At least once in a lifetime, every digital musician would’ve thought of building their own custom audio plugins.

I was no different, and I often thought of building a plugin since I wanted something different from what was already out there.

In this article, I’ll explain how to build audio plugins and what you’ll need to get started.

Coding/Programming: The Bedrock of Building Plugins

If you want to create amazing audio plugins that bring your musical ideas to life, you need to learn how to code.

Coding is the foundation of audio plugin development. It allows you to create custom plugins that suit your needs.

Coding allows you to:

  • Implement complex algorithms that manipulate audio signals and create unique sounds.
  • Design intuitive user interfaces that make your plugins easy and fun to use.
  • Optimize your plugin’s performance and functionality by controlling its inner workings.

Programming Languages to Learn

Many programming languages can be used for audio plugin development, but the most common is C++.

C++ is a powerful and versatile language that offers low-level control and high performance.

It is compatible with various operating systems and digital audio workstations (DAWs).

C++ also works well with JUCE (Jules’ Utility Class Extensions), a popular C++ framework for audio applications. It provides a higher level of abstraction and simplifies many aspects of plugin development.

However, C++ can be challenging to learn, especially for beginners. It has a complex syntax and requires a lot of attention to detail.

If you’re new to coding, start with a simpler language like Python. Python has a clear and concise syntax and a gentle learning curve.

It can help you get familiar with coding concepts and logic before moving on to more advanced languages like C++.

Approaching the Programming Process

Building an audio plugin typically takes the following route:

  • Define the functionality and features you want your plugin to have.
  • Write the code using the chosen programming language and any necessary libraries or frameworks.
  • Test and debug your code to ensure it works as expected and gracefully handles different scenarios.
  • Compile your code into a plugin format that different DAWs can use.
  • Distribute your plugin to users.

Remember, the programming process is iterative. You can always refine your code and improve your plugin as you gain more experience and feedback.

Drag & Drop and Patch Visual Plugin Builders

If you are new to audio programming, you need to develop a solid understanding of synthesis. Using these types of plugin builders is one of the best ways to do that.

Building a plugin on SynthEdit
Building a plugin on SynthEdit

Visual drag-and-drop plugin builders like SynthEdit, Maize Sampler, HISE, etc., provide an intuitive way for developers to build VST, AU, and other plugin formats without needing to code everything from scratch.

With these platforms, you can drag and drop modules like oscillators, filters, and effects and connect them together to create instruments, effects, and more.

Visual plugin builders offer several advantages, including faster development with pre-built modules, accessibility for beginners, cross-platform exporting to VST, AU, and AAX formats, access to community libraries, and quicker prototype iteration, streamlining the plugin design process.

While visual builders may not provide the same level of control or optimization as hand coding, they enable faster development, ideal for beginners, prototyping, and non-expert developers.

With the ability to export professional-grade plugins, they are a great stepping stone to mastering plugin development or an alternative workflow for experienced devs looking to iterate and experiment more freely.

If you want to know what’s possible with these tools, for example, SythEdit, check out the following interaction with Diz Disley. It’s CRAZY.

Digital Signal Processing (DSP)

Digital Signal Processing (DSP) is the backbone of audio plugin development, enabling you to create amazing audio effects and manipulate sound in various ways.

Digital Audio Fundamentals

The first step in learning DSP is to understand the basics of digital audio. It is the representation of sound using numbers.

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Digital audio involves converting continuous analog audio signals into discrete digital samples using a process called sampling.

Sampling theory explains how to capture and reproduce audio accurately in the digital domain.

It involves concepts such as sampling rate, bit depth, aliasing, and quantization noise.

These concepts affect the quality and fidelity of digital audio, so it’s important to understand them well.

Another aspect of digital audio fundamentals is audio signal analysis.

This involves examining and manipulating audio signals using various techniques such as waveform analysis, spectrum analysis, and spectrogram analysis.

These techniques help you extract valuable information from audio signals or apply specific effects such as filtering, modulation, or distortion.

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Audio Effects and Algorithms

As you progress in your DSP studies, you’ll encounter many sound design effects used in audio plugin development.

These effects include equalization, compression, reverb, delay, and more.

Equalization allows you to shape the frequency response of audio signals by boosting or cutting specified frequency bands.

Compression helps you control the dynamic range of audio signals by reducing the difference between loud and quiet sounds.

Reverb and delay add spaciousness and depth to audio signals by simulating reflections and echoes.

Each effect is based on an underlying algorithm that defines how the effect works.

For example, equalization can be implemented using filters, compression can be implemented using envelope followers, and reverb can be implemented using feedback loops.

Learning about these algorithms will help you implement these effects in your audio plugins.

You’ll also be able to customize them or create new variations according to your preference.

Important DSP Concepts

In addition to audio effects and algorithms, many other important DSP concepts are relevant to audio processing.

Some of them are:

Filter Design

Filters are devices that modify the frequency content of audio signals by passing or blocking certain frequency ranges.

Filter design involves choosing the type, order, cutoff frequency, and other filter parameters to achieve the desired effect.

Fourier Analysis

Fourier analysis is a technique that decomposes audio signals into their frequency components using mathematical functions called Fourier transforms.

It forms the basis for many spectral analysis and synthesis techniques widely used in DSP.

Modulation

Modulation is a technique that involves changing one signal (called the carrier) according to another signal (called the modulator).

It can create various effects such as tremolo, vibrato, chorus, flanger, phaser, etc.

Time-domain Processing

Time-domain processing involves manipulating audio signals in the time domain by changing their amplitude, duration, or position.

It can create effects such as amplitude modulation, time stretching, pitch shifting, looping, etc.

Advanced Audio Processing Techniques

As you delve deeper into DSP, you’ll discover many advanced audio processing techniques that can create unique and innovative sounds.

Some examples are spectral effects (such as spectral filtering, morphing, or freezing), granular synthesis (which involves breaking down audio signals into small grains and rearranging them), and physical modeling (which involves simulating the behavior of physical objects or systems using mathematical models).

Audio Plugin Development Tools

Development tools are software applications that help you code, debug, and test your plugins.

They can make your workflow more efficient and ensure a smooth development process.

Integrated Development Environments (IDEs)

An Integrated Development Environment (IDE) is a software application that provides a comprehensive set of tools for coding, debugging, and building your plugins.

IDEs can help you write and edit your code faster and easier by offering features like code autocompletion, syntax highlighting, and powerful debugging capabilities.

Some popular IDEs for plugin development include Visual Studio, Xcode, and CLion.

These IDEs support C++ development, the most common programming language for audio plugin development.

They also integrate well with various C++ compilers, libraries, and frameworks useful for plugin development.

To choose an IDE, consider your operating system, preferred programming language, budget, and personal preference.

Experiment with different IDEs and find the one best suits your needs and preferences.

C++ Compilers

A C++ compiler is a software application that translates your human-readable code into machine-executable instructions.

Compilers are essential for building your plugins and running them on different platforms.

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GCC and Clang are widely used C++ compilers known for their reliability and compatibility across different platforms.

They can compile your code into various plugin formats used by different DAWs.

Your chosen IDE will likely have recommendations or built-in support for specific compilers, ensuring a smooth integration between your development environment and the compiler.

Install a suitable compiler for your IDE and platform before you start coding.

Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs)

A Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software application allows you to record, edit, mix, and produce audio.

DAWs are the software platforms where your audio plugins will be utilized and tested.

Some popular DAWs for plugin development include Ableton Live, Logic Pro, and Reaper.

These DAWs offer features like audio recording, editing, mixing, MIDI sequencing, automation, and plugin hosting.

Understanding how DAWs function and their workflows will enable you to develop plugins that seamlessly integrate and perform within these environments.

Experiment with different DAWs, explore their features and understand the requirements and limitations imposed on audio plugins by each specific DAW.

Remember, you can also build your plugin to run standalone without relying on a DAW. One such example is Addictive Keys from XLN Audio.

Other Development Tools

In addition to IDEs, compilers, and DAWs, many other helpful development tools and resources can enhance your workflow and efficiency. Some examples are:

Version Control Systems

These software applications track changes in your code, making collaboration and managing different plugin versions more efficient.

Git is a popular version control system that can help you organize your code and work with other developers.

Libraries and Frameworks

These are collections of code that provide predefined functions and features for plugin development.

They can simplify common tasks and ensure cross-platform compatibility.

JUCE is a popular C++ framework designed for audio applications that provides a high-level abstraction for audio plugin development.

Plugin Development Libraries and APIs

Building audio plugins can be a complex and time-consuming task.

That’s why it’s important to use existing libraries and APIs that can simplify and accelerate your development process.

Libraries and APIs are collections of code that provide predefined functions and features for plugin development.

They can help you abstract complex tasks, ensure cross-platform compatibility, and focus on your plugin’s unique features and creative aspects.

Some popular plugin development libraries and APIs include JUCE, VST SDK, Audio Unit SDK, and AAX SDK.

JUCE

JUCE is a widely adopted framework for audio plugin development.

It offers a comprehensive set of tools, libraries, and cross-platform capabilities, making it a popular choice among developers.

JUCE simplifies tasks such as creating user interfaces, handling audio processing, and managing plugin parameters.

It also supports various plugin formats, including VST, Audio Unit (AU), AAX, and more.

JUCE’s extensive documentation and active community make it an excellent resource for developers at all skill levels.

You can learn from tutorials, examples, and forums to get started with JUCE and create powerful plugins.

VST SDK

The VST SDK is a development kit provided by Steinberg, a leading name in the audio industry. It enables the creation of VST plugins compatible with numerous DAWs.

The VST SDK provides the necessary tools and documentation to implement VST-specific functionality, such as MIDI support, preset management, and seamless integration with host applications.

It is also compatible with JUCE, allowing you to use both frameworks to create robust and versatile plugins.

Audio Unit SDK

If you’re targeting macOS and iOS platforms, Apple’s Audio Unit SDK is essential. It allows you to create plugins compatible with Logic Pro and other AU hosts.

Audio Units offer tight integration with Apple’s ecosystem, providing advanced audio processing and MIDI handling features.

The Audio Unit SDK provides resources, examples, and documentation to help you develop AU plugins efficiently and take advantage of the unique capabilities offered by Apple’s platforms.

It also works well with JUCE, enabling you to create cross-platform plugins that support AU and other formats.

AAX SDK

For developers aiming to create plugins compatible with Avid Pro Tools, the AAX SDK from Avid is indispensable. It is the plugin format that Pro Tools use.

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The AAX SDK equips you with the necessary tools to develop AAX plugins, ensuring compatibility and optimal performance within the Pro Tools environment.

Avid’s documentation and developer resources offer guidance on implementing essential features specific to AAX plugins.

The AAX SDK also integrates with JUCE, allowing you to use both frameworks to create powerful plugins that support AAX and other formats.

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Resources and Learning Materials

Audio plugin development requires a combination of skills and knowledge of audio-processing concepts.

So you need access to quality resources and learning materials to succeed in this arena.

Online Tutorials and Courses

One of the best ways to learn audio plugin development and DSP is through online tutorials and courses.

These structured learning experiences provide video lectures, hands-on exercises, and practical projects.

You can find tutorials and courses for different skill levels, from beginner-friendly introductions to advanced topics.

Some platforms where you can find online tutorials and courses include Coursera, Udemy, and YouTube.

These platforms offer a wide range of audio plugin development and DSP topics, such as audio programming, synthesis techniques, plugin design, and more.

You can learn from experts and instructors worldwide at your own pace and convenience.

Books

Books are another great resource for learning audio plugin development.

They provide in-depth explanations, code examples, and insights from experienced developers.

They can serve as valuable references throughout your plugin development journey.

Some of the books I recommend are:

  • The Audio Programming Book” by Richard Boulanger: This is a comprehensive guide covering various aspects of audio programming, including DSP, synthesis techniques, and plugin development.
  • Designing Audio Effect Plugins in C++” by Will Pirkle: This book focuses specifically on designing audio effects using C++. It covers filter design, modulation effects, reverb effects, etc.

Online Communities

Learning from online communities is very helpful for audio plugin development.

Through these community platforms, you can interact with other developers worldwide.

You can ask questions, share your work, and learn from the experiences of others.

Some of the online communities I recommend are:

KVR Audio Forums: This is a vibrant community where you can discuss various topics, including DSP audio-related development. You can also participate in various contests to showcase your skills for some wins.

JUCE Forum: This is a community for users of JUCE, a popular framework for audio plugin development. You can get support, feedback, and tips from other JUCE users and developers.

Documentation and Tutorials from Framework Developers

When using specific libraries or frameworks for audio plugin development, such as JUCE or VST SDK, it’s important to explore the official documentation and tutorials provided by the developers.

These resources offer insights into the features, functionalities, and best practices of the respective libraries or frameworks.

Documentation often includes code examples, explanations of APIs, and step-by-step guides to help you leverage the full potential of the tools at your disposal.

Tutorials often provide practical examples of using libraries or frameworks to create specific plugins or effects.

Final Thoughts

I hope this guide inspired you to embark on your audio plugin development journey.

Remember, many resources and learning materials are available to help you along the way.

Audio plugin development is a rewarding and challenging drive that requires practice, experimentation, and creativity.

Start small by building basic effects plugins and gradually expand to complex generator plugins as you gain more understanding.

Frequently Asked Questions

What programming language is used to make audio plugins?

The most common programming language used for audio plugins is C++, which is a low-level object-oriented language. C++ is used for developing audio plugins, video games, and other software. Other languages like Java or C# can also be used with frameworks like jVSTwRapper or VST.NET.

How much does it cost to make a music plugin?

The cost of making a music plugin depends on its complexity, design, format, and development time. A simple effect plugin can cost at least $300, while an instrument plugin can cost $2,000 or more. A budget of over $1,000 can help your plugin stand out.

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