Top 10 Mastering Plugins in 2021!
Mastering is the final stage of the music making process before we upload it to the world to hear. We always recommend getting things to sound right during the recording process & in your mix first before mastering. It’s also good practice to get to know your DAWs stock plugins before investing in expensive mastering plugins; however, the more you get into mastering, you’re eventually going to need to invest in some more powerful tools & since we just released our brand new online course - The Art Of Mastering - we thought we would write up a list of our favorite mastering plugins ever!
The YouLean Loudness Meter is a great metering plugin that’s… free! This plugin measures the LUFS of your audio source. LUFS (Loudness Unit Full Scale) is the industry standard for measuring loudness especially when it comes to streaming platforms. The LUFS meter does a better job than VU or RMS metering of measuring the perceived loudness.
There’s a “Pro version” you can upgrade to for only $37 that includes measurements for all platforms (Spotify, YouTube, HBO Max, Disney+, Netflix, etc) and it also lets you drag & drop other songs into (like a Travis Scott record for instance) & it will analyze the loudness of that record, so you can compare it. The free version by itself is enough to do what you need it to do though!
Soft clipping is one of the best cheat codes to enhance the overall perceived loudness. Hard clipping squares off the edges of a peak in a waveform; whereas soft clipping rounds off the edges of a peak in a waveform. Because of this, soft clipping is highly effective with lowering the overall RMS gain - giving you more headroom - while somehow enhancing the overall perceived loudness. That’s right, with soft clipping you get more headroom while also gaining more perceived loudness. That’s a true win-win! The T-RackS Classic Clipper is one of the best soft clipper plugins out there & it’s so affordable! Only $49 & if you keep an eye out, it goes on sale for $25 a few times a year!
Multi-band compressors are a must for lots of professional mastering engineers & this brand is hands down our favorite! Like all FabFilter plugins the design is elegant & smooth. One of our favorite features is - unlike traditional multiband compressors that spilt bands over the entire spectrum with crossovers - Pro-MB allows you to place bands anywhere on the spectrum independently of each other. This lets you be more precise & only compress the frequency range that needs it. Pro-MB is filled with a bunch of other excellent features such as M/S compression, side-chain compression, & the ability to solo out frequency ranges.
Pro-MB is powerful & will instantly become your go-to for multi-band compression! This plugin is also great to have for mixing as well.
There are lots of options when it comes to bus compressors on your master channel & we even switch between a few ourselves for different songs, but if we had to only choose one, we’re going with the SSL Bus Compressor! This compressor has become iconic & is known for its “glued” sound. The SSL comp does an amazing job with creating a cohesive sound while maintaining clarity. It also does a great job with making your track hit hard!
One of our favorite features this plugin has to offer is the SC filter. This allows you to set a frequency range in the low end that the compressor won’t react to. This is a great way to avoid the low end triggering the compressor & causing a “pumping” feeling. There’s a few different companies that sell this plugin. Our favorite is the one from Universal Audio, but if you don’t have the UA hardware, you can still find it on the SSL site. Waves audio also sells it & it’s pretty solid; however, they recently switched over their plugins to needing yearly update plans, so just be prepared that you may need to repurchase this plugin once a year if you buy it from Waves.
One of the most iconic pieces of mastering gear ever. The Manley Massive Passive is renowned for its ultra high end quality & brilliance for shaping the tone of a track. The original EQ uses a tube amp to create gorgeous harmonics, but it’s for a hefty price tag of almost $5,000 😩. Luckily UAD created an official plugin version that sounds great! This EQ is easy to use & always adds the right musical tone.
When it comes to the ultimate metering & visual analyzers, the best in the business is iZotope’s Insight 2! This thing has everything you need for analyzing your mastered tracks. Besides a LUFS meter & true peak monitoring, Insight 2 also has Ozone’s sound field built right into it. The sound field is so handy for showing if your track is out of phase, how out of phase it is, & whether the track is mono compatible or not. There’s also a Spectrogram to view your audio within a stunning 3D monitor!
Looking for a plugin that will help you become a better engineer & help shape your ears over time to understand what the industry quality standards are? Look no further than Tonal Balance Control 2! Another plugin by iZotope & this bad boy does not disappoint! Tonal Balance analyzes your audio & has each frequency area broken into blocks for you to reference. You can set Tonal Balance to multiple different genres or import your own reference songs to analyze. What Tonal Balance does is it shows you suggestions within different frequency areas that need adjustments. The closer you are within the blocks the more balanced your song will be. Tonal Balance even works with other iZotope plugins like Ozone & Neutron, so you can go in and adjust the EQs that are on individual tracks right within this plugin without ever having to leave your master channel.
Any mastering chain is going to need a limiter at some point & there’s no better limiter currently on the market than the one FabFilter makes. The interface is great looking & easy to use. This limiter sounds loud & crystal clear with lots of style options to find the right tone for the song you’re mastering. One of our favorite features is the LUFS meter that’s built in. LUFS have become the standard unit to measure how loud a song should be for streaming, so it’s very handy to have this meter built right into the plugin that’s going to make the song louder. The True Peak Limiting function is designed to help avoid clipping & Pro-L2 also has the ability to apply oversampling up to 32x on your overall track.
If you’re in the market for a new limiter, this one will not disappoint & it will be the only limiter you will ever need!
Finishing off our run of FabFilter plugins on this list is their renowned EQ. Probably the most individually powerful EQ for both mixing & mastering, this plugin can do everything you would ever want an EQ to do. It’s mixing abilities are tremendous, but it also does an amazing job for mastering. The clean elegant design is easy on the eyes & has a beautiful spectrum analyzer built in.
This EQ allows you to have up to 24 EQ bands & each of them can have a different role. You can set any band to be stereo, mid, side, left, or right. When mastering a stereo file for a client, your overall control of the mix is limited, but having these options baked right into your EQ does give you a lot more control with correcting issues the stereo mix may have. Pro-Q 3 also has a dynamic EQ inside of it & any band can be turned into a dynamic EQ instantly.
This EQ is easily our favorite EQ in our collection & has been for a long time!
If you’re heavy into the audio world, then there should be no surprise that Ozone 9 topped our list again this year. Ozone 9 is literally everything you will ever need to master - all inside of a great looking interface! Ozone is well known for it’s “mastering assistant” that basically does all the mastering for you; however, we recommend skipping that function & setting up your own mastering chain inside of it & tweaking the individual parameters yourself. You’ll get much better results & higher quality this way.
Ozone 9 has EQ, compressor, limiter, imager, & exciter modules inside of it & this plugin allows you to stack these in any order you want. The Exciter itself is one of the best on the market. It allows you to apply saturation & distortion to different bands (setup like a multi-band compressor.) The Exciter also has an M/S function which is great for controlling the mid & sides differently. The Imager Ozone 9 has is pretty great too. It also has a multi-band setup & you have the ability to change the stereo image on different bands. It has brillant analyzers built inside. The analyzers show you what’s out of phase & you can correct the phase inside of each band separately. The analyzer also tells you how mono-compatible the source is.
One of the newer features of Ozone 9 is it’s “Low End Focus” module. This new module allows you to shape & control the low end in a much cleaner & sharper way than most EQs can. If you have an older version of Ozone, the “Low End Focus” module alone is enough to upgrade.
Another new module added to Ozone 9 is the “Master Rebalance”. Basically, if you have a stereo mix that you’re mastering, this module will allow you to change the volume of the drums, bass, or vocals separately. This can come in handy when you’re mastering for someone else & you need to make certain changes to some of the volumes in the mix. It’s also handy when you’re mixing a song & the beat is not tracked out.
If you’re only able to grab one plugin for your mastering chain, this is the one to go for. You will literally have everything you need all inside of one plugin!
If the overall price is a bit much, Splice.com offers this plugin as a rent-to-own option. They let you cancel & start back up at any time & there’s no interest. You also own the plugin after all the payments are complete! You can also visit iZotope’s website & grab a subscription to all iZotope’s plugins for $25 a month with their Music Production Pro Membership.
Realistic Production - Engineer
Realistic is a Producer/Engineer located in Atlanta, GA specializing in Hip-Hop, R&B & Pop music. Realistic has been involved in the music industry for over 15 years. He has worked on projects for Talib Kweli, Just Blaze, Musiq Soulchild, Pharoahe Monch, NBA 2k, Skyzoo, BJ The Chicago Kid, Madlib, Ayo-N-Keyz, Billboard Hitmakers, Atmosphere, Brother Ali, Rhymesayers, Hamburger Helper, & LoveOfPharaoh.
CONNECT WITH REALISTIC
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