The Year’s Best All-In-One Mastering Software
Mastering is one of those areas that has often felt slightly out-of-reach, exclusive and even mysterious to the home Producer. You pour all your hard work and sweat into creating the perfect mix and then you’re supposed to give it to someone else to “master”? It seems a little weird but it’s actually a very useful process. Mastering is all about putting a final polish on your music to prepare it for the ears of the final destination — the listener. There is wisdom in making this a separate process to mixing. It gives you the opportunity to approach your finished mix differently, to apply certain processes and tweaks without the distraction of going back into the multi-track project.
Giving it to a professional Mastering Engineer would be awesome. They would have the expertise and the gear to sweeten and embolden your music along with a healthy hourly rate. However, mastering at home on your computer is becoming easier and more affordable all the time. There are a range of software options that give you the tools to help your mixes soar. For this roundup of mastering software, we’re looking at applications built solely for mastering or bundles of plug-ins designed to work together for this purpose. You can build up a collection of mastering tools by pulling different plug-ins from all sorts of places but this requires a certain level of experience and familiarity. When we talk about the best mastering software, we want tools that are going to make it as easy as possible to master your own music.
Our 2017 Picks
Izotope Ozone 8
Elements – $129 (at time of writing)
Standard – $249 (at time of writing)
Advanced – $499 (at time of writing)
Ozone is the full package and the real deal. It’s devastatingly intelligent and not only provides you with amazing tools but suggests ways in which you could best use them on your music.
At a basic level, Ozone 8 gives you 7 powerful processors for crafting your sound. There’s a stereo Imager, a Maximizer, EQ and Dynamic EQ, Dynamics, an Exciter and a Vintage Limiter. All these things work on the dynamics, presence and frequency content of your music. The extremely handy “Master Assistant” analyses your mix and generates a sonic profile based on the tonal character, compression, and overall loudness. It will then insert modules, chains, and processors to achieve what can only be described as a welcome sonic improvement. Job done: walk away or use this as a starting point for your own experimentation.
Track referencing is now built into the software where you can load up many of your favorite tracks and see/hear how they compare to your track. Seeing how the dynamic and frequency content differs from the reference will help you make the right decisions on applying processors.
The new Tonal Balance Control is a simplified macro controller and meter that controls the parameters of Ozone’s EQ plug-ins. It will also take control of Izotope’s Neutron 2 mixing EQ’s if you have them. This allows you to adjust the tonal character without getting bogged down in the specifics of EQ settings.
Ozone 8 is available in three versions starting with Elements, then Standard and then Advanced. The features change quite dramatically between versions so it’s important to check out the comparison table to ensure you’re getting the tools you need. As a rough guide, Elements just has a few plug-ins, Standard has the Track Referencing and the full range of plug-ins, but it’s Advanced that has the Tonal Balance and the Vintage suite of processors. They do all have the Master Assistant.
Link to Website: www.izotope.com
Ozone and T-Racks offer the home Producer a creative and satisfying working environment for getting the best out of your tracks. They give great results just on the presets and plenty of scope if you want to delve deeper.
IK Multimedia T-Racks 5
T-Racks CS (Custom Shop) – Free (at time of writing)
T-Racks 5 – comes with 9 processors – $149 (at time of writing)
T-Racks Deluxe – comes with 22 processors – $299 (at time of writing)
T-Racks MAX – comes with 38 processors – $499 (at time of writing)
T-Racks made its debut in 1999 and introduced the concept of affordable mastering software. Now at version 5, it has evolved into a truly remarkable tool for mixing and mastering. Its power has always rested in the quality of it processors. Load up your finished mix file and it will sound better by simply turning T-Racks on. There are up to 38 meticulously emulated modules bringing warmth, sweetness, and versatility to your music and workflow. The look is classic and timeless, giving you full control over every parameter. But it also has a deep preset engine able to bring out the best in your mix without you having to touch a dial.
A new processor in version 5 called “ONE” has been conceived as an all-in-one solution for easy and straightforward mastering. You have 9 controls covering creative terms such as “Air,” “Focus,” “Body,” and “Push” and then more specific ideas such as “Transients,” “Analog,” “Punch,” and “Width.” Behind the front panel, there’s an EQ, compressor, harmonic exciter, low-end enhanced and a limiter — all the tools you’d use for mastering and all being manipulated by the simplified interface. Just turn the knobs and find your way.
T-Racks 5 can work as a plug-in or series of plug-ins but it’s in standalone mode where it really shines. The interface includes some of the best metering I’ve seen in any software. It deals with perceived loudness, using a high precision LUFS (Loudness Units Full Scale) meter that lets you know how loud your master is. Or perhaps more helpfully it shows you how loud similar material would be and gives you something to aim for.
Taking the idea of track referencing further, T-Racks has “Master Match.” Load up to 3 different tracks you want to use as a reference and Master Match will analyze the sonic character and apply the results to your mix. It brings out the spectral balance, the perceived loudness, dynamics and frequency range and then processes your music to match it.
There are three standalone versions that also include the plug-in versions of all the processors. And there’s The Custom Shop where you can try out whatever plug-ins you like for free and just buy the ones you want to keep on using. It’s the most efficient way of getting your hands on ONE, but I’d still recommend getting the full version for the metering, the standalone operation and because it has audio editing and CD creation built in.
Link to Website: www.ikmultimedia.com
Street Price: $64.33 (at time of writing)
MasteringTheMix takes track referencing to another level with their dedicated Reference software. This one is a little bit different in that it’s an analysis plug-in rather than a processing one. It won’t provide you with the processors you need to master your track but instead it shows you what you need to do to have your music match up to the tonal and loudness quality of your favorite tracks.
You insert the plug-in right at the end of the chain on the master output of your DAW which is running your final mix. Then load up a few of your favorite pieces of music into Reference. It does some clever level matching to ensure when you are switching between your mix and your reference track there’s no sudden change in level. Then the meters at the bottom will visualize how different your mix is from the reference. It analyses frequency balance, stereo width and compression levels on as many bands as you like. This gives you a guide to what processes to apply to match your music up to your reference track.
Reference isn’t a mastering solution on its own but I’m including it here because once you start using it you’ll find it an indispensable tool regardless of what other mastering software or plug-ins you are using. It does the reference thing better than Ozone and differently than T-Racks and can also teach you to better use your plug-ins as you try to get your music to match your reference. It’s also got a great way of letting you compare two versions of your own mixes and will show you how they differ. It’s brilliant at identifying what went right and what went wrong in your mix.
If you really want to get immersed in the mix, get yourself some plug-ins and a copy of Reference and you’ll be set.
LANDR Instant Mastering
Basic – $4 per month for MP3 quality, High-quality MP3 $4.99 each, WAV $8.99 per track, HD WAV $17.99 (at time of writing)
Advanced – $9 per month for unlimited MP3 and High-quality MP3, WAV $6.99 per track, HD WAV $17.99 (at time of writing)
Pro – $25 per month, unlimited. (at time of writing)
This is NOT a piece of software; it’s a mastering service that provides instant results for a very small cost. Rather than buy a software suite or bunch of plug-ins, LANDR offers an online solution where you upload your track and it spits out a “professionally” mastered version. Behind the scenes, LANDR analyzes your music, detects the genre and production style and then applies several processors that would befit your track. Using algorithms similar to those found in T-Racks and Ozone, it makes all the decisions for you, tweaks and adjusts, and in the end you get something that genuinely sounds better than what went in.
It may sound like witchcraft but it is by far one of the easiest and cheapest ways to add a professional glow to your tracks. You can sign up for a free account and master a couple of tracks to MP3 for free. Or you can sign up for a year at various levels to get more tracks and higher quality.
Link to Website: www.landr.com
Mastering Plug-in Bundles
EQ, compression, limiting and imaging are the main tools of the trade. These are often available in bundles from plug-in manufacturers. While they can be excellent, they are just tools awaiting your expertise rather than software that guides and helps you through the process. If you want to take full control, then check out Waves Master ($549), FabFilter Mastering bundle ($499), and the FG-X Mastering Processor ($129) from Slate Digital.
For the inexperienced, mastering can feel like a very daunting task and one often ends up making it far too complicated. Both Ozone and T-Racks offer the home Producer a creative and satisfying working environment for getting the best out of your tracks. They give great results just on the presets and plenty of scope if you want to delve deeper. For the less adventurous, LANDR offers a great solution. But if you really want to get immersed in the mix, get yourself some plug-ins and a copy of Reference and you’ll be set.
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