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30-Day: 191; 7-Day: 227; Yesterday: 296
Charlatan, a freeware polyphonic, subtractive virtual analog (VA) synth with focus on sound quality and easy usability. It comes with a flexible, yet not overwhelming feature set which encourages artists to start tweaking instead of just relying on presets. Inspite of it's simplicity, Charlatan's architecture is flexible enough to create both classic sounds and rather experimental noises. While making no compromise about sound quality, the sound engine has been highly optimized for efficient CPU usage making Charlatan well suited as a "bread and butter" synth even in projects with a large number of plugin instances.
I'm giving it four stars only because it's been exactly 6 years since it was updated, and it desperately needs quality of life and bug fixes. Otherwise I'd give it a 5.
At first glance, Charlatan presents as a very simple and limited virtual analog synth, but what sets it apart is its quality analog oscillators and filter. It's oscillators and filters sound excellent and lively, made better by the subtle (almost unnoticeable) analog 'drift' effect employed under the hood, which is uncommon in free plugins. Also, it's kind to your CPU meter, so don't be afraid to use more than one instance.
In essence, Charlatan is somewhat comparable to Roland's Juno-60 or Korg Polysix in terms of capabilities and philosophy. But it actually has more features, such as a proper second oscillator, oscillator sync and ringmod. It could also be considered a stripped down Jupiter-8 or Prophet-5, but in general, it's its own take on the 80s poly synth.
Because of its limitations and wanting to keep things simple, you likely will not stray too far from typical 80s sounds like basses, pads and poly sounds. It's just not as versatile as your typical semi-modular hybrid soft synth. Though I'm sure it can be useful for House, Techno, and other surprising areas. Charlatan is particularly great for basses; some of the best 80s style basses I've heard in a free plugin! It holds up even for synth brass and stabs. It can do string machines, transistor organs, and all sorts of other keyboard sounds as well. With its noise oscillator, it makes surprisingly useful filler FX. It's even possible to squeeze out dissonant drones and usable drum sounds.
So in essence, it's dead simple and limited, but that's not a bad thing. Limitations breed creativity as they say. It sounds good enough to easily fill the 80s polysynth role, but is versatile enough that you can still find new and interesting timbres by experimenting. Also, don't neglect on the Unison and Stereo modes. Older versions of Charlatan did not have this, but they can really add a lot to the sound.
That said, it's not perfect. Osc 2 can only be detuned up to 6 semitones, which means... no perfect fifths. Does the creator have a vendetta against fifths, to stop at exactly 6?! There are also bugs. Sometimes I found patches don't load properly, glitches out, or don't sound right, particularly if in POLY mode. And it doesn't seem to honor initial pitch bend messages for fine tuning, though this may not be exclusive to Charlatan. An additional way to alter the drift amount would also have been huge in a free plugin. But these are not deal breakers.
Using it with a chorus greatly augments the synth: The free TAL Chorus LX is a great load-once-and-forget chorus, but any decent BBD or multi-voice chorus will do, but that's a whole other topic. Also you'll want a good reverb. TAL's free reverb plugins are well-suited for the job (I personally like the older TAL-Reverb-2 for its tone) Then there's also Supermassive (free), which can be warm and spacey.
Don't be fooled by its basic interface. This synth is very capable and has a great sound that will sit perfectly in any production. Because it's so lightweight on your CPU, you can use as many synth layers as you want without taxing your computer. Charlatan does exactly what every subtractive synth should do but nothing more. There is no arpeggiator or no effect included. Just add your favorite delay, chorus, and/or reverb to it and you are set for any real world production. Soundwise, you will get the same kind of sound as the old synths like the Juno, but you'd be hard pressed to distinguish it from one of the big boys.
Because it is so basic, Charlatan invites you to tweak your sound instead of browsing through hundreds or thousands of presets. I consider it the best synth to learn out there.Read Review
I'll make it short : I've nothing else to add and to cut off to all the good things said about this synth by other reviewers.
Charlatan sounds pretty good, is simple, efficient with low CPU consomption. What else ?
It's my workhorse when I want to make a sound with no hassle.
This only cons is the lack of internal preset management. It uses the host one... if it has one.
Of course it's a encouragement to do sounds by ourselves and that's easy with this synth. But when I do a sound in a DAW and want to use it in a soft that doesn't offer VST presets management (like Maschine), I have to mimic the tunings by hand, like on a oldschool hardware synth with no memory. An incongruity in the digital world.Read Review
This is a remarkable instrument. You can tell it was made not just by a good programmer trying to engineer a synth in the ways that sound good on paper, but by an artist who knows how to tweak a synth to make it sound good musically.
Softsynths don't really get a better core sound than this. The oscillators and filters are perfect, very crisp and full. Great brightness without harshness, and warm low-mid presence without muddiness. The envelopes have great curvature, snappy decays and nice attack/release fading on pads. Unison detune rings out with good texture instead of the waveforms clashing into noise the way a synths' unisons do.
Great interface. Parameters left-to-right along the signal path, and is attractive and responsive. This is a very well-made plug-in. I've had no glitches or odd behavior even with many instances running at a time.
I couldn't believe this thing is a freebie. It would have fetched a few hundred bucks just a decade ago.Read Review
It's hard to describe why I keep going back to this plugin even if I have a ton of other commercial alternatives. Maybe it's the great sound. Maybe it's the intuitive interface. Maybe it's just the stripped down features. Or maybe it's all of the above.
Plenty of character, lovely filters and actually just the right feel of how a slider or knob responds in the GUI (So many plugins just misses this detail) and all of this for free makes it a no brainer.
This is a track I made using only Charlatan for all sounds, including drums. Not one time did I feel the need to load another plugin and that is the true mark of a great instrument.