Waves Audio is pretty ubiquitous in the audio production world… and nowhere is this more apparent than in the realm of audio mastering.
So for this guide we’ve taken a look at some of the best Waves plugins for mastering that you should get if you were in the market.
We’ve done the research for you, hopefully saving you time and perhaps even some money.
Quick answer: As a combination EQ, filter, and dynamics processor, the SSL G-Master Buss Compressor would have to come in at the top of the list.
But you’ll be missing out if you didn’t take a look at the other plugins, which offer other specialized features you may need.
Let’s take a closer look 🙂
Table of Contents
- Waves Mastering Plugin Buying Guide
- Best Waves Mastering Plugins – VST, AU, AAX Overview
- Final Thoughts – Which to Get?
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Waves Mastering Plugin Buying Guide
What is Mastering?
The term “mastering” refers to the process of preparing mixed down audio tracks in preparation for duplication and distribution.
In other words, to make your music playable for radio and online streaming.
This is typically the final stage in the music production process, as mastering makes a piece of music “radio-ready” and compliant to the industry standards of volume level, tone, and quality.
Common Types of Mastering Plugins
The mastering process itself requires the use of hardware and/or software signal processing devices that perform many functions. In any given mastering chain, for example, mastering engineers may use:
EQs, filters, dynamics processors such as limiters and compressors, and so on.
Compressors are among the most commonly used processors for mastering. These essentially reduce the dynamic range of audio, making the loud parts softer, and the softer ones louder. This results in a smoother, louder, and more dynamically-even mix.
Read more about what an audio compressor does.
Limiters are typically used to tame the highest peaks of audio, preventing them from clipping the master buss. With the peaks under control, mastering engineers are able to increase the overall volume level of the audio, making it audibly competitive with commercial releases.
Read more about how to use a limiter when mastering.
Equalizers shape the tonal characteristics of audio, making it brighter or bassier as needed. When applied during the mastering stage, the goal of equalization is not so much about changing the tonal character of the sound as it is about reducing tonal extremes.
Other signal processors that may be applied during the mastering process are de-essers, filters, stereo wideners, and mastering reverbs.
As with most effects however, these are usually better applied during the mixdown stage in order to avoid drastically affecting the quality of the overall mix.
Read more on music mixing best practices.
Who is Waves Audio?
If you’ve been around the music production circle for a little while, I’m sure you would’ve come across the name “Waves.” In fact, when I just got started, I wondered if “Waves” referred to a type of plugin effect or a brand.
Anyway, as you may come to realize, Waves Audio is an audio software company that makes what many consider the industry standard softwares for music production.
Unlike many plugin makers they collaborate with some of the top names in music production and audio engineering to produce audio plugins. They were given an award by the Grammy: a Technical Grammy Award in 2011 for its “contributions of outstanding technical significance” to the recording field.
However, the reason for this guide, like the previous one on vocal plugins by Waves, is not to “push” Waves plugins. The question of what are the best Waves plugins for mastering always come up in forums and discussions around the web…
So to settle this once and for all, and to make it easier for those that want to know, we’ve put together this guide to instruct you on the best choice to make out of Waves Audio’s massive collection.
With that said, let us begin 🙂
The Best Waves Mastering Plugins
SSL G-Master Buss Compressor
Developed under license from Solid State Logic, it was intended to replicate the tone and dynamic response of the original circuitry to a precise degree, offering the kind of distinctive warmth and vibrancy to audio that those vintage consoles did.
Original features like pre-boost dip, pre-cut rise, and broad Q have been augmented with modern features, so the result is a convenient and great-sounding mixing and mastering tool.
Specs and useful features
- Modeled after the EQ and dynamics on the legendary SSL G Series console strip
- Technology licensed by Solid State Logic
- Suitable for master mixes as well as individual instruments
- Characteristic warm and vibrant tone that can be pushed to pleasing results
Fans of the warm and vibrant sound imparted by vintage console strips are especially appreciative of the sonic character of the Waves SSL G. For many users, the ability to give masters that polished, “produced” sound right off the bat is enough reason to make this a part of the mastering chain.
Some users did complain about the somewhat harsh quality of the EQ, but this has been attributed to the more traditional high-shelf design of its filter. Some have also mentioned the SSL G’s somewhat ‘flat’ tonal character, but this is probably less of an issue when mastering, as opposed to individual track sweetening.
The SSL G-Master Buss Compressor is a great way to add character to a mix. As with any plug-in strapped onto a mastering chain, you will want to use this one judiciously in order to avoid “overcooking” your mix and squeezing out all the dynamics. In any case, the SSL G has enough control on tap to allow you to impart some of its sonic magic without going overboard.
The SSL G might not be the only mastering plug-in you will ever need. After you have gotten a taste of the flavors it imparts to your productions however, you might just find yourself reaching for it again and again.
Analog tape is known for the warmth and character that it imparts to studio productions. But analog tape recorders tend to be big, bulky, expensive, and temperamental. For most home recording setups–and even medium-sized recording facilities–having an analog tape machine simply isn’t practical.
Enter tape saturation plugins, which promises to provide all the vintage warmth, vibe, and character of analog tape at much less cost–and without the maintenance hassles. This particular plugin is a precision-modeled recreation of the actual tape machine used at Abbey Road Studios, this plug-in offers a quick and easy path to vintage analog tape goodness.
Basic specs and useful features
Developed in conjunction with Abbey Road Studios, J37 Tape delivers exquisite tape saturation that is startlingly similar to that heard on countless classic recordings. But the plug-in version of the original tape machine ups the ante with a host of features that make it better suited to modern productions.
J37 Tape provides controls for adjusting tape speed, bias, saturation, noise, and wow and flutter. These controls greatly expand the plug-in’s tone coloration qualities, and make it a more flexible and versatile creative tool.
The plug-in also lets you choose from three oxide tape formulas, each modeled exclusively for J37 Tape. These tape flavors give you a range of frequency response and harmonic distortion properties, further enhancing the analog vibe of your productions.
Users find J37 Tape to be a very reliable solution to producing that elusive tape warmth and character. One mix engineer was in fact tempted to use it on every track, citing the plug-in’s ability to get as subtle–or as extreme–as needed.
Unsurprisingly, most users utilize J37 Tape as a mix sweetener and as a processor for individual stems. But it has also proven to be a surprisingly capable tape echo plug-in, thanks to the onboard tape delay unit. For users simply looking to add juicy analog tape character to their tracks, the inclusion of an excellent ‘vibey’ tape delay was a welcome bonus.
J37 Tape offers a convenient solution to getting a variety of tape flavors in your productions. From subtle saturation to seasick wow and flutter, and everything in between, this is a surprisingly capable and versatile plug-in that delivers the goods. For the price, you even get a great-sounding tape delay emulation that can stand up even to dedicated delay plug-ins.
Abbey Road Vinyl
Getting that vinyl warmth and character is always a bit of a challenge with modern studio equipment. Don’t get us wrong: digital recording systems and DAWs are excellent for what they are. But they are often too clean and too polished for those times when you need some vintage vibe. With Abbey Road Vinyl, you can get the juicy vinyl sounds you’ve been craving in your own productions.
Abbey Road Vinyl is a precisely-modeled plug-in recreation of the vinyl cutting and playback equipment used in the legendary Abbey Road Studios. Whether you are looking to capture the warmth and saturation of classic 1960s and 1970s recordings or want to make your own modern creative statement, Abbey Road Vinyl will get you all the way there with minimal effort.
Basic specs and useful features
Abbey Road Vinyl models very aspect of the studio’s original vinyl production and playback system to a remarkably precise degree. The plug-in lets you reproduce the sound of an acetate/lacquer cut or a factory master pressing simply by toggling a switch.
You could also process audio via two turntable types, each of which has three cartridges. For even more of that juicy analog character, you can pass the signal through a bit-by-bit recreation of the EMI TG12410 mastering console on its way to the modeled vinyl lathe.
For more creative treatment, Abbey Road Vinyl adds the ability to move the tone arm across different areas of the “record”, with each setting resulting in noticeable differences in frequency response. You even get a good helping of tasty distortion, wow and flutter, and even vinyl noise, just as you would with a real turntable.
Abbey Road Vinyl has proven to be an essential plug-in for those looking for an authentic vinyl vibe in their studio productions. Indispensable for hip-hop and other vintage-inspired electronic music forms, it has become a go-to plug-in for character and warmth for many producers.
Abbey Road Vinyl is as much a creative tool as it is an all-around mix finalizer. It can produce some pretty wild sounds when pushed to the limit, yet could easily be dialed back for classy, vintage studio polish. A surprisingly useful and versatile plug-in you will want to use again and again.
Abbey Road TG Mastering Chain
The Abbey Road TG Mastering Chain is a plug-in emulation of the EMI TG12410 console used in countless recordings since the 1970s to the present. A mainstay of Abbey Road’s mastering suites, the console is responsible for many of the studio’s most iconic recordings. Now, you can get the same classic vibe and rich, warm character in a modular plug-in form.
Equally suited for master bus and individual track duties, Abbey Road TG lets you create your own custom processing chains. You can pass tracks and mixes through the entire chain if you wish, or simply patch in only select modules. Either way, Abbey Road TG gives you the distinct sonic character that Abbey Road recordings are known for.
Basic specs and useful features
Abbey Road TG comes with a variety of modules or “cassettes”, as they were known in the original hardware console. Among these are an input module, a tone (EQ) module, a compressor/limiter, and a filter. You also get the V.A.L (Spread) module, which is built into the plug-in’s output module.
Apart from the input and output modules, all modules are interchangeable and can be switched on and off. This system lets you create a range of custom signal chains, allowing for greater versatility and creative processing.
The compressor/limiter module is especially tasty, allowing you to get as clean or as dirty as you wish. Abbey Road TG also comes with a slew of processing and monitoring options that make it ideally-suited for modern productions and even live sound processing.
Abbey Road TG is highly rated by mix engineers and producers that value sound quality and routing flexibility above everything else. Many users praise the plug-in’s ability to get that characteristic studio sheen quickly and easily, although it seems to attract a good number of lo-fi producers as well.
Abbey Road TG’s versatility was also an important factor in convincing many to purchase the plug-in. It is equally suited to full mixes and individual tracks, and has proven to be an essential ingredient in many producers’ mixing and mastering chains.
Abbey Road TG is a quick and inexpensive way to get that classic Abbey Road sound in your own productions. You can certainly use the individual components to process solo tracks if you wish, but strapping it onto your master bus will show you what the plug-in is truly capable of.
Linear Phase Multiband Compressor
The Linear Phase Multiband Compressor is intended to control levels and dynamics of entire mixes without adversely affecting its dynamics.
Applied sparingly on a master buss, it has the ability to ‘glue’ the individual elements together without introducing unwanted artifacts.
Features such as adaptive threshold, automatic makeup gain, and finite response filters also promise to enhance the sound-shaping capabilities of the plugin, making it a potentially essential add-on to your arsenal of mastering plug-ins.
Specs and useful features
- Specifically designed for multiband mastering compression
- Controls levels without eliminating dynamics
- Five user-definable bands, each with linear-phase crossovers
- Ideally suited to identifying and compressing problem areas in the mix
- Adaptive threshold, automatic makeup gain, and finite response filters
Users credit this plugin for being easy to use and having an excellent sound quality. Many users mention the plugin as versatile as both a mixing and mastering tool, with the liner phase design especially effective at maintaining the original character of the source audio. Surprisingly, the plug-in can even fix problem areas that should ideally be fixed during the mixdown stage.
Although it is one of the cheapest plug-ins in this roundup, the Linear Phase Multiband Compressor is particularly worthy of mention for its linear phase design. This is an especially important quality for mastering plug-ins, where non-linear processors can affect color or phase.
With the Waves Linear Phase Multiband Compressor, you can even out levels and even treat problem areas that you missed during mixdown, without throwing your mix out of whack. At the price that it is going for these days, adding the Linear Phase Multiband Compressor to your collection is a no-brainer.
The PuigTec EQs consist of the EQP-1A, which has a resonant low shelf boost, and the MEQ-5, which is more focused on the midrange frequencies. Between these two distinctive-sounding EQs, mixing and mastering engineers have a broad range of options to sweeten audio material and make final mixes ready for release.
Although noticeably ‘vintage’ in character, these two working in tandem can produce sounds of impressive clarity and presence.
Specs and useful features
- Modeled after classic hardware Pultec EQs
- EQP-1A has a resonant low shelf boost
- MEQ-5 focuses on the midrange frequencies
- Accurate representation of original hardware PulTec EQP-1A and MEQ-5 EQs
- Boost and cut features for overlapping frequency bands result in a unique shelving effect
When users describe a plug-in as sounding good “no matter how you set it”, it’s usually a sign that there is some degree of coloration involved.
Although this quality isn’t necessarily desirable in the context of mastering, most users seem to make an exception for the PuigTec EQs. With its ability to apply just the right amount of polish and finish to a master, this one gets high marks from most everyone that has used it.
This is another cheapo plug-in that punches well above its weight. It is perhaps a testament to the advanced level of audio software development that plug-ins such as the PuigTec EQs exist at this price point, and the collective audio community can only benefit. As it is, these EQs are an absolute joy to use, adding body, clarity, and polish as needed without messing with the original character of the audio. A must buy at its current price, and even if it costs many times as much.
The L2 Ultramaximizer is a certified Waves classic that you can use on individual tracks and busses as well as on mastering chains.
This here is a peak limiting plug-in that has become the standard against which other plug-ins are compared. It’s got a surprising amount of sophisticated features in a deceptively simple user interface.
Specs and features
- Brickwall peak limiting (look-ahead)
- Option for both manual release and Automatic Release Control (ARC)
- Increased Digital Resolution (IDR)
- Bit re-quantization and dithering with noise-shaping filter
- Double-precision processing
Users love it because of its simplicity and straightforwardness of the L2, which is why many users still strap them on to their master busses. Considering how capable it is of causing sonic mayhem, many users tend to use it on moderate settings when mastering.
Who doesn’t know about the Waves L2 Ultramaximizer? Used and abused in countless productions since it was released, it is still one of the most commonly-used tools in any studio engineer’s arsenal.
Although the L2 has come into widespread use as a mix tool for weaponizing mixes in preparation for The Loudness Wars, it is still a tremendously useful mastering limiter that can be capable of surprisingly transparent and subtle results. Not just for pushing drum, bass, and guitar tracks into meltdown, the L2 is a classic mastering limiter that you will still find use for today.
Linear Phase EQ
The Waves Linear Phase EQ is an EQ plug-in designed specifically for mastering applications. It has precision control over the entire harmonic range without affecting the phase of the audio material.
It’s also amazingly powerful and yet it remains transparent, so the Linear Phase EQ is ideally suited to the tonal-shaping demands of the mastering process.
Specs and useful features
- Designed specifically for mastering equalization
- Five user-definable EQ bands with linear phase crossovers
- Low-band and broadband EQ’ing capability
- Also suitable for EQ’ing acoustic instruments, stereo sources, and transient-heavy material
- Nine linear phase filters
The Linear Phase EQ is especially loved for its ability to slightly enhance mixes without totally changing its tonal character. One user reported finally being able to hear how different EQs with the same settings can affect the sound differently. For many users, the surgically precise control that the Linear Phase EQ has over the tone makes it better suited to mastering than more “characterful” EQs.
Linear phase EQs aren’t suitable for all scenarios, but they do have considerable value in the mastering process. The Waves Linear Phase EQ is one of the best examples of this type of processor, and it’s somewhat surprising how effective and great-sounding it is for the price.
The Waves L1 Ultramaximizer is a limiter plugin that is equally capable of performing level maximizing, peak limiting, and re-quantizing duties. The recently released in a 25th Anniversary edition has an array of added features that further enhances its already impressive capabilities.
With True Peak domain settings and Automatic Release Control, many producers find that this L1 is just as useful for mixing and mastering today as it ever was.
Specs and useful features
- Peak limiter and level maximizer
- Suitable for mixing as well as mastering
- Comes with two components: L1 Limiter and L1+ Ultramaximizer
- Increased Digital Resolution (IDR) dithering with noise-shaping filter
- Double precision bit resolution processing
- 25th Anniversary edition comes with Legacy and Modern interfaces
- 25th Anniversary edition includes True Peak domain setting and Automatic Release Control (ARC)
Most users of the L2 and the L1 seem to bounce back and forth between the two depending on the specific application. Arguably grittier and more ‘vibey’ than the L2, the L1 seems to appeal to users that are less concerned about transparency than attitude.
In any case, the vast majority of L1 users seem to prefer setting it to more conservative levels. Some have even reported excellent results by using two moderately-set instances of the plug-in back-to-back in the mastering chain.
Like the L2, the Waves L1 Ultramaximizer is a studio standby that you will find in many audio engineer’s plug-in toolbox. Another thing it has in common with its more-famous sibling is its ability to push the perceived energy of audio tracks to almost ridiculous extremes.
In fact, about the only thing that might make you choose the L1 over the L2 is the slightly simpler set of controls and the slightly more “characterful” sound. Even if you already have the L2, you might still have use for the L1 for quick level balancing duties.
The Waves Renaissance Compressor is a surprisingly versatile multi-purpose compressor that fulfills many roles in a typical studio setup.
You can use it to apply a warm and pleasing sonic character to drums, bass, guitar, and even vocal tracks, it is also quite effective at polishing up mixes when applied sparingly on the master buss.
Specs and useful features
- Two modes: Vintage Opto and Electro
- Internal brickwall limiting
- Auto Release Control (ARC)
- Double precision bit resolution processing
- Up to 24-bit/192kHz resolution
- Mono and stereo capable
The Renaissance Compressor isn’t quite as commonly used for mastering as the other Waves compressors due to its noticeably squishy character when pushed to the extreme. Nevertheless, it does have its share of users that praise its ability to add a bit of extra push to a mix when applied moderately.
Another venerable Waves classic, the Renaissance Compressor just has an inviting and present quality that users come back to time and time again. With so many quality compressor plug-ins that have come down the line over the past several years, it is pretty darn amazing that the Renaissance Compressor still has its share of devotees.
You probably won’t want to strap this on to every mastering chain you come across, but used judiciously and for the appropriate application, the Renaissance still packs plenty of mojo.
Final Thoughts – Which to Get?
Because this roundup covers a few different types of plugins that are essential to the mastering process–compressors, limiters, and EQs–we can’t simply come out and say which one is “best”. Instead, it might be more helpful to outline the relative merits of each.
As a combination EQ, filter, and dynamics processor, the SSL G-Master Buss Compressor would have to come in at the top of the list. Although you might want to use this on conjunction with a limiter, or possibly a linear phase EQ, even this alone can get your master more than halfway to completion.
Also essential is the Linear Phase Multiband Compressor, which gives you more precise dynamic control than any single processor. If you are more focused on retaining the original character of your mix than imparting vintage vibe or some other coloration, this could be the one compressor you want to strap on your mastering chain.
As for EQs, the Linear Phase EQ and the PuigTec EQs both deserve mention for different reasons. The former is better suited to retaining the original character of your mix, while the latter is more suited to analog-style treatment.
As for the L2, the L1, and the Renaissance Compressor, these are probably better suited to more specialized applications wherein their distinctive tonal characteristics are desired. As good as they sound, there are many other plug-ins that might be better suited for clinically-precise and transparent mastering.
Special mention has to be made of the Abbey Road plug-ins, which impart an unabashedly “vintage” character and vibe to productions. The TG Mastering Chain, Vinyl, and J37 Tape plug-ins probably wouldn’t be your first choice if pristine, polished audio is your end goal. But if character and vintage vibe is what you are after, these plug-ins will certainly fit the bill.
Abbey Road’s TG Mastering Chain is a particular good example of a mix “vintage-izer”. It models the unique tonal characteristics of the EMI TG12410 console used in Abbey Road Studios, giving you a sound that is dripping with character and attitude. All the modules (“cassettes”) of the original hardware console have been modeled to precision, enabling you to reproduce the sound of classic Abbey Road recordings.
Abbey Road Vinyl is a vinyl mastering and pressing lathe plug-in that also has the EMI TG12410 model in its output stage. Vinyl hounds and music producers with vintage sensibilities will just love how this plug-in makes even the cleanest digital recordings sound like a dusty, old record from the 1970s. You could even dial it back to produce that familiar vinyl warmth while still preserving the fidelity of your audio.
Check out J37 Tape as well for another type of vintage flavor, this time modeling the uniquely warm and saturated character of analog tape. This plug-in can be used to smoothen out harsh high-end frequencies in your audio, add subtle harmonic distortion, or warp your tracks to the extreme. It even comes with a fine recreation of an old-style tape delay, giving you more options for retro-inspired creations or modern experimentation.