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Ask Eddie | Power Serge

THREE-AND-A-HALF GEEKS REVISIT A CLASSIC SYNTH 2/01/2013 4:00 AM Eastern

A Serge Modular Synth has been in my shop this fall for a little TLC. It’s filled with late ’70s-era 4000 Series C-MOS ICs, so it’s technically straightforward. But it’s such a unique piece of gear, the kind of technology that begins to ask its own questions. In this case, the questions start with its user interface, which is unlike the more familiar Minimoog and ARP 2600-style “touring” synths that the world is more familiar with. I’ve invited a few of my friends to share some insights after a brief introduction based on a conversation with Logan Erickson.

FOUNDATION
The typical (analog) synthesizer convention consists of four primary building blocks: a Voltage Controlled Oscillator (VCO), Filter (VCF), Amplifier (VCA) and Envelope Generator (EG). You can think of it as a four-wheeled vehicle that is relatively linear and easy to drive. The Serge panel system has the four basic wheels (VCO, VCF, VCA and EG), but it’s what you don’t see that makes it more like assembling a continuous track system for a tank, with the ultimate benefit of having control over every element within that system.

In addition to using a conventional VCO, there’s a “hidden option” to roll your own oscillator by patching together multiple non-oscillator modules—envelope generators, for example. This approach requires, and ultimately teaches, a deeper understanding of synthesis. Also, the typical sequencer has an internal clock source, while the Serge uses a module called the Dual Slope Generator for its timing. When mastered, the Serge Modular Synth provides much wider—and wilder—control of everything, like being able to choose the size, shape and placement of each tank “wheel” to expand the possibilities of how the tank can move. I think of this as “event-based synthesis.”

Serge systems are typically described in terms of 7x17-inch “panels” that could be customized with an assortment of module options. The 1970s panel systems are known as “paper faced” due to the thin white piece of printed paper with geometric shapes labeling each function of the module. Later the Paper Faced System was replaced with a more rugged aluminum panel with silkscreen-style labeling of each function.

More recently, Serge Panels have morphed into fixed-module arrangements. While this makes manufacturing easier and more cost-effective, the set group of modules per panel may or may not fit all customer preferences. That said, the current build quality is audiophile/military-grade.

ABOUT THIS SERGE…
Frank L. Eaton, the original owner, provides his synthetic right of passage: “During my junior year at Oberlin College (1977-78), I bought a six-panel Serge Modular Synthesizer in kit form. At that time, Serge was the competitor and economic alternative to the Buchla. My classmates Marc Canter (founder of Macromedia and social media agitator) and Bob Ostertag (avant-garde composer) also bought their Serge modulars at about the same time.

“The kit consisted of assembled circuit boards, pots, wires, graphics and metal boxes, together with instructions. I recall the assembly time being about 40 hours and that the process severely tested my soldering skills! Serge Tcherepnin, the eponymous founder, was very patient in fielding questions from his small workshop in California and appreciated the three Oberlin kids putting his product to use.

“The instrument is an amazing piece of technology that inspired hundreds of hours of experimentation, from live improvisation to heavy studio use. I used it actively until I sold my recording studio, Noise New York, in the late ’80s. Since then, I would take it out on rare occasions until about a year ago, when I contacted Eddie to do a major overhaul. Future plans are to integrate the Serge into a home digital studio.”

photo of Serge Modular Synth

Eddie Ciletti says that the Serge Modular Synth in his shop is "filled with late ’70s-era 4000 Series C-MOS ICs, so it’s technically straightforward."

WEST COAST CULTURE
Thanasi Frentzos, a mod and repair guy in Minneapolis with a penchant for analog synths and drum machines, says:

“Over the last couple of months I’ve stumbled upon some surprising insights, either while researching the Serge Modular Synth or by way of various books that I just happened to have been reading at the same time.

“In The Serge Modular Creature: An Unauthorized User’s Manual, Ken Tkacs describes Moog-style ‘East Coast’ synths as effecting sound at the molecular level, while the ‘West Coast’ synths by Buchla and Serge allowed sonic manipulation at a more ‘atomic’ level. In doing so, I feel the West Coast synths expanded the consciousness of sound. Wendy Carlos describes Bob Moog on her site as ‘a creative engineer who spoke music: I was a musician who spoke science.’

“Don Buchla and his contemporary, Dr. Robert A. Moog, both released their first products in the ’60s. Buchla completed his first in 1963; Moog demonstrated his contribution at the 1964 AES. Moog was trying to create something that could replicate orchestral and band sounds, using a conventional keyboard. Buchla wanted to bring unique and completely original sounds to electronic music. Outside of synth circles, Moog’s name is perhaps better known, but Buchla managed to make his mark in the history books both in music and counterculture.

“Buchla is mentioned in Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a book that documents the West Coast hippie culture of the 1960s through the eyes of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. It was a time of pushing boundaries of the mind as well as of light and sound, inadvertently laying the groundwork for our current concept of multimedia concerts. Buchla continued developing new ways to dig deeper down the rabbit hole, expanding the technology as well as the sonic possibilities. Then Serge came along in the 1970s and kept on digging.

“While late to the party, I’m very glad to finally have a chance to explore such a wonderfully crafted shovel, as both an electronic musician and a tech.”

SYNTHS IN HIS BLOOD
Logan Erickson is the owner of Low-Gain Electronics, a small Eurorack-format modular synthesizer manufacturer and custom audio electronics designer (low-gain.com). An electronic musician and DIY synth enthusiast by night, he is the production manager at Great River Electronics by day. A 100-percent synth geek and proud of it! He says:

“When it comes to pop culture, electronic dance music has become the new norm, and synth geeks are finally getting their well-deserved 15 minutes of being ‘cool.’ While always popular within the DIY community, a renewed interest in synthesis has inspired a new wave of analog (and digital) modular synthesizer manufacturing!

“After finally getting to see a vintage paper-faced Serge Modular System, I immediately started snapping pictures and posting them online. Quite a few people shared their stories, and a bit of history unfolded before my eyes. It was great to see how the old systems were made, and it might surprise many that the Serge Modular has been in continuous production since the 1970s. [Serge is now STS—Sound Transform Systems—no Website, but you can call 262/367-3030.—Ed.]

“I wasn’t always so impressed. I often wondered, ‘What is so great about Serge that justifies the huge price tag?’ Then a friend forced me to sit down and patch up his six-panel system, and this one humbling experience flipped my opinion 180 degrees!”

For more info about Serge Modular, visit serge-fans.com.

Mix Contributing Editor Eddie Ciletti can be reached at eddie@tangible-technology.com. Send him your Serge story!

Eddie Ciletti’s virtual residence is at tangible-technology.com.