Mastering is the final step in the production process of a song before it’s officially released. Mastering typically helps make a song louder and mastering engineers act as a final set of ears to iron out any final overall details. While it’s possible to take your song to a professional mastering studio, many consumer-grade mastering plugins and suites released in the last few years make it possible to do a comparable job at home for a fraction of the cost.
While Landr isn’t technically a plugin suite, it offers automated mastering at an affordable price through a web interface. Opinions on how well Landr performs compared to a professional mastering engineer remain heated, but as a simple reference tool, Landr makes mastering accessible to up and coming producers and musicians. The service’s algorithms are updated regularly and are a great way to jump into the world of mastering without an expensive plugin for mastering.
2. Waves Masters
The Waves Masters bundle is a complete mastering suite that includes a maximizer, multiband compressor, and equalizer. The included L2 Ultramaximizer tool has multiple presets that utilize Waves’ 24-bit peak-limiting and sophisticated look-ahead engine. Also included is the Linear Phase Multiband Compressor, a 5-band compressor that features linear phase crossover points to prevent phase shifting as you compress certain frequencies of your track. Combined, the Waves bundle is a great entry-level set of mastering plugins to get started quickly.
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3. Izotope Ozone 7
Similar to the Waves bundle, Izotope’s mastering collection is widely considered to be an industry standard. Izotope’s popularity comes in part from the sonic quality and ease of use of its plugins.
The seventh edition of Ozone includes new vintage compressors and modules designed to add tape compression and warmth. The best plugin effect in the new Ozone bundle is the limiter, which is rumored to be based on the Fairchild 670, a classic piece of mastering hardware. The Vintage EQ plugin is built to replicate the EQP-1A and MEQ-5 equalizers from Plutec and features both high, mid, and low-frequency control from the same interface.
Ozone is a great one-stop-shop option for engineers looking to add the best plugin effect options to their arsenal of tools.
3. UAD Precision Multiband
The Universal Audio Precision Multiband plugin handles dynamic range in multiple ways, not just compression. With a compressor at its core, the Precision Multiband tool also offers expanders and gates for each of its five bands. The interface is easy to understand and offers flexibility whether you’re mastering your first or thousandth track.
4. UAD Limiter
No mastering chain would be complete without a quality limiter. UAD’s precision limiter offers 100% attack in it’s quick 1.5ms look-ahead window. The UAD limiter offers exceptional performance in preventing clipping and minimizing aliasing. The contour controls on the limiter allow you to control blends of attack, input and output gain, and overall sonic character easily. THe UAD Limiter is bundled along with the Precision Multiband in UAD’s Precision Mastering Bundle.
5. Sonnox Oxford Inflator
Limiters and exciters are typically found at the end of a mastering chain. The Oxford Inflator from Sonnox offers a unique twist on the traditional behavior of a compressor on the master-bus. The Inflator allows you to increase loudness and punch without compromising a track's dynamic range.
Typically used by engineers to accentuate vocals, the Oxford Inflator is a must-have for adding extra warmth to your mix before diving into multiband compression and limiting for a final track.
6. Sonnox Pro-Codec
Less common than other mastering tools, the Sonnox Pro-Codec provides a solution to an often overlooked problem. Although you spend most of your time in the mastering stage making sure a mix will translate to other systems, you do so using high quality 16 and 24-bit WAV files. When you release a track, it is often converted into smaller and more manageable file formats like MP3s and AACs, which can greatly degrade the quality of a track.
The Pro-Codec plugin lets you audition and export a song in multiple file formats to see if artifacts or unwanted clipping occurs. If you’re releasing a song to streaming platforms like Soundcloud or Spotify, listening to compressed versions of your song before sending it to a distributor will help maintain the quality of the track throughout the process!
Finding the perfect plugin for mastering isn't always easy, but most professional software packs offer trial periods to see if they're a good fit for your workflow. When possible, use reference tracks in your mastering project to see how your song compares to commercial releases. Try and use songs that are in a similar genre or style you'd like to achieve.
Whatever mastering suite or plugin you choose, keep an ear out for updates in the industry. Algorithms and technologies change frequently and there are always great new releases just around the corner.