During the past decade or so, channel strips have skyrocketed in popularity, especially with the rise of console-less, DAW-based production. But the concept of the channel strip is hardly new, going back to the early 1980s with the Symetrix 528 voice processor (now in its fifth generation), which combined a mic pre, compressor/limiter, parametric EQ, expander and de-esser in a single-rackspace chassis.
Originally intended to overcome the vocal-processing limitations of simple broadcast mixers, the notion of the voice processor/channel strip caught on. In applications well beyond the broadcast realm, channel strips are a common element in all forms of production, whether as front ends for DAW recording systems or in live sound situations, essentially becoming a “money channel,” the premium input path for featured vocalists. Housed in a single rackspace (or more) and combined with a favorite vocal mic, a channel strip can bring a consistent sound to the touring engineer who may have to deal with a different P.A. system every night.
Channel strips range from a straightforward mic preamp-plus-equalizer unit to products incorporating versatile dynamics sections and occasionally digital I/O stages. Onboard equalization may be as simple as a single highpass filter to roll-off low-frequency grunge, or as elaborate as fully parametric control. Additionally, products with insert jacks, patch points and onboard routing provide greater flexibility that provides access to individual sections and processing sidechains, but may also allow users the ability to change the order of the processing chain itself. And these are not just for vocals and miked elements—high-impedance, ¼-inch direct inputs for instruments and line input jacks on most channel strips open entire new avenues for creative processing, whatever the source.
Today, there are dozens of models available in nearly every flavor (and price range) imaginable—vintage-style or modern, single or multichannel, tube or solid-state, with simple or elaborate filter sections, and smooth optical or fast-reacting FET dynamics. With nearly 50 manufacturers offering products, we decided to focus on the top-of-the-line channel strips from each and found a lot of great gear, which is listed in the chart.
executive editor George Petersen also runs a small record label .