Serge Synthesizer

Serge gets its name from Serge Tcherepnin (pronounced "Cher - epp - nin"), a multitalented composer and electronic designer born of Russian-Chinese parents and raised in France. Self-taught in electronic design and circuit building, Serge enjoyed doing 'junk electronic' projects early on, making tape compositions using various electronic noisemakers cobbled together out of transistor radios and the like.

After studying music and physics at Harvard and Princeton, he taught music composition at the California Institute of the Arts. This was the early 70's, the heyday of Moog, ARP, and Buchla synthesizers. Calarts had a few Buchla-equipped studios. These were expensive, highly sought-after instruments, kept under lock and key. Getting studio time on one at Calarts meant being either a recognized staff composer or someone who maneuvered themselves into favor. The Buchla, ARP, and Moog synthesizers were interesting in their way, but could be improved upon. They were both expensive and bulky, a system with a decent number of functions could take up a whole wall in a small room. Serge and students Rich Gold and Randy Cohen wondered what they could do about this. After kicking around some ideas, they decided they were going to do their own synthesizer.

The first modules were designed, soldered, and built at Serge's home in what was essentially a kitchen tabletop operation. Before long, the word got out to other professors, students, and musicians about this new synthesizer. They wanted a piece of the action. Serge set up a strange sort of guerrilla manufacturing operation at Calarts on a second-story courtyard balcony. People paid $700 upfront for parts, worked on the 'assembly line' soldering and building modules, and eventually got themselves a six-panel system. Somehow, the Calarts administration either didn't find out or wasn't too bothered by this.

Another interesting player in this drama was composer Morton Subotnik, a professor at Calarts. He had a long association with instrument designer Don Buchla in the early 60's, the two of them collaborating on fundamental aspects of synthesizer design. When Mort spoke, Don listened. Serge caught on to this, and sought to woo Morton away from the Buchlas, but that was difficult. Eventually, Serge did build Mort some custom equipment.

In the 70's Serge collaborated on the design and construction of TONTO, a large polyphonic modular system. TONTO had the ancestry of many early Serge designs, some packaged behind faux-Moog front panels, including the NTO.

Serge eventually quit teaching and began to build synthesizers more seriously, using the first designs as a springboard. The Serge company was started in 1975, in the West Hollywood area, then headed north to San Francisco's Haight Street a few years later. It was always a humble bohemian concern, running more on enthusiasm and the love of making music than money and hardheaded business sense. Business tapered to a trickle in the middle 80's, and Serge, to support his family, started doing various outside electronic consulting projects. In 1992 Serge decided to move back to France. It was at this point that he sold the closely-guarded circuit designs to longtime associate Rex Probe, who then founded Sound Transform Systems. Production record keeping was pretty informal; it's estimated that "hundreds" of Serge systems were produced in the early years.

Today, Serge is again doing musical composition and is involved in helping Russian Jews move to Israel.

As Moog was a powerful East Coast influence that inspired ARP and Polyfusion, Buchla was the West Coast influence on Serge. Several Buchla designs, including the use of touch sensitive nontraditional keyboards, sequencers, random voltage generators, function generators, and matrix mixers found their way into Serge's repertoire. But that's not to say that Serge is merely a Buchla clone. Serge made many unique contributions, including the wave multiplier module, and some ideas were taken to new heights. Serge's oscillator designs have extraordinary accuracy and stability, especially considering their discrete nature. His philosophy of allowing the easy interplay of audio, control, and trigger signals, combined with the use of banana plugs, makes these systems wonderfully flexible.

There's no denying the amazing staying power of the Serge designs. Largely because of the development of convenient microprocessor-based keyboard synths, the 80's were a nasty time for analog synthesizer makers, practically all of them throwing in the towel. Serge's business slowed way down but never completely went out of production. With the recent clamoring for analog gear fueling successful production, Rex Probe and Sound Transform Systems look poised to carry the cream of analog modular music synthesis over the threshold of the 21st century, into their fourth decade of realization.

Sound Transform Systems has done a great job of continuing the analog modular lineage. Most of the traditional Serge modules are there, a few old ones were dropped, a few new ones added. The details are constantly being improved in many visible and invisible ways. They are still laboriously handmade, though the entire build process has been improved. Turnaround time has been improved from several months to 'just a couple'. All the components are top notch. The panel graphics and layout of many of the modules have been redesigned to make them more compact while keeping or improving the functionality. The circuit designs on many modules have been updated.


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