Synth Quickie: What is a Plugin?


Buckle up, newcomers!
This video is a short and sweet introduction to the wonderful world of plugins. What they are, how they work, and most importantly, what you can do with them. Intrigued? click the video, but only if you’re buckled up… I did warn you.


Plugins. What are they? If you are new to making music in a computer, you have definitely come across the term plugin. I’m gonna tell you what they are, how they work, why you should care. So first let’s start with this synth application. This is a regular, standalone app, this is not a plugin. It’s Syntorial. You download it, you install it, you open it, and here’s your synth.

Now the only problem with a standalone synth like this is you can’t record it into your recording app, right? Like you’re using Ableton or Logic or one of the many applications out there, also known as DAWs, that you use to make music. And I wanna use this synth, along with other sounds, but I can’t here in this synth application.

That’s what plugins are for. A plugin is just like an application except it’s designed to be opened inside of a recording app, so you can use it to make music alongside other plugins.

So, let’s hop over to Logic. So I have installed the plugin version of Syntorial synth, it’s called Primer. And I did it the same way, I just downloaded it, and I installed it, that’s how you install all plugins. However, once it’s installed, you won’t see it in your applications or program files folder, you can’t just open it directly, it’s only designed to be opened and used inside a recording app.

And each recording app does it a bit differently as far as the layout is concerned, but for example, here in Logic, my default track is electric piano. But I wanna open Primer in here. So in their case, go into this menu. Go to AU Instruments, I’ll explain what AU means. And Audible Genius is the name of our company. And there’s Primer. And now, it’s the same synth from the standalone version, the same controls, same exact sound, but now it’s inside Logic, so I can record it into Logic and play it back. And there you go, and I can make another track, and I can open up a different plugin and I can do drums, and bass, and whatever I want. That’s why plugins are such a huge part of computer music, is they are the sounds, they are the instruments.

As you can see, I’ve got a lot going on here. So whenever you install one, it just gets added to your DAW’s list. Now, this is a synth. There of course are also samplers like for drums or real instruments like piano. And then you can also use effects. So let’s say I wanna add some reverb, but I don’t wanna use Primer’s built-in reverb.

Well I can grab a reverb plugin, let’s grab this first one. So now, my Primer plugin is being routed through this Chroma Reverb. So you can see, you have an endless variety here. There’s so many plugins and you can just kinda chain them all together and create whatever sounds you want. Now, you’ve probably come across different plugin formats, like VST, AU, and maybe even AAX.

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Now, you’ve probably come across different plugin formats, like VST, AU, and maybe even AAX. These are simply just file types. The Primer, for example, comes as a VST and AU. The synth itself is identical. You won’t get a different sound, different controls. It’s all exactly the same. Where this matters is with your host, whether it’s Logic, Ableton, FL Studio, whatever your recording app is, you need to check what file types it allows.

So, for example, VST is the most common. Almost all recording apps allow you to use VST plugins inside of them. So much so that the term VST is often used instead of the term plugin. What VST do you have, how many VSTs do you have, oh I got a new VST. It’s actually a specific format but it’s such a major and popular format that it’s kind of ubiquitous. However, Logic, for example, does not allow VST. It only allows AU. And there’s another DAW called Pro Tools, it only allows AAX. So as far as you’re concerned, look at whatever host you’re using, find out what formats it allows, and just get your plugin in that format.

Now each developer decides what formats they wanna create. We decided for VST, AU, some might only do VST, you know. So you may not have access to the exact plugin you want, but, once you know the format your host accepts, look for that format. And by the way, there’s VST and now there’s VST3, which is the latest version of VST. But again, as far as you’re concerned, just check your host. If it supports VST3, get the VST3. If it supports VST, get the regular VST.

So this is Mac. Windows works the same. Download, install, open your DAW, there’s your plugin. However, IOS is a bit of a different story. Now in IOS, there’s only one format, AUV3. And instead of being called a plugin, they’re often referred to as extensions because they’re actually extensions of the regular standalone app. So at the top left corner you see Primer. And we downloaded that from the app store, just as you would any other app. And if I click that and open it directly, it’s basically just a standalone synth.

Now if I wanna record it, I’ve gotta go into a recording app. Let’s go into GarageBand. Now GarageBand, like other apps, give you different types of instruments you can add. And a lot of them have an AUV3 extension, so we see at the bottom left here, audio unit extension. Tap that, and now you see Primer. Because any app that has an extension version automatically installs the extension when you install the app, so you don’t have to go searching for an AUV3 extension.

You just have to find apps that have extensions built into them. Once you install the app, here it is, and I just tap Primer. I can play and record Primer inside GarageBand. Okay, well I hope that was helpful in understanding the whole plugin system. And if you have any questions, post them below in the comments and I’ll happily answer. And don’t forget to subscribe to our YouTube channel. We post videos every week about synthesizers and sound design.