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5 Favorite Channel Strip Plugins (+ Mix Tips)

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Before the days of large recording consoles, mixers comprised of modular amplifiers (such as the groundbreaking 610 by Bill Putnam Sr. and Universal Audio, which included a preamp, equalizer, three program outputs and an echo send) were used to send and process individual channels of audio. Technology (and the associated vernacular) evolved, and dedicated recording consoles comprised of individual channel strips were developed and used to record and mix many of the popular records created in the 60s, 70s, 80s and beyond.

Engineers at EMI created the tube-based REDD (1958) and transistor-based TG12345 (1968) consoles, which were subsequently utilized on records by The Beatles, Pink Floyd and so many more. Also in the 60s, a company by the name of Electrodyne created Quad-Eight consoles, which were ordered by film companies, record labels and live music venues.

Electrodyne Quad Eight

A 1968 Electrodyne Quad Eight Console

In 1967, the first console designed by Saul Walker’s Automated Processes Incorporated, otherwise known as API, was sold to Apostolic Studios in New York City. API has since gone on to develop some of the most sought after audio equipment, including their 1608 Console, 2500 Compressor and 500 Series Equalizers.

Consoles designed by Rupert Neve caught on in the 1970s, beginning with the A88 which was created for London’s Wessex Studios. This was the first of many Neve consoles which featured 1073 preamps, which have since become iconic. They can now be purchased as standalone rack units and 500 series modules. Rupert Neve went on to contribute his designs to several other reputable audio hardware companies, several of which we will cover later in this article.

A rack full of AMS Neve 1073 Preamps

A rack full of AMS Neve 1073 Preamps

In 1979, England’s Solid State Logic, or SSL, released their SL 4000 E Series. In addition to a versatile equalizer, capable of both precise and broad-stroke moves, every channel on the E Series featured a dynamics section. The board also housed the classic stereo bus compressor, helping engineers create clean, punchy and cohesive mixes.

ssl buss compressor

The famed SSL stereo bus compressor

If not for financial mismanagement, Electrodyne might have gone on to become more of a household name, sharing ranks with the “big three” of Neve, API and SSL. That said, through the decades there were plenty of additional companies that designed recording and mixing consoles featuring high quality channel strips. While music production has undoubtedly changed due to digital technology, there’s arguably no substitute for the sonics and flexibility a professionally designed and built console, loaded up with channel strips. Truthfully though, many of us don’t have the space and/or budget to justify housing a console in our studios, so it’s fortunate for us that many digital audio software makers have created channel strip plugins. Now we can harness the flexibility and sonic characteristics of classic channel strips without the exorbitant costs of maintenance and constantly running A/C — the latter can cost thousands per month.

Beneath is a roundup of my favorite channel strip plugins. I’ve also included tips on how I utilize them when recording and mixing.

1. Universal Audio API Vision Channel Strip Collection

This channel strip has it all — a beautiful preamp section based on the classic API 212L, the punch of the 225L compressor circuit, the precision and expressiveness of the 235L gate/expander along with the color and clarity of the 550L and 560L equalizers. The Vision Channel Strip is a supremely versatile tool, no matter what sound source you’re working with. It can add serious thump to kick drums, snappiness to snares, you can crush and saturate overheads or rooms, add detail and clarity to vocals… There’s nothing this channel strip can’t do well. I often use it in unison mode when recording with my Apollo x8p, a unique technology that allows me to harness the flexibility and sonic mojo of this and several other classic channel strips, all within a convenient single rack space audio interface.

Production Tip

When pushed hard, the 212L preamp has an impressively thick crunch to it. Utilize this powerful sound to add weight to drums, bass and other sound sources that need some low end heft.

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UA api_vision_collection

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2. Brainworx bx_console Focusrite SC

Focusrite was born from the Beatles’ producer George Martin approaching Rupert Neve, hoping to acquire a preamp/equalizer module for his AIR Montserrat studio. This collaboration resulted in the Focusrite ISA-110, which had a transformer-coupled mic preamp paired with a four-band EQ plus high-pass and low-pass filters. This musical-sounding unit was just the beginning for Focusrite, which went on to craft sought after recording equipment including several consoles which were used to track bands including Green Day, No Doubt and plenty of other artists.

Thanks to Brainworx’s pioneering and patented Tolerance Modeling Technology, this plugin gives users access to the sound of 72 separate channels of the legendary Focusrite studio console, which includes ISA 110 equalizers and ISA 130 dynamics modules. Every one of bx_console Focusrite SC’s 72 channels offers a different channel from the console by modeling the slight channel-to-channel variances amongst the analog components.

PA_bx_console_Focusrite_sc

Mix Tip

The expander, which can be found within the dynamics module, is great for adding some “thwack” to lackluster kicks, snares, and room mics.

George Martin with Focusrite ISA 110

The late, great George Martin holding a Focusrite ISA 110 EQ and Preamp, seated next to a Focusrite console

3. Soundtoys Effect Rack (With a Bit of Creativity)

Okay, hear me out. While Soundtoys hasn’t (yet) offered a channel strip plugin per se, you can create your own by inserting several of their excellent plugins into their revolutionary Effect Rack. Start with the Radiator as a preamplifier and broad stroke equalizer, add Devil-Loc for any compression duties, and simply dial the mix knob back since it tends to be a very aggressive sound. Then, use the Sie-Q for more surgical equalization. While this approach lacks the precision of some of the aforementioned channel strip plugins, it more than makes up for it in vibe.

Mix Tip

One of the many great things about the Effect Rack is that you can place the plugins in whichever order you see fit. If you’d like to compress last (or first), you can absolutely do so. Or maybe you want to insert an instance of Decapitator (one of my favorite saturation plugins) to glue together all the processing you’ve applied to your track. Simply click and drag the individual plugins, listen to how the changes in order affect your signals, and tweak until you’re happy.

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Soundtoys Effect Rack

4. Brainworx bx_console AMEK 9099

Perhaps the most feature-laden channel strip found within this roundup, the AMEK 9099 from Brainworx/Plugin Alliance offers tons of precision, flexibility and fantastic sound quality, assuming you are willing to put in the time to orient yourself to the jam-packed user interface and learn what each of its impressive modules can do. Based on the 9098i console designed by Rupert Neve, this plugin sports a compressor, limiter, clipper, 4-band EQ, wide-ranging high-pass and low-pass filters and a newly designed expander/gate.

While audio quality takes precedent over visual aesthetics, the plugin was recently updated to include three separate “skins.” Access used, new, and dark modes by clicking “UI” to the top right and selecting your preference.

Mix Tip

Tighten up unruly low end by utilizing the mono-maker feature, which converts all frequencies beneath the level at which it is set into mono, preventing an overwhelming amount of low frequencies from eating up precious headroom in the sides. This allows for a tighter, clearer stereo image.

Additionally, the limiter section has a “clip” option, which can add saturation when driven hard. If you’ve got a track that could benefit from an extra bit of harmonic content, you might want to consider this feature.

Brainworx bx_console-AMEK-9099

5. iZotope Neutron 3

Marketed as “the channel strip of the future,” Neutron 3 doesn’t look anything like a module found within an analog console, but it remains an impressively robust music mixing tool. You could likely strap an instance of Neutron 3 on each and every track within a session and not need to reach for another plugin while mixing, save for perhaps time-based effects such as reverb and delay. Neutron 3 also has several features that none of the previously mentioned channel strips do. The AI-powered Mix Assistant balances your track volumes, suggesting an initial level mix after one listen, and the Masking Meter lets you know which tracks have conflicting frequency-based content.

Mix Tip

While the Mix Assistant and Masking Meter are wonderful tools, I never treat them as gospel. I’ll analyze my tracks with them, use the feedback that they provide, and make changes based on my own preferences. While I  gladly incorporate AI-assisted plugins into my workflow, they are no substitute for my own musical intuition.

iZotope Neutron 3

Ian Vargo

Ian Vargo is a Producer, Mixer and Audio Professor based in Los Angeles. He has worked on numerous major label and independent records. Get in touch on his website or learn more from him in Mastering in the Box and Mixing Pop.