Friday, June 22, 2007

The Mighty Serge Modular

A recent reworking of my Serge Modular website made me want to share a little bit about my favorite analog modular of all time on our humble blog. Enjoy!

Serge-flavored modular synthesis provides the musician/programmer with an absolutely blank canvas and a huge rainbow palette of colors as opposed to the limited hues of a hardwired synth or even many other modulars. A lot of people seem to use the Serge solely for ambient and experimental music but, maybe because I use a standard keyboard controller, I have found the Serge equally up to the task of more "normal" or, at least, keyboard-oriented types of music.

Patching on the Serge is done with bananna jacks, obviating the need for multiples since banannas are stackable and, electrically, the connections are more robust.

The Serge is kind of hard to nail-down and quantify because, depending on how they're patched, some modules can be many different things - this is called "patch programmable" in serge-speak. Most notable in this regard is the Dual Universal Slope Generator, it can be any of the following things:
-Non-linear lowpass filter
-Envelope follower
-Sub-harmonic generator
-Linear portamento
-Exponential portamento
-Programmable pulse divider
-Linear AR envelope generator
-Exponential AR envelope generator
-Linear ASR envelope generator
-Exponential ASR envelope generator
-Voltage controlled triangular LFO with adjustable angles
-Voltage controlled variable pulse LFO
-1 Volt-per-octave Audio VCO
-Semi-random voltage generator
-Semi-random pulse generator
...the list goes on.

Two other modules with a huge ammount of multiple functionality are the Dual Transient Generator, a cut-down version of the DSG, and the Smooth/Stepped Generator, a weird Sample and Hold / Track and Hold / Slew Generator hybrid.

The different Serge filters are interesting too in that usually multiple responses are available simultaneously LP, HP BP Notch...etc. My favorite Serge Filter, the Variable Slope VCF has a voltage controllable slope for unique realtime changes in timbre. The "regular" Multimode Filter, the Variable Q VCF is unique in that it can be "rung" with a trigger for dampened sine waves, plus it also has a low frequency mode used for processing CVs. There is also a multiple bandpass filter with CV variable width for realtime formant manipulation...there are many fun possibilities not normally available on other systems.

There are some hard to describe oddball modules that are pretty cool as well like the Wave Multipliers module, made up from 3 sub-modules:
1) The upper section can operate two ways. With the switch in the HI position this module will "square up" an incoming signal, similar to a comparator but more like the soft clipping you might get from an old tube amp. Put a sinewave through here, apply a CV and you have a variable pulse waveform. With the switch in the LO position, it becomes a VCA useful for amplitude modulation and gating.
2) The middle section is unique. It provides a voltage-controllable sweep of odd harmonics in a signal. If you put a sinewave through the input, you can get weird "overblown" wind instrument type timbres. This section is reminiscent of a ring modulator when used on more complex waveforms but much stranger sounding!
3) The bottom section is 3 full-wave rectifiers in series - fully voltage controllable. You can really dirty up the sound with this thing.

No other system has quite these kind of re-configurable modules though there is some kindred functionality in the Buchla and Modcan camps. This kind of flexibility means more powerful sound design and an amazing ammount of power in a small space. This is one of the main reasons the Serge is such a unique and dynamic synthesis system!

The Serge, like most modulars, is monophonic unless you have enough panels/oscillators to build multiple voicings. The Serge system has only one "native" keyboard - the TKB which is a combination sequencer and capacitance touchplate controller. Maybe I'll add one in the future but, for now, I'm using a simple MIDI controller keyboard connected to a Kenton Pro-Solo MIDI/CV converter giving me Pitch-CV, Gate and Trigger outs. There are many unusual modules (and many "usual" ones as well) in the Serge system that can create a myriad of effects. So many in fact that they are hard to cover in a simple introduction like this one.

For those wanting more detail, I've created an overview of the "Animal" panel, an all-in-one single panel Serge system, and a detailed description of its modules on a dedicated page of its own - title link takes you there.

For all things Serge Modular, please don't forget to visit The Unofficial Serge Website.

For information, availability, pricing and lead-times for Serge panels, call Sound Transform Systems at (262) 367-3030.


Anonymous said...

Thanks Carbon...

Nice little review. Do you have a sound examples??? Hearing is believing for me :)

Anonymous said...

To hear some samples of ten people doing ten completely different things with the Serge, check out the audio snippets from the "Now" album:

cebec said...

i have Serge samples on my virb page.
if you want to hear anything specific, let me know via my page and i'd be more than happy to make a demo

the world of next tuesday said...

Well as to what's like it, clearly Serge had familiarity with earlier Buchla synths and the influence shows. Looking at early documentation and catalogs what does seem to be unique early on was a focus on slew circuitry as a if not the key to processing. Unlike Buchla who intentionally separated control signals from audio, Serge takes much more of a universal approach to processing audio and control voltages.

As for Modcan, it appears to me that many of their earlier modules appear to be based on or adapted from Serge schematics.

It is worth noting that has released 3 Serge designs that were authorized by Serge and adapted for popular recent 1/8" plug module formats.