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best budget channel strips

Best budget channel strips: Get a classic sound without breaking the bank

In the analog days, channel strips weren’t outboard hardware, but were instead modules built into frame consoles. Some were simple, with only a preamp and an EQ. But the higher-end consoles (like those from Solid State Logic) would often feature robust signal processing. This would often include a preamp, EQ, compressor, and gate/expander sections. If you’re looking for some different options on the front end than what comes with your interface, this list of the best budget channel strips is a great place to start.

“Budget” is kind of a loose term here. All selections are around $1,000, and some of them only cost a few hundred. No matter if you need full signal processing or just an alternative preamp and EQ, there is something here that will suit your needs.

Best budget channel strip overall: WARM Audio WA73-EQ British

warm audio wa73-eq
Best budget channel strip overall
WARM Audio WA73-EQ British
If you’re looking for a channel strip based on the popular 1073, this option from Warm Audio is affordable and really well-made.
Pros
Classic 1073 sounds
Carnhill transformers for pristine sound quality
Preamp offers 80dB of gain
Cons
Expensive
1073 sound isn’t ideal for all sources
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This is the sound of decades of some of the best recordings in an affordable single rack space unit. Due to some smart manufacturing practices, WARM Audio makes fantastic gear based on some of the best designs in audio at a reasonable price point. The WA73 is their take on a Neve 1073 channel strip, and does it ever deliver!

The fully discrete, Carnhill transformer-balanced signal path imparts rich harmonics, warm mid-range, and a silky high end. The preamp can produce up to 80dB of gain. This means pretty much any microphone can pair with it – including ribbons. Switchable impedance allows for tonal experimentation and to best match your microphone collection.

The EQ section features three bands of semi-parametric tone shaping with more available frequencies than on the classic 1073 EQ. It’s one of the best channel strips at any level.

Best budget channel strip with additional processing: ART Voice Channel

art voice channel
Best budget channel strip with additional processing
ART Voice Channel
The Voice Channel is an all-in-one channel strip that provides a preamp, EQ, compressor, gate, and expander in an affordable package.
Pros
Wide range of processing in a single unit
Good I/O
Does a little bit of everything
Cons
Takes up two rack spaces
Doesn’t excel in any one area
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The Voice Channel is ART’s inclusive solution for front end recording. In total, it is a preamp, EQ, compressor, gate, and expander. To start, there is a Class A tube preamp that brings the signal up to desirable levels. A 4-band, semi-parametric EQ cleans things up. And the compressor, gate, and expander provide all of the dynamic control your recordings need. The EQ can be patched in pre or post compression allowing for more sonic options.

The Voice Channel really shines with its complex I/O. This includes an insert point for more front end routing options and connectivity with ADAT, S/PDIF, and AES/EBU standards. It even has USB so it can be used for podcasting as well!

Best hybrid budget channel strip: ART Pro Channel II

art pro channel ii
Best hybrid budget channel strip
ART Pro Channel II
This hybrid tube/solid-state Class A channel strip is a great way to give some analog color without spending too much.
Pros
Tube/solid-state hybrid
Smooth optical compressor
Controllable tube voltage in preamp
Cons
Hybrid design gives a lot from both worlds but doesn’t do either one as good as dedicated circuits
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The Pro Channel is one of the best all-around budget channel strips. It sports a Class A hybrid tube/solid-state preamp, optical compressor, and semi-parametric EQ. If you’re looking for extra color from the preamp you can increase the amount of tube voltage that is fed into the circuit.

The compressor offers control over threshold, ratio, attack/release, and output. And with two sets of insert points (send and return) patching in additional outboard gear is easy. It features balanced and unbalanced outputs that can be run at +4dBu or -10dBu for integration with a variety of other hardware designs.

Best tube budget channel strip: Presonus Studio Channel

presonus studio channel
Best tube budget channel strip
Presonus Studio Channel
This Class A tube design offers a good amount of headroom, parametric EQ, VCA compressor with a variable signal flow.
Pros
Class A tube design
Good amount of headroom
VCA compressor
Semi-parametric EQ, fully-parametric in the mids
Cons
Not a true tube preamp, but does provide nice amount of color

The Studio Channel features a Class A tube preamp running on a 12AX7 tube, and you can dial in the right color and level with gain and tube drive controls. Based on Presonus’ BlueTube topology, it has more than enough headroom so you don’t have to be shy about using it on loud sources.

The Variable VCA compressor offers fast time constants and a soft mode for working with all kinds of source material. The 3-band EQ is fully parametric in the midrange and can be patched before or after the compressor. And if you’d rather handle your EQ and compression during mixdown, both can be bypassed.

Best compressor in a budget channel strip: DBX 286s

joemeek 3q
Best compressor in a budget channel strip
DBX 286s
If you’re looking for a channel strip that offers multiple kinds of dynamic control, this is a powerful and transparent model.
Pros
Offer DBX’s signature “Over Easy” style of compression
De-esser and sonic maximizer
Great amount of dynamic control
Cons
Might not have enough color for some

DBX is best known for its compressors, but it has also stepped into the channel strip world in a big way. There are some unique signal processing options in the 286s that aren’t found in other selections on this list. The preamp is simple, with input gain and a 80Hz high-pass filter. The compressor section includes DBX’s trademark OverEasy soft-knee style of compression and has only two controls – Drive and Density.

But there are a few more esoteric but very useful sections to the signal flow, including a de-esser with frequency response ranging from 800Hz to 10k. The enhancer portion can add some sonic maximization to the signal to sweeten things up. Finally there is an expander/gate section for further dynamic control and a global output.

Best budget channel strip with exciter: Aphex Channel

aphex channel
Best budget channel strip with exciter
Aphex Channel
If you need a higher-quality channel strip that comes with an exciter the Aphex Channel is a great tube preamp paired with a Class A compressor.
Pros
Comes with the classic Aphex Aural Exciter
Class A compressor
Tube preamp
Cons
More expensive than other options
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The most “expensive” of these budget channel strips is also the most fully featured. The chain starts with a tube preamp built on a reflected plate design. It then feeds into the dynamics section, which is an Aphex EasyRider Class A compressor and a gate with Logic control for increased accuracy.

To achieve proper frequency balance there is a de-esser and single band fully parametric EQ. Topping things off is an Aural Exciter, perhaps the technology that Aphex is best known for. All-in-all the Channel is a powerful and versatile signal processor that only takes up a single rack space.

Best high-end channel strip: Empirical Labs Mike-E

empirical labs mike-e
Best high-end channel strip
Empirical Labs Mike-E
The Mike-E is a great channel strip that’s a little pricey, but still affordable. It features top-of-the-line transformers and lets you add analog saturation to the signal.
Pros
Peerless Empirical Labs circuit design
Tape saturation
Good amount of gain
Cons
More expensive than other options on this list

The Mike-E is on the higher price range of what could be considered “budget”, but considering how much some of the great channel strips are it’s an affordable option from one of the best manufacturers in the business.

It’s a solid preamp, EQ, and compressor that allows you to add analog saturation to your sounds. This is really useful for spicing things up on the way in. It’s a masterfully designed circuit that features premium transformers, a great amount of input gain and only takes up a single space in your rack.

Best preamp and EQ budget channel strip: Warm Audio TB12

Warm Audio TB12 preamp EQ
Best preamp and EQ budget channel strip
Warm Audio TB12
The TB12 is a preamp and EQ that offers a number of unique ways to shape the signal like selectable transformers and op amps.
Pros
Preamp/EQ in one unit
Selectable transformers
Output transformer can be bypassed
Selectable op amps
Cons
Preamp and EQ only
Higher price point than some other channel strips

Warm Audio makes some of the best affordable, high-quality gear and their TB12 is no exception. It’s not a complete channel strip, as it doesn’t offer compression. But what it does offer is a stellar preamp and EQ that provides the perfect platform for shaping any signal source.

Some of the features that set it apart are selectable transformers, flexible saturation control, and op amp selection that lets you choose between vintage and modern sounds. You can bypass the output transformer altogether too.

It’s on the higher end of the budget range, but considering how flexible it is the spend is worth it if you’re looking for a unique, do-it-all preamp and EQ.

FAQ

Is a channel strip necessary?

A channel strip isn’t necessary, but they have a lot of benefits. They usually include a preamp, EQ, and compressor, but some come with further processing like an expander or de-esser. They’re a great way to process audio in multiple ways with a single device.

What is the purpose of a channel strip?

They have a lot of uses. They streamline the recording process by providing different types of processing. By being able to do different kinds of processing in one unit you can work faster and open up what you can do to the signal on the way into the recorder.

What is the difference between a channel strip and a preamp?

Channel strips offer a preamp, among other things. A preamp is a standalone unit that usually doesn’t come packaged with things like EQ and compression.

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