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What Is A Plug-In?

How To Install And Use An Audio Plug-In

On Audiofanzine everyone talks about plug-ins all day long. Most of you know exactly what that's all about and know how to install a plug-in. However, there was a time when we were all just starting out, and an article like this would've been very helpful. So, to all computer music beginners: we hope these lines will spare you a few sleepless nights…


When talking about computers, a plug-in is a small extension module that adds functionalities to a host software. In the audio world, there are all sorts of plug-ins, like compressors, EQs, reverbs, etc. By definition, they cannot work as stand-alone programs and need a host software, which most of the time will be a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) like Cubase, Pro Tools, Ableton Live, Reaper, etc.

Audio Plug-ins

If you follow Audiofanzine news, you have probably noticed that every time we talk about a plug-in we mention in which formats it is available. The format of a plug-in will make it compatible with this or that DAW. Here you have a non-exhaustive correspondence list between formats and DAW:

  • RTAS (Real Time AudioSuite): Pro Tools up to version 10
  • AAX (Avid Audio eXtension) : Pro Tools from version 11
  • AU (Audio Units): format only available on Mac, compatible with Logic Pro, GarageBand, Ableton Live, Studio One, Digital Performer
  • MAS (Motu Audio System): Digital Performer
  • DX (DirectX): format only available on PC, compatible with Sonar
  • VST (Virtual Studio Technology): Cubase, Ableton Live, Reaper, Studio One, Sonar, Digital Performer, etc.


Before using a plug-in, you have to install it on your computer. In order to do that you first have to check if it is compatible with your configuration. Be careful not to buy a plug-in in AU format if you have a PC, for example. If the plug-in is available for your platform, you can get it at the publisher’s website. Select the appropriate download version for you operating system (Mac OS or Microsoft Windows) and a format compatible with your DAW. You also need to pay attention to whether you need a 64-bit version, in case your DAW supports it, or a 32-bit version.

Audio Plug-ins

Once the plug-in is on your computer, you might face different situations: it might include a classic installer and you will only need to run it for the installer to do all the work for you. If it’s a paid plug-in, it might include some sort of copy protection system that activates during the installation process. There are so many different variants that we recommend you to visit the publisher’s website in order to find out how the one they have implemented works.

The second case involves a ZIP or some other type of file. That’s usually the case with plug-ins you can get for free (usually called freeware). If that’s the case, you will have to install the plug-in “by hand.” But don’t panic, the procedure isn’t as complicated as it sounds. First of all, you have to uncompress the file by double-clicking on it. Inside the uncompressed folder you will find several files. You will have to move the file corresponding to the format you are interested in to a specific folder on your computer.

On a Mac computer, you have to go to Library/Audio/Plug-Ins. Files whose extension is “.vst” go inside the VST folder, those whose extension is “.component” correspond to the AU format and go inside the Components folder, “.bundle” corresponds to the MAS format and go inside the adequate folder. AAX plug-ins have the “.aaxplugin” extension and they go inside Library/Application Support/Avid/Audio/Plug-Ins. Finally, RTAS plug-ins have the “.dpm” extension and they go inside Library/Application Support/Digidesign/Plug-Ins.

On a PC it’s a bit harder to describe because it all depends on how you installed your software. As a rule of thumb, you would have to go to the Program Files folder on your main hard drive. Locate the folder corresponding to your DAW. Inside the latter you will most commonly find a folder named Plug-ins inside which you should copy the plug-in in the desired format. The extensions above are also valid in this case, except for VST plug-ins, which have the “.dll” extension on PC.

Once you are done with the installation you can toy with your new plug-in from within your favorite DAW! If you have any questions regarding the procedures described here don’t hesitate to post them in the comments to this article.

  • chris.coldwell.7 1 post
    New AFfiliate
    Posted on 01/04/2014 at 09:21:22
    What is the best free amp plugin and what DAW will suit ?
  • okcomputerik 4 posts
    New AFfiliate
    Posted on 01/06/2014 at 06:42:02
    Quote from chris.coldwell.7:
    What is the best free amp plugin and what DAW will suit ?

    You might want to take a look here for some options: https://en.audiofanzine.com/plugin-amp-simulator/editorial/articles/the-top-free-virtual-guitar-amps.html
  • Rblooz 1 post
    New AFfiliate
    Posted on 02/22/2014 at 17:16:00
    Thank you for clarifying plug-ins. I am curious as to what plug-ins can be used cross platform. For example, I have Garage Band and Digital Performer on my computer. Are the loops in Garage Band considered to be plug-ins and if so can they also be used in Digital Performer? Likewise, if I have a plug-in with DP can it be used in Garage Band? This has always been a bit confusing to me so I really appreciate your help.
  • Mike Levine 1066 posts
    Mike Levine
    Posted on 02/24/2014 at 09:11:36
    Let me start by clarifying something for you, loops and plug-ins are entirely different. A audio loop (there are also MIDI loops available) is a recording of a short performance, usually 1-4 measures, of drums, bass, guitar, or any instrument (vocal loops are also available). Loops are created in several standard formats. WAV, Rex2, and Apple Loops are three of the most popular, and most DAWs can handle a variety of formats, and time-stretch the loops to fit the tempo of your song (check your DAW's documentation to see which formats it's compatible with) . So, for example, a good drum loop collection — usually drum loop sets include variations and fills all based on the same groove — makes it possible to put together a full-length drum track, by editing the loops together. And, yes, loops can be used in more than one DAW, as long as they're compatible format wise. In your case, GarageBand's Apple Loops are supported by Digital Performer, so you should be able to easily use them in both programs.

    A plug-in is a software program, usually either a signal processor or a software instrument, which you can open inside a DAW like GarageBand, Digital Performer, Sonar, Studio One, etc. An important distinction is that there are two types of plug-ins, those that are built into the DAW, and those that you buy separately from independent plug-in manufacturers. Only the latter, the third-party plug-ins, can be opened in different DAWs (assuming the format is compatible, of course). GarageBand and Digital Performer both support Audio Units on the Mac (I'm assuming you're talking about DP on the Mac, not Windows) so third party plug-ins in that format could be used in either program. Hope that helps.

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