One of the biggest things new engineers and producers miss out on today is the tactility of a large-format recording console. It’s inspiring to sit in front of a desk with dozens of channels of hardware packed under the hood – even more so when that console has a long history of amazing records on it.
The biggest studios in the world today still pride themselves on these icons of the industry, even if the people working in them have largely shifted to a digital workflow. There’s no longer a need for these massive control rooms with stacks of gear, but one thing that we cannot let get lost in the shuffle is the invaluable channel strip.
Regardless of your start in the industry, the artists you work with, or the music you make – channel strips offer significant value to your sessions… and there’s more than one reason why.
What Is A Channel Strip?
Before we get into any specific use cases, you need to understand exactly what a channel strip is. There’s a chance you’re using them every day, even if you don’t realize it. Most digital audio workstations (DAWs) offer a stock channel strip today, so whether you’re in Pro Tools, Logic, Cubase, Reaper, Ableton Live, or one of the dozens of others, you’ve probably got access to this amazing resource.
At their core, channel strips are the essential dynamic processors used in music recording and mixing housed in a single unit. In the hardware realm, this is usually the preamp, equalizer, compressor & even limiter or other signal processors. They’re often expensive units on their own, but the concept is the same as a single channel on a large-format recording or mixing console: to give you the basic resources required to record or mix a song.
In studios, channel strips give you a strong starting point to work from, with most processors bypassed or zeroed out by default. As you work, you can quickly and easily enable sections of the channel strip as you need them. Just like on a console, you’re able to enable a high-pass filter when there’s too many low-end frequencies building up or add some compression when something is too dynamic.
Can’t I Just Use Individual Processors?
Yes – you can. But how tedious do you want your job to be?
Channel strips are aimed to do a lot of great things all in one unit. In the hardware world, this means less patching from rack unit to rack unit. It’s easy to quickly eat up patch cables going from a dedicated preamp out to a dedicated EQ, then to a compressor & finally through a limiter before going back to the board or into your DAW. It also creates a lot of room for error. In a dedicated channel strip, you don’t need to worry about gain staging between units or even the order of your processing – most of the time channel strips have been designed in a way to handle that for you.
Okay, But What About Digitally?
I’m glad that’s where your mind went next, because there’s no better place to leverage channel strips today than in your computer.
While patchbays have largely been replaced with drag-and-drop plugins in your mix window, many of the fallbacks we’re familiar with in the analog realm suffer the same fate. You still need to account for gain staging jumping from one plugin to another and you’ll still run out of resources, only this time it’ll be RAM or CPU instead of patch cables.
Digital channel strips truly have a bright future as more and more artists begin recording themselves at home and working with producers and engineers remotely. By using channel strips, some of the more complex aspects of mixing a song can be removed from the equation entirely. Channel strips range widely from the stock options in your DAW to analog-modeled plugins and instrument-specific options like Howard Benson Vocals.
Each of these digital channel strips require less processing power than if you were to load each module individually, and they’re easier to dial in for a professional sound. Think about it – you can learn one plugin instead of a dozen and it’ll translate to every other instance of the channel strip in your DAW. It’s the same concept engineers have been using for years: learn one channel on that massive console and suddenly you’ve unlocked about 90% of the mixer in front of you!
Crafting Your Own Channel Strips
While it might not save as many resources as a dedicated unit, there are still those who want to craft their own sound using a combination of plugins instead of a single channel strip. By splitting each element out, they’re creating signal chains – and with that they face their own set of challenges.
If you’re interested in understanding those challenges as well, make sure you download our eBook, Virtual Signal Chain Secrets. Inside, you’ll learn all about how the pros are stacking plugins and using the same signal flow time and time again because they’ve “found” the sound they’re looking for.