Best Mastering Plugins 2019
In our software-driven music production, we tend to be overwhelmed with choice when it comes to audio processing and mastering. Undoubtedly our chosen DAW will come with a bunch of plugins that will do a half-decent job of adding polish and quality to your mix. But what if you want to push things to the next level? What sort of plugins and collections of plugins should you be looking at to enable you to bring more life to your finished production?
In this selection, I’ll include what I believe to be the most useful plugins and pieces of software to have in your virtual mastering studio.
But first, what’s mastering? Mastering is the final polish you apply to your music once it has been mixed down to a stereo file ready for release. Traditionally this is done as a separate process, with a different Engineer lending a new set of experienced ears to your music. The mastering process would attempt to get the best overall sound, frequency range and level out of your material in preparation for the destination format. This is usually done with a combination of compression and limiting, EQ and saturation, using expensive and often vintage hardware. But it all depends on what sort of sound you’re trying to achieve. Using mastering houses and Mastering Engineers can be expensive but it’s worth it if you are working at that level. For the rest of us who are doing it ourselves these plugins and software collections can give you convincing and professional results.
Here’s our picks for the best mastering plugins available in 2019:
- Waves – Abbey Road TG Mastering Chain
- Eventide Elevate Bundle
- Izotope Ozone 8
- IK Multimedia T-Racks One
- Audified MixChecker
- Expose by Mastering the Mix
Best Mastering Plugins of 2019
1. Waves – Abbey Road TG Mastering Chain
*At time of writing
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.
2. Eventide Elevate Bundle
*At time of writing
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 which 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 which 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.
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.
3. Izotope Ozone 8
*At time of writing
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. Version 8 has been around a while now but there’s very little that can beat the quality of the Ozone mastering experience. 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.
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.
4. IK Multimedia T-Racks One
*At time of writing
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.
Here are some extra tools that might help in your mastering efforts.
5. Audified MixChecker
Firstly, there’s the Audified MixChecker. It emulates lots of different listening environments, allowing you to check how your mix may sound on the sort of gear that people will actually listen to it on. Not everyone will be using your fabulous studio monitors. You can select phones, tablets, car, TV, radio, earbuds and many other possibilities and it will apply those dynamics to your monitors. It’s a great way of checking that your mix works in different situations.
Link to Website: www.audified.com
$79 (at time of writing)
6. Expose by Mastering the Mix
The other tool is Expose by Mastering the Mix. This is a process that identifies technical issues in your audio. It will look at loudness, peaks, stereo/phase, and dynamic range and highlight any issues in red. You can switch between various destinations as audio destined for streaming might need different things compared to a track going to CD. Expose will show you exactly where the problems lie and you can go back to your mastering or even your DAW to solve them.
Link to Website: www.masteringthemix.com
$39 (at time of writing)
Next up, there’s Barricade by Toneboosters, which features a compressor and versatile peak limiter that can be configured both automatically (to save time) and manually (for those who like to tweak to their heart’s content).
Link to Website: www.spectrasonics.net
$34 (at time of writing)
Finally, we’ve got Leapwing Audio’s Dynone, a unique little plugin that has fixed bands so you can mix in the compressed signal, without all the setup and tweak time required by most multiband compressors. How useful is that?
Link to Website: www.spectrasonics.net
$159 (at time of writing)
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