The Serge synthesizer (aka Serge Modular or Serge Modular Music System) is an analogue modular synthesizer system originally developed by Serge Tcherepnin at CalArts in the 1970s. The first 20 Serge systems (then called "Tcherepnins") were built in 1973 in Tcherepnin's home. Tcherepnin was a professor at CalArts at the time, and desired to create something like the exclusively expensive Buchla modular synthesizers "for the people that would be both inexpensive and powerful." After building prototypes, Tcherepnin went on to develop kits for students to affordably build their own modular synthesizer. This led to Tcherepnin leaving CalArts in order to produce kits commercially, starting in 1974. Tcherepnin currently licences schematics and printed circuit boards to Ken Stone, so that anyone can build their own Serge synthesizer in much the same way as was done throughout the 70s and 80s. Commercial builds of Serge synthesizers are also available from Sound Transform Systems (STS) in Hartland, Wisconsin, USA.
After leaving CalArts, Serge had a small factory on Western Avenue in Hollywood. He relocated to a three-story Victorian house on Haight Street in 1980. While the synthesizers were inexpensive compared to Moog, Buchla, and other manufacturers, Serge Tcherepnin's emphasis was always on providing musicians with quality equipment.
Serge synthesizers have been used by composers such as Michael Stearns and Kevin Braheny (who owned a 15-panel system dubbed The Mighty Serge). Serge synthesizers are known for their flexibility, audio quality and relative compactness. Other well-known musicians using Serge synthesizers include Malcom Cecil, whose studio was used in Stevie Wonder albums; Gary Chang, movie composer; Roger Powell, keyboard player for Todd Rundgren; and John Adams, composer.
Previously, the module configuration for Serge systems could be selected by the user. With module widths ranging from 1" to 3" or more, several modules could then be arranged on a 17-inch-wide panel, resulting in a custom built panel. STS moved onto 17" 'Shop' panels made by Rex Probe and this format was sold until recently.
Currently modular configurations are presented as pre-configured "M-Class" panels as offered by STS. These are smaller, half sized panels, allowing a user more flexibility in module choice than the Shop Panels. These panels are 7"x8" with a center panel for the power of 1". Serge style systems are still available today from STS in the above formats and also compatible systems from third party manufacturers.
Early systems had custom graphics—or no graphics—depending upon the whims of the artist. Soon Serge adopted a series of geometric designs denoting signal types, input, outputs, and triggers. Later modules had more standard labelled graphics with blue, black, and red jacks for control voltages, audio signals, and triggers, respectively.
Serge modules did not distinguish between audio signals and control voltages—all signals were patched from module to module via banana patch cords. Banana cables are of the most flexible in electronic patching and offer quick patching with a secure connection , some banana jacks can be stacked as well. The banana jacks are of the 4mm type and heavy insulated silicon cable is used. With a simple ground connection made between different units cross connection/modulation can be made between units.
The early modules, such as the Negative and Positive Slews, were able to function as envelope followers, low pass filters, modulating waveforms and audio oscillators. Later Serge pioneered highly accurate 1V/Oct oscillators and high dynamic range VCA's (voltage controlled amplifiers) that enabled a new filter technology with low-noise.
In addition to fully featured standard synthesis modules such as voltage controlled oscillators, filters, and envelope generators, the Serge system includes esoteric audio signal processors such as a Wave Multiplier, a Frequency Shifter, an Analogue Delay as well as a very flexible touch-sensitive keyboard controller combined with a 16-stage analogue sequencer, known as the TKB.
The first Serge Modular synthesizer created became the machine used on the first Greenpeace anti-whaling expedition (1975) by William (Will) Jackson, to approximate whale sounds and broadcast them to whales in the open Pacific. (A photo of this can be found in the Vancouver Sun newspaper archives May 1975.)
The 'Serge format' is becoming more popular today than ever before because of the small but comfortable size and attractive designs both in electronics and appearance.
The presentation of pre-configured modules offers a system that is stable and complete as opposed to a system with various manufacture ideals and specifications. These panels present a whole system which is complete.
- SergeModular - The Serge Yahoo Group
- Egres - The Unofficial Serge Page
- Carbon111's Serge Modular Webpages
- Quadslope.com Serge user blog
- Serge Modular Music System. Ken Stone's page on Serge history
- COA third party manufacture for custom work
- Serge Users on Soundcloud
- Synthesizers on the Eco Front, March/April 1977