Gather round for the top 7 channel strip plugins of 2021! We’ll explore faithful emulations and innovative technologies, as well as free plugins and a bonus surprise.
Channel Strip plugins help in-the-box mix engineers give a cohesive sound to recordings that may come from several sources. And while some recreate the sound and experience of tweaking the knobs of famous consoles, others peek into the future of recording and mixing.
Why do I Need Channel Strip Plugins? Are They Worth It?
You need Channel Strip plugins to simulate how you would process audio in an analog desk while recording. They’re worth it because they offer several processors such as gate/expander, compressor, EQ, de-esser, etc., reducing the need for more plugins later. In short, they help you give a cohesive, pre-mixed feel to your track.
After you achieve a great sound with a channel strip plugin, you can print your multitracks and start the mixing process. Channel Strips can also be used in bus tracks or even for mastering. Some plugins have a distinct sound that can add incredible flavor to your productions.
Now that we know the importance of a good Channel Strip plugin to your in-the-box workflow, let’s dig in!
Top 7 Channel Strip Plugins 2021
1. Century Tube Channel Strip
UA’s Century Tube Channel Strip is an amazing-sounding all-in-one preamp, EQ, and compressor.
The plugin’s warmth comes from the tube emulation in the circuitry. The preamp will saturate without clipping, while the optical compressor will gently tame the peaks. Moreover, this plugin takes advantage of Unison, UAD’s software-hardware integration technology. That means that when using a Universal Audio interface to record, the software will modify the interface’s circuitry.
- Preamp: You can choose between two input levels, Low and High, to define how loud the signal reaches the preamp. At higher levels, the preamp will add incredible tube saturation to the sound.
- Equalizer: The broad sweepable mid-range lets you focus on any frequency you might want to cut or boost, while the low and high shelves allow you to add body and sizzle to the track.
- Opto Compressor: This plugin’s great Opto compressor is a one-knob solution to tame peaks and lift the details. The tube-inspired sound is smooth and soft, so the compression never sounds squashed.
- Pad: If you’re recording with a UA interface and using this plugin via Unison integration, you can lower the microphone’s input gain before it hits the preamp. By using the Pad switch, you’ll reduce the input volume by about 20dB.
This plugin is available for Windows 10 and macOS 10.13 and higher, but you need a UAD DSP Accelerator or UA Audio Interface to run it in your DAW.
Overall, this is a fantastic plugin to use when recording, especially vocals and guitars. It spices up the sound in a very colorful way, enhancing the source’s emotional character. Additionally, you can use it during the mixing stage to add personality to otherwise dull digital sounds. If you’re into the Universal Audio ecosystem, you’ll love the Century Tube Channel Strip.
2. PSP InfiniStrip
PSP Audioware’s InifiniStrip offers endless combinations from its 22 processors.
The plugin allows you to add up to seven simultaneous processors and a total of two inserts. Rack up the preamps, expanders, filters, EQs, compressors, limiters, etc., in an order that will benefit your production. Furthermore, you can choose between the various types of processors and change them without changing your settings. That helps when you’re just looking for a different tone rather than different settings.
- Five Preamps: The plugin offers five types of preamps, each with distinct coloration. Gain solely raises the volume. Pre60s makes instruments sound more organic, while Pre70s enlarges drums and bass without losing transients. Pre80s adds exaggerated transients and ADC 90s applies subtle clipping.
- Three Filters: Here, you can choose between three types of filters: a basic one with HP and LP options. A more complex option with HP, LP, and parametric Mid control. And finally, a Side-Chain filter.
- Dynamic modules: Choose if you need a Gate, Expander, or Ducker for your track.
- Three Compressors: The plugin offers Opto, great for vocals, FET, perfect for drums and guitars, and VCA, which is used chiefly for bus compression.
- Three EQs: You get these options: a flexible four-band EQ called ChannelQ; a redesign of the PSP PreQursor with three types of bell shapes; and the PSP RetroQ, which is based on old-school EQs.
- Limiter Modules: The plugin offers three types of limiters, Opto, VCA, BrickWall, and a Saturator module. Additionally, you get a Master unit with basic stereo field controls.
- Special Modules: There are three special units here: De-esser, De-hummer, and ReactivEQ. While the first two are self-explanatory, the last is a dynamic equalizer.
This plugin is available for Windows 7 and newer and macOS 10.8 and higher in VST and AU formats.
The InifiniStrip is a reasonably new plugin that might need a UI tweak, but which sounds excellent nevertheless. The never-ending sonic combinations are enhanced by comparing the types of processors while keeping the same settings. Overall, the plugin offers tremendous workflow gains and is an excellent addition to any producer’s collection.
3. iZotope Neutron 3 Elements
Neutron 3 Elements, by iZotope, is the entry product of the Neutron 3 line, but it packs enough solutions to heighten your tracks significantly.
The plugin is a four-in-one solution for mixing. It offers a Compressor, an EQ, a Transient Shaper, and an Exciter. Additionally, you can split the audio into three bands and use all processing except the EQ in each band independently. But the plugin’s differential comes from its Track Assistant, which listens to your audio and creates a preset that fits.
- EQ Learn: The plugin chooses the EQ points it thinks are best for the signal and creates a custom curve that benefits the audio. This plugin lets you add up to 12 EQ points.
- Exciter: Use it to add harmonic distortion to your track. Blend the Warm, Tube, Tape, and Retro harmonic profiles to achieve the sound you’re looking for.
- Transient Shaper: You get three contour shapes: Sharp, Medium, and Smooth. In addition, you can design the transients differently for each band when in multi-band mode.
- Track Assistant: Select the instrument category and one of three mix styles. Then, pick the intensity of the processing you want to apply. In up to ten seconds, the Assistant will give you a custom-made preset.
This plugin is available for macOS 10.11 and up and 64-bit Windows 7 and up in VST, AU, and AAX formats.
This amazing iZotope plugin provides an intelligent solution for mixing that no other on this list can compete with. Even with two more powerful versions of Neutron 3 available, Elements is an excellent addition to your collection. It makes mixing easier for both beginning and experienced engineers.
4. TBProAudio CS-5501
TBProAudio’s CS-5501 is a featured-packed plugin with a smooth sound.
The plugin offers two 7-band equalizers, two expanders/noise gates, two compressors, two de-essers, two limiters, and a saturation engine. This doubles collection can be set independently and routed to the user’s liking on the right-hand side menu. That ensures thorough processing that can be useful for anything from single instruments to the master channel, with up to 4 times of oversampling.
- EQ: This is a very soft-sounding EQ with fully parametric controls.
- Compressor: The plugin offers VCA, FET, and Opto compression, all with side-chain functions and a blend knob to create a parallel compression effect.
- Dynamics: The expander/gate and de-esser are perfect for vocal processing. The double de-esser also helps with acoustic guitars and drums.
- Saturation: This module emulates several types of tubes, and you can add both odd and even harmonics to the sound simultaneously.
- Routing: Here, you can click the empty slots and choose which processing you want to place and their order. Additionally, you can mute or solo single processors.
This plugin is available for Windows 7 and newer and macOS 10.11 and newer in VST, AAX, and AU formats.
TBProAudio’s CS-5501 never sounds aggressive, for as much as you crank it. The plugin’s sound is beautifully balanced, which makes it useful for all kinds of music. Moreover, the workflow is superb, and the ability to route all the processors in whatever order you choose makes it a flexible tool. You don’t have to think twice about adding this one to your collection.
5. Waves Omni Channel
The Scheps Omni Channel offers analog-modeled processing and coloration in a straightforward workflow.
Instead of emulating a single desk or hardware, the Omni Channel gathers the best from different sounding equipment. The blending of flavors is cohesive, even though there are circuit emulations from several famous hardware processors built into this plugin. Furthermore, the experience is enhanced by adding the insert slot, which nods to the analog desk days.
- Control-Click: Great for finding offending or root frequencies, this plugin’s hidden shortcut lets you solo the bandwidth knobs to help you focus on the sound you’re looking for. Whether in the EQ or de-esser, when you control-click the bandwidth knob, you’ll hear only the frequencies it’s affecting.
- Saturation: The preamp section gives you three saturation types: Odd, Even, and Heavy. The first two are source-dependent. The third option is a bit crusher that adds a hard drive to the sound.
- Thump: This subtle effect adds a gentle bump to the low-end. You can choose between adding 2 or 4 dB of gain. Even at four dB, the result is not very prominent initially, but it becomes more apparent as you use the other modules.
- DS2: This module contains two de-essers that span the entire frequency range. Both let you choose from 4 different EQ curves.
- Insert: You can load any Waves plugin into the module and affect the signal with the others. Alternatively, you can also double any of the existent modules in the plugin.
This plugin works on macOS 10.13 and up and Windows 10 in VST3, AAX, and AU formats.
From Pultec EQ curves to Fairchild and LA-2A limiting styles, the Scheps Omni Channel is a fantastic Frankenstein. The workflow is effortless, and you can hear the plugin’s characteristic tone with every knob movement. It is incredible for producers looking for a distinctive analog feel.
6. Lindell Audio 50 Series
The Lindell Audio 50 Series emulates classic API consoles, delivering a powerful, punchy tone.
If you’re familiar with API equipment, you know they sound as tight as it gets. This plugin is no different, delivering the utmost transient and frequency precision. The plugin’s sound shines through when you place it on the track, but it’s the variety of options within it that make it so unique.
- TMT: This technology developed by Brainworx provides an accurate representation of 32 different console channels. That means you can have up to 16 stereo instances of this plugin in your session, and they will all sound slightly different.
- THD: Use this to control the amount of harmonic distortion from the circuits. The middle position represents the emulation’s natural behavior.
- Two Compressors: The plugin offers an enhanced version of the classic VCA compressor API 2500. Additionally, the developers added a FET compressor based on the API 525.
- Three EQs: Here’s another list of sought-after EQs. You’ll get the semi-parametric 3-band 50A EQ, four-band 50B EQ, and the graphic 60 EQ.
- Lindell 80 Buss: This condensed version gives you a preamp and the master fader with TMT technology. It’s helpful if you’re looking for the plugin’s tone rather than processing.
This plugin is available for Windows 7 and newer and macOS 10.9 and higher in AAX, AU, and VST formats.
The 50 Series is one of the best channel strip emulations on the market right now. If you’re bonkers about analog consoles, you’ll end up adding the Lindell Audio 50 Series to your collection at some point. This robust emulation makes any instrument sound more organic by delivering the warmth and punch of the original API gear.
7. Brainworx bx_console Focusrite SC
The bx_console Focusrite SC, by Brainworx, is a complete recreation of the rare Focusrite console designed by Rupert Neve.
Only ten units of this console were made until Focusrite shut down the production. Now, thanks to TMT technology, you can have 72 channels, which means an entire console, in your studio. You get faithful recreations of the original gate, compressor, de-esser, EQ, and filters, with the addition of a THD control.
- Neve-Designed EQ: The console gives you a parametric four-band EQ designed by the master himself. You get bell controls for the mid frequencies and shelves for the highs and lows. You can bypass any band by pressing the Band In button.
- Two Filter Sections: Just like the original console, this plugin lets you add filters to both the EQ and dynamic sections. The first will roll off frequencies from the top and bottom of the spectrum. The second will focus the compressor on the range you determine.
- Multiplier Controls: You can change the frequency range of both filter sections and the mid-range EQs by engaging the x10, x3, and/or /3 buttons.
- V-Gain: This is an added feature. By increasing the value, you’ll add more simulated analog noise.
- Stereo Mode: This affects the TMT engine. By selecting Analog, you’ll use two different channel emulations, one for each side of the stereo field. However, if you choose Digital, you’ll use one emulation for both sides.
This plugin is available for Windows 7 and higher and macOS 10.9 and newer in AAX, AU, and VST formats.
One of the most transparent consoles ever designed has finally received the faithful emulation it deserved. The price is a little hefty – but worth it when you think of the quality it can add to your mixes. No doubt, the bx_console Focusrite SC will become your go-to channel strip plugin once you add it to your collection.
The 2 Best Channel Strip Plugins 2021
1. Analog Obsession LOADED
Analog Obsession’s LOADED is not a very versatile plugin, but it delivers great sound nevertheless.
Some of the parameters can be a little limiting if you’re looking for absolute control over the processing. With that said, much of the charm of analog is compromising to your unit’s limitations. In that case, the plugin does a great job at delivering a faithful analog experience.
- Preamp: This module is extensive, giving you a polarity switch, several level compensators, and a high pass filter.
- De-esser: You get a high shelf to apply soft or hard de-essing. Although the crossover points are not specified, you can change the range of the band to attend to different input signals.
- Gate: Although it has no ratio control, you can use the gate as an expander by adjusting the Mix knob.
- EQ: Like most consoles, you get low and high shelves at 100 and 10.000 Hz, respectively. Additionally, you get two mid-range controls with sweepable frequencies and up to 15dB of cut and boost.
- Compressor: This simple compressor is actually very versatile. With the Fast Attack option and the Auto Release function, it becomes useful for most musical genres.
The plugin is available in VST and AU formats for 64-bit computers running Windows and macOS.
Sonically-wise, the plugin doesn’t add much of a significant tone to the sound. Even so, unlike most plugins on this list, with LOADED, you’re always EQing into the compression. Not only does that create a smoother effect, but it’s also a great mastering technique. Analog Obsession makes loads of great free plugins, and this one is also worth your time.
2. 1208 Audio Plugins 1208 SCS
The 1208 SCS, by 1208 Audio Plugins, is a straightforward plugin that offers a modular signal path.
With its versatile compressor and detailed parametric EQ, you can easily use this plugin on individual tracks and the master chain. Additionally, the saturation button brings in some extra flavor that makes it wonderful for vocals and synths.
- The Patch Bay: You can easily configure your signal flow by changing inputs and outputs on the patch bay. The plugin makes it simple to bypass the filters or make different sequences for the left and right channels, for example.
- Shelf or Bell: You can choose low and high shelves or bells for different effects.
- H.Pass: This feature allows you to roll off the lower frequencies, so they don’t engage the compressor. It will not cut the bottom of your track, only bypass it from the compressor.
This plugin is available for Windows as a VST.
Unfortunately, you need to pay to enable the oversample and filter features, but still, this is a plugin worthy of a download. Go crazy trying out different patch bay configurations; perhaps you’ll find a unique sound that only this plugin can produce.
1. Acustica Audio Magenta 5
The Magenta 5 Channel Strip is a great mastering plugin since it’s an emulation of the Manley Massive Passive.
But since it’s a channel strip plugin, you also get a preamp section and a compressor. The GUI is confusing at first, but once you understand it, it gets simpler. Magenta 5 offers great tonal accuracy, perfect for the digital domain, but without losing its analog roots.
- Seven Preamps: Between mono and stereo emulations, you also get different-sounding versions from multiple hardware sources. A is from a tube EQ, B is from an all-tube circuit, while C is from a limiter. Finally, D, DMIC, and DFLT come from mic preamp designs.
- Four Compressors: The plugin offers four kinds of compressors between Vari-Mu and Opto designs, each with its distinctive flavor.
- Zero Latency Version: Perfect for real-time processing and recording, the Magenta 5 Channel Strip offers a ZL version, but it’s very CPU-heavy.
This plugin is available for macOS 10.12 and higher and Windows 7 and newer as a VST, AU, and AAX plugin.
Overall the plugin sounds very subtle but accurate. Magenta 5 does a great job of recreating the imperfections of analog hardware, adding as much color to your mix as you may need. For its sonic detail alone, it’s a great addition to your collection.
Today’s list was full of amazing all-in-one solutions for mixing and mastering, but the greatest strength of any channel strip plugin comes during recording. Sometimes it’s just impracticable, but try it out next time you’re about to make a recording. The best analog emulations on our list deliver the closest thing to the emotion of tracking through the real consoles. When you record with real-time processing, not only does it sound better from the get-go. The artist also gets better feedback from their own execution and puts more effort into making a better performance.
And speaking of the best, you should consider getting the Waves Omni Channel and the Lindell Audio 50 Series for your toolbox. Both are amazing-sounding plugins with incredible recreations of their analog counterparts. The Waves plugin is looser with its references, which generates an innovative plugin. On the other hand, the Lindell is as true to the original classic as possible, being the best API plugin on the market.
Pedro Nascente is an artist, record producer, and mix engineer, currently operating his own studio and working with his band, Yellow Boulevard. Believing that music should convey experiences and feelings, Pedro is known for applying design thinking to his workflow to achieve different sounds and deliver the right messages.