Learn some of the ways in which channel strip plugins can enhance your mixing approach, helping you to mix more efficiently and effectively.
Anyone who’s mixed on a full size studio mixing desk will be familiar with mixing using channel strips. This method of mixing is not exclusive to hardware equipment, though. There is a new generation of channel strip plugins that offer many of the same technical, sonic and workflow advantages as their physical counterparts.
In this article, we’re going to explore the many uses of this style of plugin, and suggest some of the ways in which channel strip plugins can enhance your mixing approach, helping you to work more efficiently and more effectively.
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1. They Keep Your Most Important Tools in One Place
One of the more obvious advantages to using channel strip plugins, is how they can streamline your workflow: A single plugin gives you immediate access to a number of key mixing processes. Depending on which channel strip you’re using, you’re likely to get a combination of core mixing tools such as EQs, filters and compressors, as well as more specialist processors such as gates, de-essers, stereo enhancers and saturation.
Compared with loading up a whole separate plugin to quickly tweak an EQ band or your compressor’s threshold, this can make it quicker to move between processes. Additionally, rather than having to buy individual plugins to meet all your mixing needs, you can invest in a single channel strip and be confident that you’re getting everything you need in one neat package. This might mean a channel strip plugin is of excellent value for your needs.
Additionally, having a single interface for a range of processes means you can more easily A/B multiple processes at once. You can either use the usual A/B functionality that is present in most Waves plugins, or bypass the plugin entirely to directly compare the dry and wet signals.
2. Restrictions can Streamline Your Decision Making when Mixing
You might be thinking that the processing tools within any given channel strip plugin will have fewer controls and less versatility than the equivalent standalone processor. While that might be true in some cases, having some limitations can actually improve your overall mix workflow.
With the near endless number of tools at our disposal, along with the ever-increasing power of our computers, it can be easy to get caught up in adding more and more plugins to a channel in the hope that it will magically mend a mix. Often, all we really need is a few high-quality plugins that we know inside out. This allows us to make conscious and objective decisions about what our mix needs as opposed to falling into the trap of overprocessing everything. And if you do need something very specific to tackle a particular problem, there’s nothing to stop you from applying that processing before or after the channel strip.
In the case of Scheps Omni Channel 2, though, you also get the option to add almost any Waves or third-party VST3 plugin as an insert. Not only that, but you can capitalize on the plugin’s modular architecture and place the inserted plugin anywhere within the signal chain.
Here, we’re applying some saturation, filtering, EQ and compression to our bass using Scheps Omni Channel 2. As well as the even harmonics being added by the channel strip’s Pre module, adding some tape saturation will help to thicken out and saturate the low end with both even and odd harmonics. Placing the Waves J37 Tape plugin before the EQ as an insert means that we can still EQ the saturated signal, all within this single channel strip.
3. They Offer Various Modes for Maximum Versatility
The primary strength of some channel strip plugins – such as the various SSL plugins, CLA MixHub, the Abbey Road TG Mastering Chain, or Kramer HLS Channel – is that they’ve been developed to sound true to the hardware original. Channel strip emulations are focused on accurately capturing the sound of a very specific piece of hardware.
Alternatively, some channel strips are designed to sound like a particular piece of hardware history, but add on some additional variants or modes which offer more options in terms of how they sound and behave. This not only adds to the sonic versatility of the plugin, but also allows us to experiment with various modes at the click of the mouse.
For example, Scheps Omni Channel 2 gives us a choice of four styles of compression and saturation, four filter slopes to choose from, and a range of stereo processing options per module including stereo, dual mono and mid/side. The benefit of this is that we can process different areas of the stereo field in different ways providing much more control.
With Scheps Omni Channel 2 on our drum buss, we can choose to apply EQ in mid/side mode. We’ve taken some low end out of the sides, and accentuated everything below 100Hz in the middle of the drum mix. We’ve also removed some mud in the middle, around 350Hz, and controlled some of the harshness too.
Leaving the Compressor module after the EQ and in stereo mode, we can apply some subtle glue compression to the overall stereo signal in order to help the drum buss to gel together into a more cohesive mix. Having this level of granular control means we can get really in-depth with our mix, applying each mix process to only the parts of the stereo field that require it.
The SSL EV2 Channel gives us a different kind of choice, and actually lets us choose between two different types of EQ from SSL’s history. Using the EQ Type section at the top of the plugin we can select the Brown Knob or Black Knob EQs.
The Brown Knob EQ is modeled on the original SSL 4000 E Channel strip, and is characterized by a wide, gritty but musical shape and sound. The Black Knob EQ was introduced more recently, and is considered to be cleaner and more surgical than its predecessor. Having the choice of both of these EQ styles within a single plugin grants more flexibility while mixing.
4. Flexible Routing Options Allow for More Applications
Many channel strip options allow you to reroute the signal flow within the plugin, depending on any given mixing circumstance. For example, you might want to place the dynamics processor pre-EQ, or vice versa. With the SSL channel strip plugins that have been developed in close collaboration with Solid State Logic themselves, this is as simple as pressing a single button.
An example of where this might be particularly useful is when applying dynamics processing to elements with unwanted frequencies at the very top or bottom of the frequency spectrum, such as piano or guitar recordings. By default, the SSL G-Channel’s signal flows from the dynamics section, into the filters and finally into the EQ section. But with the Split button engaged within the Filter section, the signal is rerouted from the filter into the dynamics, then into the EQs.
This means we can remove the unwanted frequencies from the signal before it hits the dynamics section, meaning that the compressor is responding only to the information that we want it to.
5. They Encourage Familiarity, for Faster Workflow
To the untrained eye, a hardware mixing desk can look like an impossible labyrinth of knobs and buttons. But once you understand one channel’s controls, you understand the rest of the desk too. By the same token, using the same channel strip on each channel can create a sense of familiarity and muscle-memory that is unachievable when using a mish-mash of plugins from a range of developers.
Once you become accustomed to a specific channel strip and how it works, reaching for a particular control will become second nature, thus making your mixing workflow more enjoyable and more efficient. This is particularly true of the Abbey Road EMI TG12345 Channel, whose straightforward interface is a breeze to work with.
6. They Can Help to Create Cohesion Between Elements
Another positive to using the same channel strip plugin on each channel within your mix, is that before even applying any processing, the plugin will impart its own unique tone and flavor onto the mix. When mixing a track through a hardware mixing console, the outputted signal can take on the sonic signature of that particular mixer. Using the same channel strip plugin throughout a mix can have the same effect.
This is particularly true of analog modeled channel strip plugins, such as the Magma Tube Channel Strip or Abbey Road TG Mastering Chain. Applying the same tone and color to your mix with matching channel strips can help to make your mix sound more glued and natural.
If you like the idea of achieving a unique, analog-style tone in your mixes, why not read further about how you can build a vintage studio within your DAW.
7. Tip: Create Contrast for Interest and Excitement
On the other side of the coin to the previous tip, if you want a particular element of your mix to stand out from other components, you can try using a different channel strip on that particular channel. Each channel strip sounds slightly different, so this can give any given component a distinctive edge that helps the listener to distinguish it from other elements.
For example, if you’re mixing a pop track and you want to draw more attention to the lead vocal, you might choose to place something more colorful like the Magma Tube on the vocal, and something cleaner, like the SSL-EV2 in Black Knob Mode on the rest of the mix, or vice versa.
Whatever your current mixing toolkit and workflow, a channel strip plugin could make that process more streamlined and more fun. If you want to find out how a channel strip plugin can help you to craft better mixes more quickly, you can try any of our channel strip plugins for free. Or, start a free trial of the Waves Ultimate subscription, which includes all of them.