No matter how good your performance, your individual tracks, or your mix, if you don’t get the mastering right, it all tends to fall apart.
Now, that’s a tad dramatic for our tastes, but it’s what a clever YouTube ad told us. So, we thought it might be fun to open with something dramatic.
But it’s true that mastering is all about doing some touch-up work, adding some glue to the pieces, and applying a final layer of polish to your tracks.
In this guide, we’ll look at the best free mastering software and VST plugins.
Frontier Self-Adaptive Versatile Limiter by D16 Group Audio Software
Limiting in general a critical component of the mastering phase. If you want to boost the loudness of your mixes and get them to pump at the same level modern tracks do, you’re going to want to use the best limiter available.
And D16’s Frontier Self-Adaptive Versatile Limiter does not disappoint. It is self-adaptive, and it is versatile, to the point where you could use it on individual tracks and busses – not just masters.
And that’s really the best part about it. Frontier is easy to use and highly flexible given its somewhat limited array of controls.
It also features one of the best graphical user interfaces we’ve seen. It’s simple and beautiful.
Its key features include configurable control input, automatic output gain makeup, controllable release characteristic, optional soft clip, tag based preset browser, MIDI-learn functionality, and 64-bit internal processing.
So far as the “self-adaptive” piece is concerned, Frontier comes with an algorithm for automatic gain makeup. This normalizes the signal’s volume after it passes the limiting section. For you, that means being able to dial in your perfect sound quickly and easily.
Frontier is available for Windows and Mac.
Download: D16 Group Audio Software
Limiter №6 by vladg/sound
Limiter №6 is another go-to limiter. As you might be able to tell from its appearance, though, it does quite a bit more.
This five-module limiter features an RMS compressor, peak limiter, high-frequency limiter, clipper, and true peak limiter for unparalleled control.
It utilizes high-quality signal processing, and features brickwall and soft limiting with different timing settings, M/S and multiband modes, optional 4x oversampling, true inter-sample peak (ISP) limiting, analog-style indication, and just in case you’re not completely satisfied with the design, it has two GUIs.
As with Frontier, we find Limiter №6’s user interface quite nicely put together, and it was obviously inspired by real hardware gear.
Whether you need to create more clarity in your mix or boost its loudness, this limiter can do a lot to bring your music to life.
You can get Limiter №6 for Windows and Mac.
Download: Tokyo Dawn Records
Marvel GEQ by Voxengo
Voxengo’s Marvel GEQ kind of speaks for itself. It’s a 16-band graphic equalizer suited to numerous occasions – tracks, voice streaming, mastering, stereo, mid-side, 5.1 surround, and transparent.
Its features include +/- 12 dB gain range per band, channel grouping, preset manager, contextual hint messages, freehand drawing mode, stereo and multi-channel processing, mid/side processing, undo/redo history, all sample rates support, resizable user interface, linear-phase equalizing, internal channel routing, 64-bit floating point processing, A/B comparisons, 9 ms compensated processing latency, as well as retina and HighDPI support.
It also features multiple color schemes/user interfaces in case you’re unhappy with the default one.
Marvel GEQ has been tested and works in most popular DAWs, including Cubase, Logic Pro, Pro Tools, FL Studio, and many others.
Music producers loved that this plugin was easy to use and highly flexible.
Marvel GEQ is available for Windows and Mac.
TEOTE by Voxengo
Voxengo’s TEOTE is an automatic spectral balancer/dynamic equalizer, and it’s perfect for automatic in-track equalizing, contemporary music mastering, equalizing guide, and stereo, mid-side, 5.1 surround processing.
Its various features make it great for mixing and mastering – automatic gentle resonances taming, de-essing, and tilt equalizing. The fact that it will help calm brash frequencies and smooth out a mix are what make it so attractive in my mind.
Its feature set also includes multi-band gain adjustments meter, channel grouping, preset manager, contextual hint messages, multiple user interface color schemes, selectable processing band count, stereo and multi-channel processing, up to 8x oversampling, undo/redo history, all sample rates support, resizable user interface, unlinked stereo processing, internal channel routing, 64-bit floating point processing, A/B comparisons, zero processing latency, as well as retina and HighDPI support.
Users loved that TEOTE added a subtle polish to their tracks.
You can get TEOTE for Windows and Mac.
MAnalyzer by MeldaProduction
The infamous MFreeFXBundle features a lot of great mixing and mastering effects and tools, including this – the MAnalyzer.
The MAnalyzer is an advanced spectral analyzer and sonogram with features like smoothing, normalization, super-resolution, prefiltering, and deharmonization.
What makes analyzers useful is that they help you analyze various frequencies – whether it’s for individual tracks or full mixes. That can help you make some decisions in terms of equalization (especially if your track has a lot of frequency “bunching”), and even volume levels for specific tracks.
MAnalyzer is perhaps one of the most visually appealing plugins in its class.
As with all Melda plugins, MAnalyzer comes with an advanced GUI engine, A/B comparison (including A to H switching and A to D morphing), MIDI controllers with MIDI learn, M/S, single channel, up to eight channel surround, up to 64 channels ambisonics processing, 64-bit processing, unlimited sampling rate, global preset management, and more.
MFreeFXBundle is free and compatible with Windows and Mac. But if you want to unlock all features, you’ll need to upgrade for $59.
MLoudnessAnalyzer by MeldaProduction, A Free Mastering VST Plugin
Melda’s MLoudnessAnalyzer is an EBU R128 and ITU-R BS 1770-3 compliant loudness meter with a peak meter, momentary, short-term, and integrated loudness meters, as well as a loudness range meter.
This plug features an advanced GUI, unique visualization engine with classic meters and time graphs, 64-bit processing, unlimited sampling rate, M/S, single channel, up to eight channels surround, and up to 64 channels ambisonics processing.
This is yet another handy tool for analyzing the loudness of individual tracks and full mixes.
You can get MLoudnessAnalyzer for free inside Melda’s Windows and Mac compatible bundle.
TDR Kotelnikov by Tokyo Dawn Records
The legendary TDR Kotelnikov wideband dynamics processor is a favorite for mastering.
It comes with 64-bit multi-rate processing, “Delta” oversampled signal path (bit transparent at 0dB gain reduction), fast and natural sounding compression, “Crest factor” control scheme with independent release controls for peak and RMS events, flexible sidechain highpass filter, advanced stereo linking options, Delta preview mode, Latency compensated, click free bypass, and user interface rescaling (100%, 125%, 150%).
Kotelnikov is a descendant of the TDR Feedback Compressor family, with a “stealthy” character. It gives you the ability to manipulate dynamic ranges to surprising extents while maintaining the original tone, timbre, and punch of the signal. That makes it highly usable for stereo bus compression, among other things.
Unlike most VSTs, Kotelnikov is a true original, as it isn’t intended to emulate any existing piece of hardware.
Users say Kotelnikov is on par with hardware compressors, and some even described it as the most transparent mastering compressor available.
TDR Kotelnikov is available for Windows and Mac.
Download: Tokyo Dawn Records
TDR VOS SlickEQ by Tokyo Dawn Records
TDR VOS SlickEQ is an excellent choice for mixing and mastering. This EQ was designed with ease of use in mind, and it features three (and a half) filter bands arranged in classic Low/Mid/High semi-parametric fashion. Each of these feature distinct EQ curves and behaviors.
The auto gain automatically compensates for changes or perceived loudness. Using SlickEQ, you can also process either the stereo sum or stereo difference without added sum/difference encoding.
The switchable EQ non-linearity and output stage with four saturation models can give your mixes and masters subtle character, personality, and texture.
This plug also comes with 64-bit “Delta” multi-rate structure, three EQ bands with additional 18dB/Oct high-pass filter, four EQ modes (American, British, German, and Soviet), five output stages (Linear, Silky, Mellow, Deep, and Toasted), advanced saturation algorithms, loudness compensated auto gain control, stereo and sum/difference processing option, and a toolbar with undo/redo, A/B, advanced preset manager, and more.
Overall, this EQ offers smooth, natural, and musical equalization, even with extreme settings.
You can get VOS SlickEQ for Windows and Mac.
Download: Tokyo Dawn Records
A1StereoControl by Alex Hilton
Alex Hilton’s A1StereoControl is a stereo widening plugin that can be used on a single track, a group of tracks, or even on masters.
Its features include “SAFE BASS” algorithm, linear phase, resizable GUI, no latency, phase flip, swap L-R, mono, automatable parameters, undo/redo, and /- 12 dB input and output gain, as well as the ability to expand or limit stereo wideness (0 to 200%),
A1StereoControl comes with a vector-based design. It’s not a bad choice, as it makes the GUI resizable, but black text on a dark grey background leaves something to be desired.
That said, this plugin is kind of magical in what it does. It’s easy to use and enhancing your masters could be just a turn of the dial away.
Overall, users found this stereo utility plugin to be efficient, stable, and versatile. And with so many similar stereo imaging plugins available, many still turn to this one.
You can get this plug on KVR Audio Software for your Windows or Mac machine.
Download: KVR Audio Software
IVGI by Klanghelm
Klanghelm’s IVGI offers a soft, subtle saturation perfect for the master bus. That said, you can use extreme settings to achieve dirty and dense distortion effects on individual tracks too.
IVGI reacts dynamically to the input signal, and stereo tracks can benefit from its modeled crosstalk behavior.
The Controllable Randomness function determines the internal drift and variance, which gives IVGI more liveliness.
You can easily dial in your favorite sounds using the drive, output, ASYM mix, and response dials, as well as the VU-mode, trim, and X-talk controls. All this is encased in a beautiful UI, as we’ve come to see and expect from Klanghelm.
Whether you’re looking to add some character for individual tracks or masters, IVGI is worth adding to your VST arsenal.
Many producers feel Klanghelm is among one of the best developers of plugins, and we find it hard to argue with that. Give IVGI a try!
What Are The Most Useful Effects To Use At The Mastering Stage?
Mastering software varies from analyzers to de-essers. But what are the key effects used at mastering stage? Which ones should you make sure you have access to?
Here are some of the most used effects at the mastering stage (this is not a comprehensive list). Don’t forget, though – your signal chain (the order of effects) also makes a big difference, so pay careful attention to it!
Something like Alex Hilton’s A1StereoControl can give you more control over the stereo field, and even tighten up the frequencies while giving your master some added punch.
There isn’t any right or wrong in terms of how to use it. It depends a lot on the mix you’re working with, and in some cases, you might only need a subtle effect to make the mix come alive.
As always, use your ears to figure out the “sweet spot.”
EQ gives you quite a bit of control over the master’s overall sound. You probably won’t be using extreme EQ settings at the mastering stage unless the mix calls for it. Chances are you will be doing a lot of touchup work – notching out the frequencies that are a little much, and maybe bringing out the frequencies that need some extra help.
There are multiple EQ plugins listed above, but you might take advantage of something like the Marvel GEQ.
Note that you might use a second or even third EQ in your signal chain after you’ve added other effects.
Compression is another obvious choice at the mastering phase. But again, what matters most is in how you use it.
As you’re likely aware, compressors “squash” the dynamics of the track. But that’s not exactly the way many music producers and studio engineers use them. You will often see them using compression because of the unique character it provides to a track, or maybe to smooth out some of the transients.
TDR Kotelnikov is an excellent selection for natural sounding compression.
The limiter. This is a crucial piece of kit for getting the levels and loudness right. You’ll notice that a lot of modern music feature loud masters, and to push your mixes to the limit, you will need a limiter. That said, this is not the only way to use a limiter.
Frontier and Limiter №6 are both excellent options.
De-essers often come before compression in the signal chain and are generally used to treat unruly frequencies and of course, sibilance. In many mixes, highs are often boosted on vocals, and percussion tends to have naturally occurring brashness. A de-esser is great for addressing issues with specific tracks.
Top Free Mastering Software & VST Plugin, Final Thoughts
We hope you found what you’re looking for. Don’t forget that you can also take advantage of your DAW’s built-in tools and effects. They usually come with some decent mastering software.