These days, there are plenty of keenly-priced online options if you want to get your home-produced tracks wrapped up by professional mastering engineers in professional mastering facilities, or via automated systems such as Emastered and Landr.
The next time you find yourself reaching for that ‘Upload track’ button, though, why not consider having a go at doing the job yourself?
OK, so obviously your monitor speakers and listening environment fall well short of those at Abbey Road or Real World, and you probably don’t possess the ‘golden ears’ that much of their fees go towards - but the latter will come with time and practice, and when you just want to get a mix sounding polished and presentable enough for demo purposes, a decent pair of nearfields should be fine.
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But what about the gear involved? Well, happily, you really are spoilt for choice in that department, as there are plenty of wholly viable software mastering tools available as stand-ins for the fancy boutique hardware enjoyed by the big boys and girls in their big studios.
Here, we’ve rounded up what we reckon are eight of the best such tools on the market, from super-transparent mastering limiters and EQs, to all-encompassing suites that open up every aspect of your mix - dynamic, spectral and spatial - for tweaking at a microscopic level.
There’s no instant fix for inexperience, of course - and mastering does unarguably require a certain level of expertise - but with one or more of these empowering plugins racked up in your DAW or audio editor, you’re well equipped to take your first steps towards mastering mastery.
1. iZotope Ozone 9 Advanced (opens in new tab)
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | $499
When you think of ‘mastering in the box’, it’s highly likely that iZotope’s industry-standard application and its component module plugins are the first things that come to mind - Ozone is the best-known all-in-one package on the market, and, arguably, the best.
Version 9 adds to an already comprehensive box of tricks - including EQ, dynamics, harmonic excitement, stereo imaging and more - with the incredible Master Rebalance (adjust the volume levels of Bass, Drums and Vocals within the mix) and Low End Focus modules (low-frequency ‘sharpening’), and makes improvements to the AI-driven Master Assistant, which automatically sets up staring-point settings for you.
2. IK Multimedia T-RackS 5 (opens in new tab)
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | €180
Although the latest and greatest version of IK’s expandable effects suite is as broad-based as they come, tying into a well-stocked shop of modules for all musical purposes, T-RackS’ roots are very much in mastering - an area in which it still impresses.
Running as a standalone application or plugin, with all its constituent modules also available as separate plugins, T-RackS 5 marks a huge step up from v4, with a redesigned GUI and refined workflow, excellent metering, a dedicated editor for compiling full album masters, and four new processors.
Slick, flexible and sonically superlative.
3. Waves Abbey Road TG Mastering Chain (opens in new tab)
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | $199
Emulating the legendary EMI TG12410 Transfer Console that’s been central to the even more legendary Abbey Road Studios for nigh on half a century, Waves’ lovingly modelled plugin exudes analogue warmth and character, and sounds generally awesome.
Five modules - Input (levelling, stereo balance and phase, Tape Equalizer) and Output (with stereo Spreader) stages, four-band EQ, Limiter and Filter - can be routed in any order; and while the fixed EQ and Filter frequencies might seem bloody-minded in their vintage authenticity, that actually turns out to be a plus in terms of workflow and ease of use.
Not one for surgical mastering of electronic and dance music, then, but worth every penny for those working in electric/acoustic genres.
4. Brainworx bx_masterdesk (opens in new tab)
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | $299
Brainworx’s laidback plugin also aims to make the mix-finalising process easy and approachable for even the greenest of mastering greenhorns.
A self-contained ‘analogue’ effects chain, bx_masterdesk strings together compression, limiting, tilt and four-band EQs, THD saturation, de-essing, mono-ising and transformative stereo enhancement.
The whole thing is kept admirably foolproof by a minimal set of accessible controls, with everything calibrated behind the scenes to deliver great results almost without fail; and the inclusion of the brilliant Dynamic Range VU meter, which makes loudness targeting a cinch. And coming from Brainworx, stellar sound quality is a given.
5. Signum Audio Bute Loudness Suite (opens in new tab)
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | From £199
This beautifully designed True Peak limiter and loudness analyser does most of the hard work for you when it comes to targeting the gamut of modern loudness standards – EBU R 128, AES, Spotify, Netflix, etc.
The proprietary waveshaping algorithm guarantees 100% brickwalling of inter-sample peaks, and the versatile metering setup and accompanying History View provide truly comprehensive visualisation.
Since we reviewed Bute Loudness Suite back in 2018, the Scottish developer has made good on its promises of converting the included AudioSuite normaliser to VST/AU/AAX and adding the more general-purpose Bute Limiter, making this already competitive package even more appealing.
6. Acon Digital Mastering Suite (opens in new tab)
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | £82
Acon has taken the multi-plugin approach with its comparatively affordable mastering solution. Dynamics is a compressor/expander/gate with up to 30ms lookahead, auto release and a comprehensive sidechain EQ; while Multiband Dynamics offers four independent bands of compression, with linear phase pre-ringing reduced by the nifty mixed phase crossover mode.
The Equalize 12-band EQ also benefits from mixed phase mode as a middle ground between its linear and minimum phase options, and boasts continually variable filter slopes, and a choice of L/R or M/S processing per band.
Limit is a 4x oversampling limiter with pre-compression stage, and Dither carrier out its titular process with aplomb.
Powerful and precise.
7. Eventide Elevate Mastering Bundle (opens in new tab)
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | $199
The two centrepieces of Eventide’s innovative Bundle are the Elevate mastering limiter and maximiser, which uses a 26-band linear phase auditory filter bank tuned to the Mel Scale (we’ll leave you to Google that) to model the frequency response of the human ear, and the EQuivocate EQ, employing the same technology to serve up natural-sounding frequency shaping - it’s wild but stunningly effective stuff.
The other two plugins - Punctuate and Saturate - are essentially Elevate’s Transient Emphasis and Spectral Clipper stages broken out for individual usage, but even so, Elevate Mastering Bundle represents good value for the conceptually adventurous engineer.
Read more about Eventide Elevate Mastering Bundle (opens in new tab)
8. Softube Weiss DS1-MK3 (opens in new tab)
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | $549
For its plugin clone of boutique hardware manufacturer Weiss’ prohibitively expensive digital mastering compressor/limiter, Softube ported the original code line by line, ensuring flawless emulation, then improved upon it by adding high-RMS and True Peak limiting, and upgrading the processing resolution to 32-bit/192kHz.
DS1-MK3 works brilliantly and sounds phenomenal, but make no mistake, it’s a very serious tool for very serious mastering engineers, as is reflected in the price, which, although roughly a tenth that of the real physical deal, is still far, far higher than any amateur should really be spending on this sort of thing.
Those who know how to get the most out of it, however, will find it to be worth every penny.