Before we get into the 10 best mastering plugins currently available, have you ever considered the amount of time that is spent on the different stages of making a hit record?
To start with, the songwriter or songwriters have to learn their respective instruments. Since most hits are originally written on piano or guitar, we can allow a good three to five years at least to become competent on either instrument.
Then, the songwriter has to learn to write good songs; this is normally done by trial and error, with many bad songs being written before the good ones start to show through. Again this takes a few years of practice at a minimum.
Now, it comes to recording the song…
If it’s a full band with live drums, etc., this is going to take a few days on average, allowing for overdubs, working out ideas, and getting everything right. Then we have mixing, which is again at least a day for most songs. And to be honest, it’s a full day and a check the morning after to make sure everything is as it should be and make minor adjustments.
Then finally, we have the mastering, this on average, takes less than an hour if the song is part of an album project, and up to two hours if not.
Yet every single part of the process is as important as the next; a bad song will be hard to mix, a bad mix will be hard to master, etc. Yet the final process – the mastering – is usually done very quickly and often without much thought.
That’s why it’s so important to spend your time getting the master to sound as good as it can by using the very best VST plugins on the market. You don’t want to let the whole project down, with the years of effort that have gone into making a great song, by using sub-standard plugins or not having the skills to make the song shine.
So let’s look at the 10 Best Mastering Plugins and find the perfect ones for you…
iZotope Ozone 10 Advanced
We’ll start with what has become the standard for home mastering, iZotope Ozone mastering suite, which was recently upgraded to version 10. This basically takes your music production and handles the whole mastering process either within the DAW or within its own standalone interface.
It’s far too vast a package to go into in detail, but basically includes everything you could possibly need to create professional-sounding masters. These include a compressor, exciter, dynamic equalizer, equalizer, spectral shaper, maximizer, track referencing tool, and imager.
Since we are short on space here, we will cover the function of some of these in the following reviews. But every single module within the suite of mastering tools is of the highest sonic quality and is instinctively easy to use.
Add the vintage vibe…
Then there are the vintage modules; these include Vintage Tape, Vintage Compressor, Vintage EQ, and Vintage Limiter. These add a little analog warmth to the mastering process if it’s required.
Plus, there are utilities that allow you to sonically preview different CODECS in different formats and at different bit rates.
And also, a Dither feature to make sure that the master will sound exactly as you want it to after it has been processed.
But what’s new in Ozone 10?
All the modules we’ve mentioned have been available in a number of previous versions of Ozone.
The difference is that the imager, Mastering Assistant, and equalizer have been improved. And they have added some new modules, Master Rebalance, and Low-End Focus.
Master Rebalance allows you to adjust the volume on drums, bass, or vocals in ANY audio track, even in a bounced mix. It also works in real-time, so there is no need to bounce or render your tracks.
It can be used with automation to add excitement in any section of a song with small gain changes. And you can keep an eye on what’s happening with the twin spectrum meters that show the rebalanced source compared with the rest of your track.
Get the low end in focus…
Low-End Focus gives you clear and punchy low frequencies with no artifacts from EQ and compression. And the Punchy and Smooth modes help you find the perfect setting for percussive or sustained low-end issues.
As with a number of Ozone’s modules, it features a Listen button, which allows you to hear exactly what is being removed to avoid overprocessing the signal.
iZotope offers different bundles with different modules included. We’ve reviewed the most expensive – the Advanced, but if you don’t need all the functionality, you can go for the cheaper Standard version or even the basic Elements edition, which will get you going.
- An all-in-one mastering suite.
- Superb sonic quality.
- Easy and instinctive to use.
- Different packages are suitable for your needs and pocket.
- Expensive if you go for the Advanced package.
- Having all your mastering plugins in one bundle is convenient, but it does mean less experimentation and sonic variety than when using multiple plugins from different manufacturers.
Waves Abbey Road TG Mastering Chain
Next up, we have another all-in-one plugin but in an altogether far simpler format. The Abbey Road TG Mastering Chain from Waves is an emulation of the EMI TG12410 Transfer Console.
The console has been used in London’s world-famous Abbey Road Recording Studios from the early 70s to the present day. And was used to master such sonic masterpieces as Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ and Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer.’
A classic re-creation…
Waves have made a very faithful re-creation of the console, and as with everything in the recording world back then, it has a simple and practical layout, which will take very little time to get the hang of. It does, however, have some modern functions added to bring it up to the demands of modern mastering engineers, such as M-S.
It’s in a different league of simplicity when compared to Ozone 9, with everything clearly shown on a single interface with knob and switch adjustment of all functions. It again features everything you need for a perfect master, with an input section, followed by a Filter, a Limiter, the Tone section, and then the final master section with a Spreader.
However, the order of the modules can be customized to whatever flow suits you and the song best.
Some TG magic…
It has all the sonic magic of the original TG console, and if you are looking for a more ‘colored,’ classic-sounding master, this could well be the perfect choice of the plugin. It’s also very useful for mixing and mastering, and you can use it in the mixing process on individual tracks to add a little old-school vibe to an instrument.
- The EMI TG12410 in a plugin.
- Excellent classic sound quality.
- Very easy to use.
- Isn’t as ‘modern’ sounding as, for example, Ozone 9.
We move on to yet another bundle, this time from legendary hardware manufacturer Eventide. Their Elevate mastering software is basically the most advanced mastering plug-in that has ever been created.
It’s a unique multi-band limiter with human-ear EQ and a powerful audio maximizer that will increase the loudness of the mix while maintaining or even improving on its dynamic perception.
It works by using adaptive, intelligent technology that will respond in real-time to the music. This creates not only the loudest but also the best-sounding master possible.
A natural, transparent sound…
The plugin maintains the mix’s subtle dynamics while improving the tonal balance. The adaptive limiter will analyze 26 frequency bands and then alter the gain, speed, and the transients for each band in real-time. This results in a natural, transparent sound, regardless of how hard you push it.
These 26 critical filter bands are modeled from the human ear. And each band is spaced to give you maximum control over how the sound hits your eardrum. It sounds complicated, and it is in terms of science, but it’s still relatively simple to use and produces excellent results with very few artifacts.
The Eventide Elevate makes mastering almost too easy, and this is especially the case on music that doesn’t need much in the way of tonal correction.
- Excellent multi-band tone shaping, multiband limiting, and transient enhancement.
- Easily make your mix more polished or more aggressive to taste.
- Mixing and mastering – it’s also excellent as a master bus processor for a mix.
- No loudness metering.
SSL Buss Compressors
Next up, we have a pair of plug-ins from two different manufacturers, which both emulate the buss compressor of the legendary Solid State Logic 4000 mixing console. This in-built compressor has been so widely used and respected that its nickname in the industry is ‘The Glue’ because of its incredible ability to reduce the dynamic range and ‘glue’ a mix together.
Being integral to the thousands of hits that were and are still being recorded and mixed on SSL consoles, the G Bus Compressor is renowned for making mixes more powerful, bigger and punchy, while enhancing clarity and cohesion.
Both versions are very simple to use with very few options, but that is the beauty of this compressor, and you don’t need to add much. But even that produces an incredible difference to the master going from something that sounds like a good mix to something that sounds like a record!
UAD SSL 4000 G Bus Compressor
The first plugin is from UAD and is fully endorsed by Solid State Logic. The Universal Audio SSL 4000 G Bus Compressor Collection is available for UAD-2 hardware and Apollo interfaces. That does, however, mean that you will need to have one of their interfaces in order to run the plug-in. If not, it will not function.
And with the constant improvement in plug-in technology, their latest version is an exact end-to-end emulation that goes even further than their original SSL G Bus Compressor plug-in did.
- Great sounding emulation of the classic buss comp.
- Stupidly easy to use.
- Unbelievable effective on any master.
- Only works with a UAD system.
Waves SSL G-Master Buss Compressor
Easily one of the best waves mastering plugins, their version of the legendary compressor doesn’t have any of the restrictions of the UAD software. And can be used on any music production system with any DAW, such as Logic Pro X by Apple.
It delivers the same gorgeous ‘glue’ that just makes any song come together. It is also cheaper than the UAD version.
The original version was created a good few years ago, so as with the UAD plugin, Waves have recently updated the classic and added new features such as Side Chain Filtering, as well as Mix and Headroom controls.
- Excellent emulation of the SSL Buss Comp.
- Simple to use.
- Glues a song together like nothing else can.
- Can be used on any system with any DAW.
iZotope Insight 2
Everyone knows that mastering involves limiting, equalization, etc. but metering is often completely forgotten.
With today’s multi-standards across different platforms, Youtube wants this LUFS level, and iTunes wants another. Getting your master to the perfect volume depending on where it is going, is vitally important.
And this is not guesswork; you need to be precise, and to do that, you need a reliable meter.
Thankfully iZotope has come to the rescue with their Insight 2 software that lets you know exactly how loud your mix is, as well as a lot more.
It is loaded with industry-standard loudness profiles that ensure that all your final mixes are broadcast-ready.
View audio like you never imagined…
It also displays the information in a number of ways, including a stunning dynamic 3D picture of the master.
Understandably, it is not the most interesting of mastering plugins, and you are not very likely to get excited about buying it. But it is undeniably one of the most important and underrated plugins available.
And most importantly, it will ensure you get your masters to the exact levels they need to be.
- Accurate industry-standard metering.
- Easy to use and monitor.
- Practical, more than exciting.
Limiting is the final process of any master, apart from checking the loudness, of course. It is also the final polish, shall we say, which subtly squashes everything together and makes your master sound like a song you hear on the radio.
However, overdo it, and the results can be disastrous, as many songs in the ‘loudness wars of a few years back so obviously proved.
The best method, explained very simply, is to push it until you can actually hear the limiting, then dial it back to taste.
But to do this, you’ll need a quality plugin limiter, so let’s go through two of the most popular ones, starting with the…
FabFilter Pro-L 2
Arguably the best available, this excellent limiter from Fabfilter will give you the most control over limiting possible.
This professional, feature-packed limiter is loud as well as transparent at the same time and is also equipped with extensive loudness metering. This makes it the weapon of choice for many professional mastering engineers.
And when we say feature-packed, we are not kidding; it includes highly advanced algorithms, professional dithering, linear-phase oversampling and noise shaping, and intelligent channel linking.
All that, along with surround support that will work with all systems up to Dolby Atmos 7.1.2. There really isn’t any professional mastering job that the Pro-L 2 can’t accomplish.
That all seems very complicated, but it’s also easy to use because everything you need for most tasks is easily controllable from the intuitive interface. Then, if you need more functionality, you simply go deeper into the plugin.
But along with quality comes a cost, and this is not a cheap option.
- Sonically superb with incredible functionality.
- In-built professional metering.
- Basically does everything you could ever need a limiter to do and more.
If you’re looking for something cheaper, even easier to use, but with much less functionality, then the Waves L2 could be a perfect choice.
A legend in the limiting world, the L2 combines look-ahead brick wall peak limiting with optimized level maximization and an ultra-high resolution.
This gives any master the power and extra gain you are looking for while still retaining the crystal-clear sound of the mix.
And it couldn’t be simpler to use, and everything is clearly laid out in its user-friendly interface, making any limiting job quick and easy.
- A solid, functional, basic limiting plugin.
- Incredibly easy to use.
- Nowhere near as extensive as other limiting plugins, such as the Fabfilter Pro-L 2.
So, what’s the Best Mastering Plugin?
After going through our selection, picking the very best plugin for mastering is a difficult choice. This is mainly because every plugin featured is itself the best in its class.
If, for example, you want a vintage-sounding master, then the Waves Abbey Road TG Mastering Chain would be the best choice.
However, if you want a more modern-sounding master and want to approach the mastering process from a different angle, then the Eventide Elevate would be the clear winner.
However, this is a review of the best of the best mastering plugins, so there has to be a winner, and that has to go to…
iZotope Ozone 10 Advanced
If you were sent to a desert island and you could only take one mastering plugin with you, this would have to be your choice.
It simply does everything in an intuitive, easy-to-understand way. Plus, the fact that so many professional mastering engineers use it shows just how good it sounds.
It may not give you quite the ‘vintage’ favor of the Waves TG Mastering Chain, but it comes close. And it may not give you quite as much limiting functionality as the Fabfilter Pro-L 2, but again it comes close.
In fact, it does nearly everything as well, if not better than the stand-alone plugins.