Which Types of Plugins Are Normally Included in a Mastering Chain?

I’m pretty new to mastering my music so I’m not entirely sure where to start. Any help or guidance is appreciated.

First off, the goal of mastering is to prep a song for distribution. Most people plan to release their music online, meaning that from a technical standpoint, there isn’t much you need to do. The rest of my response applies to mastering music for streaming services.

I’m drastically simplifying things here but you generally want to export your music at a bit depth of 24 and at the sample rate you recorded at. If you recorded at a sample rate of 44,100, render your master at a sample rate of 44,100. If you recorded at a sample rate of 48,000, render your master at a sample rate of 48,000.

To play things safe, leave yourself with 2 dB of headroom as well. This will avoid distortion that results from the transcoding process of different streaming services. Most streaming services normalize your music so there’s no need to sacrifice audio quality for the sake of increased loudness.

With these basics taken care of, you’re left with entirely subjective processing decisions. For this reason, a lot of people become confused and don’t know what to do to “master” their music. Usually, the goal is to simply tighten up a mix and provide it with a little polish.

The plugins used to do this generally include a compressor, saturator, EQ, and limiter. There are tons of different mastering tools out there that are meant to deal with specific issues but if the mix you’re working with already sounds good, you don’t need to go crazy with processing.

A little compression to tighten up your dynamic range, some saturation to beef things up, some EQ to balance out levels post-processing, and a limiter to increase loudness might be all you need.

iZotope sells a mastering bundle called Ozone that’s worth checking out. It includes all of these basic mastering tools, in addition to some helpful advanced features like AI, reference track matching, and tonal balance control.

As a general rule of thumb, a song isn’t ready for mastering if it contains mix issues. A mix should sound fantastic prior to mastering. Some artists simply apply a limiter to their mix and call it a day because their mixes already sound great.

So where do dedicated mastering engineers come in? Well, they might be able to hear mix issues that you can’t hear on your system, as well as provide processing solutions that you don’t have access to. Getting a second set of ears on your mix prior to release is also valuable. People tend to get quite attached to their mixes, sometimes overlooking issues that seem obvious to someone listening with fresh ears.

Hopefully, this helps point you in the right direction!