When Dan started his journey in music production back in 2002, he was taught the basics of recording using a Pro Tools MIX system with a Control 24 control surface. Getting sound recorded into this Pro Tools rig was super simple. Place a microphone in front of a source, set the input on a track and dial in an appropriate amount of level on the control surface’s mic preamp and away you go. This approach taught him that microphone placement is the key to establishing a track’s tone and presentation in recording. It took him several years to realise that something was missing from this bare bones approach, which would turn out to make a significant difference to the results of his productions. This article is the story of this journey and realisation of what was missing in his approach…
I read a lot about how channel strips can shape the tone of instruments and vocals on the way in, which sounded appealing as this wasn’t something I had tried before. Lots of threads on forums talked about how committing to a sound “to tape” can also help to mix a song. This sounded like a bizarre concept to me at the time but I was intrigued, I had to try this way of working for myself.
In 2005 I bit the bullet and purchased one of the cheapest outboard channel strips available at the time, the 2U Focusrite VoiceMaster Pro. Little did I know this £399 punt was about to change my whole perspective and experience of recording for the better.
The Voicemaster Pro was a great first outboard channel strip. It had a single XLR input for microphones, one jack input for guitars and basses, a high pass filter, expander, “vintage” harmonics section, “optical” compressor, “tube” section, EQ, de-esser and meter. It was great value for money especially with the features that came with it. This unit proved to me what people were saying, it did indeed help me sculpt certain aspects of my tracks on the way in and so help me to get mixes done faster and better. Now microphone placement wasn’t the only part of my process for getting a track to sound good in my recordings. I would get an instrument or vocal to sound to my taste with my tried and tested mic placement skills and then use the channel strip to complement what my mic was capturing and as a result my tracks would sit as well as they could in the mixes I was working on. This new way of working did take me a little while to nail but the efforts were well worth it.
After two years my trusty Voicemaster Pro blew up and refused to work. It was out of warranty but I didn’t hesitate buying a replacement immediately. Two years after that, my second Voicemaster Pro also expired by which time I was also using two other outboard mic preamps - the Focusrite 428MkII and TL Audio PA-1 valve preamp.
Sadly, as these two units were more mic preamp than channel strip. They didn’t provide me with the deep tone shaping abilities which came with the Voicemaster and they actually felt like a step backwards. I considered buying a third Voicemaster Pro but sadly Focusrite pulled the plug on these by this stage, they weren’t the best sounding units but they did provide a great toolkit for tone shaping.
I choose to make the best of my tw newer mic preamps. Besides the mic preamp stage, the Focusrite 428 only provides high pass filtering on each channel. The TL Audio provides slightly more in the way of tone shaping albeit low and high pass filters but that’s about it. I missed not having some form of compressor in the front end to record through as well as some form of saturation to spice up certain instruments. To compensate for this lack of tone shaping, I opted to use AAX DSP plug-ins on my Pro Tools HDX rig to provide the compression and saturation duties. This gave me some of that outboard channel strip vibe that I missed but it wasn’t the same. I missed that hands on experience I got from working with real devices.
It wasn’t until recently that I got back into tracking with a dedicated outboard channel strip when I tried out the Tegeler Audio’s VTRC. This is a single channel mic preamp with all the bells and whistles you expect on a multipurpose channel strip. Very quickly, the VTRC established itself as the new “frontend” in my studio. It brought back my early experiences of using the Voicemaster to sculpt sound on the way in. The VTRC not only made me feel excited to record a track, it also made my recordings sound more exciting as well.
Listen to the VTRC in action on a lead vocal track in our video review below:
At first glance the VTRC may look a bit intimating but it couldn’t be simpler to use. The input and gain knobs can be dialled in to produce super clean sounds through to tasteful sounding saturation. The three band EQ works brilliantly at sweetening or thickening anything you throw at it and the compressor is beautifully weighted. This, much like my old Voicemaster was, is now a key component in my tracking workflow. It provides an analog console like sound on the way in, that you could get with plug-ins, but why bother when those qualities can be committed immediately to tape?
So far in this article, I’ve shared my own personal story how I got into using outboard channels strips and why I feel they are important tools in my recording workflow. To help those who haven’t yet experienced tracking through channel strips understand how these devices can really help in the tracking and mixing, below I am going to summarise each of the benefits I have experienced.
Microphone choice and proper placement techniques are very important but can only get you so far. Sometimes an instrument needs a little lift in the top end or some thump reduced in the lows. Whatever the case, it makes perfect sense to address tonal points of interest at the front end to make it part of the sound you want to record. Often a small boost or cut goes a long way. Committing a dose of tasteful sounding EQ “to tape” is a good thing in my books, even if it’s just a dab of basic low and high filtering.
Compression can be a scary thing to apply “to tape” when recording as too much can kill the vibe of a performance but it doesn’t hurt to dip your toes in with small amounts on vocals just to gently grab some peaky moments in a performance. Some instruments lend themselves to heavier amounts of compression such as bass guitars, kick drums and snares. It makes good sense to build your confidence in committing compression on these types of tracks before venturing out into other track types. If you can get 90% of the way to getting the perfect snare drum sound on the way in then then I see that as a huge win! Committing to a style of dynamics processing to an instrument on the way in, needs to sound purposeful and intentional. If the compression squeezes the source well then hit record and move on.
Recording direct to tape via a clean mic preamp on an audio interface is a very safe way to record, though the results can sometimes sound a bit gutless. Channel strips that provide some form of saturation with an emulation circuit or real tube stage can provide exciting results (pun intended). Many producers opt to add a vibe and impression of saturation after recording (in the mix) using plug-ins across multiple tracks. My advice is to save yourself the time and effort by recording with some degree of drive on the way in.
Stop To Evaluate
Dialling in a tone on a channel strip will slow down your recording process just enough to help you really consider and evaluate the sound you are chasing in your head. Plug and play audio interfaces that provide just input gain can encourage some to rush into hitting record too soon without first checking what they are about to record is playing, artistically and tonally speaking, going to sit well in the context of the bigger picture of the mix. In my view and experience, besides mic choice and placement, channel strips are the last line of defence in getting a great sounding analogue signal down to tape.
Getting Hands On
I believe I can set a better sounding EQ and dynamics setting with my hands twisting dials instead on clicking on virtual knobs in plug-ins. Channel strips make great tools for focusing our ears at sound. Visuals in plug-ins with a combination of a mouse clicking away can at times draw our attention away from what we are hearing.
Levelling Up Your Engineering Skills
Channel strips have over the years made me a braver audio engineer. Being able to commit EQ and compression to tape knowing in my heart of hearts that it sounds purposeful has undoubtedly strengthened my confidence in my engineering skills. Sure, it’s safer to record everything clean on the way in but this “safe” approach only delays the inevitable… important choices still need to be made later in the digital domain. Over the years I’ve learned that getting the best possible sound on the way in is key to a great sounding completed mix. Using a dedicated channel strips has proven to me to be an essential tool in that pursuit.
Budget Friendly Front End Channel Strips For Under $1,000
If this article has inspired you to try an outboard channel strip for yourself in your studio then check out these budget friendly options starting from as little as $299:
Presonus Studio Channel - $299
ART Pro Channel II - $299
Focusrite ISA TWO - $799
dbx 676 - $849
SPL Track ONE MkII - $999 - $1,199
Check out our full article 5 Recording Channels Strips You Can Buy For Your Studio For Under $1,000 to learn more about each product we recommend.