Best Mastering Plugins 2020: The Mastering Software You Need
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Best Mastering Plugins 2020: The Mastering Software You Need

Author: Robin Vincent

Date: January 28, 2020

Reads: 8,749


Robin Vincent is the founder of Molten Music Technology Ltd. His Molten YouTube channel has passed 3.3 million views and gathered 28,000 subscribers. He writes reviews and features for Sound On Sound magazine, the world's premier audio recording technology magazine and is a regular columnist focusing on PreSonus Studio One. He is the synthesizer correspondent for news website Gearnews.com.
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Once we've finished mixing our tracks we move on to the task of mastering.

Sometimes seen as a bit of a dark art reserved for specialist Engineers, mastering is becoming more accessible all the time through the fabulous plugins and tools that are available to us. The idea is to take a finished track, or a number of tracks, and examine them in a larger context. The task is to enhance the sound of the track as a whole, to ensure the overall level is right, that the stereo image is good and to even out the frequency ranges.

If you are mastering a number of tracks or an album then you’ll also want to keep relative levels similar and it gives you a chance to put together a coherent tracklist.

Mastering is what gives your music that final polish. It’s a chance to step back and reassess your music from the perspective of delivering a final product. A couple of the reasons for using a Mastering Engineer is that they bring a level of expertise in sound processing and a fresh set of ears. But, if we are doing it ourselves then hopefully this list of plugins will give you the tools you need to do a decent job and improve your music.

Here are our picks for the best mastering plugins available in 2020:

  1. Waves – Abbey Road TG Mastering Chain
  2. Eventide Elevate Bundle
  3. Izotope Ozone 9
  4. IK Multimedia T-Racks One
  5. Leapwing Dynone 3
  6. FabFilter Pro-L 2
  7. Brainworx bx_masterdesk
  8. Sonible smart:comp

Waves - Abbey Road TG Mastering Chain

The name itself is bound to trigger a few notes of recognition. Abbey Road studios is probably the most famous studio in the world. It’s the place where the Beatles and George Martin produced their best work. The rooms and sound of the equipment have become legendary and now much of that fabled recording environment has been captured in the Abbey Road collection of plugins from Waves.

All the plugins in the collection are awesome to have all over your mix but there’s one, in particular, that will give you the same mastering tools that were used on Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, Radiohead’s OK Computer and Ed Sheeran’s + and that’s the TG Mastering Chain.

The TG Mastering Chain is a modular mastering plugin modeled after the EMI TG12410 Transfer Console that has been in use at Abbey Road for nearly 50 years. It contains 5 separate processes arranged in modules. There’s the TG12411 Input, the TG12312 Tone (EQ), the TG12414 Compressor/limiter, TG12414 Filter and TF12416 V.A.L. (stereo spread).

All the modules can be re-arranged and used independently, making it useful during the mixing stage. But it’s when they are used together that they can bring that classic hardware sound to your music productions.

As this is software, it has given the Waves Engineers an opportunity to add some extra options and functionality. The compressor/limiter now has two modes. The Original mode is an exact recreation of the hardware with all the aggression and dirt that we love from 1970s recordings. The new Modern mode retains the feel of the hardware while aiming for a more pristine sound with higher levels of perceived loudness that people seem to like these days.

Personally, I’d buy the whole Abbey Road suite because the quality of the plugins in this collection is breathtaking. But for any sort of mastering of any type of music, the TG Mastering Chain will give you a solid level of vintage quality.

Street Price: $199, currently on a $49 deal price
waves.com

Eventide Elevate Bundle

This bundle of four plugins claims to offer “Mastering with a Brain.” The main Elevate mastering/limiting plugin comes with artificial intelligence algorithms that can naturally increase loudness while maintaining dynamic perception — that’s quite a feat. Your signal first travels through a 26-band filter bank and onto the main limiter with regular controls like a threshold, speed and gain ceiling but at the end of the chain, you also get Transient Emphasis and a Spectral Clipper. But it’s the filter bank where the clever stuff happens.

Rather than make you set the bands manually, Elevate uses AI to set the right amount of gain, speed and transient variation for each band. You can push the AI into other areas of the limiter as well and the AI is always looking to achieve the most natural-sounding result. You can also get in there and adjust things yourself if you wish.

What does this all mean? Well, Elevate is a complex audio processing plugin that deals in frequency bands and transients or the attack at the front of sounds. It has the ability to bring up the loudness of your music while keeping the tonal character. As you can work on different frequency bands individually you can enhance just the areas that need it.

Tweaking the transients can make your mix sound more smooth or more aggressive. At a basic level, you can experiment with the presets, which are particularly helpful in Elevate because the AI has analyzed your audio and will adapt to your actual music.

Also included in the bundle are three other plugins that take features of Elevate and focus on them exclusively. “EQuivocate” is focused purely on the 26 auditory filter bands, it’s like an EQ based on the human ear. “Saturate” is a spectral clipper that allows you to overdrive and smooth out your peaks. And “Punctuate” is all about transient emphasis.

This is not your traditional bank of knobs and levers and I wouldn’t recommend it for newbie or wannabe Mastering Engineers, but if you have experience in how sound works then Elevate is an excellent set of tone-crafting tools.

Street Price: $199
eventideaudio.com

Izotope Ozone 9

When in doubt Izotope’s Ozone is probably the best place to look. It has been great since version 1 and will always find itself in anyone’s top 5 mastering solutions. Ozone works best as a standalone mastering suite. This has the advantage of taking you out of your familiar DAW workflow and gives you a useful opportunity to view and listen to your music from a different perspective.

Ozone has various processing modules you can load up onto your imported audio. You can chain up various EQs, an Exciter, Dynamics, Imager, Limiter, and Maximiser. Use only the modules you feel are best for the audio and you can also load other VST plugins as well if you like. Or, if you are less experienced then you might want to browse through the library of presets to see if something matches the style or genre you are trying to emulate. But there are two very cool tools to help you with this.

The first is the “Master Assistant” and it is a work of pure genius. Master Assistant analyses your audio and then decides upon the best settings, depending on what you are trying to achieve. It invariably comes up with something that strikingly improves your mix. You can then tweak it to your heart’s content.

The other cool feature is called “Reference.” In this mode, you load up a piece of music that you really like the sound of and then switch between that track and yours so you can match up elements of your mix to the music you love listening to.

In the Advanced version, there’s Tonal Balance Control, which provides visual analysis of your audio as a guide to balancing the sound with EQ. It provides countless templates for you to aim for to master (pun intended) professional masters.

The interface is very clean and feels calm, professional and a little futuristic. It’s brilliantly visual, comes with presets and templates that really do work and even if you have no clue what you’re doing you will end up with a better sounding mix.

Street Prices:
• Izotope Ozone 9 – Standard – $249
• Izotope Ozone 9 – Advanced – $499

izotope.com

IK Multimedia T-Racks One

T-Racks has been around a long time and the quality of IK Multimedia’s modeling of hardware gear is second to none. The current version 5 of T-Racks is a complete suite of mastering and effects processing tools and comes with 9 processors, one of which is T-Racks One. While the full suite has advantages it’s the single T-Racks One processor that I want to focus on and you can buy separately as a one-stop mastering plugin.

T-Racks One is the deliciously simple front end to a horribly complex mastering processor. Rather than clogging up and overwhelming the interface by giving you every control, it gives you 9 knobs with helpful labels, so you can intuitively master your music. The left side deals with EQ in the friendliest way you’ll ever find. “Air” is all about the high frequencies, “Focus” fiddles about in the mids and “Body” firms up the bass.

The right side adds character with “Bass Punch” boosting the low end and tightness, “Analog” adds harmonic enhancements and “Transients” smooths out the attacks. The two big knobs in the middle do the compression and limiting. “Push” compresses while “Volume” increases the level without adding artifacts.

The trick to One is just to play with the knobs until it makes you smile and that rarely takes much effort. If you want trouble-free mastering where you don’t have to think too hard and can simply trust your ears then T-Racks One is a great value choice. For a lot more in-depth control and some wonderful metering and libraries of presets then the full T-Racks 5, at just a few extra dollars, will give you a whole other world of possibility.

Street Prices:
• IK Multimedia T-Racks One – $69
• IK Multimedia T-Racks 5 – $109

ikmultimedia.com

Leapwing Dynone 3

Dynone is designed to take the time and effort out of setting up a multiband compressor. They’ve focused on the workflow to offer up an elegant plugin that’s beautiful to look at and easy to use. They put hours into the visualization of the audio and the way the interface works to give you an intuitive compression experience.

The key features are to do with crossover filters. These are the areas between the bands where you often have to spend time making adjustments to avoid phase alignment issues.

Dynone has custom-built linear-phase crossover filters that can be tweaked and interact with each to effortlessly smooth this out. They also have adaptive attack and release timings. Rather than setting one value, they have minimum and maximum values that adapt to the changing transients and sustain of the incoming audio.

Dynone is brilliantly transparent, capable of raising the level of your music without artifacts and adds life and sparkle. Start with the presets and you’ll be amazed at the difference it can make.

Street Price: $233
leapwingaudio.com

FabFilter Pro-L 2

Pro L-2 is a true peak limiter that’s an essential tool for mastering. It’s accompanied by some excellent monitoring meters and tools that reflect traditional methods as well as the latest modern levels for streaming and online delivery formats. Limiting differs from compression in that a Limiter sets a threshold beyond which no levels will pass whereas a compressor is more relaxed and brings levels down by a ratio. So when dealing with mastering and trying to get levels precise for a release then a limiter is what you need.

The Pro L-2 is a very comprehensive limiting and metering plug-in. It has precise true peak level meters and loudness metering that supports all the current standards. Select -9 LUFS for CV or -14 LUFS for streaming and let the limiter do the work. The Loudness Meter Target displays your audio level against what you are trying to achieve so you know when you are pushing things too far.

You have eight different limiting algorithms to choose from each with their own character and purpose. A neat link function adjusts the output gain as you limit so that you don’t get that volume increase as you work on the sound, plus you can audition the limiting and swap between the input and output signal.

For getting that final level right, you can’t beat Pro L-2.

Street Prices:
• Pro-L 2 – $199
• Mastering Bundle – $499

fabfilter.com

Brainworx bx_masterdesk

Quick, easy and brilliantly effective bx_masterdeck can do the whole lot in a single, intuitive and satisfying interface. You’re not having to learn the art of mastering, you turn a few knobs, follow a simple process and use your ears.

At a basic but effective level, you can follow the three steps of pushing up the volume to get the right sort of dynamic range, setting the “Foundation,” which is the overall tonality of your mix, and then using the EQ to do a bit more detailed boosting and reducing to get the right balance. That’s it, you can stop there.

Bx_masterdeck just sounds good. It adds a vintage analog vibe and pleasing saturation without having to try too hard. The metering is good and gives a clear indication of dynamic range targets. There are four different compressor modes to try that model different analog workflows. The Mid/Side section can give you a mono mix to work on and then enhances your stereo field.

There are other tools like resonance filters, compression levels, de-essing and you can certainly get into the details if you wish but for a fast mastering solution that anyone can make good use out of, then bx_masterdesk is awesome.

Street Price: $299
brainworx.audio

Sonible smart:comp

This is a spectro-dynamic compressor that claims it can help you master audio compression like never before. The key is in the artificially intelligent analysis. Smart:comp will find the parameters for a balanced compression and work on frequencies selectively to reach the right tonal and dynamic balance.

Then you can get to work adjusting things to get it just how you want it. You can tweak the attack and release and shape them to better fit around the dynamics of your music. The fresh and clean interface gives you access to all the parameters and the visual representation really helps in showing you what’s changing. And you can return to the AI recommended settings at the click of a button.

The Spectral Compression is a bit more unusual. It analyses the input signal with more than 2,000 frequency bands to smooth out tonal differences and improve transparency. It has a sidechain ducking mode that can help you blend signals that are knocking around in the same area of the spectrum.

The best thing about smart:comp is that it works well enough to be instantly usable. You’re not having to get into the details unless you really want and when you do the interface is so easy to use.

Street Price: $129
www.sonible.com

All street prices listed at the time of writing.

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