Do you feel like your songs are lacking that special something you hear in professional recordings? Are you struggling to make your songs loud and punchy? Or do you feel like they're just missing a little extra polish? Then you need to up your mastering game.
Mastering is a key element to any successful recording. Its purpose is to capture the essence of your music. You can create the best song in the world but if it isn’t mastered correctly, it will come out wimpy and underwhelming.
Mastering is the element that separates a track that sounds like it was recorded using an iPhone in a garage from a track that sounds like it was recorded in Abbey Road Studios. In this article, we will explore the best mastering plugins for your tracks so you can capture the full essence and energy of your music.
But before we do, if you want to learn more about mastering, check out this free mastering cheat sheet that will walk you through the most important steps in the mastering process.
Note: This article may contain affiliate links, meaning I would receive a commission - at no cost to you - for any products you purchase.
When it comes to the king of mastering plugins, Izotope Ozone 9 is undoubtedly the reigning monarch. This all-encompassing plugin provides everything you need for professional results, integrated into a slick, sleek mastering workflow.
Let’s explore why.
When you peel back the onion, you will find that investing in this tool is probably more affordable than buying multiple mastering plugins individually. It is common for mastering engineers to buy a plugin for EQ, compressing, tape saturation, etc.
But with the Izotope Ozone 9, you can have all of the highest quality mastering tools at your disposal with this one-stop-shop solution. Not only are all of your mastering needs are completely streamlined, but it's easy to reorder the plugins to build your own custom signal chain on the fly.
Izotope Ozone 9 is more than just a standard mastering plugin, though. Ozone plugin series is going on 18 years strong. There is no other player in the market that has the specialized expertise that Izotope brings to the table. This is proven with their products and continuous ingenuity.
Ozone 9 brings many additional ground-breaking features compared to its competitors. For example, Izotope Ozone 9 utilizes state of the art machine learning and AI technology to bring your mastering skills to the next level.
You can literally get the best of both worlds here: AI mastering combined with the human touch. In this respect, it's far superior to the online only AI mastering systems as well as any random collection of individual plugins.
I like to use the Master Assistant and source separation technology allows you to toggle instrument levels or key parts of my song before even starting my master. It helps find ugly resonant frequencies, set compression thresholds, and crossover points. Furthermore, you can add modern or vintage vibes with the flick of a switch which gives you an efficient turnkey solution for mastering any track. From there, I start dialing in the settings, adding my own plugins.
iZotope Ozone has incredibly powerful A/B features. If you load in a reference track, Ozone will match the volume and automatically detect the different parts of the song so you can compare your chorus with the reference, or your verse. On top of that, Ozone can steal the frequency profile of the reference track and apply it to your EQ to make your song sound similar!
Also, the Low End Focus feature takes the struggle out of balancing the dreaded low frequencies like bass. This feature is the secret weapon in eliminating muddy bass and, in turn, enhancing the bass to achieve the clarity and precision you need in your song.
All in all, this comprehensive mastering plugin has 16 modules and can work as an individual component plugin, a single plugin or a standalone plugin which makes the Izotope Ozone 9 the best one-stop-shop mastering plugin solution on the market today.
Waves has been a leader in the plugin space since 1992. Their tools have been utilized in countless hit records, motion pictures and video games worldwide.
Their mastering plugins are no exception.
In my view, the best Waves mastering plugin is the Abbey Road TG Mastering Chain.
This nifty mastering tool has been painstakingly modeled on the one and only Abbey Road EMI TG 12410 Transfer Console, which has been used for all of Abbey Road’s mastering suites since the 1970’s up until this very day. The TG 12410 has a distinctive solid-state sound used on legendary recordings including Dark Side of the Moon, In Utero and OK Computer.
So ya, it's kind of a big deal.
The TG Mastering Chain features all of the original modules including the input, tone, compressor, limiter, filter and V.A.L. modules. The compressor/limiter module offers original and modern settings which gives you the power to use 1970’s-esque dirty settings or elegant pristine vibes and everything in between.
The TG Mastering Chain also offers maximal flexibility when it comes to your signal flow. You can customize processing chains on your master bus as well as individual tracks and stems. All in all, the Abbey Road TG Mastering Chain is a one of a kind mastering plugin that captures the integral parts of the Abbey Road sound since the early 1970’s up until today.
If you’re not looking for an all-in-one solution, such as Izotope Ozone 9, you can simply buy individual mastering plugins to create your own custom mastering plugin ‘stack’. You could say that these are the best mastering plugins for their respective jobs.
With this route, you have the advantages of customization and potentially cost-savings. This may be beneficial for expert sound engineers who already know exactly what they want based on their massive level of experience. It also lets you fine tune your own sound. And of course, an individual plugin can also be combined with Ozone or the TG Mastering Console.
Izotope, Waves, Eventide and FabFilter are just some of the many companies that produce amazing mastering plugins for your stack.
If you had to invest in just one type of mastering plugin, I'd recommend investing in a limiter. Most DAWs will have decent EQ and compression options, but very few have a professional-grade limiter.
Limiting an audio track comes at the very end of the mastering process. Limiting a mix sets the point at which an audio level can no longer go any higher. A quality limiter is the secret to loud, powerful mixes that don't sound over-compressed.
Hands down, the best tool on the market for this process is the FabFilter Pro L2. FabFilter is an incredibly reputable company for a large suite of audio engineering tools; limiter plugins are no exception.
The Pro L2 can take the hottest of mixes and eliminate any ugly artifacts from your audio. The true peak limiting mode not only accounts for the levels of each sample, but also the analog signal that your D/A converter will produce which will keep distortion artifacts at bay in your music. It also includes built in dithering and oversampling.
The Pro L2 features eight total limiting algorithms (four of which are brand new). For example, the aggressive algorithm is perfect for the powerful loudness required for heavy rock or EDM tracks, while the modern formula is a perfect starting point for any track.
Lastly, the loudness metering within the tool is compliant with EBU R128, ITU-R BS.1770-4, and ATSC A/85 standards which will ensure your overall volume stays in check. For these reasons (and much more), the FabFilter Pro L2 is by far the best limiter plugin on the market.
EQ (or equalization) is one of the most utilized elements in mastering. EQ allows you to shape the sound of your music by adjusting the gain (or volume) at selected points. While some EQs focus on narrow, clinical sounding changes (which can be useful for cutting out certain frequencies when mastering), the best mastering plugin for EQ is certainly the Tube-Tech Equalizer Plugin by Softube, because it works so well on complex sounds.
This mastering EQ plugin combines the highly rated PE 1C and ME 1B equalizers into this single tube-driven plugin, which utilizes Softube’s latest signal-processing technology. This plugin has a simple and easy-to-use interface, and emulates the classic mastering EQs. And of course, it lets you do the famous Pultec "low-end" trick.
All in all, the Tube-Tech Equalizer plugin by Softube offers incredible sound due to the company’s latest and greatest signal processing technology and combines two epic audio equalizers into one easy to use plugin. It also can add just a touch of fat tube saturation to warm up your masters and add life and depth to fully in-the-box digital recordings.
Compression is simply lessening the dynamic range between the loudest and softest parts of an audio track. This creates a steady stream of soundwaves that makes your music blend and flow smoothly. When used in mastering, compression can either help "glue" your track together, or control harsh frequencies.
The best plugin for compressing your music is the FabFilter Pro-MB. FabFilter is one of the leading players in the plugin space creating powerful and innovative tools that the best sound engineers swoon over. The Pro-MB contains all of the expert features you need in an interactive interface to give your music an exceptional sound quality it needs.
For example, most plugins require you to split the entire spectrum of the soundwave with crossovers. The Pro-MB allows you to create a new band entirely at a certain frequency range you want to toggle while leaving the rest of it untouched! So if your low end is overly dynamic, or your high end is a little too harsh, simply create a new band and apply a touch of compression, while leaving the rest of the mix untouched!
In addition, the Dynamic Phase processing mode features no pre-ringing artifacts and zero latency while the Linear Phase processing mode eliminates audible artifacts when changing crossover frequencies. The Pro-MB also includes things like MIDI Learn, Smart Parameter Interpolation, precision-tuned controls, etc. Overall, the Pro-MB is the market leader in compressor plugins due to its flexibility in band and mode settings.
Saturation is a loaded term within the sound engineer community since it means different things to different people. When all is said and done, saturation is making your music sound less digital and more analog. Saturation is commonly described as the ‘warmth’ of a track.
Softube’s Tape Machine is without a doubt the best saturation plugin to create a realistic analog sound to your mic. The plugin offers three different tape machines that covers a wide spectrum of vintage warmth. Simply select your favorite setting (A, B or C) and adjust the Amount knob. Easy! You also have the ability to add on features like stability control, wet/dry mix knob and the mastering grade high shelf filter.
The plugin is also extremely efficient and doesn’t overload your CPU. Feel free to use the plugin for your master bus or you can go old-school and add tape to every single track for a multi-layer approach. Lastly, there are presets you can choose from that were created and nitpicked by professionals Joe Chiccarelli (U2, Beck, Strokes) and Howard Willing (Sheryl Crow, Smashing Pumpkins). For these reasons and many more, the Softube Tape Machine plugin is absolutely world class. If you're looking to really warm up your track, here is my review of the best distortion and saturation plugins.
Maybe a mastering plugin isn’t up your alley. Maybe you don’t feel like spending money on a mastering plugin, worrying about buying the right one and learning how to use it.
That’s totally fine!
There are some alternatives to buying a mastering plugin. For instance, you can use online mastering services such as eMastered and BandLab. eMastered is an online mastering tool with a freemium model which was created by Grammy-winning engineers.
BandLab is also an online mastering tool where you can simply drag and drop your track into the free software and access mastering tools such as CD Quality, Bass Boost and Enhanced Clarity.
Overtime, these services may be the best choice if you've only got a few tracks to master. However, if you're not happy with the results they produce, you're really limited in your options for dialing in your desired sound.
Lastly, you can simply outsource the work to someone on a site like Airgigs where you have access to top studio musicians to mix your track. As you can see, there are plenty of alternatives to choose from if you decide the mastering plugin route isn’t right for you!
I think that in terms of features, value, and workflow, iZotope Ozone 9 is hands down the best mastering plugin. Learning how to master will give you that much more control over your sound. Ozone 9 makes it easy to dial in a great sound thanks to its AI features, and then quickly tweak them to make a master your own.
But what do you think? Is there a mastering plugin you think is better?
Mastering is simply the process of editing a soundtrack after recording. The main purpose of mastering is to both balance and embellish the elements of each recording to capture the essence of your music and what you’re trying to portray. For example, a sound engineer would master the track of a rock song by adjusting the elements of drums, bass, guitar and vocals individually and/or holistically. Some of the tools used to master are equalization, compression, fading and limiting. Muddled vocals, overbearing high-hats and weak bass are some of the challenges sound engineers face during the mastering phase.
Simply put, a limiter sets the threshold at which the dynamic range of a track can go no higher. It is very similar to compressing which is primarily used to reduce the dynamic range of a track. Essentially, a limiter stops the volume from going over a certain level.
Making your mix loud can be tricky since doing so can result in ‘clipping’ or too much gain, distortion and unwanted artifacts. To make your master louder, you must cut unnecessary deadweight which usually starts with low frequency bass. You’ll also want to balance the EQ overall and use multi-band compression and multiple stages of compression. Lastly, don’t overdo limiting and use low ratios while avoiding short attack times.
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