Learning to master your own audio can be quite a rewarding experience. You get to learn how specific tools are used to raise the bar on your finished audio files so that they stand up against other commercial releases. But some of the mastering plug-ins do weigh in on the expensive side. Luckily there are some great freeware, to well-priced mastering plug-ins that are available. Let's take a look at what's available so that you can get into the mastering process.
In this section, let's cover the freeware tools that are available to you.
The W1 limiter from Yohng.com is a great freeware mastering limiter. You can use this plug-in to beef up your levels without introducing any digital clipping. Insert this effect last in your signal chain on your master output. Set the ceiling to -0.3 so that none of your peaks go higher than this, and tick Adaptive Release for an automatic release setting. Now start dropping the Threshold and hear how this increases the level of your audio but no matter how loud it gets it never clips. If you pull the threshold down too much it will give an unnatural sound to your audio. So between -5 and -9 dB is a good range to use for that extra push in level on your audio.
Also check out some of the free Voxengo plug-ins. There is the Voxengo SPAN. This is an audio spectrum analyzer. Although it doesn't process audio, it does give you a good visual indication of how your audio sits across the audio frequency spectrum. What you can do is insert this on a commercial track and take a look at its frequency spectrum. Then insert it on your track and compare the difference. Sometimes when you master your audio and don't take regular listens to other material you may mix it in a way that is different to commercial releases. Regularly using an audio spectrum analyzer like this keeps you on the right track.
Voxengo also has some excellent plug-ins if you have some cash to spare. Keep reading to check out some of their other plug-ins.
If you have some money to spend definitely take a look at the following plug-ins.
Voxengo's Elephant ($79.95) is an excellent hard limiter. It's very transparent and gives you the loudness you need without the pumping sound artifacts. It also has some excellent metering on the plug-in to give you a good indication on how the limiting is affecting your audio. For example under the Statistics area you get details on the RMS, Peak levels, and the Gain Reduction meter gives you a good visual indication on how hard the limiter is working. Plus included on the limiter are bit-depth converters and noise shaping options. Try out the demo version to hear how well this limiter works on your audio.
If you're looking for a mastering plug-in that can be an EQ/Compressor/Limiter and impart a tape-emulation analog-style sound to the your masters, then definitely take a look at PSP's Vintage Warmer. For this plug-in, you're looking at it setting you back $149. It might sound like quite a bit for just one plug-in, but it really is more than that. Slap this guy on your master output, and it will immediately add color to your audio with its tape saturation emulation. And on top of that, you can dial in some slight compression, alter the EQ lows and highs, plus increase the level with its brickwall limiting.
A good affordable option is to look at the mastering suite packages that are available.
With Ozone you get a Multiband EQ, Multiband Compressor/Expander/ Stereo Widener, Reverb, Harmonic Exciter and Limiter all-in-one. The quality of this mastering suite is top-notch. Plus there's great visual analyzers and meters to help you really get in deep with your mastering. Another added bonus is that many of the processors in the suite feature M/S processors that can help yield great mastering results. Such as compressing the mid or mono of your mix differently to the sides, or even EQ-ing the sides differently to add some more brightness to just the sides and not the mid/mono. Ozone is a bit of a more complex mastering suite. Such as the compressors that can be used as your standard compressor or expander compressions settings can be dialed in to expand your dynamic range on frequency bands of your audio. But once you get your head around the plug-in it is a real gem.
T-Racks is the other recommended mastering suite. I would say that these mastering processors add more coloring to your audio. The components in the package are emulations of popular mastering analog gear. So in that regards, these processors impart an analog-style coloring to your master. Take a look at the GUIs on the plug-in and immediately you feel like you have been thrown back to the days of analog consoles and outboard mastering gear. And the coloring it adds to your audio is often what gives your mastering that needed warmth to the sound. This effect can either be run in standalone mode, or as a plug-in in your DAW. It's quite nice to run it as a standalone application as you can then run your mastering as a separate process to your mix.
Your other option is to look at a DAW that comes bundled with good effects that you can use for mastering.
If you're on a Mac I would recommend Logic, if you are not already using it. It comes bundled with a Linear Phase EQ, Multiband Compressor, the Adaptive Limiter and visual meters to help you visually see what is going on with the frequency and spectrum in your audio. These meters can be extremely helpful, so don't underestimate them. The new EQ update also allows you to apply M/S EQing techniques to your audio. So with Logic you could use it and it's bundled effects to record, mix and master your audio.
Another good DAW alternative for mastering is Studio One Professional (which is PC and Mac compatible). Studio One Professional has a dedicated area called Projects where you can set up mastering templates for your songs. In this Project area you have very accurate metering applications. You have different K-Metering options, and frequency spectrum analyzers to get a very accurate representation of the output of your audio. On the plug-in side it includes great EQs, compressor and limiters, that also have metering systems added on them to really help you fine-tune your masters.
That gives you a rundown on some of the freeware, to budget mastering plug-ins and suites that are available for you to use for your mastering. See what fits into your budget and then start investigating into these tools and introducing them into your future mastering projects.