Are Channel Strips Worth It (Do Even You Need a Channel Strip Plugin)?

by ReverbLxnd in Mixing

Why do pro mixers love using channel strips? Let's see whether channel strips are worth buying for music production and audio work today.

Pro mixers love using channel strips.

The reason is because when pros listen to the source tracks that they are mixing, they don’t think about the processing in single steps, such as EQ first then compress, and so on. They’ve already decided the entire processing chain.

In today’s article, we’ll look at channel strips and channel strip plugins — what they are, and whether they are worth it in your music production.

So don’t go anywhere.

What is a Channel Strip (Is it Just a Preamp)?

Channel strips and preamps are two slightly different things that have a lot in common.

Preamps come in lots of different forms. They basically boost the signal from your mic so your DAW can pick it up. Channel strips have a bit more to them.

Traditionally, a channel refers to one input channel of a mixing console. This name come about because mixing consoles were often laid out in columns (called strips) with the signal flowing top to bottom. Channel strips have been used in mix consoles for decades.

These days, channel strips are incorporated into lots of into rack gear too.

A channel strip is basically a series of audio processors all grouped together in one unit. That unit can be a hardware unit, built into a DAW or a VST/plugin.

Think of a channel strip as an multi-tool for processing audio.

A channel strip comes with three modules — a preamp module, an EQ module and a compressor module. Most channel strips also a gate module, phantom power and gain on the preamp and a couple of other things builtin.

That means a channel strip will be able to amplify or attenuate sources, equalize, compress and sometimes gate from a single interface or unit.

In the days before DAWs, channel strips were particularly useful because when you had tape machines, you needed someway to interface all of those channels coming from the tape machine, and process them before they were summed together and recorded onto a smaller two-track tape machine which would then end up as Vinyls.

Obviously these days in a DAW, you have a digital mixing console of sorts.

What is a Channel Strip VST / Plugin?

Channel strip VSTs or plugins are programs that emulate channel strips on a mixing console.

When channel strip plugins first came out, they were all the rage because people were moving from large format mixing consoles to in-the-box and people really enjoyed the work flow (the work flow is still maintained to this day).

Most DAW come with stock channel strips but you can get VST plugins that work exactly the same.

For instance, the Cubase channel strip is conveniently housed in a number of different locations making it readily available for your mixing. In the mix console, you simply click on the strip tab to reveal the dropdown channel strip with each individual element. As you click on a element, you can see the parameters which you can start editing.

In a DAW, there’s to many ways you can access a channel strip to cover here. For most DAWs, this shouldn’t be that hard to figure out, for the most part. The trick is to undertstand signal flow in your specific DAW.

Another thing to realise is that you can use channel strips AND inserts. You don’t have to forgo your favorite plugin when using channel strips.

Channel strips allow you to use the inserts in the actual channel strip itself. This way, we can get access to plugins made available as channel strip inserts.

You can get in and edit all of the individual parameters in your plugin, as you normally would. You can even side-chain it if you prefer a sidechain setup.

If you don’t like a plugin insert, you can go in and swap it with another or swap the channel you are applying it to.

Are Channel Strips Worth It?

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I’m a huge fan of simplicity.

This won’t make sense while you’re getting started but once you’ve figured out your process, it makes sense to start simplifying. All you want to do is churn out killer mixes, without having to move everything around too much.

It’s far too easy to accumulate a ton of plugins and really only end up using a handful.

This is where a channel strip comes in.

You can change the order of these modules, but the idea is the more you use a channel strip, the more familiar you’ll become with how these audio processes fit together.

The more you use a channel strip, the more you’ll understand that grouping audio processes together is like glueing your workflow together into a single process.

A channel strip is really designed to make our workflow much simpler and easier because we don’t need to keep reaching for insert. With a channel strip, you are mixing on the fly without having to think about adding to searching for inserts because everything is all in one place.

Most stock channel strips also come with so many different presets that are setup by professional engineers to help you find a starting point with your mixes when you are using the channel strip.

The whole point of the channel strip is that everything works together, and if something doesn’t work, you simply take it out of the signal chain.

While it’s certainly the case that you add lots and lots of customizations and inserts in your DAW today, that doesn’t mean there is no place for a trusty channel strip.

There is a certain simplicity and restrictions imposed by a channel strip that can make sure you are not overprocessing a source.

Take a EQ for instance, you are able to add almost infinite number of bands of EQ. Sometimes this ends up making things worse. With channel strip, you’re usually restricted to 6 bands of EQ. That’s usually enough for any sound source.

The same can be said of the rest of your processing too, if you can’t get a source to sound good with a trusty channel strip, maybe you have more than a few skills you need to work on.

Sometimes, the restrictions a channel strip provides can be just the thing you need.

In Conclusion

Using a channel strip is one of the best ways handling your entire mixing workflow (gain, EQ, compression and gate etc.) with a single plugin.

Channel strip plugins are a very simple and efficient way to mix. They really simplify your workflow and they work particularly well with mixing vocal tracks.

As I said before, the whole point of the channel strip is that everything works together. You simply yank whatever doesn’t work out of your workflow.

I hope that gives you a pretty good idea of what a channel strip is and how it can help you in your music production and audio work. Although this is introductory; it should be enough to build on in coming articles.

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That’s it for this article.


I've been a musician and brought in my stuff for mixing and mastering, I've been my own producer where I wrote, recorded, mixed and sold my own stuff. Now, I'm *mostly* an audio engineer, where I only record and mix for clients. I'm currently based in Berlin, Germany, where I operate ReverbLand out of. Got a question? DM me on Instagram or Twitter @reverblxnd everywhere, or shoot me an email I'd love to hear from you.

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