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.
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.