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Due to their undeniable complexity, a seasoned engineer can easily spend hours mastering a single vocal track…
Afterall, compressing and paying special attention to levels on the most dynamic instrument only makes sense.
Luckily, there are several free vocal mastering VST plugins to assist in the process without breaking the bank.
In this article, we’ll dive into a couple of compressors, exciters, equalizers, and noise gate VSTs that mimic many of the tools used by the pros to give mixes the extra polish they need.
Free Plugins For Mastering Vocals
With vocal audio constantly wavering between high and low levels, a good compressor is nothing short of essential to the final mastering process. Check out some of these options to achieve a cohesive, condensed vocal sound.
Related: Proper Compression Settings for Vocals, Best Paid Vocal Compressors
OTT by Xfer Records
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With a simple yet sleek user interface, this plugin is approachable to engineers at all ends of the spectrum. The VST consists of 3 bands and is geared towards trap/electronic genres. OTT has the standard controls of any compressor: In/Out Gain, depth, and time without the clutter from any unnecessary bells and whistles. Each band is equipped with a modest visualizer, allowing you to see how your sound is being altered at different frequency ranges.
Although some producers may find the lack of options control-wise limiting, OTT is quick to get you to the sound you desire without wasting unnecessary time. Overall, the price is more than right, and OTT does an excellent job at evening out levels.
DC1A by Klanghelm
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If you’re looking for a simple compressor to give your vocals a bit more of an analog/classic feel, the Klanghelm DC1A is an excellent free plugin to start with. Its most notable feature is the 4 built-in presets with deep, relaxed, negative, and dual mono compression modes.
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To add to its retro vibe, the VST has an embedded meter that looks like those on vintage rack mounts and is just as useful. The meter itself is easily understood and has a delineated red threshold so you can tell whether or not you’re clipping even with just a quick glance. The main focus of the plugin is the input and output, nothing else really besides the compression modes, making it a great option for beginners.
Moreover, Klanghelm produces a bulkier compressor VST entitled DC8C, so DC1A acts as a great trial run before investing in a paid plugin. For a seasoned engineer, this VST may be oversimplified, but those looking for efficiency or that classic mono sound, this is an excellent choice.
Equalizers (EQ) VSTs
When mastering a vocal, especially in pop/more current styles of music, producers commonly boost/cut out frequencies to help it stand out a bit more in the master mix. Here are a couple of free EQs that can fulfill all of your vocal mastering needs.
Related post: Best Paid EQ plugins for Vocals
ReaEQ by Reaper
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In general, this EQ plugin is great for the entire production process, but it also has a couple of key features that lend themselves particularly towards vocal mastering. For example, the VST has a dial-in frequency feature that allows the user to enter precisely what frequency he/she would like to be emphasized or lowered. You are able to add an unlimited amount of bands to give absolute clarity to the vocal and add polish to its final master. The bandwidth can be widened or narrowed with a few mouse clicks, streamlining the process.
Moreover, each band has a separate bypass toggle, meaning that you can easily switch one on/off to compare a sound before/after processing. ReaEQ comes equipped with high and low pass filters, bands, much more. The central visualizer makes it easy to locate all of your bands. Although the plugin is not the most aesthetically pleasing, it certainly works well and has a lot of features that normally come with paid plugins.
It is a great plugin to download as a beginner, but able to translate into more mature mastering practices with its potentially highly specified input/output values. ReaEQ is a superb tool and comes as a part of the Rea PLugs bundle with many other useful VSTs.
Luftikus By Lkjb
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This EQ is super useful in achieving a retro sound, as it is a digitized version of an analog-style Equalizer. Luftikus is set up like a traditional rack mount and has 5 fixed-frequency EQ bands with corresponding knobs. This feature could be seen as limiting during the mastering process as you cannot type in specific frequencies in the same way that you can with previously mentioned ReaEQ.
However, if you’re mastering a vocal bus with multiple vocal tracks, having fixed bands can help simplify the process and give you a little boost without being excessive. In addition, the VST has an added “mastering” mode which removes superfluous features to get you in and out of mastering efficiently. Luftikus has a separate section dedicated to boosting the high-end frequencies and a couple of preset options between 2.5-40K Hz which is particularly useful during the vocal mastering process.
Outside of the presets, the high-end boost has a knob that can be altered for a more specific vocal top-end boost. The plugin has a “keep gain” button designed to make changes appear more subtle than drastic while EQing, ideal for mastering. The colorful interface makes it exciting to use and Luftikus proves to consistently create masters with a bit more of a vintage feel.
Nova-67P by Vladg/sound
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The Nova-67p is a hybrid between a compressor and an equalizer making it a fine resource for mastering. The plugin is centered around the main visualizer where you can view the waveforms and respective bands. It’s nice that you’re able to see the waveforms in realtime, especially since vocals are fickle and quick to change from one level to the next. Since it also acts as a compressor, there is a small level meter as well to prevent clipping the vocal tracks.
This unique combination makes the VST a one-stop-shop for vocal mastering. Although sidechaining is traditionally done within the mixing stage, it is certainly worth mentioning that this plugin has sidechain capabilities built-in, along with high and low pass filters. It comes with attack, release, and ratio knobs and a separate toggle for mastering. If you’re looking to EQ or compress exclusively, this plugin may not be the best choice as the two components are designed to be used together in the mastering process.
For those looking to do both processes anyway, this plugin certainly accelerates mastering and will give you a more put together sound as the EQ and compressor interact with one another beautifully.
Noise Gate VSTs
A less common but underrated gating possibility is centered around the vocals. Condenser and other common microphones, often pick up unneeded frequencies that can cloud your vocal clarity during the mastering process. In order to eliminate this, try out one of these free noise gate plugins and place it on a vocal track.
Related post: Best Paid Noise Reduction Plugins
preFix by Variety of Sound
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Prefix acts as a couple of plugins built into one with EQ, sidechain, compression, and phasing built-in. Similarly to Nova-67P, the features are meant to be used with one another without external interference. The noise gate feature is notable as it has specified attack, release, hold, and pre-gate knobs allowing the user to hone in on which frequencies they’d like to be ducked.
Although this plugin is best used during the mixing process, it can be a great reference point during mastering since it includes so many of the tools needed to create a polished track. If someone was stuck on a vocal mix and wanted to be able to visualize a finished or mastered product, preFix could be placed on the corresponding vocal bus and quickly adjusted to give the user a vague idea of the polished product. Since there are so many controls and a lack of a frequency visualizer, this plugin can certainly be intimidating and time consuming for a beginner. However, a reference track on its own is extremely valuable, especially for something as nuanced as vocals, and when mastered, preFix is as effective as comparable costly VSTs.
GGate by GVST
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This plugin is as simple as it can get, but don’t let its minimal approach fool you- GGate is very powerful and is straightforward enough to be added to all kinds of vocals. The plugin consists of 3 knobs: The threshold, attack, and fade; Each pretty self-explanatory in their own right. GGate has a dry/wet meter so that the gated signal can be played alongside the unaltered signal. This opens the door to parallel processing for vocals, which can make a significant difference in the listener’s experience.
Moreover, the “fade” knob is suited to create subtle changes in the overall level of a vocal track. For those looking to give a more processed/clear sound to vocals, i.e those centered around commercial/pop genres, this plugin may prove to be insufficient. However, if you’re in a pinch or just need to eliminate a minute level of noise without being too obvious, you can’t beat the control offered by GGate.
In the same way it is helpful to boost the preexisting high-end of vocals in order to bring the sound more upfront during mastering, exciters generate artificial/organic tones typically in the 3K range and above.
Related post: Best Paid Exciter Plugins
Thrillseeker XTC by Variety of Sound
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This exciter is based around analog-style retro sounds and combines a traditional exciter/saturator with a 3-band EQ. Each set EQ range has a separate knob and bypass button so that different frequency ranges can be enhanced independently. This is particularly useful in scenarios where one is utilizing a vocal bus and wants to master an overall sound without emphasizing unwanted tones/frequencies.
The plugin has a “Mojo” and Drive section, catered to leveling out the amplitudes of generated frequencies running parallel to the dry vocal. Moreover, the VST can be switched in between blue or black versions depending on how precise an engineer desires the finished master to be. Thrillseeker in this way lends itself to a variety of genres and applications. Although it is somewhat limited in being linked to retro or vintage type sounds, the VST is absolutely worth a try at no cost.
BuzVintageMaxi by Buzzroom
Buzzroom has created a true exciter plugin with BuzVintageMaxi. The VST is very minimal, with two main knobs: gain and ceiling for the threshold level of the audio signal. The plugin is known for adding thick, warm sounds to any track it is applied to. This can be especially useful for mastering female vocals, where sometimes the upper register can lose warmth/low-end frequencies when translated to an audio signal. It has two included processing modes, normal and deep, to cater to the depth of harmonics applied to the signal.
Although this plugin cannot be used to master an entire vocal tracks alone due to its lack of complexity, it certainly produces a warm vocal within a short amount of time. It’s definitely worth a try, even just train your ears on what a warm/fat vocal should sound like.
Modern Exciter by Antress
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Antress has a number of strong plugins free for download on their website. Modern Exciter has a user interface resembling a standard rack mount and is not overly muddled by too many controls. Harmonics can be added to low or high frequencies and adjusted with their respective knobs. This lends itself well to mastering vocals as different voices will have different areas in which they need more widening depending on the frequency of the dry audio signal. Modern Exciter includes a VU meter, which especially lends itself to mastering since it helps display the average level of the processed signal.
If you want more of a retro sound, this VST has a built-in analog preset. Moreover, the VST processes in stereo and has separate left and right channels appropriately. The plugin does not have a whole lot of controls which may seem to limit to some, but it notably separates the high and low ends to organically fill in vocal frequency gaps.
Quick Tips For Mastering Vocals
In general, the mastering process involves adding the final polish to a preexisting mix. This includes leveling, preparing for distribution, and making sure that the project as a whole is cohesive. Let’s dive into a couple of tips that illustrate what that process is like for vocals.
#1. Keep Mixing and Mastering Separate
With any aspect of a song, especially vocals, it’s important that you’re giving the mixing and mastering processes their own space. This is because the philosophy behind mixing involves deep adding/subtracting, sometimes involving an entire rework of a track.
When you master, you are looking to polish and heighten the parts of something that is already complete. By keeping the two operations independent of one another, you allow for your vocals to be better thought out in terms of context (mixing) and the overall level/vibe of the song as a whole (mastering). A good master on a bad mix still produces a poor track. Therefore, make sure you do your homework before jumping into the world of mastering plugins- The real work comes out during mixing.
#2. Know your Vocals
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What type of voice is presented on your track? What kind of frequency is it lacking? Is your vocal the focus of your song or more in the background? It’s vital that you consider these questions deeply before beginning the mastering process so that you have a clear roadmap to lead you down the right mastering path with plugins that fit accordingly.
#4. Use a Reference Track
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Vocals are by far the trickiest aspect of understanding audio engineering since they are so unique. It can be extremely helpful to use a reference track during the mastering process to get your vocal exactly where you desire. Moreover, so many of these free plugins include bypass features, sometimes for each separate band, which makes it easy to compare against your model track.
Mastering is the icing on top of the cake, not the cake itself, but that does not diminish its importance- especially with vocal tracks. A good master sets your music apart and is a mark of a seasoned producer. Try out one of these free vocal mastering VSTs on your next track to get you one step closer to the coveted warm, thick vocal our ears crave.