The “best” audio production or mastering software nowadays is mostly down to personal preference, and selecting the right setup that matches your ideal workflow. All of the major DAWs have (mostly!) identical features in 2021, just laid out in a slightly different way.
There’s a lot of misinformation on the web about what is better and what is worse, but in reality a great producer or engineer can get the same result from any major DAW. Here we’ll break down what is actually useful to consider and what to look out for when selecting a DAW for mixing and mastering, with a hope to guide you on your way to make your choice with our top picks in mind, rather than incorrectly recommend an option that may not be the best for YOU.
For mastering specifically, there isn’t really a need for a lot of fancy editing and adjustment tools, so you’ll want to keep things as simple as possible whilst also gaining the most insight as possible. Ideally, you want to consider a DAW that gives you:
A good depth of information about the loudness (LU or LUFS), spectral analysis, stereo field etc. though this can be achieved with plugins.
Great exporting options – a range of possible export tools for various outlets (streaming, digital, CD DDP, etc.)
Metadata management – the ability to encode details about the artist, producer, songwriter etc.
(optional) Simple to use built-in mastering tools such as;
Multi-track album mastering (projects)
Reference track and audition options (A/B, loudness matching)
Clip processing (i.e. automation of plugins)
We’d therefore consider the following DAWs with their inherent pros and cons
Our top pick as the best all-in-one mastering solution for beginners and professionals.
Familiar interface – It’s also a traditional DAW. The “project” mode however, is dedicated to the final mastering stage of your track and streamlines the process with a nice clean layout.
Master file updates – A unique feature that is something we feel should be in every DAW in 2021. Essentially, you have the ability to update stems or your mix in song view, and instantly send updates to your mastering project. Huge time saver if you are both mixing and mastering and want that one hat a little bit louder.
Good built in analysis tools – Presonus Studio One comes with a range of metering tools pre-loaded and built in when starting a new project. Easy peasy.
Mastering export capable – Full export to all digital and DDP formats, plus advanced metadata embedding and built-in dithering.
No overwhelming features – Project mode keeps things stripped back and simple. You won’t have all the bells and whistles of song creation mode and you’ll be given only the tools that matter for mastering.
VSTs– All of your mastering software plugins will be automatically detected.
Clip processing – You can easily cut your track into sections and apply individual or automate fx on your intro, bridge, chorus if required.
Fairly inexpensive and regularly on sale – Currently it prices at only £241.08 GBP but RRP is £344.40. Not bad considering the full range of features this software provides.
Fancy– A little “heavier” on your computer than alternatives such as REAPER or Wavelab, with a heap of features. A caveat to this is that for mastering specifically you should be using the project mode which does strip this down quite a lot.
Overlooked, limited support – Frequently overlooked but this really is a heavy hitter. It has all the features you can think of or need. Smaller user base may mean that it’s a little more challenging to get help with in the form of videos. Reddit is your friend ;)
The best professional industry-standard mastering suite, according to us.
Dedicated industry standard mastering software– A complete industry standard, used by many top professional mastering engineers. Very stable with ongoing software support, and completely designed around the mastering process. “The engineers’ choice”.
Excellent, industry-leading built in analysis tools– Sequoia comes with some of the best audio analysis tools built right into the software. It has everything you could ever need! Fully customisable templates to arrange your metering as you see fit.
Advanced export tools – A unique a multi-export option which is VERY useful. This enables you to export different formats from WAV, FLAC, MP3, DDP and many more all in just one click. Export to all the usual digital and DDP formats, with advanced metadata embedding is possible.
MP3 and lossy previews – Hear how your master will sound as MP3, AAC and other lossy formats on-the-fly. Quite useful when mastering for streaming and a nice unique addition.
Plugins– Native plugins are actually very good, but UIs aren’t the best. 64-bit VSTs are completely supported.
Project workflow – Easily master albums and EPs in one project. Built for a fast workflow with easy application of your favourite curves and settings.
Premium price tag – At £2,499 GBP (!) at the time of writing this, expect to be dishing out a lot of money. It therefore only appeals to seasoned professionals with a decent number of regular clients, and probably isn’t suitable for a beginner. Make sure it’s for you before taking the plunge. There’s a trial, and there are sometimes discounts.
Not that intuitive – Despite being built for workflow, it has quite a different feel to traditional DAWs. Expect to spend a bit of time figuring out where everything is, and how to apply it, as well as all the nuanced shortcuts. This has put many people off but it’s worth dedicating your time for.
Clunky mixing view – Don’t expect to be able to tweak your mix project easily in this software. It is built solely for mastering or stem mastering.
Niche – Due to the pricing and target market, Sequoia is obviously a niche software with limited uptake. Expect very little info, tutorials or reviews online.
Our favourite lightweight mixing and mastering software.
Our top pick best bang-for-buck DAW.
Ultra lightweight, super optimised– A very, very minimal design which is kind to your CPU. Excellent for those without a beast of a PC, or those that want a really streamlined workflow. REAPER is extremely optimised, and has very regular updates adding and improving features, as well as fixing bugs. An amazing piece of software which is well looked after by the developers.
Plugins are OK but has full VST support – You’ll get a full array of plugins from compressors, equalisers, multibands, and limiters etc. baked into the software. They are also extremely minimal and the UI is a bit “oldskool” but they do work quite well. I do, however, much prefer using my own selection of VST plug-ins if not using hardware. 64-bit plugins are automatically detected and instantly available. No compatibility issues at all.
Nice traditional workflow – Very easy to pick up if coming from traditional DAWs. Master albums and EPs in one project. Hardware routing is also amazingly simple for all your outboard gear.
Light on the wallet – with a lengthy free trial then only $60 USD for the full individual license – it’s an absolute bargain. Keep note that if your income is over $20k you will need to fork out a little more for the “commercial” license which will set you back $225 USD. Bang for buck, REAPER is by far the top of the list.
Great community – Get a free license key for REAPER whilst we’re all staying at home in lockdown. Large user base amongst streamers and broadcasters due to how optimised the software is, meaning there’s a lot of tutorials and info around in the very unlikely event you should need it.
Too minimal forsome– The software really is super-light and can be off-putting to some users that do enjoy a fancy looking UI with all the bells and whistles.
Others currently being tested for next addition to this list, check back for updates!
Prism Sound SADiE 6
Traditional DAWs: Logic Pro X, Ableton Live, Reason, Steinberg Cuebase, ProTools, FL Studio