Channel Strip Surfing

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Whether you were an early adopter of mixing in the box or you were dragged kicking and screaming into the console-free world, you're sure to appreciate the utility of channel strip plug-ins. These processors — which help simulate the signal path of a hardware mixing console — combine a compressor, equalizer and a gain stage, and they often tack on a gate, a limiter and more. While some people may consider them jacks of all trades but masters of none, I love the workflow efficiency they provide. Although the elite EQs and dynamics plug-ins on the market will cost you top dollar, you can find plenty of worthy software channel strips that are quite reasonably priced. It is that segment of the market where this comparison test is focused.

I limited my choices to those plug-ins that work without extra DSP hardware, are available for individual purchase and cost less than $350. Some of them are also offered as part of larger bundles. With the exception of the Mac-only Metric Halo ChannelStrip, these plug-ins run on both Mac and Windows, and all are AU/RTAS/VST-compatible except for the RTAS-only McDSP Channel G Compact.

I did my testing in Ableton Live 8 and/or Pro Tools LE 7.3.1 on a 4-core 3GHz Mac Pro running OS 10.5.7. To compare CPU usage, I used a 16-track session with an instance of each respective plug-in on each instrument track, as well as the master fader. The following are my reviews of the five products, presented in alphabetical order by manufacturer. The prices quoted here are direct from the manufacturers.

McDSP Channel G Compact Native

Like the URS Classic Console Strip, which I'll cover later in this story, the McDSP Channel G Compact Native ($295, requires iLok) is a feature-reduced, less-CPU-intensive version of a premium plug-in — in this case, Channel G Native ($495). Channel G Compact doesn't feel like a limited version. It has a beautiful sound, a sharp interface (see Fig. 1) and a formidable amount of functionality.

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FIG. 1: With flexible signal routing, excellent EQ modes and high-end sound, McDSP Channel G Compact is hard to beat for Pro Tools LE users.

Its signal path begins and ends with input and output gain knobs. A Filter section then gives you 12dB or 24dB low-cut and high-cut filters, which can be bypassed. Both filters have frequency knobs, and the filter input can be either the original or a sidechain input.

You can select the input for the compressor/limiter from the original signal, the compressor's own output, a sidechain input or the filter section output. Parameters include knee, attack, gain, ratio, release and threshold. The compressor can be bypassed or placed pre- or post-EQ. Each of the four EQ bands includes Q, frequency, gain and bypass controls, while the low and high bands have switches that toggle between parametric and shelving EQ types. There are also six EQ modes from which you can choose. Music and Post modes are McDSP originals, and the others are based on popular consoles: Type E (SSL E Series), Type G (SSL G Series), Type N (a hybrid Neve setting) and Type A (API 550).

Channel G Compact includes two displays: One shows multiple level meters, and the other toggles between showing the internal signal path of your current settings and the frequency graphs of the comp/limiter, EQ and filter sections.

Although Channel G Compact comes with only 32 presets, they are well-organized into six folders and provide good inspiration for your own settings. I really liked loading a preset and then flicking between the EQ modes; the aggressive SSL modes contrast particularly well with the more subdued API setting. I also love the McDSP sound, and Channel G Compact keeps that sound well intact even though it's a limited version of another plug-in. This was one of my favorites of the bunch for placing over multitrack sessions (see Web Clip 1). A drawback is that this plug-in is RTAS-only so it can only be used in Digidesign Pro Tools.

Metric Halo ChannelStrip Native

The main components of ChannelStrip Native ($345, see Fig. 2) from Metric Halo are an expander/gate, compressor and 6-band parametric EQ. There's also a 255-sample delay for time alignment or to compensate for other plug-ins in your mix.

The expander/gate has threshold, attack and release controls, as well as a selectable sidechain with gain, frequency and bandwidth controls for the single-band sidechain filter. ChannelStrip's compressor has threshold, ratio, attack and release controls, as well as a sidechain just like in the expander/gate. Additional controls let you place the compressor post-EQ in the chain, set auto or manual makeup gain and set the compression character to Smooth, Warm or Fast.

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FIG. 2: Metric Halo ChannelStrip''s generous 6-band EQ, Graphs section and formidable sound make it a well-rounded contender.

A generous 6-band parametric EQ gives you plenty of tone-shaping control. You get on/off buttons for each EQ band, as well as for the entire EQ section. Each band can be set to one of six filter types: parametric, high-cut, low-cut, high-shelf, low-shelf or bandpass. Finally, each band gets gain, frequency and bandwidth controls. A Graphs section shows you what the entire EQ curve looks like, making this section extremely powerful. Graphs also represent the gate and compressor sections.

Metric Halo providees 120 well-realized presets, including many for different types of drums, guitars and de-essing needs. There are also a few designed for specific genres, specialty instruments or for the master bus. Rather than a single alphabetically ordered list, I'd like to see presets organized in folders by type.

Sonically, ChannelStrip does not disappoint. I wouldn't say it has a distinctive sound, but rather that it boosts, cuts, beefs up and/or tones down where you need it to and then gets out of the way (see Web Clip 2). Its functionality strikes a nice balance between hardware-style simplicity and visual illustration. My complaint is that the interface feels dated, which isn't a purely aesthetic concern. Being easy on the eyes quite literally means that an interface design's colors, writing and graphics prevent eye strain, but ChannelStrip's tiny numbers and scrunched controls can be squint-inducing, even on a large, high-end monitor. And plug-ins with more state-of-the-art designs have passed by ChannelStrip in areas such as preset management. Thankfully, ChannelStrip's 39-page PDF manual gives you ample, clearly written instruction.

Eds. Note: An Apple GarageBand-only version of this plug-in, with all the same functionality, is available for $89.

Nomad Factory Studio Channel SC-226

Putting forth a vintage vibe, both visually and sonically, Nomad Factory's Studio Channel SC-226 ($149, requires iLok; see Fig. 3) attempts to recreate classic tube-based analog compressor/EQ units. The stereo channel supports 24-bit, 192kHz audio and should appeal to those looking for straightforward-yet-still-powerful sound-shaping. SC-226 is also available as part of the company's Analog Signature Pack ($287), which includes Limiting Amplifier LM-662 and Program Equalizer EQP-4.

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FIG. 3: An attractive vintage approach, including a great tube-emulation effect, draws praise for Nomad Factory Studio Channel SC-226.

In addition to input and output level controls, SC-226 includes a brickwall limiter switch, phase-inverter switch, VU-style level meter and a Power (bypass) button. The compressor includes continuous knobs for threshold (0 to -70 dB) and ratio (1:1 to 10:1), and 13-position switches for attack (1 to 500 ms) and release (50 to 6,000 ms).

The 4-band EQ section is switchable from shelving to peaking types on the bass and treble bands. (The mid bands are always peaking.) Each of the four EQ bands has an on/off switch, a gain/cut amount knob and a 13-position Freq switch for determining the frequency for that EQ band. In addition, the EQ section as a whole has an optional high-pass filter with five settings and a switch for applying compression before or after the EQ.

The jewel of SC-226 is the 12AX7, a tube-emulation/saturation effect. When the effect is turned on, a slider controls the amount of tube emulation, which creates warmth and distortion based on vintage tube gear. This effect ranges from soft and subtle to quite harsh, and I really enjoyed using it. For a plug-in of this price, the sound of the 12AX7 and overall sound of SC-226 held up well. Although it's not comparable to classic vintage tube gear, it's a very usable emulation (see Web Clip 3).

SC-226 has only 21 presets, but it's quite simple to operate, and like all the plug-ins tested here, it lets you save and load your own settings. Some additional modern conveniences such as a Restore button to return to the originally loaded setting would enhance the user experience without compromising the old-school integrity of working more with your ear than with the aid of fancy graphic feedback.

URS Classic Console Strip

The URS Classic Console Strip ($199, requires iLok) is also based on vintage gear. It's sold individually, but it also comes bundled with the more CPU-intensive premium plug-in, Classic Console Strip Pro ($599.99). The Classic Console Strip is designed to recreate a feed-forward 1975 VCA gain-reduction amplifier with a transformer input.

Classic Console Strip (see Fig. 4) has a very straightforward interface, which comprises a compressor and 3-band EQ with an output level control. The compressor has three fully adjustable knobs for threshold, ratio and gain makeup. Three LEDs — labeled A, B and C — set the compressor attack and release to Fast, Normal or Slow, respectively. You can bypass the compressor or set it for pre/post-EQ; the EQ section can also be bypassed. Each of the three EQ bands features a gain knob. The mid band also has a frequency knob, as well as a Q switch that toggles from Sharp to Wide Q. To change the frequency of the low and high EQ bands, there are three selectable LEDs: 80, 100 and 180 Hz for the low band, and 7.5, 10 and 12.5 kHz for the high band. Finally, there is a Phase Reverse control at the output level.

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FIG. 4: URS Classic Console Strip specifically models a feed-forward, 1975 VCA gain-reduction amplifier with a transformer input.

Many of Classic Console Strip's 46 presets are designed specifically for carving out places for multitracked drums in the mix, and certain other presets such as the Room and Overhead settings can work great for that as well. This plug-in takes the opposite approach of some of the others tested here, as the presets generally reduce the gain rather than boost it. In doing so, it tends to color the sound with a smooth, creamy veneer. You have ample opportunity to boost the gain back up, and when you do the result is usually a greater feeling of analog warmth and/or overdriven tubes (see Web Clip 4).

Wave Arts TrackPlug 5

By far the most complex and deeply programmable plug-in of the bunch, TrackPlug 5 ($199.95) from Wave Arts gives users who may be intimidated by it plenty of usable and interchangeable preset settings to easily piece together a great signal path. TrackPlug 5 is also available as part of Wave Arts' Power Suite 5 ($599.95), which includes MasterVerb 5, FinalPlug 5, MultiDynamics 5 and Panorama 5.

In TrackPlug 5's very busy plug-in window (see Fig. 5), you get a gate, two compressors, EQ and a limiter on the output with optional brickwall function for both the high-end and low-end frequencies. Highlight one of the three dynamics modules — Gate, Comp 1 or Comp 2 — to gain access to their controls. Each of those modules includes input and gain-reduction meters; a dynamics response display; and controls for threshold, ratio, attack, release, gain, mode, type, knee, look-ahead and sidechain.

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FIG. 5: Kitchen sink incoming! WaveArts TrackPlug 5 throws it all at you: gate, two compressors, 10-band EQ, 2-stage brickwall limiter and more.

The EQ section sports a frequency-response display that shows you the EQ curve, as well as the frequencies of the input audio. You can edit the EQ curve within the display and add or subtract EQ bands to give you 1 to 10 bands. Tabs under the display let you also see the single-band sidechain EQs for the gate and two compressors. Every EQ band has controls for frequency, height, width and bypass, and the EQ can apply pre- or post-compressors.

In addition to coming with 66 preset plug-in settings, each of the four main modules — EQ, Gate, Comp 1 and Comp 2 — comes with a dozen or more of its own preset module settings. Each type of preset is individually loadable, tweakable and savable, so you can mix, match and roll your own perfect settings, an amazingly powerful feature. Most of the presets have been designed for drums, and with everything this plug-in can do there are some very inventive settings for carving out and emphasizing particular frequencies (see Web Clip 5). There are many other settings for specific instruments and full mixes, and again it would be nice if these were organized into folders instead of long vertical lists.

Other great options include A and B slots so you can load two sets of settings to compare back and forth, as well as an Undo button, which unfortunately has only one step of undo. With so much flexibility, this plug-in comes with the caveat of a steeper-than-average learning curve, but the 20-odd helpful pages on TrackPlug 5 in the Power Suite 5 PDF manual walk you through it.

The Envelope, Please

Overall, I found that TrackPlug 5 has the most elaborate and innovative programmability of the five plug-ins I tested, as well as the best user interface in terms of graphic feedback. When it comes to presets offered, TrackPlug 5 and ChannelStrip rank the highest with well more than 100 each, and they're are not only plentiful, but also well-programmed and immediately usable.

With their stripped-down, hardware-based designs, SC-226 and Classic Console Strip get the nod for ease of use, although Channel G Compact occupies the sweetest spot for a low learning curve as compared to a high degree of programmability.

Judging the sound of a dynamics plug-in is similar to judging the taste of wine: It's highly subjective and varied, and you don't hear significant quality differences until you get to the really high-priced products. While the plug-ins tested here don't fall into that category, they all sound good to me in their own ways. I can't deny my fondness for Channel G Compact's smooth, silky warmth and crisp, biting distortions. Classic Console Strip also has an understated beauty to its sound, and ChannelStrip gets the honorable mention.

When it comes to CPU usage, none of the plug-ins was exceptionally piggish, but ChannelStrip and TrackPlug 5 were essentially equally efficient. Both of those plug-ins increased my CPU load from 4 percent to 13 percent with 17 instances applied. The most intensive plug-in was Classic Console Strip, which increased the load from 4 percent to 19 percent with 17 instances applied. To be fair, URS claims Classic Console Strip makes big CPU improvements over its high-end Classic Console Strip Pro. So I ran the same test on the Pro version, and Classic Console Strip uses about half the CPU juice of its big brother.

If you're talking about overall value, SC-226 makes a good case — not just because it's the least expensive, but because it's a great workhorse plug-in with distinct tube emulation that you can use quickly for just about any purpose. However, if I had to choose a best value, I'd pick TrackPlug 5 because it combines a reasonable price with incredible flexibility and out-of-the-box usability.

Demo versions, often fully functional, are available for all these products so you can try before you buy. Whichever you choose, you'll have a go-to tool that you can adapt to your own particular style.

Markkus Rovito is a drummer, bedroom music producer and writer/editor in San Francisco.