The Choice Between a Channel Strip and a Preamp

When it comes to building your own home studio, it can be fairly easy for newer producers to become quickly overwhelmed by the vast amount of choices and options that they will have to consider. From selecting the right microphones to settling on a certain amplifier, every equipment combination will almost assuredly have a vast impact on the end result. This is where we come in; we here at PAL like to give our guests all the info they need in order to help them find the gear that best fits their needs. Through our several tech and pro audio articles ranging from reviews on tons of gear to tutorials on important aspects of audio engineering, PAL believes that only way for our customers to get the most out of their product choices is to know them inside out.

With that said, certain aspects of the home studio are a bit tougher to understand than others. How about trying to select a good preamp? Maybe you want a dual channel? Or maybe a single channel strip will be the better choice? Know the difference between preamp and a channel strip?


The Studio Preamp and the Channel Strip

Well, first things first, a channel strip and a preamp aren’t the same thing as most of you out there probably already know. A preamp is technically speaking any electronic amplifier that prepares a signal for further processing or amplification. Not only that, in home audio, the term preamp is sometimes given to anything that merely switches between line level sources and applies volume control – even if no actual amplification is involved. They can be found on their own chassis such as with an amp head, already built into the housing of the amplifier they feed like in a combo amp or even mounted within or near a signal source such as vocal or instrument preamps. Again, essentially anything that takes a signal and messes with it before it hits an amplifier is pretty much a preamp, hence, the name.

A channel strip on the other hand is made up of a series of different signal processing tools including a preamp. Usually, after the preamp follows a compressor, a section for EQ and in some models, a de-esser or enhancer/exciter. To give you an idea of a what a channel strip does, if you were recording vocals for example this piece of equipment pretty much gives you most every processing tool you’ll need for a professional recording – all in one box.


The Noise Factor

As those of you who work with a multiple effects pedals in a signal chain probably are already well aware of, the more you add to the chain the more of a likelihood of signal noise there will be. This is because as a signal travel between equipment and even the cables, it picks up a bit of degradation along the way. The more pieces in this chain – along with its psychical length – the more chances for noise to build up. When it comes to channel strips – whose components are all working off the same electronics –  they are much less susceptible to noise than if you were to separately connect the individual preamp, compressor, EQ, etc, but they are not immune as even moving between circuits inside the channel strip will add some slight noise to the signal. If a clean signal is what you are mainly looking for, a single preamp with no added electronics is pretty much your best bet since you can use the other processing tools later during post processing.


The Better Choice

In the beginning of professional audio engineering, preamps were mainly used as a way to get a signal onto a recording device. As technology grew and necessity bore innovation, EQ, compressors and other processing tools eventually came about. Soon after, all of these tools were built into studio consoles for convenience, essentially giving each channel on the console its own preamp, EQ section and eventually compressors and gates. What did this mean for the average home studio engineer? Well, not much back then unless you had PLENTY of cash to burn as these consoles were well out of the reach of most consumers. Eventually, companies started putting a single channel of these very expensive consoles into its own independently working box, officially giving birth to the channel strip and its single most important advantage; for a small fraction of the cost, you can pretty much buy a single channel off of a very expensive pro grade console – one that can be used over and over and over on a DAW program. Instead of spending millions on a top of the line recording console, you can have that exact same technology in a single channel for on a few thousand dollars. Sounds great, right? Why doesn’t everyone just get a channel strip for their home recording needs?

Well, the simple answer is a matter of choice. Just how pros tend to like the sound of a particular guitar, processing units also differ in sound. With a channel strip, you’re essentially getting all the tools from the same make and while this can be a good way to buy a lot of what you need in one convenient box, you might find that although you really like a preamp from a particular manufacturer, you might want a compressor from another. Not only that, mixing and matching different units from different companies can yield very original results.  Essentially, by forgoing a channel strip and instead mixing and matching individual pieces, you open yourself up to many more sonic possibilities but in the end, the choice comes down to personal preference, experience and that all important wallet.


Tube versus Solid State Preamps

If you have never heard the big debate between solid state and tube then it’s safe to say that you’re probably new to the party as this is one of the most recurring back and forths in audio engineering. The easiest way to think about it is imagining the choice between old school film and digital photography; the digital pictures probably come out pretty sharp and technically superior but lack those natural intangibles that are priceless in art – at least that’s what the purists out there are saying. When it comes to tube versus solid state, the debate is very similar in that in the end, it’s all a matter of personal preference, but let’s look at some of the differences between them anyway for those out there trying to decide between the two. Before we get into it, don’t forget that every single piece of your recording signal chain all the way down to the cables themselves will have an affect on the end result so just remember that before you commit to buying a particular unit.

To give it to you straight, this is what the general consensus says about the two: Tube preamps sound much more natural and harmonic but cost a lot more and are difficult to maintain. Solid state preamps are more affordable and easy to take care of but can sound sterile and too digital. Well, generally speaking, that statement can be true with certain cases but for the most part, it all depends on way too many things for that to be universally true. For example, a good solid state preamp will sound a lot better than a poorly designed tube preamp and a good tube preamp will sound better than a poorly designed solid state preamp. But let’s say they are both of similar quality, then what? Well, after that, it comes down to personal preference in sound and when it comes to sound, the biggest difference between tube and solid state is how they handle distortion.


The Importance of Distortion

Simply put, the square wave form isn't pleasing to the ears

When both are of good quality, tube and solid state preamps both exhibit low distortion throughout their normal amplitude range. The difference in how they handle distortion comes down to when they run out of head room for the signal (i.e.: overload). With solid state, the amount of distortion quickly jumps from very low to very high with little to no transition resulting in clipping. The benefit of this is that a solid state amp can easily handle a signal right up to slightly below its maximum level and still maintain good performance. This maximum level is usually much higher than on a tube amp. Another thing to be aware of is that solid state preamps run out of headroom when the output voltage is higher than the voltage powering it which results in square wave forms. Simply put, square waveforms sound strange and unnatural to our ears and so we perceive it as such. Tube distortion on the other hand is a much more gradual process that results in even order harmonics with the second harmonic being the dominant. Instruments also produce primarily even harmonics which is pretty much how technically speaking why they sound musical. This is essentially what the purists love about tube amps and preamps that most solid state just can't offer (there does exist some solid state circuits that aim to replicate this effect but are either inconsistent or very pricey, just fyi). The nature of this type of distortion is inherently musical to our ears. Not only that, tube preamps always technically exhibit a small amount of distortion simply by the very nature of how they work, further adding harmonic coloration to a recording. 

To sum it up, solid state preamps are clean and consistent at much higher signal levels but sound terrible when they overload while tube preamps overload quicker but add nice harmonics when they do. Also, because tube preamps tend to add harmonic coloration, it can be said that solid state preamps actually record a much more realistic picture – although some might think reality sounds a bit too sterile and thin for their taste. In the end, like most any other form of art, it all depends on personal preference.


Well, now that you know a bit more about channel strips and preamps along with the differences between solid state and tube, how about browsing around our huge selection while you're here!

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