If you record for any length of time, at some point you’ll come across a channel strip. What is it? A channel strip is simply an outboard microphone preamp that has either EQ or compression built in, or both.

These can be AWESOME, because you can begin to shape the sound of your recordings before the audio ever hits your recording software. For example, you can use the EQ to get rid of some of the low-mid frequencies that are muddying up the sound. And you can use a little bit of compression to keep the signal from clipping your converter.

Of course, you can go over-the-top, too, by dialing in some very dramatic settings.

However, with the added features comes a better chance that you might mess something up. So here are three warnings for those of you using channel strips (or thinking about buying one).

1. Difficult to Control Clipping

Most channel strips (like the once pictured above) have some sort of meter on them. The problem, though, is that the signal is going through several different gain stages. There’s the input gain (preamp), there’s the gain on the EQ and/or compressor, and then there’s the output gain.

Unfortunatey you can only meter one of these at a time. So, if you’re watching the meter for the output gain, and it appears to be well below clipping, you could still be clipping the signal on the preamp. The reason it’s not showing up on the output meter could be because the compressor is turning the signal down before it hits the output.

You can see how this could quickly be problematic. Clipping and distortion CAN be desirable on occasion, but usually you want to avoid them. The best way to do that with a channel strip is to be conservative. Don’t be quite as aggressive with the amount of gain you’re adding at each stage.

Most importantly, use your ears. Listen for any clipping/distortion in the audio. If something sounds off, stop recording and figure it out before it’s too late.

2. No Undo Button

Let’s say you record the perfect performance, only to realize that you added way too much compression to the signal. That’s not something you can undo in Pro Tools. Once it’s done, it’s done. You’ll have to either live with it or record the part again.

The same is true with EQ. Maybe you thought boosting 60 Hz by 9 dB was a good idea at the time, but afterwards you could be regretting it. EQ can be a little more forgiving, because you can go in with an EQ plug-in and do a cut at 60Hz, but it’s not going to sound as natural as it would have without the original boost.

3. Can be Distracting

A channel strip can quickly kill the mood of a session. If you’re constantly stopping the recording to tweak a knob or adjust a setting, the musician might get annoyed. Or worse yet, the musician will be worn out and tired by the time YOU’RE ready to record. When it doubt, keep it simple. Bypass the EQ and compressor and just get a nice, clean sound.

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Don’t get me wrong, I love a good channel strip. Pictured above is the Universal Audio LA610 I borrowed to record vocals for Kevin from yesterday’s post. It sounded AWESOME.

I recommend getting a channel strip at some point if you can.

Thoughts? Leave a comment! I’d like at least 10, please.

  • jsd

    I agree, but….the channel strip is nothing more than a attempt at getting one “slice” of a pro console. The average consumer can’t afford a console with hi-end gear, but they can possibly afford one hi-end strip.
    If you look at a SSL4000 pro console, it has the same thing, the comps, the filters, the eq, gain , pads….. I love channel strips, Ive had a few and in comparison to just using a bunch of single parts, like a preamp you’ll still want some eq, or comp. A channel strip has that already and if used in moderation its great having a great sound during tracking, like the old days.
    As for LED’s and displays, the Symetrix 528 e has LED’s for each step, deSSer led, comp Led, and gain led, and clip led in the preamp section…its really a great deal at $200 used.
    I had the joe Meek VC1Q and it was also very enjoyable, its just like hearing your mic through a pro-console. i love channel strips…

  • Psilas

    Well said Perry and a good choice of preamp.

    So much can be achieved in the box nowadays that a whole channel strip maybe redundant in a lot of cases.

    A pro level preamp ‘only’,allows for more manipulation in the box without too much artificial coloration pre production.

  • Mike Kocheran

    I LOVE my LA610. It sounds fantastic. I saw the picture and thought you got one Joe! I was getting excited for you! haha.

  • Ciao HSC Community 🙂

    I like to work with Channel Strips or pre: I had the chance to track often with Chamalon Labs 7602, Focusrite Voicemaster/Trakmaster/Twintrack/Octopre, Avalon 737, Golden Age Pre73, Presonus Studio Channel/BlueTube, TL audio A3… and guess what?

    Each and every time I finished to use them in “safe” modality, because when people is on a budget… they don’t want to spend 30 minutes to find the “perfect” sound… so no extreme setting: less gain, subtle/no compression, eq just to cut the unwonted freqs.

    And the “problem” is recall sheet: if you don’t use that, you’re lost!

    Maybe a week after you track a singer, he return to punch in a phrase… and if you don’t remember the settings… it could be difficult obtain the same timbre!

    So, I use this website to print recall sheet I need:

    http://www.barryrudolph.com/pages/recalldirectory.html

    Ciao,
    TAT 😉

    • Mark B.

      that’s incredibly handy, thanks for that! m

      • It’s simple to have the recall sheet of things you own, but when you work with other people, often they like to use their stuff…

        …and this is the site a friend shared with me last year, so I think it’s my turn to share with this beautiful Community 🙂

    • tech

      Punching in a phrase of a singer a week or even a day later will ALWAYS sound different. Once you have experience as a producer/technician you will know.

  • the ability to “undo” can be a life saver but…. it can also lead to problems. It can lead you to feel insecure if you don’t have that safety net. We’re making art here! You have to be gutsy. Not reckless but gutsy. Making decisions and sticking with them is empowering. I keeps you from getting bogged down in endless choices. This last year I upgraded my recording chain to a couple top notch mic, a super pre and the amazing PBC-6A compressor. It’s inspiring to record through this chain. It inspires me to make gutsy decisions and I have yet to regret any of them. Sure I’ve had to redo a few takes but I learned along the way. 🙂

  • Mike

    MMMMMMM…LA610 I’m jealous!!!

  • Manuel

    I think I´ll keep working with my Universal audio solo/610 for this record. There´s just to much I have to learn before the channel strip time for me =).
    thank you for the article

  • mark b

    I use a lexicon lambda, which isn’t a channel strip. but it has an insert that i use to throw on a comp, so i guess you sorta get a channel strip-esque thing going. no eq though. but you still have to be aware of how the comp is affecting the signal, because as you say–there’s no going back. i would be perfectly comfy with a good channel strip though, i actually think at some point i’d like to go that route. nice to have the option of adding a little flavor before you throw it in the pot.

  • One of the big differences between analog tape days and the way people record now is acquisition chain. To “hit” tape and do it well meant shaping the sound to minimize the inherent flaws of the medium. Digital has a different set of flaws, but the notion that all decisions should be saved for mixdown is a mistake, in my opinion. Channel strips — or really any chain of analog gear in front of your AD converter — give you the opportunity to present a more finished, “recorder ready” signal. Not that you want to paint yourself into a corner, but reaching for a sonic goal on a track by track basis (and hopefully hearing how it stacks up) is inevitable. So I say, be intentional when you record. And a channel strip can be an important ally to shape the sound you present to your AD.

  • The lack of ‘Undo’ funtionality has always been what made me hesitant about getting a channel strip. In fact, when I started out I wondered what the point was – why not just have raw audio and use the plugins?

    But I see now that they can add a certain flavour, and if you’re going to compress the vocal anyway, why not catch the peaks on the way in?

    I would like just one REALLY nice strip/preamp, maybe one of those tasty SSL Alphatracks with the digital outs…

  • Good thoughts again, Joe. When the economy get’s better and I start making some money again, I’d love to get either the UA unit that you were borrowing of the Avalon 737 as a mic-pre for my vocals. All the other processing can take place in the box as far as I’m concerned – in fact, I love the sound I get now without those types of units but I’d like to have one. I’d also like a stereo / two channel tube compressor so that can have two channels of compression for various things or bring a stereo mix out of the box, run it through that for some warmth and then back in. I can’t wait for the economy to get better.

  • Hey All,
    I’ve owned the EUREKA for a few yrs. now. And though alot of time it had to be sent back to pre-sonus, it’s worth it when it’s working right. Yes , it’s very distracting for to move just a notch on anything you can’t help but notice the difference. And the compressor is so colorful it gets me confused. But the sound we want is somewhere in that pile of circuits I believe; or why bother to mess with it?
    Take Care,
    TOMMY?><*&^%#@

  • Hey Joe,

    I’ve done away with the channel strip. In light of technological advances and changes in design, it seem to me that the industry is really moving toward classic mic preamps like API 312 and Focusrite ISA attached to powerful ADCs. This makes a hell of a lot of sense to me.

    Because, these manufacturers are also joining forces with some serious software developers to model the other components of their former channel strip + other hardware. And together with the Mic Pre/ADC front-end these powerful plugins make true classic or even vintage sound possible with non-destructive EQ + compression.

    For example, I own the Focusrite ISA One, I opted to use the Mytek two channel ADC over the ADC built into the ISA One. But lets say that we are just using the ISA One and no Mytek. From the ISA One you get the classic mic pre and line input sound of the Forte Console, Lundahl transformer and all. Then the Focusrite Forte Suite plugin set offers the EQ of the 110 and the compressor of the 430.

    It is a work around. But very effective IMHO.

    -Perry