You may have come to realise that there are multiple audio plugin formats, despite how you probably use just one.

We use an audio plugin is a piece of software we use to add or subtract characteristics from audio, add digitally synthesised sounds and effects, as well as enhance functionality in our DAW for mixing and mastering music. Many plugins offer professional features that just aren’t in your DAW, and different audio plugin formats are compatible with different DAWs.

There is a small array of plugin formats in order to suit all DAWS. While some plugin formats like VST3 are compatible with almost every DAW, others like RTAS are compatible with only one DAW! Let’s jump in and find out more audio plugin formats.

Audio Plugins Are (Usually) For DAWs

As we said, we run the audio plugins we use every day for music production in our Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). If you’re unfamiliar, a DAW is a software where all the music-making happens.

A few examples of DAWs include Cubase, Ableton Live, Bitwig Studio Pro Tools, Studio One, Logic, and FL Studio to name just a few. Due to software compatibility, we associate many different audio plugin formats with specific DAWs.

Plugins and Operating Systems

Plugins that are compatible with Windows operating systems include VST/VST3 and AAX/RTAS plugins too.

For macOS users, formats are slightly more extensive. The compatible plugin formats for macOS users include Audio Units (AU), VST/VST3 and AAX/RTAS. Apple developed the AU plugin format as the main format for Apple systems.

The Different Plugin Formats

VST, AU, AAX and RTAS plugin formats. AAX & RTAS are only compatible with Pro Tools while VST & AU are more universal plugin formats.
VST, AU, AAX and RTAS plugin formats. AAX & RTAS are only compatible with Pro Tools while VST & AU are more universal plugin formats.

With the foundations of plugin formats out of the way, let’s jump into the different types of plugin formats!

VST (Virtual Studio Technology) – Windows and Mac

Steinberg introduced the VST plugin format in 1996 for Cubase 3.02.

It’s easily the most well-known plugin format effects and instruments. VST has evolved into its 3rd version and is now commonly referred to as VST3. VST is the plugin format you’ll find in pretty much every plugin in the industry and DAWs such as Ableton, Cubase, Sonar, and more support this plugin format.

AU (Audio Unit) – Mac

Apple introduced the AU plugin format as part of the Core Audio provided by MacOS X.

It’s part of the macOS operating system and provides low latency and system-level support for the operating system. DAWs compatible with Mac OS X support the Audio Unit plugin format because of its stability and the faster processing it provides thanks to its system-level solutions.

And, well, because Apple’s Logic is the only DAW that supports AU plugin formats too.

AAX (Avid Audio eXtension)

AAX is a unified plugin format that you’ll find has two variations: AAX DSP and AAX Native.

Avid introduced the AAX plugin format because they created a 64-bit version of Pro Tools. This meant they needed a plugin format with 64-bit processing, and AAX soon came along.

With the AAX plugin format, we can share sessions between DSP-accelerated (digital signal processing) Pro Tools systems as well as native-based Pro Tools systems and continue using the same plugins.

RTAS (Real-Time Audio Suite)

The RTAS plugin format was also implemented into Pro Tools, but the story of its origin is slightly different.

Digidesign created the RTAS plugin format for Pro Tools up until the DAW was on its 10th version. Many plugin manufacturers developed RTAS versions of their plugins for the sake of compatibility with Pro Tools, much like Apple and AU formats. We can only use RTAS plugins within Pro Tools up to version 10.

TDM (Time Division Multiplexing)

TDM plugins are a less common audio plugin format. They’re a version of Pro Tools plugins installed on outboard hardware to provide precise signal reading and audio quality too.

You’ll find TDM plugins in high-quality studio setups. To be more specific, studios with dedicated chips for audio processing instead of a computer’s CPU.

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