Hey guys, welcome to our blog. Today we are going to talk about the top 9 free mastering plugins, that you’ll need to master your tracks. Mastering is a tricky and complicated task and it also requires a lot of ear training. A lot of mixing engineers find it troublesome to master tracks that they have mixed. It is said, that a mixing engineer is capable of offering mastering services only after gaining an experience of 6-8 years. But that being said, it is not that only a few can master a track, there are certain hacks which we are going to discuss today, which will enable you to master your tracks without spending a penny. So, let’s get started.
The very first thing that we need to look at when we are mastering or even mixing a track is the resemblance to any professionally mixed/mastered track which is already out there. You can get a permanent download from sites like Beatport since, rest of the streaming platforms only offer tethered download. Once you have a professionally mixed/mastered track downloaded, you can import it into your mastering session and add it to an empty track next to your current track.
Now this is going to be your reference track, whatever processing that you’re going to do on your current track, you have the reference to refer back to. So you don’t follow a random road, and you have a path to walk on. Without a reference and ear training, you’re just wandering in a tropical jungle and none of the ways are going to lead you to your destination no matter how hard you try. If you can’t think of a reference which is completely identical to your track, you can also find a track which fits in the same genre of your current track, like I said, you don’t want to wander off in a random jungle, not knowing your final destination.
What is Mastering All About?
Whenever I ask this question, a lot of our students first talk about this, “Loudness”. Well, making your track louder is an important part of the mastering process but it is not the only reason. How we can make a track louder is what we are going to talk about when we’ll be discussing the plugins. Also, you need to make sure that the headroom of your mixdown/mixed track is around -6db to -8db. Not more, not less. This is where your track’s headroom should lie around.
Compatible to Medium:
Not a lot of people are aware of this but, mastering is majorly about making it compatible to the medium of distribution. Let’s say for instance, you’re distributing your track via CD or DVD, and also via Streaming Services like Spotify, Apple Music, Beatport, Tidal and Deezer, you have to make sure that you follow the norms specified by AES/EBU (Audio Engineering Society/European Broadcast Union). We’ll be talking about how to make your track compatible to the respective medium of distribution. This solely means that you are going to render different masters for different mediums, this includes different master for radio and different master for TV if you’re into sync licensing.
One Last Chance:
Mastering is also about one last chance; this means that you have one final chance to correct your mistakes in the mix. A lot of people have a huge misconception and they misinterpret this completely. The idea is to make things sound sonically better than the mixed version, obviously there is going to be a subtle difference between your mixed track and your mastered track, since we are going to do much more processing here. But this doesn’t mean that you’d leave out some things to fix it in the mastering stage. Like for instance, if the balancing of bass frequencies with rest of the frequencies; if you haven’t done this in the mixing stage, you better get back to the mixing project and fix it there rather than thinking about fixing the same in the mastering stage.
This is a wrong notion that a lot of people have, if there is any problem in the music production project, they would think that magically it would be solved in the mixing stage. No, it won’t. Fix the problem in the mix and then proceed forward.
If you’re planning to distribute your track via CD, the audio CD players like Sony Walkman and others would support the playback only if the sample rate and bit depth of the audio is around 44.1KHz and 16bits. It wouldn’t support otherwise.
DVDs support the sample rate up to 192Khz and 24bits of bit depth. That being said, any sample rate and bit depth is supported by DVD players.
For radio masters, we need to comply to the LUFS standards, which is abbreviated as loudness unit full scale, a measurement unit to measure the actual loudness of the track. There is a specific LUFS value that is supported by Radio Broadcasting Stations dictated by EBU (R127.8). If any track exceeds this LUFS value, the track would sound distorted on the receiving end because of the loudness interfering with the modulation index. Generally, around -9dbLUFS or -18dbLUFS is the compliance of any radio station, you may want to check with the radio station first and then master your track accordingly. Also, there are radio mastering engineers who do this work on your behalf, but it is advisable for you to do it yourself since, you never know how it would sound after the radio mastering engineer is done with their processing.
The sample rate and bit depth settings are the same as that of the CD, just that the output format is not going to be ‘.wav’, which is RIFF (Resource Interchange File Format) but “. bwf” (Broadcast Wave Format) instead. We’ll talk about how to convert the “.wav” file to “. bwf” later using a third-party software.
After user getting frustrated with lowering or raising the volume using the volume rocker buttons of their audio playback devices, it was time when the streaming services adapted the LUFS loudness normalization algorithm and the first one to adopt this was Apple Music. This means that every track which is uploaded on Apple Music won’t have a difference in terms of the level or loudness. This loudness normalization has been adopted by majority of the streaming services by now, except for SoundCloud. Different streaming platforms has different LUFS values so we’ll talk about this as well later, that how are we going to upload a single master which would comply on all the other LUFS values of different streaming platforms.
TDR Nova (Dynamic EQ) / 4U+ DynamicTiltEQ, these two plugins can be used for this stage. Both of them are dynamic EQs so you can adjust every band with a threshold parameter. Consider this as the final step for correcting frequencies. If there are any resonating or harsh frequencies, you can get rid of them here. Make sure to not add dips or boosts more than 4db. Even if you get the urge to do so, it’s better to go back to the mixing project and solve this problem right there, rather than doing it here in the mastering stage.
TDR Kotelnikov (Mastering Compressor) / Molot Compressor, these two are the mastering compressor which could be used for making things congruent and also consistent. The compressor settings would completely depend on the transient response of the track and the dynamic range. The common settings would be to do set the attack time around 10ms to 15ms; release time around 100ms to 121ms; ratio around 1.5:1; and knee around 10db or soft. Remember, we are not here to do hyper-compression because we have already applied three stages of compression in the mixing stage.
For instance, serial compression, parallel compression and buss compression. So, the threshold setting would be done in such a way that there is only 3db-4db of gain reduction occurring in the loudest part of track. You can also apply threshold automation for different parts of the song, so that the compression is consistent throughout. Also, apply only 2db of makeup gain and not more than that.
TAL Reverb 4 is a free plugin which could be applied for reverberation on the master channel. Now a lot of you guys would be confused as of why to add reverb in the global channel, when we have already added reverberation in the inserts. This reverb is going to be distinct from the rest of the reverberations we have added because this is going to help us achieve the feeling of oneness and glue things together subtly. If you search for Izotope Ozone version 5, there was a reverb module built-in inside it, which they removed later. It is completely a subjective choice to add global reverb but then, I like to do it, since I have been doing this since past 7 years and I love the way it works every time.
The settings are not going to be extreme, like I said, we just need to derive a feeling of oneness from the track and the way we are going to achieve this is by adding a very subtle reverb. The size of the room is going to be set to the bare minimum, with no pre-delay and no modulation. There aren’t going to be any low-cuts or high-cuts, and the dry/wet percentage is going to be sitting around 10% to 14%.
Tube Saturator Vintage or Saturation Knob, any one of these two can be used for adding some grit to your sound. Both of them are free and could be used for adding a little bit of color on the master channel. Make sure you don’t add a lot of Saturation/Distortion because it wouldn’t sound as great as you think it should even if it is sounding a bit louder than before. My personal preference would be to go for Tube Saturator Vintage since, it is a Triode Emulation and works perfect for mastering and also that it works by default on oversampling mode to avoid fold-back error.
Also, Baxandall EQ is useful for setting taming the high frequencies and for boosting the low end. How to decide the amount of Saturation to add, just add the drive to 100% and then slowly move the knob down till the point you don’t hear the sound to be cracking and feels perfect in terms of the loudness as well.
Since, we have added some saturation, time to check if there are certain frequencies which were accentuated or have added some resonance in the sound. In this step, we are also going to add a brickwall high-pass filter at 30Hz to remove the low-end rumble and also add a low-pass filter at 16Khz. The frequencies which are below 30Hz and above 16Khz are not equally perceived by everyone, only a vast minority of the people are able to hear extremely high frequencies which are beyond 16Khz. And talking about below 30Hz frequencies, not every consumer audio system are equipped with LFEs (Low Frequency Effects), so, not every system will be able to produce extremely low frequencies, hence, it is better to avoid them beforehand.
TDR Slick EQ (Analog EQ) / Luftikus EQ, these two plugins can be used for additive EQing, just in case if there is a need or urge to increase low-end or high-end when comparing it with the reference, we can use these two EQs. Works great on every audio material. This is again going to be subjective, but try and make it objective by referring to the reference track every now and then. Trial and error method is going to be your best bet here. I would prefer using Slick EQ, since it has more emulation and also adds subtle color which is needed at the mastering stage.
Izotope Stereo Imager 2, is one the best free stereo imaging plugin that you’ll ever come across. With Vectroscope, we’ll also need phase correlation meter, so I’d prefer adding Voxengo SPAN, which is another frequency spectrum analyzer, comes with a peak/RMS and a correlation meter. Whenever increasing the stereo width of the track, just make sure that the phase correlation meter stays in between the middle of 0 and +1. So that it also maintains good mono compatibility.
YouLean Loudness meter 2 Free is one of the free plugins which will allow you to measure the LUFS reading of your track, this is helpful to know your loudness level and master your track according to the medium. We are going to export/bounce two masters, one for the Streaming Platforms, which is going to be around -12db LUFS, so that it fits perfectly in all of the Streaming Platforms. The other one is going to be the loudest master, around -8db LUFS to -7db LUFS. Remember to add LUFS meter at the very end of the mastering chain.
TDR VLadG Limiter no 6 / Unlimited Sonic Anomaly / LoudMax Thomas Mundt, these are the most widely used free limiter plugins to be used for mastering. If you know how to do surround mixes, then you can use Unlimited Sonic Anomaly, which supports multi-channel, surround sound limiting. Make sure to add the limiter before LUFS meter, and then turn ON the knob for ISP (Inter-sample Peak Limiting) which enables true peak limiting. Increase the input gain or threshold knob (in some plugins) to increase the loudness and reach the level around -7db LUFS to -8db LUFS.
In Limiter No. 6, we have a special option to turn on high frequency limiter as well, which is the high frequency compressor, to compress a lot of high-end which may increase a lot due to heavy limiting. Trial and error method is your best bet here again. Export two renders, one with -12dbLUFS and one with -7dbLUFS.
While rendering your track, make sure that you are adding dither noise in your track, which is used to mask the quantization error. You can use stock DAWs, dither noise as it would do the same thing as majority of the other Dither plugins would. Once, exported both of them, upload the -12db LUFS track on “loudnesspenalty.com”, which will give you an approximate idea of how your song is going to sound like when you have uploaded your track on aggregator, on different streaming platforms.
The idea is to get least differences between different streaming services. Also, while mastering, make sure that you use a free SPL meter tool from Play Store or App Store to measure the Sound Pressure Level in your room while playing your track at maximum volume, keep the volume till the SPL reading falls around 90dbSPL to 95dbSPL.
That’s all folks, I hope this helps. I’ll see you in another interesting blog like this one. You can keep sharing your stuff on our Forums and we’d make sure that we give a feedback on your Demos