Mastering can be a complex process, applying the final shine and polish to a mix, it is no doubt a job that requires extreme skill. The thing is, not everyone can afford a mastering engineer. This article guides you towards four essential plugins to use to master your own tracks. Three of these plugins are freely available. While they will never compare to the extreme high end gear of a mastering studio engineer, they will make your tracks nicer for presenting online and releasing as demos. With time, you can approximate very good results.
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The first thing to remember when trying these plugins out is that you cannot fix a bad mix during mastering. If it is mixed badly, it needs to be done again. You wouldn't polish badly assembled furniture, nor would you polish a faulty track.
The other thing to realise is that these can't be slapped on the master bus without intent, you need to know why you are adding them and make sure they really are needed. For this reason, I'd strongly advise you to never use all four of these at once during mastering, doing so would probably sound bad and demonstrate a lack of understanding on the mastering process.
MHorse P3 mkII (Terry West) - Download [FREE]
MHorse P3 mkII is an outstanding mastering "suite". It contains all your essentials and is by far the best plugin for quick mastering. Put this on the master mix and work through the settings to get that final shine you need. It sounds good and is easy on the eye.
For those of you who like mid/side processing it has that to offer, as well as a simpler stereo function. The EQs are fantastic, as are the exciter and tape settings. It offers many more settings, including a New York parallel compression option with 10 settings so you can flick through them and saves manually inputting the compressor settings.
Of course, one of the most important buttons, the bypass, is clear to find and is situated next to the equally helpful EQ toggle. Of all the plugins I've used, this is one of the most straightforward with everything well thought out and positioned conveniently.
This, beyond doubt is a tool everyone needs to have in their DAW, whether they are producing music or doing audio touch-ups/restoration. It will come into great use and is mind-blowing for a free plugin.
If you like the look of this plugin, you should really check out Terry West's site where he has many more incredible plugins.
Ferric TDS (Variety of Sound) - Download [FREE]
This plugin is not a complete mastering suite, it is used in conjunction with other plugins. Going by the method of using individual plugins allows you the freedom to add only what you want and doesnt restrict you to using the specific effect in a mastering suite like MHorse P3 mk II above.
Ferric TDS is a tape saturation plugin. I enjoy using this as the last effect on a mastering bus. The effects are a gentle noticeable warmth especially on the low-mids and upper-bass frequencies. You will struggle to put you finger on what it adds if you are unfamiliar with tape distortion but you know it's better on. My advice is just to fiddle until you like the result.
One thing this plugin does well is distort the bass badly if there's too much bass in the track. Set the dynamics and distortion to full settings and if the bass sounds bad, you may want to revisit the mix. This trick was something I stumbled upon when playing with this plugin on various mixes.
Of course, you would be unlikely to need to run the controls on full blast, this one requires a bit more subtlety. If you are struggling to hear the effect of this, put it on your mix at the end of the mastering chain on a very low setting and it will add something that better monitors/headphones will pick up.
Other Variety of Sound plugins.
Frontier (D16) - Download [FREE]
The Frontier self-adaptive versatile limiter, produced by D16 Group, is an outstanding plugin that's freely available to anyone registered D16 users.
If you are in need of a limiter for either mixing or mastering, I might have found the one for you! This plugin is a beast. It can go from gentle, transparent, gluing of a mix, to full blown saturation.
One of my favourite functions is the soft clip switch which gives an incredibly nice saturation to the sound, the knobs are labelled clearly, with the black bars denoting the extreme settings where things get really fun.
A handy feature is the auto gain normalisation where after compression it brings the level back up, which of course, you can then change.
The release is a simple three option switch, great for ease of use, but important enough to be there. I recommend for mastering using two of this plugin in series, one with a fast release, and one with a slow one. Make sure each instance isn't full-blown brick-walling!
If like me, you are stuck using an under-powered computer for most things, then you can still use this with ease as it does offer quality settings to reduce the CPU load. Especially when you are using two of these plugins in series for transparency the load can become significant.
I do highly recommend you bump up the quality before rendering however as there is a noticeable difference between the quality settings. For monitoring though, the low settings will do just fine.
D16's other products.
Pusher (Infected Mushroom/Waves) - Download [$49]
If you are a regular reader of this site, you will know I focus on mostly free plugins and instruments. They are the essentials for beginners and you can get pretty much anywhere using exclusively free software. Except this. This plugin is so amazing, if you produce electronic music, it will bring it out.
The main intention of Pusher, is to turn your track, at whatever stage it's in, into something you could hear live, it has features to enhance the high frequencies and boost the stereo width, as well as clipping and limiting. Infected Mushroom say it's great for previewing a rough idea, slap the plugin on, and it will sound much more like a mastered version of a track.
The low EQ has a brilliant feature where you select the key of the track and it will home in on the key frequencies keeping the low end clean. This is a feature I have not seen before, and is quick to use!
Easily one of the simplest plugins to use - a quick read of the manual will give you every bit of insight into this plugin, but if I'm honest, playing around with no clue would be just as productive. Every control is very well labelled and the only control that leaves any confusion is the "magic" control. This is simply an enhancer, and probably the best one I've used to date.
It will make a difference on any track you place it on. That's not to say "go overboard" and slap it on everything, but it has so many uses. This plugin will enhance your drum bus, it will beef up your synths and really allow them to cut through, and it will be the best plugin for someone who truly struggles with mastering.
It is one of the best sounding plugins I have used by far (including instruments) and it's versatility in the mix, combined with the ease of use to get that versatility is mind blowing!
The presets are fairly well labelled and so finding what you need is easy! There are enough to get through most needs and the presets cover a range of mastering styles to instrument enhancements. In the end however, this plugin isn't complicated enough to really need people to rely on presets - a very big plus!
If you are looking to buy your first plugin, this may well be it, the value is greater than the cost, and it will make your tracks hit that next level. The ease of use, combined with the diversity of sound it produces is incredible. Best of luck!