Mastering a Track Using Only FREE Plugins

Be sure to see my latest post regarding how I like to master my mixes: How to Master a Song (My Current Technique)

Depending on your role in a particular project, you may get to a point where you have to squeeze just a little bit more from the record.  Even though I think that the final stage of mastering a track should really be left to a mastering professional, us mixing engineers can get a “pseudo master” ready for the client to listen to.  If we can’t get it to sound even somewhat competitive than chances are that our mix may seem inferior to everything else.

In my post How to Treat the Master Bus, I showed a fairly minimalist approach on how I treat the master bus and to be honest I still approach it very similarly today.  The difference with this track, that I “mastered”, is that I’m applying the plugins to a two track and not to the master bus of a mixing project.  I actually prefer to do any “pseudo mastering” while I’m mixing, just in case something sticks out that I may not have noticed before. That way I can make tweaks as I’m mixing the song, in real time.

That said, there are still some great tips here for those situations where maybe you don’t have access to a full breakdown of the track, like when you’re mixing vocals into an instrumental.

I chose to use these VSTs for this article for a couple of reasons:

  1. There’s so much great freeware out there that I felt like I could get a better sound using the FREE VST’s that are available as opposed to the FREE RTAS/AAX plugins.
  2. I wanted to show that even with FREE or cheap plugins you can get really good results.

I honestly don’t feel like I could have done quite that same job using only FREE plugins with Pro Tools.  I probably could have done something decent but for the most part the best sounding freeware is definitely in VST format.  You could always try and use that VST to RTAS wrapper from FXpansion but from my understanding some VST’s don’t work when they are wrapped, so there are no guarantees.

Let’s Get into it.

Our Objectives When Mastering a Track

We need to have some objectives when we’re mastering a track and since every track is different that means our goals will be different.

In this particular case, I listened to the record a few times so I could decide what needed to be done.  For the most part I actually liked the tone of the record and didn’t want to get too far away from the original sound.  So with that in mind I determined that the track could come up in volume, could be a touch wider, could be a bit tighter sounding and could also benefit from a little more focus in the mid range.  I used 3 methods to achieve all those goals:  Limiting, EQ and some saturation.

Each of those methods served a much different purpose but they also complimented each other.  For example, to get the track louder, limiting wouldn’t have been enough and that’s where the saturation complimented the limiter at achieving more volume.  But at the same time the saturation also complimented the EQ in bringing out some more mid range focus.  So the bottom line is that if one link in the chain was missing, all of my initial goals would not have been achieved since they all helped each other out.

What the Mix Sounded Like, Before I Started

Let’s take a listen to the track without any processing

[audio:|titles=Unmastered Track]

Now see what it sounds like with all the plugins engaged.

[audio:|titles=Mastered Track]

First Plugin: Variety of Sound “Ferric TDS”

Mastering a Track - Variety of Sound - Ferric TDSI used the FerricTDS for a couple reasons.The first reason is to try and get some extra colour and add a little bit of meat to the track.  This plugin does a pretty decent job of filling in those empty holes that some amateur tracks tend to have.

  • Dynamics – This section helped to tighten up the track a little bit and it also seemed to bring forward the drums and lead synth.   There is no attack setting for the dynamics [it’s built in] but to me it sounds like a slow attack which worked well in this case.  I didn’t hear anything damaging being done to the transients so I went with it.
  • Recovery – This could also be called the release.  I have it set to the fastest because the track has a high BPM to begin with and a slower release seemed to be inhibiting the natural bounce, which is never a good thing.
  • SC (Side Chain) – I have the side chain set to about 130Hz which means that anything below that won’t be triggering the threshold of the compressor but the low end is still being compressed.  It just seemed to sound a little smoother to my ears by having this section engaged.
  • Saturation – I just turned this knob up until I could hear it doing a little something but didn’t completely change the sound of the track.  To me it gives a little sizzle to the sound and slightly blends all the parts together so they touch each other more.

The second reason I used this plugin, which was the main reason, was for gain staging purposes.  The track was pretty much peaking at 0dB, give or take, and I wanted to give myself a bit of headroom because I knew that I was going to be adding an EQ to my chain.  I probably could have used the [Sonar] Trim function to adjust the input but like I mentioned I liked how this plugin added just a little something extra to the track.

  • Input and Trim – I used these two to adjust the gain going into the plugin and coming out of it.  I was aiming for about 10 dB of headroom going into the EQ.

Ferric TDS – Before and After Examples

This example is with the FerricTDS disengaged

[audio:|titles=Ferric TDS OFF]

This second example is with the FerricTDS engaged

[audio:|titles=Ferric TDS ON]

Both examples were volume matched to try and give the best representation of what the plugin is doing.

Depending on your listening environment you may not notice a huge difference between the two examples and some people may not notice anything at all.  The character that this plugin is adding to the track is very little but when it’s added up through the entire chain it makes a big difference in the end.

Download the FerricTDS: Variety of Sound – Downloads Page

Second Plugin: Variety of Sound “Baxter EQ”

Master a Song - Variety of Sound - Baxter EQSo when the chorus comes in on this track the thing that stands out the most is the distinctive horn sound.  I felt like it needed just a little bit of help to truly deliver the full impact of its purpose.By using the Baxter EQ I was able to bring out the sides of the mix [where the horn lives] without doing too much to the centre.  The end result is slightly wider and brighter track.

The way this plugin is built is it gives 2 modes and a few options on how you can EQ the signal.

If you look to the left of the plugin you can see a little “M/S” beside the red light.  When the red light is on that means the plugin is in Mid/Side mode, if the light is off than that means the plugin is in Stereo mode. If you are in stereo mode, the top row of knobs serves as the Left Channel settings and the bottom row serves as the Right Channel Settings. If you are in M/S mode than the top row serves as the Mid settings and the bottom row serves as the Side settings.

So knowing that information can give us a few different options on how we can to affect the sound.  In the case of this record since I wanted to make the sides pop, I engaged the M/S mode to give me access to the the Side settings.  Once engaged, all I had to do was turn off the “link” setting on the High Shelf section so that the Mid and Side sections become independent of one another.

  • HF – I’m increasing the gain by about 4.5 dB’s here.  I love how this EQ sounds so sometimes more gain actually sounds really good with this plugin.
  • Shelf – I have this set to 2.4 kHz which means anything at or above that setting, is boosted by 4.5 dB’s.  If you think about it technically it may seem like a crazy thing to do but that’s why it’s so important to be familiar with your tools so you can make appropriate decisions for each situation.

Baxter EQ – Before and After Examples

This example is with the Baxter EQ disengaged

[audio:|titles=Baxter EQ OFF]

This second example is with the Baxter EQ engaged

[audio:|titles= Baxter EQ ON]

Both examples were volume matched to try and give the best representation of what the plugin is doing.

Download the Baxter EQ: Variety of Sound – Downloads Page

Third Plugin: Sir Elliot’s “Volume Eleven”

Volume 11

This is the final stage of my chain and this plugin is probably doing about 60-70% of the work.

It sounds very good and is by no means a transparent limiter.  It is limiting the signal but its also tightening up the track and adding in some extra saturation to increase the apparent volume.

  • Drive – This setting is hard to describe because even though there are numbers printed, they don’t click one at a time.  Each number has like 3-4 clicks before it gets to the next number.  The best way for me to describe how I set this is I just kept turning it until it started to really damage the sound and then I brought it back.
  • Mode – You have 2 options here: Hard or Soft.  I am assuming it’s for the clipping on the output but I can’t be certain.  But I do know that the Hard setting sounds tighter and more focused then the soft setting and that’s why I used it.

Every other setting was left as it came [stock] when I loaded up the plugin.

This is definitely the most dramatic before and after but each plugin definitely serves a role and the out come would not be the same without the first two in the chain.

Volume Eleven – Before and After Examples

This example is with the Volume Eleven disengaged

[audio:|titles= Volume Eleven Off]

This second example is with the Volume Eleven engaged

[audio:|titles= Volume Eleven On]

Both examples were volume matched to try and give the best representation of what the plugin is doing.

Download Volume Eleven: Sir Elliot Download Page (Look under “Brick Wall Limiters”)


I know I sound like a broken record but I really like to do this “pseudo mastering” stuff during the mix because I have many more options.  However, I thought I would share some great FREE plugins with you that can get you a pretty damn good sounding master with, especially if you are limited to a two track.

So next time you receive a project and you are limited with a two track, try some of these techniques and maybe you can bring some more life into the finished product.

YouTube Video Source: How to Master a Track with FREE Plugins