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What Software Should I Use for Mastering? The Best Mastering Tools for 2024




The first thing people ask me about when they visit my studio is usually my analogue outboard gear. It looks very impressive and it’s taken me a lifetime to collect, upgrade, modify and organise but in 2024 do you really need analogue gear to get great sounding masters? Absolutely not. So this blog is dedicated to software that you can use for mastering. I’ll tell you exactly what I use and give you some recommendations for other commonly used mastering software. 


When I first started my audio engineering journey most studios still relied heavily on outboard so that’s how I learnt my craft and it’s how I still like to work today. My first college course in ‘Music Technology’ was back in 1998 and although Pro Tools was available, plugins were very limited, in fact I don’t think there were any 3rd party plugins available, you were stuck with the stock plugins that came with whichever DAW you were using.


Since then, of course, plugins have become insanely popular and powerful, to the point that most of us would be unable to do our audio jobs without them. Even with a heavily analogue focused studio, I rely on plugins and software on nearly every master I do (unless I’m mastering from tape straight to vinyl, which is great fun but pretty rare.)


The Importance of Mastering


I probably don’t need to tell you how important mastering is for your music but just in case you're new to audio and the whole process let's quickly revisit why mastering is so essential. This final stage of the audio production process is where your mixed tracks are polished, balanced, and optimised for their intended playback medium – be it streaming, CD, or the resurgent vinyl format.


A skilled mastering engineer (or the right software) will ensure your tracks have the right levels, dynamics, and tonal balance. They'll also attend to subtle details like eliminating unwanted noise, optimising stereo imaging, and adding that elusive "professional sheen" that separates amateur recordings from commercial-grade releases.


Working with a professional mastering engineer is still the best option for getting the best results - of course I would say that though, right? But I understand that some artists simply don’t have the budget for this, some actually enjoy doing the work themselves and some might want to get into mastering as a career and want to practise so let’s get into it and start talking about software!


Mastering DAWs vs. Mastering Plugins


When it comes to mastering software, there are two main categories to consider: mastering DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) and mastering plugins.

Mastering DAWs like Wavelab, Sequoia, and Pyramix are comprehensive, all-in-one solutions that provide a complete mastering environment. These DAWs typically include a range of specialised mastering tools, like EQs, compressors, limiters, and metering utilities, all integrated into a single, cohesive interface.


On the other hand, mastering plugins are individual processors that can be used within your existing DAW (like Pro Tools, Logic Pro, Studio One, or Ableton Live). These plugins often specialise in specific mastering tasks, such as equalisation, compression, or limiting, and can be combined and arranged in a custom signal chain to suit your needs.

While mastering DAWs and plugins serve different purposes, they can often be used interchangeably, depending on your workflow and preferences.


You don’t need a ‘Mastering DAW’ to carry out mastering, you can use any DAW, in fact it’s best to use a DAW that you’re familiar with to save you time. Also you don’t always need to use a mastering specific plugin - in reality there’s no such thing. If something is labelled as a ‘mastering plugin’ it’s usually just hype. While Mastering DAWs are specific to the workflow and needs of mastering (inserting ISRC codes, exporting rendered albums, PQ sheets etc.) any plugin can be used for mastering a sling as it’s high quality and doesn’t degrade your audio.


What I Use

Here’s some info about the software that I use on a daily basis, I try to keep up with new things coming onto the market but I haven’t tested them all so I’m also going to mention some software that my mastering engineer friends use and that I see and hear about on the geeky forums that we hang out on sometimes!


My DAW of choice is Studio One from PreSonus. I find its intuitive interface and well-designed workflow to be a perfect fit for my mastering needs. I grew up using Pro Tools which I used for about 20 years but the buggy updates and switch to a subscription model finally made me look elsewhere, I tried a couple of DAWs but Studio One just fit my workflow and I was able to get to work straight away with a relatively small learning curve so I’ve stuck with it for the past 5 years. I also use Wavelab when sequencing albums for CD production as it allows me to export DDP files (more about them in another article).


When it comes to plugins, I'm a big fan of companies like FabFilter, iZotope, DMG, Tokyo Dawn Records, Oeksound, SIR Audio Tools and Tone Projects.


FabFilter's suite of plugins, including their renowned Pro-Q 3 equaliser and Pro-L 2 limiter, are staples in my mastering signal chain. Their surgical precision and pristine sound quality make them essential tools for achieving a polished, professional-grade master. I have some VERY nice analogue EQs including the famous Abbey Road Chandler Curve Bender but I still couldn’t work without the precision of Q3.


iZotope's RX doesn’t quite come under a DAW or plugin - It can be used as a standalone program and individual elements of it can be used as plugins inside your DAW. Its spectral editing is literally magic, it can erase clicks, pops and artefacts effortlessly and has really saved the day on multiple occasions. I also use it for all my downsampling and dithering tasks, thanks to its batch processor.


Tokyo Dawn Records is a slightly lesser-known but incredibly powerful plugin company that I highly recommend. Their innovative and meticulously crafted processors could provide you with a complete mastering chain. The Limiter 6 GE is amazing, I love the clipper and High Frequency Limiter and their new ‘Filters Bundle’ are incredibly powerful for mastering.


Tone Projects' Kelvin and Michelangelo have become secret weapons in my mastering arsenal as well, great for saturation and valve sounding EQ. The replication of the Michelangelo hardware is stunning and probably the closest plugin to a really hardware unit I’ve come across.


I also use SIR Standard Clip daily on my mastering chain as a clipper and saturator just before my digital limiter - usually DMG Limitless or Fabfilter Pro-L2 and sometimes use Oeksound Soothe 2 to tame any problematic resonance. 


Of course, the right tools are just one part of the equation – it's how you use them that truly matters. But with a solid foundation of high-quality plugins and a well-designed DAW (that you’re familiar with), you'll be well-equipped to tackle even the most demanding mastering tasks.


Mastering Software for 2024


So, now you’ve read about what I use I thought I had better also mention some software that I don’t use, there’s so much out there it’s difficult to know where to start sometimes. Below I’ll mention some DAWs and plugins that I don’t use myself but are very well reviewed including both mastering DAWs and plugins. Keep in mind that these are just the highlights, and there are plenty of other worthy contenders out there. As always, the "best" option will ultimately depend on your specific needs, workflow, and budget.


Mastering DAWs


Wavelab Pro

Wavelab Pro from Steinberg is a popular mastering DAW, known for its robust feature set and efficient workflow. This software offers a comprehensive mastering toolset, including advanced metering, batch processing capabilities, and support for a wide range of audio formats.

One of Wavelab Pro's standout features is its audio editing capabilities, which allow you to perform surgical edits and repairs on your audio files before mastering. Additionally, its advanced metadata handling and CD/DVD burning tools make it a great choice for preparing your masters for physical media releases.

I do use this when preparing DDP files for CD production but it’s capable of much more. If you’re getting started in your mastering journey and want a new DAW it’s a really good option.


Pyramix

Pyramix from Merging Technologies is a powerful mastering DAW that's widely used in professional mastering studios. This software boasts a comprehensive set of mastering tools, including advanced EQ, dynamics processing, and loudness metering capabilities.

One of Pyramix's standout features is its exceptionally precise audio editing and manipulation tools, which allow for surgical adjustments to your audio files. Additionally, its support for high-resolution audio formats and efficient batch processing make it a top choice for high-end mastering projects.

I have very limited experience of using this DAW but it is well regarded amongst professionals. If you’re doing lots of mastering and anything with TV & film synchronisation it’s a really good option but if you’re new to mastering it’s probably not the best option. It’ll be a very steep learning curve and it’s expensive.


Reaper

While this isn’t specifically a mastering DAW, it IS the DAW of choice for many mastering engineers. Reaper is incredible in the amount of flexibility and programmability it offers. You’re free to write your own macros and scripts for it to make it work exactly how you need it to. I actually kind of regret not getting stuck into it but I don’t have the time to learn a new system and reconfigure my studio setup right now, maybe one day I’ll make the switch though! It’s also very reasonably priced so it’s a great option if you're on the lookout for a new DAW.


There’s a few other DAWs to check out, there are others like the mastering specific Magix Sequoia and the more common Logic, Abeton, Pro Tools & Cubase. Logic is a very popular choice of DAW for engineers and can be used for mastering purposes but I haven’t used it for years so can’t really give you too much info on it. Definitely another one to check out though.


Mastering Plugins


I’ve already talked about the plugins I use so I thought I had better mention some other commonly used and very well regarded plugins used for mastering. These can be great options, especially if you’re new to mastering.


iZotope Ozone (Advanced or higher)

The Ozone mastering plugin suite is a true powerhouse. The Advanced and higher versions of Ozone offer a comprehensive collection of mastering tools, including advanced EQ, dynamics processing, stereo imaging, and final limiting.

One of Ozone's standout features is its intuitive, modular interface, which allows you to customise your mastering signal chain to suit your specific needs. Additionally, its AI-assisted mastering assistants can provide a helpful starting point for less experienced users.


IK Multimedia T-RackS Mastering Suite

The T-RackS Mastering Suite from IK Multimedia is a powerful collection of mastering plugins that offer a comprehensive set of tools for mastering your tracks. This suite includes a high-quality EQ, multi-band compressor, limiter, and metering tools, all designed to deliver professional-grade results.

One of the standout features of the T-RackS Mastering Suite is its intuitive interface, which makes it easy to navigate and adjust the various processors. Additionally, the suite is known for its impressive sound quality and transparent processing, ensuring your masters retain their natural character.


Waves Abbey Road Mastering Chain

Who doesn’t want the sound of Abbey Road in their mastering chain? This is a great bundle of EQ, filtering, saturation, stereo processing and limiting giving you everything you need in one bundle. It aims to emulate the historic Abbey Road TG series console and units and is going for that kind of vintage vibe. It’s a great option to have in your arsenal but you’ll probably need some other surgical and precise plugins in your chain to achieve decent mastering results.

 

 The Vinyl Revival and Mastering for Vinyl

As we've discussed mastering software, it's important to note the recent resurgence of vinyl records in the music industry. Vinyl sales have been steadily increasing over the past decade, with many artists and labels opting to release their music on this classic format.

Mastering for vinyl presents its own unique challenges, as the medium has different technical requirements than digital formats. For example, vinyl masters often require different dynamics processing and careful attention to low-end frequencies to prevent issues like inner-groove distortion.

If you're planning to release your music on vinyl, it's worth considering mastering software that's specifically optimised for this format. Many of the options we've discussed, like Ozone and Wavelab Pro, offer specialised modules or presets designed for vinyl mastering.


Tokyo Dawn also offers their amazing and unique Simulathe plugin that can analyse your audio and give you a visual preview of any potential problems that might occur in the disc cutting process. If you’re mastering for vinyl, it’s a must have.

Alternatively, you may want to consider working with a mastering engineer who specialises in vinyl mastering (Yes, I’m selling myself here!). These professionals have the expertise and specialised equipment necessary to ensure your vinyl releases sound their absolute best.


Wrappin’ it up

Mastering is a crucial final step in the audio production process, and choosing the right software can make all the difference in elevating your tracks to professional-grade quality. Whether you're a seasoned audio engineer or a musician embarking on your first mastering journey, the options we've discussed offer powerful, versatile solutions to meet your mastering needs.

Remember, mastering isn't just about making your music louder – it's about crafting a polished, cohesive listening experience that truly showcases your artistic vision. And with the right software (or mastering engineer) by your side, you can achieve that elusive "commercial sheen" that separates amateur recordings from professional-grade releases.

If you're feeling overwhelmed by the mastering process or have any questions about the software options we've discussed, don't hesitate to reach out. I'm always happy to share my expertise and help you take your music to the next level.


As always, I hope that’s been interesting and helpful for you. Give me a shout with any questions or if there’s any specific areas of mastering or vinyl cutting you’d like to learn about. And if you’d like to chat about mastering your music for any format, get in touch anytime and let’s talk about how we can get your project out into the world.


Click the link to go to my contact page - https://www.raretonemastering.com/contact

Speak soon!

Ben



P.s. if you like all things analogue, mastering & vinyl related please go over and follow my Youtube & social media accounts where I regularly make videos about mastering and cutting records! 

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