3. History and Formats

The first software effects processor was created in 1992 when Waves introduced the ‘Q10 Paragraphic Equalizer’, which even then was quite a match for many hardware products, and is in fact still in common use today. This was initially a standalone product, and it wasn’t until a little later that the ‘plug-in’ concept was developed. Here’s a brief overview of the more common plug-in interface types:

VST - Virtual Studio Technology

In 1996 Virtual Studio Technology (VST) was incorporated into Steinberg's Cubase VST 3.0 to cater for the introduction of their own audio plug-ins. Initially it was only available for Macintosh, and was not introduced for the PC until version 3.5.

The arrival of Cubase VST was largely responsible for the huge success of plug-ins - its built-in recorder, automatable mixer and effects processors provided a complete recording environment on a single computer. The amount of effects you could use simultaneously was of course limited by CPU power – at the time, Cubase offered just four effects sends in total, but crucially, Steinberg made the VST standard an open format, paving the way for third-party plug-ins.

By the end of 1996, Waves had launched its range of Native Power plug-ins in VST format, which until then had only been available for Digidesign’s high-end Pro Tools TDM system.

AU – Audio Units

Not long after its invention, Emagic integrated Steinberg’s VST format into its Logic sequencing software, but when Apple acquired Emagic, they decided to create a new plug-in interface which brought us ‘Audio Units’. This is now the industry standard for Mac OSX and is supported by all Apple’s media products including Final Cut, Logic, Garageband, and iLife.

TDM/RTAS -Time Domain Multiplex & Real-Time AudioSuite

Digidesign developed two separate interfaces - RTAS and TDM. RTAS uses the computer’s native processing power, and is all that is available in Pro Tools LE systems, whereas TDM uses the dedicated DSP only found in the top of the range Pro Tools HD system to provide higher resolution processing with no strain on the CPU.

DSP Processors

Although they initially became popular when computers had slower processors and needed all the help they could get, DSP processors are just as useful today, now that plug-ins are really pushing the boundaries of the DAW, and the users’ thirst for power seems unquenchable! These systems use separate hardware to run plug-ins without using the computer’s own processing power. Models are available in PCI card format, and also as external units connected via FireWire or USB. While the hardware itself will integrate with your DAW using one of the standard formats such as VST or AU, they will not run standard plug-ins written for these formats and instead require plug-ins to be written specifically for them.

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