the south-east of France, and I worked in an image processing company in France before moving to Germany about 18 years ago when I started at Steinberg. The first thing I worked on at Steinberg was the development of Nuendo for Silicon Graphics: I was in charge of VST support, surround, and off-line processing. As you probably know, Nuendo was originally our professional-use DAW software that was developed for the Silicon Graphics platform. This was around 1997 to ’98. When I joined the company, VST had already been implemented into Cubase, but work on VST 2 was under way and I became deeply involved in its development. The centerpiece of VST 2 was that it enabled the use of VST instruments which are software sound generators and sources, so I was also part of the development of LM-4 and HALion, which were the primary VST instruments. Also, one of my most important jobs at that time was maintaining relations with third-party developers. VST is an open platform so collaboration with third parties is essential to the dissemination of the VST standard. My job was to provide technical support to companies that showed interest in the development of VST plug-ins and instruments. I am currently performing these same duties.
Today, I am involved in the development of all VST specifications. As the foundation of our products, VST is a very important technology, so I must keep in close communication with the Cubase and Nuendo development teams, and I am responsible for sharing technical information between the VST plug-in and instrument development teams and the development teams of host applications.
Matthias: Yvan, why did you come to Germany?
Yvan: My girlfriend got a job at a company in Hamburg. I thought “me too” and ended up following her to Germany. So when I was looking for a good job, I happened to see that Steinberg was hiring. I had a look at what they did and my hunch that this could be the perfect job for me turned out to be true.
VST 2 enabled us not only to use effects but also software sound sources as plug-ins. This is a major evolution, isn't it? Did you have the idea of developing plug-in capability for software sound sources in the early days of VST standardization?
Yvan: Before talking about VST instruments, it might be better to start with how the VST standard was originally created. Actually, VST was first developed as a “closed standard.” During the development of Cubase VST 3.5, a group of engineers led by Charlie [Karl Steinberg, co-founder of Steinberg] thought that if we equipped the audio mixer with processors such as channel EQ and dynamics, then it would probably be best to standardize such processing. This was the starting point of VST development. Since we would be updating the version in the future, we thought it would be troublesome to always be revising the source code of the audio mixer each time a new processor was added. For that reason, we ended up making it a standard, so that we can easily add new functions. That’s how VST came into being, as a standard used by in-house programmers in order to achieve smooth development of the audio part of Cubase. Since we had standardized the technology in such a clearly defined way, it would be a waste to only use it for Cubase development, and therefore we decided very early on to make it an open standard. The response and feedback we received from users and third parties when we published VST as an open standard was far beyond our expectations.
After that, we and third parties started to focus on VST plug-in development. This was the period when computer processing capabilities were improving at an extremely fast pace, so it didn't take long for us to get the idea that it would be good to not only develop effects, but also software sound sources that ran off VST. It came about rather naturally: Charlie wrote the DSP algorithm for Model-E, the world's first commercial VST instrument, and I did the GUI programming to complete the interface.
The Pro-Five (later to become the Pro-52/Pro-53) developed by Native Instruments as the first third-party produced VST instrument was released at nearly the same time as Model-E. Did Steinberg first reach out to Native Instruments?
Yvan: We had a very close relationship with Native Instruments at that time. They have become quite large now, but back then they were a small software developer company.
Matthias: While Pro-Five was certainly the first third-party produced VST instrument, we were very involved in the development.
Yvan: We also did sales for the Pro-Five. Since we had worldwide distribution channels, we thought we should be responsible for sales too. We also provided support for Propellerhead with the distribution of ReCycle! in the same manner. That was a model case where they could concentrate on software development and we performed sales on a global level.
VST plug-ins and VST instruments are in the same folder location. Is this because the only difference between VSTi and other VST plug-ins is that they can produce sound?
Yvan: Since both are made using the VST standard, there is basically no problem in treating them the same. Of course, there is a difference because VST instruments must be able to receive signals of MIDI notes and program changes, while other VST plug-ins only need to handle audio input and output. We didn't divide the standards for effects and software sound modules in order to provide a degree of freedom for functional aspects. Applying the same standards allows us to develop software sound sources that, for example, are equipped with side-chain inputs.
VST instruments and host applications are not connected by a MIDI cable like in hardware. In terms of factors such as the timing of notes, I think that not using MIDI as the protocol for transmission between VST instruments and host applications is wise, but isn’t MIDI data actually exchanged in the same manner as in hardware?
Yvan: Although the transmitted data is MIDI, it is handled in a slightly different manner than with hardware. As you probably know, the MIDI data is sent and received by using serial transfer, and this could cause bottlenecks when exchanging musical performance data where timing is very important. For this reason, recently, MIDI data is handled in packages to prevent problems caused by serial transfer. For example, if you play a project in Cubase, the MIDI data is already present in the track so you can “look ahead” if you wanted to. It’s just like a limiter with a look-ahead function. It’s a technique based on the idea that if you can look ahead in the data, then such data can be converted into a package and transmitted beforehand.
While I think MIDI is an excellent standard, it was established many years ago, so the general feeling these days is that its resolution and other capabilities are not completely sufficient for current needs. To resolve this, the communication between Cubase and VST 3 plug-ins uses a more enhanced data format than MIDI. As a result, VST plug-ins and effects allow you for unprecedented control compared to conventional hardware connected through cables.
I am very interested in this "look-ahead" playback of data on tracks you mentioned.
Yvan: In Cubase, “look-ahead” processing is performed not only for MIDI data but also for audio data. This is the technology known as ASIO-Guard. ASIO-Guard is groundbreaking technology that efficiently uses limited CPU power to provide flexible processing.
Matthias: Before ASIO-Guard, data recorded in tracks was processed in real time. Accordingly, a project that consumed nearly the limit of a computer’s CPU power could result in an overload if you played a VST instrument in real time during project playback. For this reason, the starting point for ASIO-Guard development was to reserve the CPU power for real-time input. The data recorded in the project can be analysed ahead of time, so the idea was to process the recorded data in advance. allowing for sufficient CPU power to be reserved for the processing of real-time input, which cannot be processed in advance. ASIO-Guard enables users to utilize CPU power more effectively than before, and I think it nearly completely eliminates an overload even if a large amount of data is suddenly fed into the input.
Can you tell us some more about the VST 3 standard?
Yvan: The last version of VST 2 is quite a good one, and its high degree of freedom allows one to pretty much create whatever one wants to do. Being a standard that is nearly completely free of restrictions has allowed for the development of many interesting plug-ins, but that high degree of freedom also results in compatibility problems and similar issues. Accordingly, we aimed to maintain the same level of freedom for the standard as much as possible, while also restructuring the specifications and establishing minimum rules to apply to. This resulted in the new VST 3, a standard that partially uses the idea of COM Microsoft technology, such as DirectX.
We constantly paid attention to maintaining compatibility with the current VST 2 in designing VST 3. Although it would have been easier to create a completely new standard, like Avid did when moving from TDM/RTAS to AAX, we didn’t think it to be good if the technology and know-how created by the numerous developers who graciously provided their support to VST could not be passed on. I think that developers who contributed to the current VST 2 can also develop plug-ins in the same manner for VST 3.
Matthias: AAX and VST 3 are different standards, but their contents are similar.
Yvan: VST 3 has evolved in regard to VST 2, and I'd like to just tell you about three representative features. The first is the extension we added to MIDI which will allow more precision and flexibility. This extension eliminates the 16-channel limitation on the number of channels and allows a unique ID to be assigned to each MIDI note. Due to this, you can apply a different pitch bend to each note in the same MIDI channel. We call it Note Expression. Steinberg VST instruments, HALion, HALion Symphonic Orchestra and similar software already support Note Expression.
The second is that the user interface for VST 3 has been extremely refined. You can now re-size windows that you couldn't before, or maybe not so easily. The plugin’s parameters could be now organized in a convenient way for the user. For example, there are over 4,000 parameters provided for HALion but if you need to display them in a menu in the current VST 2, the poor interface only allows these to be displayed lined up in a long lengthwise row. With VST 3 structured parameters the user can easily navigate through the list by using sub-menus, for example.
Matthias: The integration of plug-ins and host applications has also been deepened in VST 3. For example, you can control some functions in the host from the plug-in side; for example, open an automation track related to a given knob in the UI of the plug-in.
Yvan: The third feature is the optimization of processing in order to save CPU resources. Also, if you are inserting a plug-in into a track lacking an audio signal, the plug-in will be informed about it and can, if possible, disable some internal processing so that CPU power is not wasted.
How has VST 3 been received?
Yvan: We are currently working very hard on raising the awareness of third parties. If we are contacted by someone saying, "I'd like to hear more about VST 3" we provide a detailed explanation about the development of the supporting software. We have also received requests from third parties suggesting ways for improvements, and we listen extremely closely to this type of feedback.
You mentioned that there were also compatibility problems with VST 2. Would you say that, if using VST plug-ins and VST instruments, the most stability is provided by using Steinberg host applications such as Cubase and Nuendo, as Steinberg is the creator of VST?
Yvan: That's a difficult question to answer because there were certainly compatibility issues depending on the host application and plug-ins that were used, I think Cubase and Nuendo were the most stable ones. After all, we know everything about the VST standard...
Matthias: There are surprisingly few developers who work on developing both host applications and plug-ins. Since we are one of the few companies developing both, I think our ability to resolve any issues that might arise on either side far exceeds companies that only develop on one side. Cubase and plug-in programmers both work on the same floor, so it is very easy for them to communicate with each other, if anything occurs.
Yvan: However, it isn’t good for a standard when differences emerge due to various host applications and plug-ins. For this reason, we established the new VST 3 standard that strictly defines the specifications.
Can you discuss some of the milestone products throughout the history of VST instruments?
Yvan: One would be HALion, released in 2001. For one I was deeply involved in the development [smiles], but HALion was the first full-scale VST sampler, which was ground-breaking with a direct streaming function that directly played samples from disk, and a high-definition sound library similar to a hardware sampler.
Following that, HALion 4 is probably an example of another milestone instrument. Although HALion 4 has the HALion name, it is equipped with a sound engine that is completely different from the one in HALion 3, and really exceeds the boundaries of a sampler to function more as a workstation or synthesizer. From this version forward, HALion is being considered as the foundation of new Steinberg software instruments, with all products appearing after it, such as Padshop and The Grand 3, being developed by using HALion as a base.
Is there a chance that the HALion platform will be made open to third parties in the same manner as Native Instruments Kontakt and UVI Engine?
Matthias: It is not currently being disclosed to third parties. However, there might be some new developments in the future.
I thought that Steinberg was no longer making an effort to develop individual VST instruments, but I see that this has changed with the comeback of Groove Agent last year and libraries being released at almost a monthly pace.
Matthias: Yes, that is true. Our company's internal organization has changed and the number of programmers has increased to form a powerful team. For these reasons, I think that we will be making an effort to develop VST plug-ins and VST instruments from now on.
Yvan: Previously we announced a new package called Absolute 2 that bundles all of the Steinberg VST instruments. Absolute 2 provides a discount that is about half the price of what it’d cost if you were to buy each product separately, and AU is supported in addition to VST. Although the library volume is quite large, the installer is provided on a USB stick so that it can be used immediately after purchase.
Since you will be making an effort in the future to develop individual VST instruments, I'd like to see the return of Virtual Guitarist and Virtual Bassist, which are very popular in Japan.
Matthias: That's certainly a good idea. Last year, we brought back Groove Agent with modern specifications. Groove Agent is an optimal instrument for quickly creating a drum track, but there might be some value in creating guitar and bass versions of it also.
VST instruments and processors
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