When it comes to mastering in-the-box, you’ll want a great compressor, a limiter, an EQ, and most of the stuff you’re already familiar with for mixing. Many of the best mastering plugins combine the parameters you’ll need into a single piece of very handy software!
If you’re learning how to master in-the-box, you’ll need the best mastering plugins for the job! Some are uniquely designed for mastering, using elements like M/S processing. Others are just great all-around plugins you’ll want to have on hand, like an SSL G bus compressor.
Here are a few of the best mastering plugins you can get:
- Waves – Abbey Road TG Mastering Chain
- Eventide Elevate Bundle
- iZotope Ozone 9
- Brainworx bx_XL V2
- Brainworx bx_masterdesk
- UAD SSL 4000 G Bus Compressor
- FabFilter Pro-L 2
- FabFilter Pro-Q 3
- Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor
- Nugen MasterCheck Pro
- Soundtheory Gullfoss
The Abbey Road mastering chain by Waves emulates the same EMI chain used in all of Abbey Road’s mastering rooms. It’s one of the most affordable mastering plugins you can get, thanks to Waves consistent promo offers and discounts. Not only that, but this chain is actually heard on Dark Side of the Moon and OK Computer to name but two legendary projects that the EMI Transfer Console has graced over the decades.
Eventide’s Elevate bundle is a suite of four mastering plugins. They include EQ, multi-band limiting, saturation, and maximizing. As is becoming the case with many plugins in 2021, Elevate makes ample use of artificial intelligence to make it easier to shape the best sounds possible. Say what you will about AI in mastering, the Elevate bundle is fantastic plugin suite for this purpose.
Ozone 9 builds on a nearly 20-year legacy of innovation over at iZotope. What they call “the future of mastering,” Ozone 9 is an intelligent mastering assistant that can help you dial in the appropriate vintage or modern vibe, as well as the ideal loudness for streaming. It can EQ match a reference track and find the overall balance for your individual master. If intelligent plugins are the future of mastering, Ozone 9 is at the forefront.
The XL limiter by Brainworx is an effort to maximize loudness without squashing the life out of every mix or master. This clever mid-side limiter gives you separate control over the different parts of a mix—it’s technically four limiters in one, each with precise control over a certain frequency spectrum. Plus, each channel has a saturation knob (XL) that can add a bit more ‘oomph’ to whatever you choose.
bx_masterdesk emulates a premium analog mastering chain. The layout is simple and intuitive, and gives you pretty much everything you need to add that extra coat of varnish on a mix in a single plugin. We were talking AI earlier, and this is the opposite of that. There’s nothing fancy, no robot takeover, just a high-end analog emulation for taking your masters to the next level.
The SSL 4000 G is one of the most famous bus compressors of all time. Its lore includes making records sound bigger, punchier, and more powerful, all without sacrificing the detail and clarity of a mix. People often call it the ‘glue’ at the end of a group or mix, so it’s great for using as the primary compressor on a mastering chain. The UAD emulation sounds amazing, but there are plenty of other takes on the G bus that sound equally incredible. Take your pick!
This is a true peak limiter noted for its transparency as well as its loudness. FabFilter is known for making some of the classiest plugins on the planet, and Pro-L 2 is definitely one of them. It comes with all sorts of very detailed metering options so you can be sure you’re delivering the right spec based on what this plugin tells you. Pro-L is loud, it’s clear, and it’s a quality mastering limiter.
- SEE ALSO: What Is a True Peak Limiter?
Pro-Q 3 may be one of the best known EQ plugins ever produced. It’s not based on any old analog gear, it just takes the best of what the digital world has to offer and capitalizes on it. The GUI is gorgeous, and like Pro-L, sound quality is unmatched. Again, this is a fairly transparent plugin designed simply to get the best sound possible. For that, we think it’s a perfect match for mastering.
Here’s a gigantic hunk of analog magic that has an awesome plugin emulation. This thing looks intimating with its massive dials and meters, and ominous looking green LED lights. Once you get past the seemingly unorthodox design, this thing is just a beast. The magic lies in dual stage compression: discrete and optical. This gives you the benefit of compressing the signal in small amounts through both stages, so you’re not slamming the signal with one compressor. Shadow Hills knocked it out of the park with this guy.
- SEE ALSO: Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor
Metering is crucial to an accurate master. Especially with how music is delivered these days across various streaming platforms each with different optimal levels, it’s never been more confusing to master for the most coherent listening experience. MasterCheck will show you what happens to your master once it hits a streaming provider; it will reveal problems that you can then compensate for. This plugin is equally flexible for mixing or mastering.
Gullfoss by Soundtheory is an intelligent EQ plugin. The overall goal of the plugin is to detect anomalies in the frequency balance, and alter them so we perceive the absolute best version of the signal. It does so by determining which elements are fighting for our ears’s attention and quickly resolving those problems. If it sounds too good to be true, Gullfoss is quickly becoming a secret weapon for fast, intuitive mixing and mastering moves.
- SEE ALSO: Gullfoss EQ Review
Mixing vs. Mastering Plugins
Mixing involves combining multiple layers of a song together so that they gel together. There are 5 basic technical and creative aspects of mixing: levels, panning, dynamics processing, EQ, and time-based effects. The plugins you use while mixing will differ slightly from the ones you use mastering.
Mastering, as we’ve briefly discussed, optimizes the overall sound of a track or an entire album. When a song leaves mixing, a mastering engineer will apply his/her own additional compression, EQ, and other signal processors as the final touch.
There are mastering plugins designed just for this purpose. They’re optimally used on a 2-track bounce rather on individual mix elements.
The Goal of Mastering Plugins
The biggest thing to remember when differentiating mixing and mastering is that the latter puts polish on the finished product. In mixing, individual tracks are paid careful attention, ensuring that they sit well for the final stereo bounce. In mastering, a final stereo bounce is all you’re working with.
There’s a great analogy saying that mastering is like Photoshop for audio. You can buy a great camera, learn the art of photography, take beautiful photos, and sometimes things still aren’t quite right. The lighting may be off, or a smudge on the lens can ruin an otherwise perfect shot. A skilled Photoshop user can touch things up and make sure the photo is at its highest potential.
In a similar way, mastering engineers “touch up” an already incredible mix. In addition to equalizing track-to-track levels across an album, they’re also listening to songs individually and applying any additional processing that will help an already-mixed track.
To do this, you’ll benefit from some of the top mastering plugins on the market!