Today, we’ll talk a little about mastering EQ. We’ll discuss the difference between mixing and mastering equalization and how to use it. But most of all, we’ll review the 7 best EQ plugins for mastering you can find in 2021!
Mastering is no easy task… some engineers swear it takes years to learn how to craft a good master. It almost makes you miss the days when “mastering” meant cutting the low rumble and adding a limiter to the mix. Thankfully though, we’re not getting into this here. Continue reading to know more about EQ in mastering and the best plugins for the job!
- 1 How To Use EQ During Mastering?
- 2 What’s The Difference Between Mixing EQ & Mastering EQ?
- 3 The 7 Best Mastering EQ Plugins In 2021
- 4 The 3 Best Free Mastering EQ Plugins
How To Use EQ During Mastering?
Ideally, you should use very little EQ, especially at the beginning of the signal chain. Adding no more than 2dB on particular frequency regions will make an effective difference that will be enhanced later in the chain.
Some engineers praise adding even less than 2dB. Half a dB already does a good job depending on the track and genre. During mastering, subtractive EQ is not a great choice because you’ll have to make up for the loudness loss later. So, when mastering, always boost frequencies with a narrow-to-medium Q. When using EQ to fix a problematic mix, perhaps you’ll have to cut a little or add more than 2dB. In this case, contemplate sending the mix back to the producer and asking for a proper fix.
What’s The Difference Between Mixing EQ & Mastering EQ?
Mixing EQ allows for a lot more creative freedom than mastering. You can get away with boosting 10dB at 8kHz in an acoustic guitar during mixing. If it sounds good in the finished product, that’s what matters. In mastering, you need to make minor improvements that will lift the entire track.
To do that, you must understand the song you’re mastering and look for the best frequencies that will make it sound like a finished record. Sometimes you need a bump on the low-end or an extra dB around 1.5kHz to clean it up. Whereas in mixing, too little EQ may not be enough to make the instrument cut through the mix. When mixing, it’s best to use subtractive EQ rather than boost too much because it helps you sculpt your tone a lot better. Although sometimes a dramatic boost can do the job perfectly.
An interesting example is with drums. Sometimes a snare might have a ringing overtone that’s very annoying. A simple frequency sweep on the snare track to find the resonance lets you bring it down by ten or even 20dB. Doing this will easily clean up the sound and make your mix better. Alternatively, suppose you forget to do that and leave it to the mastering engineer. In that case, it will be tough to get rid of that annoying frequency since they’ll be dealing with the entire track, and a slight change will impact other instruments around it and unbalance the song.
The 7 Best Mastering EQ Plugins In 2021
1. Brainworx bx_2098 Review
The Braiworx bx_2098 is a high-fidelity plugin emulation of the Rupert-Neve-designed Amek 9098.
Including most of Brainworx’s standard goodies, this plugin thrives on its versatility. The gain controls, reminiscent of 70’s hardware, allow for extra precision and clarity, great for mastering. The M/S mode, exclusive to the plugin version, lets you naturally open the stereo field by reinforcing pressure frequencies. For extra possibilities, the TMT technology gives you twenty versions of the hardware to choose from.
- Glow & Sheen buttons: Respectively located within the Low-Frequency and High-Frequency sections of the interface, the Glow and Sheen buttons broaden the EQ curve. Both sections have a shelf or peak option that lets you select the frequency you want to boost or cut. Shelf mode gives you a bump on that frequency and extends the rest towards the end of the spectrum, and Peak gives you a bell-like focus on that frequency. What the Glow & Sheen buttons do is simply creating a wider Q for the affected frequency, musically affecting the frequencies around the selected one with a natural slope.
- Gain +-9dB: This feature is present in all four bands of the EQ, and change the amount of possible dB boost and cut you can apply to that band. Instead of the regular +- 18dB of headroom, the button cuts it in half to allow for more precise actions. This is naturally great for mastering since subtler changes are now possible.
- Notch button: This button is present in the Low-Mid and High-Mid sections of the EQ channel. When you press it, the values around the gain knob change, you can now use subtractive EQ, ranging from 0 to -19db. Also, the Q values change and become extra tight. This is great for cutting offending frequencies while mixing.
Character & Sound:
Following the analog hardware’s original intent, this plugin aims to deliver pristine sound quality with enough headroom to avoid unwanted distortion. This gives you a clear sound with a very ingenious character from the plugin. You can, of course, add harmonic distortion by turning the THD knob, but the greatest feature in this plugin is the TMT technology. Based on the premise that every piece of hardware sounds different than the previous, Brainworx gives you twenty different-sounding emulations. You can pair them any way you want or add up to twenty instances of the plugin in your session, all sounding slightly modified.
This plugin is available in VST, AAX, and AU formats for 64-bit only macOS 10.9 through 11 and Windows 7 through 10.
The bx_2098 is an amazing tool for mastering but also a reliable EQ for mixing. Loads of possible headroom enable you to be as aggressive as needed with boosts and cuts, while the adaptable Qs, in the shape of the Notch, Glow, and Sheen buttons, extend the EQ’s versatility. A great EQ to have around, which can add nice subtle character to your sound.
2. T-Racks Master EQ 432 by IK Multimedia Review
Ik Multimedia’s T-Racks Master EQ 432 is a plugin emulation of the famous Sontec 432c stereo equalizer.
This three-band EQ provides the user with extensive sonic flexibility in various stereo configurations, with 24 frequency options for each band. The precise controls and high-quality sound make this an astounding plugin. It offers up to 12dB of selectable range, plus an output knob for gain compensation. The three range options determine how precise your boosts and cuts will be.
- Hi & Lo knobs: just as in the original hardware, the Lo and Hi knobs perform straightforward functions. Lo lets you choose between 50 and 100 Hz and will cut everything below that frequency. Use the knob to adjust the slope. Hi is a shelving knob fixed on 10kHz. The knob will boost or cut everything from that frequency up.
- Shape knobs: Each band has a shape knob that changes the Q. You get five options, from narrow to medium-wide, that gradually expand the band’s reach. Due to the original hardware’s circuitry, each band is designed to work independently without affecting the others. This ensures the Q isn’t wide enough to reach the bands beside it.
Character & Sound:
From the get-go, you notice how warm this plugin sounds on its own. As you push up different frequencies, the plugin’s character comes through. It’s as though it has a subtle boost at the high-mids, not present in the original hardware. All three bands come equipped with 24 frequency options, which overlap at a few points to guarantee precise tone-shaping. Overall, this is a low-distortion plugin, ideal for adding that extra sparkle to your mixes.
The T-Racks Master EQ 432 is a 64-bit only application for macOS 10.9 or newer and Windows 7 or higher, as a VST, AAX, and AU plugin.
The Sontec 432’s history as the first parametric EQ lives on in this plugin. It is considered the golden reference for mastering equalizers since the early 1970s. Even so, like most hardware units from that time, it is a really simple piece without many features. you can use it for mastering and mixing, and its status as an industry-standard makes it a worthwhile investment.
3. Chandler Limited Curve Bender Review
The Curve Bender is a plugin emulation based on EMI’s TG12345 equalizer, created at Abbey Road Studios in the late ’60s.
Chandler Limited’s Curve Bender is an exceptional tool for mastering due to its subtle 4-band equalization. The short-range of 5dB up and down on each band and the wide-sounding equalization ensures precise processing. The results are always natural and characteristic due to the precise EQ points.
- Extra Frequencies: when commissioned to recreate the TG12345 equalizer, Chandler Limited added extra EQ points to make the unit more versatile. The original had only 9 points: 150Hz, 500Hz, 800Hz, 1.2kHz, 1.8kHz, 2.8kHz, 4.2kHz, 6.5kHz, and 10kHz. This plugin comes with 11 extra EQ points distributed across the four bands, making it a true sound-shaping tool.
- M/S: Also not present in the original hardware is the plugin’s ability to work in Mid/Side mode. This is another effort by the developers to turn this staple from the past into a present and future tool.
Character & Sound:
The original hardware’s germanium-based circuitry is an elegant addition to this plugin’s character that will add a bit of warmth even if you’re just using the filters. The four bands have very wide Qs by default, but you can focus a bit more on the chosen frequency with the 1.5x multiplier switch available for each band. This approach makes for a very clear and open equalization, although you’ll get more detail out of any frequency range if you dial in over 3dB.
The Curve Bender is available for 64-bit only macOS 10.12 or newer and Windows 7 or higher, as a VST, AU, and AAX plugin.
This plugin’s versatility guarantees it’s not meant only for Beatles and Pink Floyd fans who want the throwback EMI sound. The Chandler Limited Curve Bender is a high-quality EQ in its own right. Apply it to your busses or mastering chain to add subtle yet effective EQ changes or single tracks to bring out some flavor.
4. FabFilter Pro-Q 3 Review
FabFilter’s Pro Q3 is the most recent revision of FabFilter’s industry-standard plugin.
With up to twenty-one bands of equalization, each providing its own set of controls, the Pro Q3 is a versatile plugin meant for mastering and mixing. With loads of hidden features, including surround support and a Piano Display to help you find specific notes, this plugin goes the extra mile when it comes to offering options. All this makes for an exact tool that will help you shape your sound the way you want.
- Dynamic EQ: working almost as a hidden-feature, the Dynamic EQ controls only show up when you want them. Furthermore, you can choose how many bands become dynamic processors. You can turn the plugin into a smooth multi-band compressor with just a few clicks or control only a small area of the spectrum while the rest performs as a regular EQ. When you choose to create a dynamic band, the Gain knob in the floating menu displays a dynamic range ring. Positive values represent expansion, while negative values are compression. You also get a threshold slider if you choose to disengage the auto threshold mode. Similarly, all other dynamic parameters, such as attack and release, are automatic, although you can’t control these. The Dynamic EQ is a great feature, especially for mastering situations, enabling engineers to shape the sound and tame it as well when necessary.
- Brickwall Slope: sometimes, you need a hard slope to really isolate frequency regions. This feature will give you the option of creating a straight, brick-wall-like cut at any frequency at the top or bottom of the spectrum. Select the frequency and select Low or High Cut from the floating Band Controls. Underneath it, you’ll find the slope button, which gives you options from 6dB/octave to 96dB/octave and Brickwall.
- EQ Match: This is a handy feature for mastering. It lets you copy the EQ curve of a reference source. You can use this to get your master sounding similar to any other you like. You can also use it to copy the EQ curve from a particular plugin. Just click the Analyzer button, choose EQ Match and click the Reference button. There you’ll find three options: “Select a Previously Stored Reference Spectrum,” “Record a Reference Spectrum Via the Main Plugin Input,” and “Use the External Spectrum as a Reference.” If you choose to analyze input or reference audio, the plugin will take about thirty seconds to give you a clear definition of the reference’s EQ curve. You can then click Match and use the copied curve in your mix.
Character & Sound:
Like most FabFilter applications, the Pro Q3 is an extremely transparent digital equalizer with supreme sound quality. This is partly due to the three available processing modes: Zero Latency, Natural Phase, and Linear Phase. The most efficient mode, applicable for all situations, is Zero Latency. It matches the analog EQ’ing magnitude response very closely, resulting in an organic sound. Natural Phase is the best-sounding mode in the plugin, but it adds a bit of latency. Beyond perfectly matching the analog EQ’ing magnitude response, it also creates an ideal phase response, in which no deviations occur, and no frequencies are canceled. There is also the Linear Phase mode for a different approach, which introduces a lot of latency and can result in pre-echo effects. Even so, it is a great choice for mastering, especially when trying to make different parts with different EQs crossfade seamlessly without phase problems.
The Pro Q3 is a VST, AAX, and AU application that runs on 32- and 64-bit PCs running Windows XP and up and on 64-bit Macs running macOS 10.10 or higher.
FabFilter’s Pro Q3 is a unanimous choice among engineers for a reason. The plugin’s versatility and ease of use are out of this world. If you could choose only one equalizer to solve all your problems, this would be the one. A masterpiece that belongs in every producer’s toolbox.
5. PSP Master Q2 Review
PSP’s Master Q2 is a powerful five-band mastering equalizer with built-in limiter and saturation functions.
Each band has its own set of controls, with the three middle bands, including a Soft Peak algorithm that rounds out the EQ bell’s peak, smoothing out its resonance. The bands at the upper- and lower end of the spectrum have both bell or shelf modes. You also get two extra bands, high- and low-pass filters, with adjustable Q and three dB/octave slope choices. At the top, there’s a graphic analyzer, in which you can see the changes made below take shape. This meter ranges from 12Hz to 40kHz, which is the same frequency range supported by the parameters.
- FAT Button: This button enables the Frequency Authentication Technique, which delivers a more natural high-frequency response by adding an octave above the Nyquist frequency, which virtually doubles the sample rate. Although this increases the latency, it is an excellent tool for mastering since it will make the plugin manage frequencies with extra clarity and definition, reducing aliasing.
- Limiter: Not a very common feature in an EQ, the built-in limiter presents a routing option, as well as a ceiling knob and automatic makeup options. You can choose to send the stereo image or the mid, sides, left, or right channels into the limiter. The ceiling knob ranges from -18 to +6dB. The automatic makeup gain gives you 7 kinds of limiting: vintage limiting, soft and hard limiting, soft and hard dynamics, and soft and hard saturation, each pushing the sound differently.
- Linked Frequency Mode: This option lets you adjusted all bands with a single knob, preserving the EQ curve. Click the chain button on top of the frequency control for the low-end band. With other bands engaged, the button will move them around, maintaining the proportion between different bands.
Character & Sound:
The Master Q2 is generally a clean equalizer, but it sounds like there’s always some harmonic distortion happening, even with the Analog section turned off. However, when you turn it on, it changes the relationship between even and odd harmonics individually for each band, which creates a richer sound, even though the effect itself is quite soft. Turn it counter-clockwise for an emphasis on odd frequencies and clockwise for even frequencies. With the Amount knob all the way up, you can’t help but notice a greater focus on the high-mids.
This plugin is available as a VST, AU, and AAX plugin for 32- and 64-bit PCs running Windows Vista and up, as well as 64-bit Macs running macOS 10.7 and up.
A nice-looking plugin with a characteristic, hard-hitting sound, similar to the SSL EQs. It sounds like it’s always doing something to your sound, which can be great for mastering, depending on the project you’re working on. It’s a versatile plugin with interesting functions and potential for creative use, which would be great for mixing.
6. Tube-Tech Equalizer MKII Review
Softube’s Tube-Tech Equalizer MkII combines both of the most famous and praised tube equalizers from the ’50s.
The well-loved Pultec sound has had its heritage preserved by a Danish company called Tube-Tech since the mid-eighties. This plugin is the exact recreation of Tube-Tech’s version of the original Pultecs, put together by Softube in an effort to facilitate the workflow.
- PE1C: The equalizer at the top is called the “Program Equalizer,” as its main focus is dealing with high and low shelves. It skips the midrange almost entirely, although you can broaden the bandwidth at lower KCS values and reach some of the mids. Even so, it has straightforward functions: the knobs to the left, Boost, Atten, and CPS, control the low frequencies up to 100Hz. By increasing the boost and attenuation values together, you get the classic Pultec curve, which is excellent on the bass and kick drum. The Bandwidth, KCS, and right-hand Boost knobs all control the high frequencies, with the Atten and Atten Sel knobs to the upper right dealing with high-frequency attenuation. Clicking the red light bypasses the unit.
- ME1B: The second unit on this plugin handles the mid-range more thoroughly, making the frequency response complete. This is a three-band equalizer but with different controls. The high and low frequencies get a peak, or bell, control, in which you get four frequency options for each and up to 10dB of boost. However, the mids work inversely, making a bell-cut at any of the eleven possible frequencies. The catch here is that the whole equalizer works between 200 and 5000 Hz, making it just a bit wider than the full spectrum’s mid-range. This ensures that you can create peaks and a dip in the midrange and shelving on the lows and highs for the classic Pultec sound when you use both units simultaneously.
Character & Sound:
The reason this tube equalizer has been so coveted for years is its sound. Beyond sounding great at any setting, anything you do makes the processed signal sound round, warm, and full. No other equalizer does that. The fact that this plugin has both the PE1C and ME1B in the same unit emphasizes that feeling and delivers greater tonal control than if it was only one of the two EQs.
The MkII is available as a VST, AU, and AAX plugin for 64-bit only Windows 7 and up and macOS 10.12 and up.
Some classics deserve to live on. That’s what Tube-Tech thought when making their first units, and it’s the same principle behind this astounding emulation by Softube. This plugin sells itself on the original’s history, but it’s not ideal for all mastering situations due to its lack of thorough control. The EQ curves are particular and sound amazing for their character but render this plugin not as versatile as others on this list. Nevertheless, it’s an amazing tool for mixing, especially for auxiliary bus tracks that you can also use for mastering when the sound is right.
7. Sonoris Mastering Equalizer Review
The Sonoris Mastering Equalizer is a 7-band transparent EQ that focuses on delivering clean tonal-shaping.
The minimalistic GUI feels intuitive and doesn’t aim at recreating an analog vibe or piece of hardware. You can adjust the size of the plugin by dragging the lower right-hand corner. The high-pass and low-pass filters range up to 48dB/octave, and you can select to engage linear phase or minimum phase individually per band.
- Per-Band Processing: This plugin supports different processing per individual band. That means you can have your lower frequencies focused on the mid-channel, while the upper-highs are working the sides and the high-mids focus on the stereo field. Just right-click (or control-left click on a Mac) the On/Off button on top of the band you want to change. You can also automate these settings.
- Graph Display: you can also adjust the parameters from within the graphic display. You can freely drag dots around the graph, but thorough adjustment requires some specific controls. To affect only the gain, hold the Ctrl key while dragging. To only affect the frequency, you can Shift-drag the dots. Holding both these keys will affect the slope or bandwidth controls. Alternatively, you can adjust everything in the sliders below.
- 5 modes: In the settings menu, you can choose between five different modes for this equalizer. There is a Minimum Phase mode, as well as four Linear Phase options. Latency is proportional to the buffer length of the quality chosen, with lower qualities, such as Minimum Phase creating less latency. Also, Auto mode chooses the highest quality for rendering and the lowest for playback.
Character & Sound:
The Sonoris Mastering EQ was designed to be a character-free plugin. It thrives on its transparency and focuses on delivering high-quality audio without smearing transients or adding unwanted mud. It also doesn’t alter the source’s imaging information, which doesn’t affect the phase response. All this allows for extra cut and boost capabilities without any of the downsides.
The Sonoris Mastering Equalizer is available as a VST, AU, AAX, and RTAS plugin for 32- and 64-bit Windows and Mac computers.
This is an expensive plugin due to its sound quality and reliability. You can use it for mastering, as it was intended, or for mixing. It can also help you sculpt effects and create more defined stereo images due to its Mid/Side/Stereo/L/R processing. A great plugin to have around if you can afford the price tag.
The 3 Best Free Mastering EQ Plugins
1. Analog Obsession MASBAX Review
MASBAX by Analog Obsession is a user-friendly free tool that provides surprisingly great results.
You can use this three-band EQ in linked or unliked Left-Right as well as in Mid-Side mode. The GUI is straightforward with Low, Mid, and High knobs and their respective frequency selectors. You also get individual gain controls in case you want to balance the volumes of the channels.
- Six Frequencies: Each of the plugin’s bands offers six frequency options, ranging from 20Hz to 40kHz total. The frequency options are actually very satisfying, being capable of enhancing virtually any musical style.
- Mid Knob: the mid knob has two bandwidth options. On the positive side, the plugin creates a broader bandwidth. On the negative side, it’s narrower, enabling precise cuts on the selected frequencies.
Character & Sound:
As with most Analog Obsession plugins, this one adds a bit of coloration as you place it in the chain. It’s subtle, but you notice when it’s not there. You won’t get any distortion out of this EQ. It is a transparent tool designed for mastering.
MASBAX is available for Windows and Mac as a VST and AU plugin.
All Analog Obsession plugins are designed, developed, tested, and put into the world by a single person. The MASBAX is one of their simplest plugins, and it already does a great mastering job. A fantastic addition to your collection!
2. Quantum Mastering LPEQ Review
The Quantum Mastering LPEQ was developed by undergraduate students from Montreal in partnership with Quantum Music.
Overall, this is a very simple EQ with parametric controls that ensure flexibility. The L/F and M/S processing options are a great addition, considering this is a mastering EQ. This plugin’s real raison d’être is the Linear Phase processing, which we’ve seen on costly plugins from this list. The goal with this equalizer was to create an accessible Linear Phase EQ and distribute it for free.
- Linear Phase: for the untrained ear, the linear phase can sound just like non-linear phase EQs. The latter is how most EQs are designed, from the analog days up until today. Even so, Linear Phase provides supreme sound purity and precision, with more subtle controls. While minimum-phase EQs add frequency blurring to the sound, the linear phase preserves definition. And this is perfect for mastering since this process ensures there will be no sound field changes from the original mix onto the master.
- Precision Knobs: This is an extremely subtle control that controls the crossover between bands. By default, it’s set to 1.0, which means a sharp band separation. As you turn it down, the crossover gradually smoothes out, blending to the one next to it. This subtlety is the heart of equalization for mastering purposes, and it’s a fine addition to this free plugin.
Character & Sound:
The Quantum Mastering LPEQ was designed to be the most transparent possible, with absolutely no frequency distortion or character change. The plugin sounds clean, and changing the parameters produces precise results. The subtle nature of this equalizer makes it unideal for mixing but excellent for mastering.
The LPEQ is available for Windows only as a VST plugin.
This EQ is a tool designed for audio purists looking for peace of mind regarding frequency distortion. Unfortunately, it was released only as a VST for Windows, but lucky are those who can use it in their productions. An excellent plugin to have in your collection.
3. Analog Obsession DYNASAUR Review
Analog Obsession’s Dynasaur is a five-band dynamic equalizer with two compression modes.
To sum up, Dynasaur can be an equalizer, a multi-band compressor, a de-esser, or a peak rider. Or all at once, on different bands. The Ratio values and the Attack’s speed lets you create a limiter-like compression on individual bands. Similarly, the two gain reduction modes guarantee dynamic results. All this versatility ensures you can tailor the plugin to the input material any way you please.
- Bandwidth Knob: present in all five bands, the bandwidth knob controls the equalizer’s Q. It ranges from 0.4 of an octave up to 5 octaves. This ensures you can use the other bands around it to perform other functions, such as taming peaks or de-essing.
- Modes: The plugin offers two modes that you can set independently for each band. These are RMS and PEAK. The former detects the frequencies’ RMS value and sets the gain reduction accordingly. The latter sets the gain reduction according to the peak levels. Having both modes ensures you can dynamically control the energy in a specific frequency region while taming loud peaks on another.
Character & Sound:
This is not an entirely transparent plugin, and that’s part of the brand. Otherwise, even in extreme settings, it’s tough to get distortion or saturation from this equalizer, which is excellent for mastering.
Dynasaur is available for Windows and Mac as a VST and AU plugin.
This is not beginner’s business, for sure, but once you know how to handle multi-band compression, Dynasaur becomes a friendly tool. The analog-like interface, even though well-designed, looks a little cluttered, which can be overwhelming for some. However, it provokes curious minds, and turning the knobs becomes a fun way to achieve your sound.
EQ in mastering is an art form, and all the tools on this list ensure you will get excellent results. Plugins such as FabFilter’s Pro-Q3 and IK Multimedia’s T-Racks Master EQ 432 are strong names that deserve recognition and a place in your own collection. But underdogs like Analog Obsession’s MASBAX or PSP’s Master Q2 are also worthy of your attention.
An equalizer collection is like a painter’s color palette. Sometimes you need something round and warm like the Tube-Tech; other times, you’ll go for something more aggressive, like the 432. Either way, choose your tools wisely and let us know in the comments which one you can’t live without!
Pedro Nascente is an artist, record producer, and mix engineer, currently operating his own studio and working with his band, Yellow Boulevard. Believing that music should convey experiences and feelings, Pedro is known for applying design thinking to his workflow to achieve different sounds and deliver the right messages.