Plug In Boutique's latest offering is a streamlined yet potent single-pane virtual polysynth. Rather than recreate the dulcet tones of some rare vintage analog instrument, this four oscillator beast is designed to deliver the digital yet lush sound of the Access Virus, Nord Lead, and other highly-regarded synths of more recent times.
At first glance, Carbon Electra's stripped-down panel may seem simplistic, but I can assure you there's more than enough functionality on hand for serious sound design. While it may lack a standard modulation matrix, this could be considered an asset: dedicated controls reduce the potential for getting lost in possibilities that aren't there.
Starting along the top of the device, you'll find a patch loading menu conveniently tucked away in a drop-down menu; there's really no need for a dedicated patch navigation pane unless you're dealing with a vast amount of presets. To the right of this is a display which reads the value of the parameter you're currently editing, followed by meters for volume and gain reduction—useful when the built-in limiter kicks in.
Our bank of four oscillators each allow for a selection of your standard subtractive analog waveforms: pulse, sawtooth, triangle, sine, and noise. All four offer width controls along with pitch; oscillator one exclusively offers an FM control in place of the tuning available on the remaining three oscillators; oscillators one and two can also be synced, as can three and four.
A pair of dedicated ADSR envelope generators make sound shaping fairly straightforward, with the first envelope strictly controlling amplitude, and the modulation envelope below it assignable to pitch and filtration in varying degrees.
The mixer area allows you to blend the four oscillator levels along with a fifth noise oscillator. A handy oscilloscope gives a real-time readout of your waveforms, while a 12 dB boost adds significant gain at the mixer stage. Below the mixer is a singular filter featuring low-pass, high-pass, band-pass, and notch settings along with a unique and rich-sounding vowel filter; a saturation toggle provides the option to add some sizzle, while a frequency display shows where the cutoff is as it changes.
Three sync-able LFOs all contain rate, delay, width, and mono controls along with a modwheel assignment amount, while offering pulse, triangle, sine, noise, and double-sine shapes. The first LFO can be applied separately to the four oscillator pitches and amplitude; the second LFO can be sent to the FM of oscillator one, the pulse-width of oscillators two and three, as well as LFO1 amount and the filter's resonance; the third LFO goes to the mix amount of the first four oscillators as well as the filter cutoff. Compared to the extensive modulation matrix found in many competing synths, this kind of hardwired routing might seem restrictive, but in actual use you may find it streamlines the process by helping focus on the fewer available options.
A well-tuned effects bank includes a vintage dual chorus, a nice sounding sync-able delay line, a phaser, distortion, and a three-band equalizer with sweepable mid and high frequencies. The master output section features the standard glide, polyphony, volume, tuning, and pitch bend settings, along with a unique unison mode, plus legato and limiter toggles.
While it's easy enough to create deep bass, lush strings, piercing leads, squelching synths, and expansive pads, perhaps the most inspiring element of Carbon Electra is the step sequencer, located along the bottom. Up to sixteen steps can be edited with a wide variety of wave shapes—somewhat reminiscent of NI's Massive—synchronized at a variety of intervals from half-notes to 32nd-note triplets, looped at an interval of your choosing, and applied to amplitude, filter cutoff, and pitch in varying degrees. Just a few quick alterations in the sequencer delivered intricate wobbles, hypnotic bleeps, and twisted synthetic rhythms—perfect for fresh ideas when the creative well is running dry.
With impressive sound quality, intuitive workflow, and impressive CPU efficiency, Plug In Boutique have turned out a focused instrument geared for the modern producer. Throw in some included presets from techno heavyweights Carl Cox, Mike Huckaby, and DJ Pierre, and you might just want to give Carbon Electra a look.
Pros: Quality sound, extremely processor efficient, great effects, easy to use.
Cons: Limited modulation routing, no undo/redo functionality, no reverb, no randomization.