With so many plugins out on the market today, how can we tell which are the best mastering plugins? When we think about mastering we first need to think about music. We enjoy music not just because of well-composed lyrics, well-structured rhythmic flows, or even electrifying musical instruments; every fantastic song is a product of the perfect mixing of all the components listed above and so much more.
Mastering makes a significant difference to the quality of a tune. Mastering happens after mixing and it involves applying processing to an entire mix. It is the final phase of audio production and probably the most important. It's the last chance to get a song right before it reaches the ears of the listeners.
If you are not sure what mastering is, then please check out our article "What Is Audio Mastering & How Can Your Music Benefit From It?" before continuing on. It is important to grasp the concepts of mastering to understand how these plugins will benefit the process. With that being said, let’s get down to my recommendations for the best mastering plugins and how to use them right.
Mastering with Waves plugins is designed to be easy and that is no exception with the CLA MixDown. The CLA Mixdown is a simplistic plugin with minimal controls. It emulates the infamous Chris Lord-Alge's mixbus settings to give your mix more power, sweetness, and clarity. If you are looking to give your overall mix that professional polished sound, then this is the plugin you want!
Recommendation: This should be the first plugin in your mastering chain. Bus compression can be used to smooth out a mix or make it more punchy. You should always treat your mix with a solid bus compressor before your move further down the mastering chain. With that being said, it doesn't get any better than the Waves CLA MixDown and why it makes our best mastering plugins list.
The Slate Digital FG-Bomber is an analog-modeled dynamic impact enhancer that will add juice, power, and excitement to your songs and mixes. It can transcend your audio from 2-dimensional speakers to a 3-dimensional listening space. It immerses you in the music making your feel like you've become apart of it.
The FG-Bomber employs a holistic analog-modeled digital-circuit approach. It includes specific harmonic generators, compressors, saturators, filters, and much more. As a result, the Bomber can replace whole processing chains on its own. No best mastering plugins list is complete without the Slate FG-Bomber.
Recommendation: I use the "Mixbus Wow" preset within this plugin and then turn down the output level to unity. It inflates the sound giving it a larger than life feel that is subtle and tasteful. Every mix I work with, no matter the genre, gets this plugin on it. I honestly can't live without!
The SSL Fusion Vintage Drive plugin is modeled after the hardware module within the all-in-one Fusion unit. It is designed to give light harmonic saturation and compression to your sounds that is reminiscent of pushing old hardware into the analog sweet spot. It can also be pushed deep into the red giving your sounds a distortion like effect. If you want to give your tracks a true analog feel and sound, then your mixes and masters need the SSL Fusion Vintage Drive plugin
Recommendation: I recommend using either this plugin or the Slate Digital FG-Bomber. They both play a similar role in my mastering chain. On occasion I prefer this over the FG-Bomber and that is usually on more aggressive mixes. This plugin is not as subtle and can help make a rock mix more aggressive.
The plugin itself is simple to use. You just need to dial in the drive and density knobs to your liking. Once you have them where you like them I recommend bringing back the mix knob a bit because with this plugin less is more.
The Kirchhoff-EQ is a powerful 32-band parametric equalizer plugin that can handle any application you throw at it. It has a definitive sound quality, analogue-matched curves, 15 filter types, and 32 vintage EQ types modeled after real-world hardware devices. It also has a dynamic processor built-in allowing for dynamic EQ operations. All of these features put the Kirchhoff-EQ far above its competition and make it one of the best mastering plugins out there today.
Recommendation: I recommend using this plugin after the Bomber/Vintage Drive. The purpose of it is to frequency balance your mix from 20Hz up to 20kHz. It's very rare that any engineer has a perfect mix when it comes to frequencies and this is the point where I recommend making adjustments.
If you not comfortable deciding what frequencies need adjusted then I recommend getting the Izotope Tonal Balance Control 2 plugin to assist you.
The Slate Digital Virtual Tape Machine, hands down, is the best analog tape emulation put into software to date. We are all looking for ways to make our digital recordings sound more analog and what better way than to run them through a tape machine. With the Slate VTM, you will be adding tape saturation, distortion, and compression into your audio signal. In turn, your sounds will be more warm, full, and rich making the Slate VTM a shoe-in for my best mastering plugins list.
Recommendation: This plugin goes after the Kirchhoff-EQ in the chain. I set the machine type to 1/2" 2 Track, the speed to 30 ips, and the tape type to FG9. The VU meter should be hitting 0 at the loudest parts of the song. This plugin works great for the overall mix and gives it that nice tape warmth.
Mastering The Mix RESO is a dynamic resonance suppressor that aids in detecting and resolving unpleasant audio resonances. With RESO, you can determine which frequency generates issues and how much compression you need to resolve the resonance without altering the tune. RESO clears up mixes in a transparent way making it one of the best mastering plugins on the market today.
Recommendation: This plugin should go after the Slate Digital Virtual Tape Machine in the chain. The main purpose at this stage is to remove annoying resonant frequencies and I let RESO do it automatically. RESO calculates the resonant frequencies, engages the targets, and then reduces the frequencies as it best sees fit. I don't often feel comfortable putting my mixes in the hands of AI, but with this plugin it does an amazing job!
Like the Vintage Drive, the SSL Fusion Stereo Image plugin is based on the SSL Fusion hardware unit. Users can use the width and space parameters in the DAW to access a digital replica of the Fusion’s mid-side circuit for broad stereo field spatial manipulation. If you want your masters to feel like they are popping out of the speakers then this is the stereo widening plugin you want!
Recommendation: This should go after the Mastering The Mix RESO plugin in the chain. I always use the "Subtle Mix Bus Enhancement" preset when using this plugin. It works well for all genres and you honestly can't go wrong with it. When it comes to the best mastering plugins and stereo imaging, you can't beat the SSL Fusion Stereo Image.
The only way to reach the loudness levels of modern music without destroying a mix is with precision clipping. With that being said, no mastering clipper plugin on the market is better than the Black Salt Audio Clipper. It is the most transparent clipper I've ever heard making it one of the best mastering plugins on this list. Best of all it's super simple to use and it gets the job done in seconds.
Recommendation: This plugin should be used after the SSL Fusion Stereo Image in the chain. At this point we want to clip off any overly dynamic sounds so we can get the master louder down the chain. I set the output level of the plugin to -3 dB and I shoot for -1 dB of gain reduction at the loudest points. In most cases this will clip off parts of the snare drum transients.
The Sonnox Oxford Inflator is a one-of-a-kind plugin. There truly is nothing else out there like it. Its claim to fame is that it will add volume to your mix without any compression or limiting. If you want a loud master without the pumping of compression, then you need the Oxford Inflator. This plugin has been a secret of the pros for many years and it easily made my best mastering plugins list.
Recommendation: This plugin should go after the Black Salt Audio Clipper in the chain. If you followed my settings for the Clipper then you can use these settings for the Inflator. Set the input level to -2.90 dB, engage the clip button, turn the effect fader all the way up, and set the output level to -2 dB. With these settings you are prepared perfectly for the last plugin.
Izotope Ozone 9 is an advanced professional mastering tool with comprehensive editing capabilities, brilliant audio assistance, and one of the most intuitive user interfaces out there. It brings balance to a mix with unparalleled processing and lighting-fast workflow powered by machine learning. Ozone 9 has everything to take a mix to its final destination.
Recommendation: This plugin should go after the Sonnox Oxford Inflator in the chain. I use Ozone 9 for its AI to setup 3 modules for me. I have it set the initial EQ, the dynamic EQ, and lastly the Maximizer. I very rarely make modifications to eqs but I always adjust the Maximizer. I turn on the true peak option, set the ceiling to -1 dB, and shoot for up to -4 dB of gain reduction. If I make a best mastering plugins list every year until I die, I guarantee Ozone will end up on it.
It is almost impossible to find a one-size-fits-all plugin or piece of hardware to master your music. That's why I'm recommending this plugin chain to you. I truly believe these are the best mastering plugins out there today. As some of these plugins can be expensive, remember, you can always build your collection overtime. I hope this article has helped guide you in the right direction and will lead you to creating better masters for yourself and your clients. Happy mastering!
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