Adventures In Audio

What is a channel strip? Why should you use one?

The channel strip dates back to the days of the analog mixing console, like this one...

Trident 78 analog mixing console

You can see the channel strips on the left. Each one has a microphone input and also a line-level input. These two inputs are either/or - you can't use them both at the same time.

Each channel strip, or we can just call it a channel, on a large-scale console, has the following features (not all consoles have all features)...

  • Gain control
  • Equalizer
  • Compressor
  • Noise gate
  • Auxiliary sends
  • Pan
  • Mute/solo
  • Fader

You can use all of these controls while recording, or you can leave them in their neutral settings while you record and only set them when you mix.

If you use the EQ and compressor, for example, while you record, the settings are 'baked in' to your recording.

If you record 'flat', meaning with the controls switched out or neutral, then you have complete flexibility to set them as you please during the mix.

It's a more versatile way of working to leave EQ, compression, etc until the mix. But sometimes you know exactly how something should sound and it's best to make that decision when you record.

Standalone hardware channel strips

At some point in history, a wise person decided that it would be useful to mount a mixing console channel strip in a box of its own. So you could for instance take a Neve channel strip to any studio and have the Neve sound available. This would be on just one channel, or a pair if you had boxed up two, but you can use them multiple times as you record overdubs. You can also use them on one or two instruments or vocals while you mix. Or if you have a pair of channel strips, you can process the whole mix through them.

At some later time, audio equipment manufacturers started making their own channel strips, completely independent of the mixing console.

An example of a hardware channel strip

Here we have the Neve 8801 channel strip, which is a repackaging of the electronics from a single channel of their 88R mixing console.

Neve 8801 channel strip

If we scan this from left to right, these are the main functions...

  • Microphone or instrument input (DI) - the line input is on the rear panel
  • High-pass and low-pass filters
  • Compressor/expander
  • Equalizer
  • Output level control

What's missing that you would also find on an actual mixing console channel are the auxiliary sends, pan, mute, and solo. These functions are not relevant to a standalone channel strip. They could be if you had a number of channel strips, but then surely it would be easier just to have the whole console.

As a single-channel hardware unit you can use it to process any instrument or voice as you record, but clearly only one channel at a time.

You can also use it to process one channel while you mix.

It is also possible to process individual tracks in your DAW (digital audio workstation) and bounce them back into the session. You can process as many tracks as you like, one by one. You will have to account for the small amount of latency (time delay) in the round trip out of and back into your DAW.

Plug-in channel strips

Software channel strips can mimic real hardware, or they can be complete works of invention that don't exist in the physical world. This one, from SSL, clearly has the SSL look and one can assume that it has something of the sound quality of a physical SSL console.

SSL Channel Strip 2 plug-in

What we see here are the following functions...

  • Low-pass and high-pass filters
  • Equalizer
  • Compressor
  • Expander/gate
  • Solo
  • Mute (labeled 'cut')
  • Input and output levels

But there are features here that you won't find on a hardware channel strip...

Firstly there are presets, and of course, you can store your own settings. With a hardware channel strip, you would have to write down your favourite settings, or store them as a note on your phone. That really isn't too much of a hardship, but clearly, the plug-in is going to be faster, and it's practical to create a hundred of your own presets if you like.

Secondly, you can change the order of the processing. Some hardware channel strips allow this, but a plug-in can always be more versatile. The side chain of the dynamics section is extremely flexible too.

One interesting point about the plug-in channel strip is that it is almost always used while mixing, not during recording. The reason for this is that DAWs make this easy to do. If you want to record through the channel strip then you can route your input signal to an auxiliary channel with the channel strip plug-in set up as an insert. Then route that auxiliary channel to an audio channel. Hit record and you'll capture all of the wonderful channel-strip-ness with filters, EQ, and dynamics set however you please. And that will be baked into your recording.

Why use a channel strip plug-in when you can use individual plug-ins?

Yes of course you can use a plug-in for filters, another for EQ, another for compression, another for expansion or gating. They can each be from a different software developer. You have complete freedom to use any plug-ins that you have installed in your system. That way you have maximum flexibility.

You also have maximum complexity. Sometimes it's easier just to use one plug-in that can control all of the major processes.

Also, if you use the SSL channel strip, or any plug-in that emulates an analog mixing console, you can expect to get the 'analog sound'. There is such a thing, and you'll mostly find it if you push the levels hard. Used with care and tastefulness, it can help bind, or glue, together all of the individual instruments and vocals in your mix.

Summary

A channel strip is a great way of presenting the most-used functions in audio in a single box or a single plug-in. You can also get the 'analog sound' in your recording and mix. Hardware or software, a channel strip is a useful addition to anyone's studio setup.

Tuesday August 17, 2021

Like, follow, and comment on this article at Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Instagram or the social network of your choice.

David Mellor

David Mellor

David Mellor is CEO and Course Director of Audio Masterclass. David has designed courses in audio education and training since 1986 and is the publisher and principal writer of Adventures In Audio.

Learn Pro Tools with our amazing range of video courses

Pro Tools video course catalog

Browse Pro Tools courses...

Learn Logic Pro with our amazing range of video courses

Logic Pro video course catalog

Browse Logic Pro courses...

Learn Cubase with our amazing range of video courses

Cubase video course catalog

Browse Cubase courses...

Audio Masterclass gives you all the technical knowledge and skills to bring your musical dreams to life

The Audio Masterclass Music Production and Sound Engineering Course

Get the most from your studio with the Audio Masterclass Music Production and Sound Engineering Course.

Learn more...

More from Adventures In Audio...

Hi-Fi comfort OVER your ears? TRUEFREE O1 detailed review

Get the tube sound in your system with the Fosi Audio P3

Any studio you like, any listening room you like - For producers and audiophiles

Hidden Hi-Fi - The equipment you never knew you *didn't* need - Fosi Audio N3

Adding tubes to a jazz mix with Freqport Freqtube

Adding tubes to a rock master with Freqport Freqtube

Adding tubes to female vocals with Freqport Freqtube

Adding tubes to male vocals with Freqport Freqtube

Adding tubes to real drums with Freqport Freqtube

Adding tubes to a bass guitar with Freqport Freqtube

Adding tubes to speech with Freqport Freqtube

Adding tubes to an acoustic guitar with Freqport Freqtube

Parabolic reflector microphone - Sound On Sound latest issue

Your power amp is average - Here's why

MANCAVE REVIEW: In-ear monitors - Better than earbuds?

Can this tiny amp really produce 600 watts? - Fosi Audio V3

MANCAVE - Recreating Olivia Rodrigo's 'Vampire' vocal

Why does this song sound so bad?

Audiophiles - You're all wrong!

MANCAVE RE-REVIEW: OpenRock Pro earbuds in language Audiophiles can understand

MANCAVE REVIEW: OpenRock Open-Ear Air Conduction Sport Earbuds

Can lossy digital audio be better than lossless?

Man-Cave: Microphone mysteries revealed

How I improved my audio - From the Mancave