Best Mastering Plugins
These are the best mastering plugins, according to AudioStreets.com. After years of research and trying every possible option out there, I have made a personal list of the absolute best for every section of the mastering process. Of course, there are a lot of other amazing plugins out there, but I’m trying to keep it short.
Hey everybody, I’m Avi from AudioStreets. For the last 15 years, I’m head-butting this mysterious subject. I’ve had successes, and I’ve had some failures; both of which taught me how to master a song. With mastering, you can never know how good or bad you are until you’re comparing your results with other professional masters.
But, this is all mainstream knowledge, and I’m here to give you gold, without you having to dig for it. Here, you will find a few of my golden tips for a good master. Also, I will talk about my favorite mastering plugins for getting this magical sound in the box. It is important to note that this is all based on my personal knowledge and experience.
Mastering is one of the most interesting stages of crafting a “sound” for a song. Many have said that this could make or break everything, and I totally agree with that. So, to get a very good master, you must have at least a well-done mix. Yes, I know this also is a mainstream opinion, but it is a very hard fact. I’ve had both shitty mixes that became only ‘mehh’ masters, and I’ve had very good mixes, which turned out to be very impressive masters that sounded good in every situation, room, and system.
A few years ago, I was still fighting for the loudest master I could possibly get. But today, I’m putting healthy dynamics and a good tone on the top of my priority list. A good master begins with a good mix, so here are some basic rules for a good mastering ready mix. I, personally, like to get my mixes with a little bit of headroom. That means that the distance between my average level (RMS) and my peak level should be around 10db tops. That way, I have the dynamic freedom to get whatever I want with this mix. A lot of mix engineers like to have a little bit of bus compression on their master channel. That is completely fine to get some coloration, as long as they are not squishing the master too much.
As far as audio engines and sound quality go, I consider myself a complete freak. I have recorded, mixed, and mastered on almost every DAW out there. And, as I said in the beginning of this article, everything I say is my own personal opinion, so always try things for yourself in the end. I have tried almost every big DAW in the market. I’ve worked with Cubase for 12 years, from the earliest versions. After getting to know Cubase audio engine and hearing it getting better over the years, I also compared it with Protools and Logic. For a few years, I have used three of them for different tasks. After a while, I noticed that Logic sounded best for my taste. I could hear more defined low end, deeper reverb tails, and, overall, more definition. So, for mastering with my best mastering plugins, I really like to use Logic Pro. As a matter of fact, as Logic has gotten better over the years, I have dropped all the others.
OK, This part is the closest to my heart. I LOVE plugins. I grew up in a world of plugins. I started using them from when they were pure shit, all the way, to now, as they have become simply amazing. I must admit, I didn’t use hardware all that much, at least for everything that is mastering-related. So, in my mind, I divide the whole family of mastering plugins into 3 groups.
1. Clinical & sharp
2. Colors & Tone
3. Loudness & Stereo image
Clinical & Sharp
In this first group, I have all the plugins I use to shape and fix things in the mix; mostly EQ’s, Filters, and Multi Band Compressors. In the early stages of the mastering process, I only shape the mix for a balanced result. I start with cutting the very low end of a mix; everything that is below 20Hz is not necessary for me, so a relatively sharp filter cut will do the work. A good filter that I like to use is McDSP FilterBank. I find it very clean and nice-sounding. Most of the time, I use it to cut the very low and very high ends. I rarely use an EQ for that.
After that, I use an EQ to lower some problematic frequencies. Usually, I like using Waves HEQ Hybrid. This is one of the most impressive EQ plugins, as far as not changing the original color of the mix. I also really like that it shows you the notes under the specific frequencies you’re working on, which is crazy cool to an old-school plugin user, such as myself. I like it when a plugin does exactly what it was designed for, without adding any extras to it, unless this is it’s purpose. At this stage, I want my tools to have minimum color imprint on the song.
The last part of the first group is compressors and multiband compressors. I sometimes use de-essers to fix specific dynamic problems in the mix, but this is kind of rare, because I have the multi band compressor for that. If a mix has some part in it that sounds a little uncontrollable to my ear, I sometimes target it with a de-esser, just because it’s simple and efficient. If it has more parts that need a little more controlled dynamics, I use a multi band compressor. For example, If a vocal has some frequencies that hurt in the ear, I find these exact frequencies and compress them gently. I like to use Waves De-esser. Don’t know why I like it, maybe because it was so nice to me all these years… 🙂
The multiband compressor I like is the one on Izotope Ozone plugin. This one gives me the freedom to do almost whatever I like, as far as working on a 2 channel mix file. It is simple, easy on the eye, and sounds great. I will write another article on multiband compressors in the future.
As for levels, I really like to raise the level with the right compressor for each task. Sometimes 2 or 3 db’s are making a huge difference in the overall sound and level of the track in the final result. In my opinion, most of the loudness comes from a good compression before the limiting stage. So, my favorite mastering compressor is Slate VBC. It has a very unique sound, and it feels a lot more solid then most of the plugin compressors I’ve worked with over the years.
It seems that Slate Digital did a really good job with that one. It sounds really great, even in the most extreme situations, and it gives me three totally different compressors to choose from, or to mix all of them together. I love it. Out of the three, I find myself using FG Grey the most. Maybe it’s just a personal preference.
Colours & Tone
This is a very interesting group, and here, I have all the plugins that give me the right color for the song. In this family of plugins, I have mostly compressors, analog emulations, and EQ’s. Every once in a while, I will use a special and weird plugin that has a cool mojo to it, like Waves Kramer PIE.
So, these are the plugins I love using for coloration:
IK Multimedia Lurssen Mastering Console. This one is pure magic! Excuse me for using that term, but this is a GAME CHANGER. I’ve waited for a really long time for a beautiful algorithm like that to bring my masters to life. Out of all on my best mastering plugins list, this is definitely my favorite.
Loudness & Stereo Image
In this last group, I put mostly Limiters, Stereo Imagers, and general tone shapers.
The final section of a master session is always the limiting. I have tried dozens of limiters and spent endless hours carefully listening to the effect of each slider, knob, and button. I must say that, although I like using only one limiter for my final push, I find that other plugins might work better on some materials. So, the idea is to try everything you have in your arsenal before you’re settling for your go-to plugin.
My favorite limiter plugin is A.O.M Invisible Limiter.
I find it spectacular on 95% of the materials I master. Not only does it give me a clean and uncolored output, it also gives the highest level and loudness performance.
It performs best on loud stuff like rock, pop, and all electronic genres. It has the ability to crank the levels crazy high without really crashing the dynamics.
Sometimes I use two limiters, one after the other. I don’t know why, but somehow, I manage to get a more natural sound this way. Each limiter works just a little bit less hard.
A.O.M Stereo Imager
As you can see, I really like this company, and their stereo imager is just amazing. It seems that if they could write such a good limiter, they can totally nail it with their other stuff. So, there is something special about this stereo imager. I don’t use stereo imagers all that much. I really prefer it if the widening will come from a good mix. Along with it’s great algorithm, the thing that I like about this plugin is that it lets you control the sides and the center channels separately, which is also great.
But the main reason why I use it is that it almost does nothing to the sound when it’s set to neutral settings. Complete transparency.
So, this is it.
I know that I haven’t written about a lot of other good plugins for mastering in this article, but I never wanted everything. I just wanted mastering plugins with algorithms that I can trust. Go, make good music, and please don’t use illegal software. The good people behind those plugins have families to feed, and they also want to make a living out of what they love best.