How to Use VST Plugins With Ableton
By Seamus Islwyn
Updated September 22, 2017
Expand the functions of your Ableton Live digital audio workstation by adding third-party VST plug-ins to the program. VST plug-ins come in two varieties: instruments and effects. VST instruments generate sound using a MIDI signal; VST effects alter the character of an audio signal. Thousands of VST plug-ins are available for download; many of them are freely available. To use VST plug-ins in Ableton, you must activate them in the program's preferences, then add them to a set.
Activating VST Plug-ins
Launch Ableton. Click the "Options" menu, then "Preferences."
Click the "File Folder" tab. Click the button next to "Use VST Plug-in Custom Folder" to toggle it to "On."
Click the "Browse" button next to "VST Plug-in Custom Folder." Navigate to the folder that contains your VST plug-ins; this is nearly always either "C:\Program Files\VSTPlugins" or "C:\Program Files\Steinberg\VSTPlugins." Click "OK."
Click the "Rescan" button next to "Rescan Plug-ins." Ableton scans the specified directory for VST plug-ins and activates them in the browser.
Using VST Plug-ins
Open the project in which you want to work in Ableton. Click the "Plug-in Device Browser" icon, which looks like an electrical plug, on the left side of the Ableton window. Scroll through the list of VST plug-ins until you find the one you want to use.
Click and drag the VST plug-in onto a track in the mixer window. You can add a VST effects plug-in to either an audio or a MIDI track; VST instruments, however, only work on MIDI tracks.
Click the title bar at the top of the track to view the VST plug-in's interface. If the interface doesn't appear, press "Shift" and "Tab" simultaneously to reveal the plug-in device section for the track, then click the wrench icon on the VST plug-in to bring up its interface.
Click and drag the VST plug-in's controls to adjust its parameters. If you've added a VST instrument to the Ableton set, you can now play it using a MIDI clip or an attached MIDI keyboard. Repeat the process for any other VST plug-ins you want to use.
Organize your VST plug-in folder by creating categorized subfolders within the main plug-in folder.
Using too many VST plug-ins at the same time can overload your CPU.
Seamus Islwyn has been writing for radio, print and online publications since 2003, covering subjects from independent Canadian music to automobile smuggling in the Balkans. His work has appeared in the "Tirana Times" in Albania, and he also composes and produces electronic music. Islwyn holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from McGill University and a certificate in radio broadcasting from Humber College.