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Channel strips - powerful tool or utter folly?

Do you have a standalone channel strip module? Do you want one? Do you understand the utter folly you could be letting yourself in for?

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So you aspire to a channel strip? Let me play devil's advocate then for a few paragraphs and see if I can help you change your mind.

By the way, I have illustrated this article with the Grace Design M103. I haven't heard it yet but I expect it to be way up there with the best channel strips on the market. This article is about the concept, and potential folly, of these items in general.

First, what is a channel strip? (I know you know, but just in case)...

A channel strip module mimics the channel strip of a mixing console. It has a microphone preamplifier (probably with line and instrument inputs too). It has an equalizer, a compressor and perhaps even a gate or expander. It may also have an insert point, which you would like to be settable pre or post-EQ.

So the logic behind the channel strip is that if it's good to have channel strips in mixing consoles, then it's good to have channel strip modules for those of us who don't use mixing consoles any more, or perhaps only have a budget console, lacking in features and quality.

But that's wrong...

Ask yourself what a channel strip is used for in a mixing console. A quick answer please...

The channel strip is mostly used when you are MIXING. That's why it's called a mixing console.

When you are recording, or tracking as some people call it, with a console you will select the appropriate microphones for the voices and instruments you are recording. Clearly you will use the preamps in the channel strips, but you will mostly send the signal by as direct a route as possible to the multitrack recorder. That way you will have nice, clean signals from the mics on disk or tape.

Then when it comes to mixing, you will route the outputs of the multitrack recorder to the channel strips and blend and shape the sound you want using their faders, pans, EQs and compressors. Oh yes, and auxiliary sends too. Console channel strips have aux sends.

So you wouldn't record the EQs and compressors to tape or disk. You would use them in your monitor mix as the track builds up, and when you are mixing the final product into stereo.

You COULD use the full facilities of the channel strips while recording if you wanted to. You would do this for one of four reasons...

  • You know exactly what kind of sound you want to achieve
  • You want to create a special sonic texture for a certain voice or instrument and intend to blend the rest of the track around that
  • You like committing to decisions. Some people do.
  • You're insane. There's always that possibility.

So I'm not saying don't do it. I'm saying do it if you want to, but know your reasons.

Want more...?

OK look at your DAW. Where is the equivalent of the channel strip in your DAW? No, it isn't on the input - you would have to make a special effort to record the outputs of your plug-ins to tracks. The equivalent of the channel strip is on the MIXING side.

So what can go wrong if you use a channel strip module?

Well I've heard a fair few multitrack recordings in my time and I can tell you exactly what can go wrong. Using a bit of EQ isn't usually a problem but using compression certainly can be. Compression can be wonderful, but it can create all kinds of distortions and 'messed-aboutness'. You can always compress during mixing, but you can't take away compression that has already been applied.

Get compression exactly right in the channel strip and the mix engineer has part of his job already done that he would have preferred to do himself. Get it wrong and the mix engineer will curse you because he now has to mix with one hand tied behind his back.

In summary, let me remind you that I have been playing a kind of devil's advocate. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with channel strip modules, but they are not exactly what they seem to be and you need to consider carefully how they should be used.

By David Mellor Thursday April 28, 2011
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