Whether you record vocals and instruments in your studio or perform live, you need at minimum one channel strip to get the best sound possible. But which is the best channel strip, offering you the best suite of features at a reasonable price? In this article, we examine three popular channel strip models that all promise to offer outstanding performance without breaking your budget.
But what makes a great channel strip?
If you already know the answer to that question, feel free to skip the next section and go straight to the product reviews. If not, let’s take a closer look at what a channel strip does and what features are most important to consider…
What’s a Channel Strip?
Generally speaking, a channel strip amplifies a microphone or other audio input to a line level so it can be integrated into a mixing system. Originally a device included in a mixing console, one per input channel, it’s also available as a standalone rackmount unit.
A channel strip is built around a microphone preamplifier, with 48-volt phantom power for condenser mics. Preamp quality is the main consideration when choosing what gear to use in a particular situation. Most modern preamps use integrated circuits and are both transparent and quiet. Some have a vacuum tube stage that gives a warmer, more “classic” sound.
Keep an eye on the levels…
Usually, there’s a visual indicator to indicate audio level. This can be as simple as a single LED to show clipping or a full analog or LED VU meter.
Other features generally included are some form of an audio equalizer, a compressor, a noise gate/expander, and a de-esser, which helps eliminate vocal sibilance or high-frequency distortion from cymbals and other instruments.
For all these modules, more control is better; for example, an EQ section could be as simple as rumble and hiss filter switches, or a multiband parametric equalizer with full control of each band’s frequency, amplitude, and Q.
Basic standalone channel strips provide balanced analog input and output, while some offer digital output also. Most also include an Insert input to bypass the preamp and use just the audio processing circuits. Some models also include a USB interface, so the channel strip can also work as an audio interface for a computer.
And now, they include much more!
Many modern channel strips provide clever innovations made possible by computer technology. These include an LCD panel for precise editing, factory presets that can be modified, saved, and recalled from the front panel or with MIDI Program Change messages, built-in pitch correction, microphone modeling, and much more.
A final consideration, other than price, is physical size. A studio environment might require four or more identical units or a mix of several brands. Small channel strips occupy a single rack unit, while more complex units take up three or four spaces. This is especially critical for mobile applications.
Now let’s take a look at three favorite real-world channel strips…
A Selection of the Best Channel Strips in 2021 Review
1 DBX 286s Preamplifier Channel Strip Mic Pre Amp w/ 2x 25’ XLR Cables – Best Budget Channel Strip
The dx 286s, the least expensive option we reviewed, is a full-featured mono microphone preamp and channel strip processor that provides a studio-quality microphone/instrument preamplifier, plus four processors that can be used independently or in combination. And an insert path lets you include external processors.
Get rid of the rumble…
Inputs and outputs are all on the back panel, with an XLR microphone input connector and quarter-inch TRS jacks for Line Input, Insert, and Output. The preamp section provides an input gain control, switchable 48V phantom power, and an 80Hz high-pass filter to reduce hum and rumble.
With a wide frequency response of 22Hz – 22kHz, it’s also extremely quiet, with Equivalent Input Noise (EIN) of -125 dB.
Plenty of control over your sound…
The patented OverEasy compressor provides up to 4:1 (30 dB) compression to smooth out uneven acoustic or vocal tracks. The de-esser is adjustable from 800Hz to 12kHz.
The Enhancer is a two-band EQ section that provides a bell-shaped boost at 80 Hz and a high-frequency shelf boost. And the Expander/Gate has individual threshold and ratio controls to help clean up muddy low midrange frequencies.
The best affordable channel strip you can buy…
There’s an eight-segment LED for the compressor but only a clip indicator for the output. It takes up very little space, just a single rack unit (1.75 inches), and is relatively inexpensive, so it’s practical to have several in your rack. On the minus side, there’s no output meter, and you can’t save and recall settings.
This comes as a convenient package that includes two 25-feet XLR cables. You can also purchase the DBX 286sx without cables.
- Quiet, transparent preamp.
- Excellent value.
- No way to store and recall presets.
- No output meter.
3 Tascam TA-1VP Rackmount Vocal Producer Processor with Antares Autotune – Best Vocal Channel Strip
The TASCAM TA-1VP vocal processor was developed in cooperation with Antares Audio Technologies. The microphone preamp has at least 120 dB of dynamic range and a 98 dB signal-to-noise ratio.
Many audio processing functions are included:
- Antares Auto-Tune, with chromatic and 24 customizable diatonic scales, with retune speed and pitch detection sensitivity, plus a Double Track feature;
- Antares Microphone Modeling to simulate a large selection of studio mics with variable proximity effect;
- Sophisticated 2-band parametric multimode EQ;
- Compression with variable threshold, compression ratio (up to 99:1), attack and release time, and knee sharpness;
- A variable-frequency (2,971Kz – 20kHz) de-esser;
- A variable gate.
The XLR microphone input is conveniently located on the front panel. On the back are a TRS balanced analog Line input, and Main and Double Track outputs. The TA-1VP also provides an RCA jack for digital S/PDIF output.
This unit also has MIDI In and Out for remote preset control, a 1/4-inch jack for a remote control footswitch, and 25-pin parallel, RS-232C, and Ethernet ports.
The front panel provides plenty of visual feedback, including a main 2 x 20-character LCD, five-segment input, output and compressor, and de-esser gain reduction LED meters, and a four-segment pitch correction indicator.
The TA-1VP comes pre-programmed with 35 factory presets that are optimized for vocals, drums, bass, instruments, and special effects. Any of these presets can be overwritten and saved for later recall.
There’s little to be said against it, except that it’s not your least expensive option. Also, it’s a mono unit, so for stereo drums or instruments, you’ll need to use two with the same presets. However, since it takes up just a single rack unit, space shouldn’t be a problem.
- Built-in Antares Autotune and Microphone Modeler.
- 35 rewritable presets.
- MIDI control.
- More expensive.
- Mono only.
4 ART VoiceChannel Tube Channel Strip with Digital Outs – Best Tube Channel Strip
The ART VoiceChannel is the priciest channel strip we reviewed, but not by much. Its unique design, a mix of classic and state of the art engineering, might make it the one you’re looking for.
The preamplifier employs a real vacuum tube with adjustable plate voltage. The sound isn’t completely neutral, providing much of the warmth typical of tube circuits. For convenience, there are analog XLR input jacks on both the front and the back, along with a TRS jack.
The VoiceChannel also has a dazzling assortment of controls, with 17 knobs and ten buttons. The preamplifier provides variable input impedance (from 150 to 3.4k ohms), a phase inversion switch, a 100Hz rumble filter, and a -20 dB pad switch for exceptionally hot mics.
Let’s get dynamic…
The Dynamics section includes a compressor with adjustable threshold, ratio, attack and release, an expander/gate, and a de-esser with variable frequency and strength. A 20-segment LED meter lets you know how much the signal is being modified.
ART calls the four-band equalizer section “semi-parametric.” This means that the frequencies of the two midrange bands can be continually adjusted, while switches set the low and high bands to 50/150Hz and 5kHz/15kHz. EQ can be switched to pre or post-compression, and there’s also a bypass switch.
Fully-loaded output options
The VoiceChannel output section has more surprises. It provides both balanced analog and all common digital output formats. For analog output, both TRS and XLR connectors are provided. It also includes a USB connection, so it can be used as an audio interface with your favorite digital audio workstation at sample rates up to 48kHz.
The output level control, which affects all outputs, is extremely convenient for optimizing the output for different system levels.
Output metering includes both a large, old-school analog VU meter and an LED bar graph meter that clearly indicates clipping. A sample rate/dither switch that sets the rate for AES/EBU, S/PDIF, and ADAT digital outputs. A switch lets you select ADAT or TOSLink optical out.
Get your bits in order…
The VoiceChannel can be synchronized to a master clock source through its Wordclock In connection. An additional Thru jack lets you use it in a clocking loop. In addition, the ADAT input can be used to sync to systems using ADAT optical connectors.
With all the added connectivity, this unit takes up three rack units, which may not seem too big until you need four of them. And while it’s outstanding for microphones, the tube preamp and lack of presets make it less versatile as a general-purpose channel strip.
- Tube preamp with adjustable impedance.
- Four-band EQ.
- All digital outputs with adjustable sample rate.
- USB interface.
- Preamp sound isn’t as neutral as solid-state devices.
- No presets.
- More expensive.
Looking for more superb equipment for the perfect take?
Then check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Microphone Preamps, the Best USB Audio Interfaces, the Best Audio Mixers, the Best Powered Speakers, and the Best Studio Monitor Speakers you can buy in 2021.
And, you’ll also need a selection of quality microphones. So, take a look at the Best Kick Drum Mic, Best Microphones Recording Electric Guitar, the Best Vocal Mics, the Best Dynamic Microphones, and the Best Snare Mic currently available to upgrade your mic locker.
So, what is the Best Channel Strip?
Rather than choosing one “winner” in this category, we believe it’s more useful to show how each of these channel strips might be the best choice for a particular situation.
Best Low Cost Channel Strip
The dbx 286s is an excellent choice if you’re looking for a compact, high-quality general-purpose channel strip for vocals and instruments at a very attractive price point. You won’t get presets or output metering, but it’s very useful for many applications and inexpensive enough to buy more than one.
Best All-Around Channel Strip
The Tascam TA-1VP is absolutely loaded with features: Autotune, Microphone Modeling, Double Track, editable presets, and MIDI control, to name a few. It’s versatile enough to work well with all instruments but excels at vocals.
Best Vocal Microphone Preamp/Channel Strip
The ART VoiceMaster has the most sophisticated circuitry for capturing a perfect performance, including a real vacuum tube in the preamp. It can handle virtually every analog or digital format. Although it’s not sonically transparent, its slightly warm character makes it ideal for vocal recording. And it can double as an audio interface for a DAW.
Channel strips are an important component of any studio or live setup. Whether you opt for a full-featured unit with detailed control over every possible nuance of an audio signal or a simple, cost-effective device with a good preamp and just the basics, a channel strip will help you dial in the exact sound you’re looking for.