Best Mastering Plugins: A Complete Software Guide for 2021
"Whatever your craft is, be a master of it. Being half-assed at something, people will eventually see through."
— Kid Rock
Ask any serious producer, mixer, or mastering engineer, and they will all tell you the same thing: "It's not the gear; it's the ear." And while this is true, having the best mastering plugins will help any engineer get better results faster and more efficiently (and probably also better).
So while most audio professionals will say the skills are more important than the tools, there is also a reason why engineers all keep an arsenal of the best mastering plugins to use.
Having the best plugins is always a good thing, but it is especially important in mastering because when you are affecting the entire song all at once. The nuances introduced by the best mastering plugins become way more meaningful and apparent. This is why mastering has the potential to make the most significant difference in the quality of the final product.
With this in mind, we're going to break down the best mastering plugins and the ways in which we use each.
Best Mastering Compressors and Limiters
The Lowdown: Every mastering chain will end in a limiter, and the quality of that limiter will significantly affect how much distortion is introduced when pushing the track's loudness. Fabfilter's Pro-L 2 is exceptionally high quality, allowing for very transparent limiting even when pushed past its perceived limits.
Pro-L 2 features multiple limiting algorithms, allowing it to be customized to the needs of the project. It also allows for more advanced functionality than any other limiter. This functionality is seen in its attack and release knobs, 32x oversampling, built-in LUFS metering, dithering, and other features. And it does all of this while sitting pretty with a beautiful and easy-to-use interface.
I've tried many limiters, and I have yet to find one that performs as consistently well as the Pro-L 2. Plus, its inter-sample peak catching always catches odd peaks and has proven to be one of the most reliable plugins in my mastering chain.
The Lowdown: Simply put, this is a powerhouse plugin. Capable of softening sibilance, taming high frequencies, and removing harshness, this is the ultimate mastering tool for controlling your top-end. Not only will this elevate the upper registers, but by uncluttering these higher frequencies your listeners will be able to hear your bass more clearly by comparison.
Overall, this is a plugin that will give you smoother masters. This is a digital clone of one of the most famous mastering units, the Weiss DS-1. Therefore Softube was able to make a 1:1 software equivalent. This isn’t just an emulation; this is the real thing.
The Lowdown: Part of the Softube Weiss collection, the compressor/limiter is the shining feature of this plugin, mainly when applied to a track's low-end. This is super useful for tightening the bass elements and keeping them nice and even without being overbearing.
Another excellent use for this plugin is its mid/side expansion tool, which helps sub-bass or kicks jump out of a cluttered mix. In EDM, this is especially important, as a buried kick can kill the groove of an otherwise fabulous mix. I very rarely employ this technique, but when it's needed, it works wonders.
The Lowdown: Okay, this is the last Weiss plugin we're going talk about, I promise. The Weiss Maximizer has multiple modes, all of which change how it will affect your sound. My two favorite modes are punch and width. The punch mode works wonders on drums, making them knock just a tad bit harder.
The width option makes your mix well… wider.
Price: $15/month with the Slate All Access Pass or $149 annually
The Lowdown: The Slate FG Grey is a fantastic-sounding SSL-style bus compressor. My favorite use for this plugin in mastering is when the drums in a mix are a tad too prominent; 1-2db of reduction can help push them back into the mix and glue things together a bit.
When using this compressor on a master, adjust the sidechain option so that the compressor isn't being triggered by the mix's low end.
The Lowdown: It is probably the most famous mastering compressor ever, and for a good reason – the Shadow Hills is a monster tone box. With three types of metal to choose from and two serial compressors, this is a very heavy-handed compressor and leaves its mark on your mix.
While it won’t work on every master, I find most of the time it does something really pleasing to the low-mids and bass of a master, even when applying extremely minute amounts of compression. This plugin used to be exclusively available for UAD users but is now available direct from Plugin Alliance and has added features like a mix knob.
The Lowdown: Joey Sturgis is a mixing legend. It's no shocker that he has some fantastic plugins of his own. The JST Clip has excellent functionality that does wonders on super aggressive mixes. I like to put it as the final plugin just before the limiter, push just a tiny bit of clipping, and then dial the mix a bit back.
This will reduce your song's dynamic range just a bit and let you push your limiter harder. It will also introduce some subtle distortion from the clipping, which works really well for more aggressive genres.
The Lowdown: The Inflator is an incredibly unique plugin that we talk extensively about in the Hyperbits Masterclass. It’s hard to describe what this crazy tool does, except what’s already in its name – it inflates. If you’re looking for something to make your mixes sound bigger and fatter, the Inflator is a godsend.
I had a conversation with the team behind the Inflator where I begged them to tell me what the plugin did, as the description in their manual made little sense, and they literally weren’t allowed to tell me. All we know is that it’s not compression, and it’s not saturation, but past that, we don’t really know.
When using the Inflator, the thing to be careful about is that it can get overly intense pretty quickly and make your instruments step all over each other. For this reason, I like to turn the curve down a bit and only use it in small amounts and only when necessary.
Best Mastering Equalizers
The Lowdown: Likely the most popular digital EQ ever, the Pro-Q3 was an obvious pick for this list. With its ability to solo individual bands, mid/side, and dynamic mode, the Pro-Q3 is a powerful tool for any mastering engineer. It is also a super transparent EQ, letting you make changes without affecting your mix's tone.
Price: $15/month with the Slate All Access Pass or $149.99 annually
The Lowdown: A recent addition to the digital EQ game, the Infinity EQ could potentially replace the Pro-Q3 entirely, save for the fact that it lacks a dynamic mode.
Where it does stand out is by having variable sloping. This means that instead of picking a standard slope like 12dB/oct, it can use any slope.
The Infinity EQ also has super customizable shelving options, letting it emulate hardware EQ curves like the Pultec without any other of its effects. Slate also took mid/side to the next level, letting you choose how much you want a single node to be applied to the mids and sides and even allow them to be inverted. This is super useful for targeted EQ moves while mastering.
The Lowdown: The Pultec is one of the most famous classic analog EQ. It has a fantastic tube-like quality that it imparts onto tracks and is excellent for broad-stroke EQ moves. I love using the UAD Pultec to add sub and bass without things getting muddy. To do this, I like to pull up the bass attenuation while boosting the bass at the same time.
The attenuation actually affects a slightly different frequency than the boost, which creates a scoop just above where the boost begins. This is very pleasing and can help create separation from the bass to the rest of the track.
Price: $15/month with the Slate All Access Pass or $69 annually
The Lowdown: The Eiosis Air EQ is one of my favorite tone-shaping plugins. While I wouldn’t recommend it for any surgical moves, it is very powerful for making broad mastering decisions. The air and earth bands also sound fantastic for adding the extreme top and low-end frequencies to a mix.
A neat trick with the Air EQ is that the Fire and Water settings change how the band’s curve affects the tone of the EQ. This can also be done to individual bands by holding Shift and adjusting the Q knob. You can also change how much the EQ will affect the signal by adjusting the strength fader.
Another trick with the Air EQ is to use it in parallel as a bus send. This allows you to make significant tonal adjustments without the signal sounding too affected.
The Lowdown: This plugin is one of those little secret tools that are only good at one thing, but what it does, it does it extraordinarily well. The Clariphonic EQ is designed to add a smooth and natural brightness, and it delivers on that promise.
Simple to use and extremely powerful, the Clariphonic makes use of parallel EQing to achieve its effect. Kush is also pretty unique in that it supplies both hardware and software versions of its tools, meaning that you’re getting very faithful emulations.
Best Saturators For Mastering
Price: $15/month with the Slate All Access Pass or $149 annually
The Lowdown: The Slate Virtual Tape Machine is a heavy-handed tool that can do wonders to some mixes. It adds warmth to the low-end and color to whatever it's applied to. Plus, the subtle warping it does can make things feel less digital.
The two big things to look out for with the VTM, though, are that it can soften transients and add a lot of gain. So be sure to match your input to your output.
The Lowdown: While Saturn is mostly viewed as a multiband saturator for mixing, it can be super useful during mastering as well. Whether for fattening subs, making the low mids more forward, or pushing brightness, Saturn 2 is capable of being as transparent or as obvious as you need.
The Lowdown: The Blackbox is an excellent saturation unit and one of the incredible hip-hop mixer, Jaycen Joshua's, favorites. The Blackbox can help thicken a record and make it sound more aggressive. It also has a brightness knob, which can be a really cool way to add extra top-end to a master.
Since the saturation comes from driving the gain into the unit, you need to be mindful not to get fooled by a louder signal. Gain stage accordingly. This is also important when you want to dial bach the mix knob so that the mixed signals are even.
The Lowdown: Yes, this is the second tape plugin on this list, but the Softube Tape sounds very different from the Slate VTM. Softube’s tape is a lot more subtle than VTM and can be great for getting a bit of tape flavor without affecting your master too much.
Best Mastering Suites and Utilities
The Lowdown: Ozone is one of the most famous mastering suites there is, and for a good reason. It consists of many modules (which can be used as independent plugins as well). Ozone features a magnificent EQ, compressor, vintage EQs, multi-band imager (you can read more about imaging in our blogpost on width here), multiple limiting algorithms, and more. While it may not be the absolute best in every category, it is a fantastic suite for those looking to start mastering their own music.
Price: $15/month with the Slate All Access Pass or $149 annually
The Lowdown: While VMR is primarily a mixing tool, it can come in handy for mastering. The custom EQ Lift and the Revival are both great for both low and top-end. If you want to apply some subtle saturation to your mixes, you can use the VCC to apply console emulations to bring some analog mojo and feel to your mix.
While a bit more of a mix-bus move, I find sometimes applying a minimal amount of parallel compression from the modern 1176 emulation can help fatten up a mix. Try to really crush it with the compressor before dialing it back until a tiny amount of the wet signal is coming through. It doesn’t always work, but sometimes can be really cool!
The Lowdown: A free nifty little plugin, MSED lets you independently adjust the gain of your mid and side information. This comes super handy when mastering as sometimes you want to push a little extra width or want the center image to be stronger.
Small moves go a long way with this one, and I’m always reaching for this plugin to add width to a master instead of a stereo widener.
Video: How to Master Your Music
It's important to remember that the best mastering plugins, at the end of the day, are only the tools you use to get the job done. It's all about how you use those tools and apply these plugins to your mastering chain that will make all the difference. Luckily, it doesn't have to be too hard. Learn how to master your next record in only a few minutes with the video below.
Where To Go From Here
While you certainly don't need any of the tools on this list to get a great master, having various tools will make it easier for you to get great results. After learning about these 20 fantastic mastering plugins, you're now ready to determine which plugins you want to begin incorporating into your mastering workflow.
We said earlier that ears matter just as much as the gear when mixing and mastering, and we weren't lying. This is why we spend a massive portion of the Hyperbits Masterclass digging into the tools, science, and best practices needed to release professional-quality music. A great master sounds powerful, warm, and confident, and we teach you how to get there in as little as 8-week.