Everyone who produces music in a home studio knows the frustration of trying to achieve that professional “big studio” sound. The main obstacle that prevents people from reaching that goal is the massive, imposing, and prohibitively expensive mixing console that causes audiophiles and neophytes alike to take one look at the abundance of knobs, faders, buttons, and meters and say, “Dang!” Advances in digital recording technology and personal computing power have closed the gap significantly, but it's still proven difficult to recreate the processing capabilities available on a large studio console in your digital audio workstation (DAW). Usually the only solution is to use several plug-ins, heavily taxing your DSP and making it impossible to apply the processing to more than a select handful of channels. And no matter how much you tweak the plug-ins' parameters, the final result just doesn't quite compare to the sound of an SSL or Neve's EQs, compressors, and gates.
ChannelStrip is Metric Halo's solution to the situation. The company began with the ambitious goal of creating a single plug-in that provides all of the signal-processing power, flexibility, and sonic clarity of an SSL or Neve console without sucking your computer dry, allowing you to place the plug-in on every track. ChannelStrip is available for Pro Tools TDM, Real Time AudioSuite (RTAS), and Audio Suite, or MAS for use with Mark of the Unicorn's (MOTU's) Digital Performer. It is also available in a lite version, ChannelStrip/SP. For this review, I tested the full plug-in on a Pro Tools 24/Mix TDM system (version 5.2 software) run on a 400 MHz Apple Macintosh G4 with 640 MB of RAM and OS 9.1.
ChannelStrip is really several integrated plug-ins — polarity invert, expander/gate, compressor, 6-band parametric equalizer with six selectable filter types per band, and a modest delay — with one interface. The expander/gate and compressor both have independent integrated sidechains with one band of EQ that can use any of the six filters. The plug-in also provides input-gain/trim and output-gain/trim controls for adjusting levels.
Metric Halo did an excellent job of making the user interface easy to operate and aesthetically pleasing. Each processing block has a peak-reading, three-color input-level meter as well as an on/off light indicating whether the block is engaged. All of the knobs and their accompanying displays can be easily adjusted in several different ways using standard Macintosh conventions. One fader controls the output-level gain from the EQ, and a stereo meter shows the output level at the end of the signal chain.
A key feature of ChannelStrip that is not found on the high-end consoles after which it is modeled is the set of graphs that let you see the cause and effect of changing the different parameters in the processing blocks. The expander/gate and compressor graphs are the typical style showing the static input versus output curve, but in addition, they employ a moving red square to help you understand the dynamic response of the signal being processed in real time. The independent sidechain filters associated with the expander/gate and compressor also have their own graphs. There is also a graph for the equalizer that gives a visual representation of how the EQ is processing the signal by showing frequency on the horizontal axis and loudness, in decibels, on the vertical axis. Six color-coordinated dots representing the six bands of EQ are placed along the horizontal axis, allowing you to graphically adjust the equalization by moving the dots directly on the graph. To save monitor space, ChannelStrip gives you the option of hiding the graphs. You can also customize the background color.
So what does this thing actually do? First, ChannelStrip allows you to condition your input signal with a +/-24 dB gain/trim; that is followed by a phase-invert option. Next in the signal chain is an expander/gate with a bypass option and controls for threshold, attack, and release (the expansion ratio is limited to 1:2). An optional external sidechain with one band of EQ offers a great deal of help in gating out frequency-specific noise in a signal. The sidechain also gives you the option of inputting from a bus rather than from the channel signal, giving you the ability to trigger the gate with a signal from another channel (for example, the gate on a bass track is only opened when triggered by the bass drum).
Under default settings, the next block in the chain is the compressor, also with a bypass option. One of the coolest things about ChannelStrip is that the compressor features a Pre/Post button that allows you to place the compressor before (default) or after the 6-band EQ (see Fig. 1). You can toggle between Pre and Post settings without stopping playback of your recording, enabling you to compare on the fly — something you can't do if you are using an array of plug-ins.
The compressor features three different settings: Smooth, Warm, and Fast. The settings refer to how quickly the compression kicks in when dealing with transients, and how much artifice is introduced to the sound. The manual suggests that Warm is the most useful, which is probably true, but I was impressed with the subtlety and effectiveness of Smooth. The compressor is controlled by the standard threshold, ratio, attack, and release parameters; the ratio goes to 1000:1. An eight-sample delay is on the signal as it enters the compression stage, so when the attack is set to 0, gain reduction is instantaneous. The compressor also has an optional, independent sidechain with a filter providing one band of equalization, enabling it to act as a de-esser or ducker. The compressor sounds great and equals any other digital-compression plug-in I have heard.
I'M PEAKING NOW
The equalizer that comes with ChannelStrip is, in a word, fantastic! It's the cleanest and most effective EQ I have ever used in a digital environment. Each of the EQ's six bands can be configured as any of six filter types: peaking/parametric, high cut, low cut, low shelf, high shelf, and bandpass. The frequency range of each filter is 20 Hz to 20 kHz. The peaking/parametric filter offers you a boost/cut range of +/-24 dB and a bandwidth of 0.1 to 2.5 octaves. The high- and low-cut filters offer as much as 12 dB/octave, and the shelf filters have a boost/cut limit of +12dB/-24 dB. The bandpass filter has a 6 dB/octave skirt on the high and low ends of the pass band (again, 0.1 to 2.5 octaves). At the end of all that is an EQ fader that gives +10dB of gain or as much as -160dB of attenuation. Altogether that translates into greatly enhanced tonal-shaping possibilities with staggering clarity and a high-end brilliance that will make you say, “Dang,” twice! The last stage in the signal flow is a user-adjustable delay of a maximum of 255 samples, which allows for some subtle time adjustment or a flanging effect if you make a copy of the track.
Metric Halo offers a lite version called ChannelStrip/SP (TDM/RTAS/AS, $349; RTAS/AS/MAS, $175; see Fig. 2). The EQ in this version is limited to four bands, and the bandpass filter is not included. The compressor is limited to the Warm setting, and you cannot place it after the EQ in the signal chain. Also, the expander/gate side-chain, the compressor sidechain, and the dynamic-response detector in the graphs are not included. If your budget or processing power prohibit the use of the full-blown version, you still can benefit considerably by using the lite version on your sessions. All of the clarity and resolution standards of the full ChannelStrip remain, making the lite version a powerful tone-shaping tool.
Two points I do not want to overlook, because they are key to my happiness with any product, are how helpful the manual is and how bad the hold music is while waiting for tech support. The ChannelStrip manual is easy to understand and helpful in getting you up and running, providing excellent overviews about what the different processing blocks do and how to use them. As for tech support, Metric Halo gets an A here, too: my wait on hold was minimal, and the person I spoke with was cool, understood the product, and answered my question.
STAY ON THE SCENE
Many engineers in big studios and audio post facilities in Los Angeles are using ChannelStrip in all of their Pro Tools sessions. I personally don't ever want to see a Pro Tools track without it again. ChannelStrip is an excellent, indispensable plug-in that is unique on the DAW scene. It combines several essential processing functions into one integrated, flexible, streamlined environment, with great care taken to preserve fidelity — just like a high-end mixing console. My only serious complaint, and it is a big one, is that ChannelStrip is not available as a VST plug-in. How about spreading the love to the remaining DAW users?
ChannelStrip v. 1.2 (Mac)
PROS: Multiple integrated processing blocks in one plug-in. Sophisticated and flexible signal chain. Easy-to-use interface. Superb audio quality.
CONS: Not available for VST.
Overall Rating (1 through 5): 5