2020 Favorite Mastering Plugins
Often I'm asked what some of my favorite plugins are for mastering so I’m excited to write a post like this as I believe a lot of people will find the information interesting and/or helpful. Whats considered the "best" is such a personal opinion as well. The plugins listed below are what work for me and my work flow, and while there are numerous other tools that work just as well, or perhaps even better for some things, it all comes down to your personal preference and tastes.
1. FabFilter Pro Q3
This plugin hardly needs an introduction. Expanding on the widespread success of their Pro Q2, Q3 introduces the very useful dynamic mode as well as better sounding EQ filters. What I like most about this EQ is that the GUI (Graphic User Interface) is laid out very intuitively. You just click on the screen and a EQ point is inserted to which you can drag around and use the scroll wheel to adjust the Q. From a drop down menu you are then given the options of Mid, Side, Left, or Right filter placement. You also have the ability to solo listen to any of the bands you have highlighted which is particularly useful for notch filtering a problematic resonance.
My favorite use by far is the dynamic functionality though. Using this I am able to not only locate a pesky resonance or harsh sibilance in a master, but then I can dynamically reduce by however much I want when it exceeds a threshold, this way I'm able to get cleaner results as its only really affecting things as the problem presents itself. Add Mid/Side flexibility in and it’s a deadly scalpel for precise surgery when needed!
2. DMG Essence
DMG may be an unfamiliar name to many, but I believe they make some of the most versatile plugins on the market today. Essence is DMG’s answer to a De-esser, however its much more than your standard De-esser with the ability to do Mid/Side de-essing, Mid, or Side only, as well as upward expansion. It gets used from me quite often in Mid de-essing pre analog. Sometimes I will then perform side de-essing post analog if the sides start to become too bright. Another heavy use is the upward expansion mode. Have a buried kick drum in a master? Here’s the secret weapon. A couple decibels of expansion around 45hz can completely revitalize the low end of a master and bring movement and low end energy back into a song. On the opposite end, I can also use it as multiband compression on the low end if I have too much low end thats eating up headroom on the limiter. While its GUI may look a little complicated with wet/dry, expansion mode, different filter shapes, ect, its by far the most versatile de-esser on the market.
3. SIR Standard Clip
When loudness is needed, sometimes limiting alone is not enough. Insert SIR Standard Clip. The first incredible thing about this tool is the price. Coming in under $30 it far exceeds in sound quality despite the low price. There isnt a whole lot to say on this tool as it's a clipper, a plugin that shears the transients off, whereas a brickwall limiter pushes transients down. Using a clipper with a limiter can ease the load on the limiter allowing you to push the limiter a bit more for greater overall loudness when needed. This tool does so effortlessly, and transparently when used sparingly. I really love that it has over sampling to avoid aliasing, as well as several different “clipping” character modes.
4. FabFilter Pro L2
Limiters are all different, and I do have others I’ve used and will rotate in should it fit the song better. However, on 95% of my masters this year it's been the Pro L2 from FabFilter. First off, if you are using Pro L, upgrade immediately as they really stepped up the sound with this one. Multiple character modes, lookahead, attack and release, linked transients, and over sampling give me everything I’m looking for in a Limiter. The ease of function is the icing on the cake. Often times I can do 3-5db of gain reduction (depending on the song) and get quite transparent results with very little degradation when the limiter is bypassed to compare. Speaking of which, Pro L2 has an auto gain setting so you can dial in the limiting until you can hear undesirable effects/artifacts, without the volume increasing, an incredibly handy feature. You can also solo listen on what is being limited to better judge if you are losing too much and should back off a little. I’ve been very happy with this tool overall and have recommended it to countless individuals. Demo it and see for yourself.
5. MeterPlugs Perception
Perception, by MeterPlugs, was produced with mastering engineer Ian Shepherd as a tool to level match and bypass your entire signal chain at the push of a button. Its a two part plugin, one labeled "Source" which goes first in the chain, and another labeled "Controller" which goes last. This plugin is used one every master I do. When I start a session I pull up the Controller plugin, hit Balance as the music plays, and after a few seconds of calculations the bypass button will light back up, and you can now hit "bypass" to check your mix pre and post processing. Seeing my DAW allows me to work with hardware as a "plugin insert", this means I can bypass all my plugins, hardware, and limiting, with the push of one button, being able to compare a mix through the stages of mastering to compare. Its been a huge help and time saver, and as a result has helped me produce better masters