These days many Music Producers and Recording Artists "self-master" their music. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that, this article isn't going to open that can of worms... let's just agree that there are arguments for and against it. Over the last few years, more and more plug-ins have emerged that promise great mastering capabilities making "self-mastering" easier than ever before whilst also providing tools that help us to deliver music to a range of loudness specs.
Music is consumed very differently these days compared to ten years ago. Platforms such as YouTube, Spotify, and Apple Music are the norm for listening to music. With this evolution of the Music Industry we see a multitude of different platforms, codecs, deliverables, and loudness standards that are part of our daily mixing and mastering workflows, but how do we go about mixing and mastering for all these new standards whilst maintaining full control over our work and the effects of the various codecs?
Simple, we need mastering plug-ins to help us polish the tone of our mixes and well-sorted metering plug-ins to help us get our music set for a range of streaming standards.
Metering Plug-ins For Mastering
Metering plug-ins are an essential mastering tool. If you do not use a quality metering plug-in when mastering your music you are at best shooting in the dark when it comes to getting your mixes set to required loudness specs. There are two very powerful metering plug-ins by Mastering The Mix and Nugen Audio that we at Production Expert really like, both are well worth checking out.
Mastering The Mix LEVELS
LEVELS is a low-cost metering toolkit that features some useful meters beyond loudness. LEVELS meters display Headroom, Dynamic Range, Stereo Field and something called Bass Space. The Bass space mode is particularly useful in mix stages. Bass Space helps users get a good balance between bass instruments and kick drum tracks. Headroom and Dynamic Range meters are very easy to digest and highlight in red when the plug-in believes we are stepping over the line with limiting. LEVELS is customisable, in the setting menu we can choose from a number of mastering presets (CD, Club, Composer, iTunes, Soundcloud, Streaming & YouTube) making LEVELS a very versatile metering plug-in for all mastering applications.
Visit the Master The Mix website to download a free trial copy of LEVELS
Nugen Audio MasterCheck Pro
MasterCheck Pro is used by countless top audio professionals. It shows users problem areas ahead of time enabling users to deliver masters perfectly tuned for specific playouts such as streaming services and download stores.
MasterCheck Pro make sure your mix reaches listeners as you intended it to sound. It includes easy to ready Industry standard meters that show Loudness and dynamic range of mixes and how mixes compare to your target platform.
Two cool features in MasterCheck Pro are:
- True Peak Metering: Use this to ensure your mixes are within delivery specs and to also keep your mixes clip-free at later encoding stages.
- Real-time codec: Great for auditioning your mixes through different encoding settings.
Visit the Nugen Audio website for more information about MasterCheck Pro
Mastering Plug-in Bundles
Mastering often involves a number of processors that we use to shape the tone of our mixes as well as getting the dynamic range and loudness set to spec. There are many plug-in brands that provide powerful mastering plug-ins, many of which are sold in mastering bundles that offer great value for money over buying plug-ins individually.
Eventide Mastering Bundle
In 2017 Eventide and new plug-in developers NewFangled Audio released two mastering plug-ins called Elevate and EQuivocate. Both feature 26 MEL frequency scale bands. These bands are based on the natural contour of human hearing.
Elevate, a multiband limiter and it's EQ sibling EQuivocate both produce great results. You can literally shape great sounding mixes into radio-ready sounding masters in minutes with just these two plug-ins.
Elevate is incredibly thirsty on CPU resources. A workaround to getting this working on older computers is to use less MEL bands within the plug-in. The special sauce in Elevate lies in its ability to make mixes sound loud without audible artefacts. Elevate can get mixes louder than any other limiter featured in this list. We know louder doesn't make for better sounding masterings... it's just nice to know that if a mix needed to be slammed with limiting Elevate would deliver great sounding results without compromise.
Visit the Eventide website for more information about Elevate & EQuivocate
FabFilter Mastering Bundle
The FabFilter Mastering Bundle includes four of FabFilters most powerful plug-ins:
- Pro- L 2 (Limiter)
- Pro-MB (Multiband Compressor)
- Pro-Q 2 (EQ)
- Pro-C 2 (Compressor)
We regard FabFilter plug-ins as tools for modern producers because they all provide both analog & modern sonics and are easy to use because FabFilter GUIs are incredibly intuitive. FabFilter Pro-Q 2 is one of the most powerful EQ plug-ins on the market today. If you cannot get a half decent sound using Pro-Q 2 in a timely manner then you should consider a different career path.
Pro-L (version 1) was recently voted most popular limiter in a Pro Tools Expert Poll:
Pro-L 2 was released at the end of 2017. This paid update included a wealth of great new features that cemented Pro-L2 reign over all other limiter plug-ins. New features include:
- Up to x32 oversampling
- New 1:1 mode - attenuations output when gain is increased (auto gain compensation)
- New limiter styles: Modern, Aggressive, Bus, Safe
- Redesigned display that can slow down visual graphics
- Extensive Loudness metering
- Support for multi-channel (7.1, Dolby Atmos)
- GUI can be set to full screen like FabFilter Pro-Q2
Visit the FabFilter website for more information on The FabFilter Mastering Bundle
Toontrack EZmix 2 Mastering Bundle
Toontrack describes EZ mix 2 as "Being simple as it is complex. You only see the easy part – everything else goes on behind the scenes."
EZ mix is centred around a preset browser along with two control dials below that can be used to change two parameters per preset.
EZ mix can be used to quickly shape the sound of any track in a mix. It can apply guitar amp tones and even master an entire song. Like other Toontrack products such as EZ Drummer 2, EZ Keys and Superior Drummer 3, Toontrack offers a wide variety of affordable expansion packs for EZ mix 2 including The Mastering EZmix Pack. This package (sold separately from EZ mix 2) includes a wide range of mastering presets that can be applied to your master bus in seconds giving you that essential glue and final polish your mix may be missing.
Sadly, EZmix doesn't feature any form of metering so a third party meter plug-in will be needed if you intend to use EZmix exclusively for mastering and final delivery.
Visit the Toontrack website for more information about EZ mix 2.
UAD-2 Manley Complete Bundle
Universal Audio offers a wide range of fantastic sounding plug-ins that are widely used for both mixing and mastering. We couldn't possibly list all the UAD-2 plug-ins people use for mastering in this article, instead, we highlight what we consider to be one of their best sounding mastering solutions by Universal Audio- The UAD-2 Manley Complete Bundle.
This bundles includes three Manley emulations:
- Manley Massive Passive EQ
- Manley VOXBOX Channel Strip
- Manley Variable Mu Limiter Compressor
Out of the three plug-ins the Vari-Mu Limiter and Passive EQ are mainly used in mastering workflows, however, the VOXBOX is a great addition to have in your plug-in collection as it works brilliantly in tracking and mixing.
Manley Massive Passive EQ hardware is expensive, UA modelled this flawlessly. Why should I master with the Manley Massive Passive EQ? Well, because it's passive. The EQ bands are in parallel not in series meaning any gain changes (boosts or cuts) are not cumulative. Add a 10db boost to any band and the output won't spike. This makes Manley Massive Passive EQ a very easy plug-in to set tastefully. This is a great mastering tone shaping plug-in as it keeps your ears in full control.
Visit the Univeral Audio website for more information about The Manley Complete Bundle
iZtope Ozone has been around for years. It is a fully loaded mastering suite that includes a range of fundamental mastering processors along with full metering to help users get their masters into shape. Ozone is a system that can be as simple or as in-depth as you need it to be. New to Ozone 8 is a machine learning feature called Master Assistant that suggests mastering starting points based on the mix you feed into it. This system isn't too dissimilar to the Mix Assistant in iZotope's mixing channel strip plug-in Neutron 2. Master Assistant provides a starting point for EQ, bus compression and limiting leaving users with choices to use the suggestions, add to the starting points with other modules or ignore altogether.
Visit the iZotope website for more information about Ozone 8
Ik Multimedia T Racks Mastering Application
T-Racks 5 is the latest version of IK Multimedia's popular plug-in suite. It features a wealth of great sounding EQs, dynamics and effects plug-ins. The latest version of T-Racks 5 debuted with a new standalone mastering application along with four new modules, two of which are great sounding mastering tools.
One of these new mastering modules is called Master Match, it does pretty much what it says on the tin. Master Match automatically listens to the tonality of one song and applies its tonality to the song you are mastering. Three source tracks can be used as references. Master Match removes the EQ guesswork from getting several songs to work together tonally.
Like Master Match, IK Multimedia ONE plug-in is also a fairly recent release, it is a brilliant all-in-one mastering processor. ONE includes EQ, compression, a harmonic exciter, low-end enhancer, width adjuster and limiter. Each of the controls are described in simple English to help users shape their masters using their creative ear and imagination. In some ways, ONE is very similar to Waves Infected Mushroom Pusher, both plug-ins offer great tone shaping capabilities.
Visit the IK Multimedia website for more information about T-Racks 5
EQ & Dynamics Mastering Plug-ins
Slate Digital's FG-X mastering processor is a personal favourite that I use in my mastering chain all the time, however, FG-X does have a slightly troubled past. It took the team at Slate Digital an absolute age to port FG-X to AAX 64 bit. FG-X users on Pro Tools 11 were not happy about this delay with many switching to alternative limiter plug-ins.
There have also been several soft announcements stating that a version 2 of FG-X is in development... but nothing concrete has been confirmed.
There are several FG-X bug reports in forums from users stating that on occasion FG-X can put the stereo image off centre when playing back the start of a master. I have experienced this "bug" myself several times when bouncing masters through FG-X. When this happens I have to re-bounce the master, more times than not the stereo image at the start of a master will correct itself and bounce out fine.
Let's put those niggles aside though, Slate FG-X is undoubtedly a great sounding bus compressor and limiter, especially when used with a smattering of Slate's other plug-ins such as VMR, VBC, VCC and VTM.
FG-X features a simple yet informative metering section along with an auto gain feature called Constant Gain that keeps the plug-in output constant while dialling in different limiter values. FG-X is one of the most simple to use mastering limiters on the market that produces outstanding results on any style of music.
Visit the Slate Digital website for more information about FG-X.
Building on technology developed for the ML4000 limiter, the ML8000 features 8 bands of active processing which greatly improve phase accuracy. Each of the 8 limiter bands has their own gain and output controls as well as controls for knee and release time. There are also limiter modes which were available in the ML4000 but the ML8000 adds a Focus control enabling you to work faster when setting up the threshold settings. The signal then moves onto the Master Limiter section which is taken from the ML4000 with filter upgrades to reduce peak distortion.
Visit the McDSP website for more information about the ML8000 plug-in
Waves Infected Mushroom Pusher
Waves Infected Mushroom Pusher plug-in provides a straightforward and unique approach to dynamic processing that at first glance may seem a little basic, but scratch under the surface and you'll find this plug-in is a powerful tool that produces really musical results. Waves describe Pusher as "An innovative multiband sonic enhancer and limiter/clipper that delivers Infected Mushroom’s “secret mixing sauce.” Pusher is a marketed as a multiprocessor for EDM but don't doubt it's capabilities on other genres, this thing has some magic up its sleeve... quite literally
Visit the Waves website for more information about The Infected Mushroom Pusher plug-in.
Dynamics - Softube Weiss MM-1 & DS1-MK3 Plug-ins
Earlier this year (2018) Softube announced two new mastering plug-ins developed in collaboration with Weiss called the MM-1 and DS1-MK3. Both plug-ins share the same algorithms under the hood. The MM-1 is a stripped back affair featuring a handful of main limiter controls, the DS1-MK3 is the full on carbon-copy of the original Weiss DS1 unit.
The MM-1 has two main controls, an "amount" and "parallel mix". These controls enable users to quickly dial in just the right amount of limiting without sacrificing dynamics and tone.
The MM-1 works intelligent processes in the background when the "amount" dial is being controlled. The concept of the MM-1 draws parallels with Softubes's Drawer S73 Intelligent Mastering Processor plug-in.
The original Weiss DS1 hardware is considered to be an absolute gold-standard unit that's indispensable in top mastering studios because of its transparency, versatility, and top draw sound quality. Softube produced a like for like version of the DS1 in plug-in format. Softube makes it very clear that this plug-in isn't an emulation, it is, in fact, an exact line by line code port from the original digital hardware. The original hardware costs in the region of $10,000, the plug-in version produced by Softube costs $549 making this the bargain of the century if you are into the Weiss sound.
Dynamics - Softube Drawmer S73 & 1973 Plug-ins
Like the Softube Weiss products featured above, both the Softube S73 and Drawer 1973 share the same algorithms emulated from the original Drawmer hardware. Both these plug-ins are also offered in two different plug-in styles. The S73 is described as an intelligent mastering processor that makes applying multiband compression to mixes easy by use of a handful of controls and preset styles. The Drawer 1973 plug-in is the full-fat emulation of the original hardware that includes a handful plug-in exclusive features not found on the hardware such as mid/side processing and band soloing.
Both these plug-ins have a very distinctive sound that sits somewhere between retro and modern. I personally lean more towards the S73 when mastering as it features a handful of presets that I've learnt the sound of that deliver me great results time and time again.
Boz Digital Labs The Wall & Manic Compressor
The Wall by Boz Digital Labs is by far one of the best value for money limiters on the market... and it's a bit of an underdog. It can produce a huge variety of limiting styles which is very handy when mastering. It includes an essential feature called Sanity Check that normalizes the level so you can compare your original sound with the compressed sound without level changes. This is a limiter that can slam audio hard but without introducing those audible unpleasantries you often get with "cheap" limiter plug-ins.
The Manic Compressor is a fully loaded compressor that features 6 very distinctive sounding compressors, pre & post EQ, input saturator, parallel mix and a unique control called Loudness relief.
- Side chain
- Pre & Post Eq
- Input saturator
- Parallel compressor
- Loudness relief
Manic Compressor is a great plug-in for adding gentle vibe and colour to masters. The Loudness relief, when used in conjunction with the built-in paralelle mix, is a great way to apply glue to masters together in ultra transparent ways
Useful Mastering Plug-ins & Applications
Mastering The Mix EXPOSE & REFERENCE Plug-ins
Mastering The Mix are passionate about helping people learn how to produce great sounding mixes and masters. They have a range of plug-ins designed specifically to help people achieve mix and mastering greatness. LEVELS was their first mastering plug-in release, followed by EPOSE & REFERENCE.
EXPOSE is a stand-alone application that helps users to visually examine technical details of mixes or masters. Users can load a Spotify preset in EXPOSE and the software will highlight where technical issues in regards to Loudness, width and dynamic range would arise if the master was on Spotify.
REFERENCE, as the name suggests, is a referencing tool that helps users get their mixes and masters close to the sound of their favourite music. Referencing is a popular technique used by many mixers and mastering engineers. REFERENCE features a wealth of very useful features that make the task of referencing simple. One of the top features in REFERENCE is Level Match, this matches the loudness of your mix to the loudness of your reference tracks. It's a very elegant system that is well worth checking out, especially if you use reference tracks a lot in your workflows.
Sonarworks Reference 4
There's little point attempting to master a mix without half decent studio monitoring. Often, studio monitors are not to blame, instead, it's the room that the loudspeakers are in that make monitors sonically underperform. Studio monitors that struggle to produce a balanced "flat" frequency response are not going to help anyone produce great sounding mixes or masters. Luckily, Sonarworks have a solution in their speaker and headphone calibration software Reference 4.
Sonarworks Reference 4 is a monitor calibration software that by use of a measurement microphones captures the frequency response of monitors and provides a flat sounding studio monitor setup - crucial for mastering.
LANDR - New Desktop Application
LANDR, the popular online mastering A.I. machine learning robot recently released a new desktop application that links to users online acounts making the process of mastering through LANDR services that little bit quicker.
The LANDR desktop application is a free download for Mac and Windows. Visit the LANDR website for more information.
- AI Mastering Software Shoot Out - LANDR v CloudBounce v iZotope Ozone 8 Mastering Assistant
- A.I. Mastering Shootout Results - LANDR Masters Win With 46% Of Votes
Have We Missed Any?
There are so many plug-ins out there that can be used in mastering, we're bound to have missed a few. Let us know what your go-to mastering plug-ins are in the comments below.