Ask Eddie | Power Serge

Feb 1, 2013 9:00 AM, By Eddie Ciletti



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photo of Eddie Ciletti

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.

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.

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.”

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