Serge synthesizer

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Serge Modular
Serge Modulars in the rack

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.[1] 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."[2] 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.[3] Commercial builds of Serge synthesizers are currently 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 typically ranging from 1" to 3" (sometimes more in the case of sequencers), several modules could then be arranged on a 17-inch-wide panel (total of 16 inches of modules), resulting in a custom built panel. These were originally arranged by applying paper graphics to the metal panel, which later became metal self-applied graphics and finally graphics printed directly onto the metal panel.

In the early 1990s the business was transferred over to Rex Probe who renamed it Sound Transform Systems (STS). A number of changes were applied over the years including the end of systems being sold as kits and user selectable module arrangements.

STS moved onto 17" pre-configured 'Shop' panels and then the half sized 'M-Class panel. These are smaller 8" panels, allowing a user more flexibility in module choice than the Shop Panels. These panels come with a center panel for power distribution that are 1" wide.

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 signal and control voltage jacks, 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, most 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, subharmonic generators, 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 21st century has seen the rise of independent builders making printed circuit boards, kits, and finished panels available to the musician at prices that reflect the original spirit that Serge Tcherepnin brought to the field back in the 1970s. These builders are sending royalties back to Tcherepnin for each module or panel sold. Ken Stone was the first to open these floodgates and makes many of the PC boards available for purchase. Sometimes the circuitry has been redesigned to reflect available parts as well as optimizing circuit flow. He also makes his own compatible designs available as well as the designs of others.

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  1. ^ Vail 2000, p. 150
  2. ^ Vail 2000, p. 149
  3. ^ Vail 2000, p. 151