Mastering is one of the most important steps in creating a professional sounding track or album. In the past, mastering was done using expensive analog gear and was mostly limited to professional studios. However, with the advent of digital audio workstations (DAWs), plugins, and more accessible technology, mastering can now be done by anyone with a computer and audio interface.
In this review, we will look at some of the best mastering plugins and software available today. We’ll examine what mastering is, why it’s important, and what to look for when choosing mastering tools. We’ll also provide recommendations on the top plugins and programs for mastering based on quality, features, price, and more.
What is Mastering?
Mastering is the final step in the audio production process. It’s goal is to take a mix and prepare it for distribution by making sure the track sounds cohesive from start to finish. Mastering helps make the track translate well across different listening systems and formats.
Some common mastering tasks include:
- Setting overall volume levels
- Balancing frequency ranges
- Adding compression and limiting
- Equalizing for tonal balance
- Adding spatial effects like reverb
- Manipulating stereo width
- Reducing distortion and audio artifacts
- Preparing files for distribution
High quality mastering is essential for giving tracks a polished, professional sound. Amateur mixes can instantly be elevated by proper mastering.
Why is Mastering Important?
There are several reasons why mastering is a crucial component of any audio project:
Cohesion – Mastering helps unify a collection of songs so they sound like they belong together. This is especially vital for albums.
Loudness – Maximizing loudness while minimizing distortion gives tracks the competitive volume levels needed for today’s music platforms.
Translation – A well mastered track will sound great regardless of what speakers or headphones it’s played on. Mastering ensures the sound you hear translates to every system.
Format preparation – Mastering gets a mix ready for distribution by encoding it for CD, digital, vinyl, streaming sites, and other mediums.
Overall, mastering takes a mix to the next level. It’s the difference between an amateur demo and a professional release ready for primetime.
What to Look for in Mastering Software
With the fundamentals of mastering covered, let’s look at what to consider when choosing mastering tools:
- Sound quality – This is obviously the most vital factor. Look for mastering software and plugins that offer crystal clear sound and high resolution processing.
- Ease of use – The interface should balance power with accessibility. You want precision tools that also allow for creativity.
- Dynamic range – Good mastering tools give you control over the dynamic range, allowing you to easily make a track as loud and tight or open and dynamic as desired.
- Control – Quality mastering software gives you exacting control over EQ, compression, limiting, stereo widening, and more. The ability to make subtle adjustments is key.
- Metering – Accurate metering capabilities are crucial for mastering. You’ll want to see visualized dBFS, LUFS, peak levels, stereo correlation and more.
- Imaging – Some of the best mastering software includes strong stereo imaging controls to add space and width to your mix.
- Workflow – Look for software that integrates cleanly into your existing workflow and DAW. Easy import and export of audio is vital.
- Price – You can find quality mastering software at affordable prices as well as high-end options. Factor your budget into the decision.
Keeping these criteria in mind, let’s look at some of the top mastering plugins and programs available today.
Best Mastering Plugins
Here are our picks for the top mastering plugins on the market:
iZotope’s Ozone 10 is an industry standard mastering suite. It features a wealth of exceptional sounding tools and intuitive workflow.
- High quality EQ, compressor, limiter, imager, and more
- Customizable signal path
- Digital and analog modeling
- Intelligent assistive tools
- Versatile metering
- Automatic gain staging
Price – Starting at $129
FabFilter Pro-L 2 is a powerful limiter plug-in with multiple sound-shaping features. It’s ideal for controlling peaks, loudness, and dynamics.
- Clean, transparent limiting
- 8 different limiting algorithms
- Auto level, auto release, and auto attack
- Mid/side processing
- Extensive metering
- Side chain EQ
Price – $179
The Sonnox Limiter offers transparent brickwall peak limiting with maximum mix control. Great for adding punch without squashing transients.
- Clear yet powerful limiting
- Retains punch and dynamics
- Up to 60dB of gain reduction
- Auto compensate to prevent clipping
- ISF controls for tone shaping
- Mid/side mode
Price – $499
With both surgical and musical EQ modes, EQuality gives you everything you need for creative yet precise tone balancing.
- 32 bands of parametric EQ
- Natural phase shift filters
- Characterful analog modeling options
- Surgical and dynamic modes
- MIDI and automation capable
- Flexible output and gain controls
Price – $179
bx_masterdesk models the sound and features of a high-end analog stereo mastering console. It’s ideal for warm, rich, vintage sound.
- Models British console channel strips
- 72 bands of EQ and filters
- Tube stage modeling
- L/R and M/S processing
- Authorized model of classic console
- Plug-in or 500-series models
Price – $279
This covers five of our top picks for mastering plugins. Continue reading for our recommendations on full mastering software and suites.
Best Mastering Software
For complete mastering software, here are some of the leading options:
We mentioned the Standard version above, but Ozone 10 takes the mastering power even further. With advanced tools, standalone application mode, and Tonal Balance Control 2, Ozone 10 Advanced is an exceptional one-stop mastering shop.
- Vintage and modern mastering tools
- Standalone application or plug-in
- Tonal Balance Control 2
- Track referencing
- Advanced repair and enhancement
- HD 64-bit processing
- AI assistant
Price – Starting at $129
For a budget-friendly all-in-one solution, PSP MasterQ packs mastering quality into a streamlined interface. It offers essential tools without overwhelming.
- 8-band EQ with shelving and bells
- Expander, compressor, saturator
- Professional brickwall limiter
- stereo imaging, MS processing
- Analog style metering
- Easy to use workflow
Price – $69
Looking for a comprehensive mastering toolkit? This bundle from acclaimed developers Plugin Alliance packs 13 stellar plugins for sculpting and finishing masters.
- Elysia Alpha compressor
- Elysia Museq EQ
- ElysiaPhil’s Cascade limiter
- Brainworx Tube-Tech ME 1B mid-range EQ
- Brainworx bx_digital V3 mastering EQ
- And more…
Price – $599
For an ultra high-end analog modeled system, Ivory Complete uses ultra accurate sampling of vintage hardware complete with advanced physical modeling.
- End-to-end analog signal path modeling
- Models rare vintage outboard gear
- Natural phase coherence
- Proprietary physical modeling tech
- Quad-sampled instruments at 384 kHz
Price – $999
With both visual and audible balancing tools, EQuilibrium makes it easy to get a mix to sound it’s best across multiple systems.
- Balances LUFS, dynamic range, EQ
- Version for headphones/speakers
- Individual track mode
- Real-time analysis
- Tonal Balance Control
- Standalone or plug-in operation
Price – $249
This covers some of the best mastering software currently available, from affordable single plugins to high-end all-in-one solutions.
Best Free Mastering Plugins
You don’t necessarily need expensive software for quality mastering. Here are some excellent free mastering options:
- TDR Kotelnikov – Free compressor and limiter plugin with great transparency.
- Voxengo Elephant – Free mastering limiter that’s lightweight yet powerful.
- Loudmax – Fruity Loops native brickwall limiter that’s easy to use.
- TDR Nova – Free parallel dynamic EQ great for mastering.
- Klanghelm IVU – Freebus compressor with mastering presets.
While premium plugins offer extras, these free options prove you can master at a high level without spending a dime.
What’s the best overall mastering plugin?
It’s hard to beat iZotope Ozone 10 for an all-around mastering plugin. It offers a wealth of both vintage and modern tools in one polished interface. For targeted mastering, our top picks are FabFilter Pro-L 2 for limiting and DMG Audio EQuality for EQ.
Can you master a track using only plugins?
Absolutely. High quality plugins provide everything you need for professional mastering without needing any external analog gear. An advantage plugins have is easy A/B testing, automation, and recall.
How do I know what order to put mastering plugins in?
A general guideline is to shape the tone with EQ first, then use compression and limiting. Dynamic tools like multiband compression can come before or after EQ depending on what issues need addressing. Always finish with a limiter.
What features should I look for in a mastering EQ?
For mastering EQ, prioritize clean high resolution filters, linear phase processing to avoid phase issues, dynamic or hybrid modes, mid/side capability, and lots of bands – at least 8 are recommended.
What’s the difference between mastering for vinyl vs. digital?
Vinyl requires more low end and dynamic range, so bass/treble balance is important. Digital platforms require loudness maximization through limiting. Use light compression on vinyl, and heavier brickwall limiting for digital. Also account for inner groove distortion on vinyl.
Mastering is the final polish that makes all your hard work shine. With the right tools and knowledge, you can take your mixes to the next level.
The plugins and software we covered represent the cream of the crop when it comes to quality mastering. Options like iZotope Ozone 10 bring together the full array of mastering processing into one toolkit. Investing in quality mastering tools pays for itself in the professional sound you can achieve.
Remember to reference tracks, don’t over-process, and keep subtlety in mind when using compression and EQ. Treat your room and speakers. Achieving polished, loud masters without sucking the life out of the music is an art that takes practice.
By adding the perfect finishing touch, mastering breathes vibrancy into a mix and makes it ready for commercial release. Whether you’re an amateur on a budget, or a professional in need of high-end analog tone, there are mastering solutions for you. Your tracks deserve great mastering – now get creative with these pro tools and take your mixes to the next level.
Best Music Mastering Plugins and Software
Mastering is a crucial final step before releasing music publicly. High quality mastering can elevate an amateur mixing job and make tracks sound polished and professional. Mastering unifies songs for better album cohesion. It maximizes loudness through compression and limiting in a way that doesn't sacrifice dynamics. Professional mastering also ensures tracks translate properly across different sound systems. Using specialty mastering plugins or software provides critical tools that generic mixing plugins lack. Mastering plugins offer transparent compression and brickwall limiting to increase loudness. Precision EQs help balance frequencies and create tonal cohesion. Stereo imagers add professional width and space. Dedicated mastering tools also provide visual feedback through specialized metering. This helps ensure optimum volume levels and dynamics. While mastering can be done with mixing tools, dedicated mastering plugins and software offer transparency and control better suited for this final polish stage. The investment in professional mastering software pays off in releasing tracks that sound commercially competitive.
iZotope Ozone 10
FabFilter Pro-L 2
DMG Audio EQuality