What makes a great mastering engineer? Well, even though this video is about mastering plugins, we’ll start with some honesty. Two of the most important factors are access to a very well-engineered mixing room and (at least in my experience) a robust process to reference on several other systems in short order. Secondary to that, however, is going to be the processing equipment you have access to. Luckily the digital age has brought this equipment within reach for almost anybody. So if you’re new to mastering or have been at it for a while, you’ll want to check out this list we put together for the best mastering plugins for 2023

This week, we have Fabio from Noize back to lead us through some examples of the very best mastering plugins available today. And believe it or not, one of them is completely free! That sounds nice, doesn’t it?

And as always, don’t forget about our monthly studio gear giveaway! Just comment on the video with what your favorite mastering plugin is, what you use it for, and why you love it. You’ll be automatically entered to win $500 worth of your choice of some great new studio gear.

Now let’s get into it.

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BusterSE – Best Mastering Plugins 2023

  • SSL G BUS Emulation
  • Versatile Sound
  • Price: Free (dang!)

We use this great (free) mastering plugin mainly for parallel compression. For this example, let’s show you exactly how it’s done.

First, we’re going to set the attack at 30 milliseconds. We’ll put the release on auto, leave the ratio at 4, and then we’ll overcompress by about 4 decibels. And when you’re mastering (and you may already know this), it’s an important step to put a loop around one of the loudest parts of your track.

This already sounds pretty good, but the compressor is reacting a bit too much on the low frequencies. Luckily, we have a filter here on the bottom lefthand corner, so we can increase the high pass filter to about 100, so everything under roughly 100 will bypass the compressor. This ensures that it’s not being triggered by the low frequencies as much, which should make it feel a little less “pumpy” and reactive.

The idea here is to add some sustain, and we’ll do that by using the dry/wet mix. It’s not exactly working by overcompressing the signal, so we’re gonna use the dry/wet dial down in the bottom righthand corner to bring back a bit of that original signal. You should end up with the best of both worlds. We know it’s subtle, but it does add that little bit of thickness we like.

Shadow Hills

  • Transformer options
  • Opto & Discrete
  • Price: $299

This is another compressor we like to use, but more for tonal shaping. The other compressor is more for control and maybe a little bit of character, but mostly for adding sustain.

Of course, there’ll be a little bit of compression going on, but what we mainly use it for is the Nickel, Iron, and Steel fader. Think of it as highs, mids, and lows. Depending on which you adjust, it will saturate that part of the frequency spectrum. It applies this kind of non-linear EQ curve and plays into the circuitry of the Shadow Hills compressor.

When you’re at Nickel, listen to the high hats. When you’re on Steel, listen to the low end. Depending on the tonal change you’re looking for, you can use this to very subtly pull everything together nicely.

Oxford Inflator

  • Louder mixes
  • Simple interface
  • Price: $150

Now if you really want your tracks to get thick ‘n’ juicy, look no further than the Oxford Inflator. Even though it’s probably the ugliest-looking plugin you’ve ever seen, it’ll soon become your best friend.

Similar to compression, the Oxford Inflator brings down the loud signal and boosts the overall signal to make all the quieter parts louder. However, this inflator does it all without having to bring the louder signals down, so it figures out what the quiet parts are and brings them up in volume, making it all sound a bit thicker. You’re essentially “inflating” the sound here.

SSL Fusion Vintage Drive

  • Non-linear saturation circuit
  • Soft-clipping, natural compression
  • Price: $199

Why do we love this one so much? Well, it adds a little bit of saturation and drive, but it makes the signal thicker and does a little bit of soft clipping too. Pull down the drive, keep auto gain on, and then oversaturate it so that you can easily hear what’s going on and then draw it back as needed.

Even when you’re pushing really hard into the red, the saturation is still subtle and smooth enough to sound good. When you push it too far, you’ll notice that you lose a little bit of the punch. You’re going to want a bit of soft clipping to find some character, and this is what we’ll use the Dry for.

It sounds a bit similar to what the Oxford Inflator was doing, but it has its own unique style and character, whereas the inflator comes off as very transparent.

Standard Clip by SIR Audio Tools

  • Secret weapon
  • Up to 256x oversampling
  • Price: $25

If loudness is your goal, you definitely need to check out the Standard Clip from SIR Audio Tools. Also, at only $25, it’s a steal, so you don’t have any excuses. It’s honestly one of the best clippers on the market.

Clipping the signal is essentially shaving off the tops of those transients, unlike a limiter which would just bring them down in volume. Clipping increases the loudness of your track considerably.

Of course, you first gotta make sure that your mix is good. But when used subtly, it’s barely noticeable and will take a lot of that heat from the incoming limiters.