[AH] Modular advice - Serge or Nord?

From Bob Hearn
Sent Tue, Apr 4th 2000, 22:17

Hey there AH'ers,

I'm having a tough time deciding what to get.

I played with a friend's Serge last fall, and instantly fell in love. 
I knew absolutely nothing about synths of any sort before that, but 
since then I've learned everything I can, about Serges in particular, 
and decided I have to have a modular.  I've read the Gold book (the 
Serge "manual") twice, etc., so, I'm not intimidated by the Serge. 
And I can easily afford lots of Serge panels... but my wife isn't of 
the same opinion, which is why I don't have any yet.

And then there's the Nord Modular.  Pretty cool, and it even has a 
passable (though a bit too Microsoftish) Mac interface.  In a lot of 
ways, this makes more sense for me - I'll be just getting my feet wet 
with synthesis, and I'd have tons of modules (and voices) available. 
But I have a few concerns, that perhaps those with Nords could help 
me out with.

In general, it seems like the Serge has more VC functions than the 
Nord.  E.g., FM index on the NTO.  On the Nord, there's just a knob. 
In this particular case, I guess the VC isn't strictly necessary, 
since scaling the input with a VCA has the same effect, but 
nonetheless there's just more VC on the Serge.

Then there's the knob resolution on the Nord.  Take the note 
sequencer.  127 possible values!!  How can that possibly compare to 
the smooth dials on the Serge sequencers?  I've played with the 
editor demo.  Everything seems just a little too note-centric for my 
tastes.

Next, we have the patch size limits imposed by the DSP capabilities. 
This bothers me.  My intuition is that I'm the kind of person who 
would delight in making very large, complex patches.  With a Serge, 
at least I'd have the option of buying more panels.  On the Nord, the 
expansion card does not increase the individual patch space limit. 
(A few communication channels allowed between the DSP chips would 
have been a good idea.)

And then there is cool Serge stuff that is just not there on the 
Nord.  Maybe things like the infinitely-patchable DSG aren't 
necessary on the Nord, since you can just pull off a new module for 
whatever specific use you have in mind.  But what about all the cool 
waveshaping you can do on the Serge?  And how about the Wilson Analog 
Delay?  I was astounded that the delay module on the Nord gives you a 
whopping 2.6 milliseconds!!!  This I just don't get.  Memory is 
cheap.  This seems like one area the Nord should win hands-down.  And 
how about sample and hold?  The Serge has a 3-stage unit, with a 
delayed pulse pass-through, for chaining them together.  Great for 
arpeggios.  The Nord's SH is 1-stage, with no delayed pulse - it 
seems like you can't chain them.  Am I mistaken?

I saw a rumor here of a new Nord product, possibly to be announced 
this month - speculation was the main new feature was an LCD 
touchscreen, obviating the need for a computer.  This isn't too big a 
deal for me; I've been mainly a computer guy for the past 20+ years. 
But better (= more patch space) DSPs would make me sit up and take 
notice.

What do I want to do with a synth?  I don't know!!  I'm just turned 
on by the whole modular concept.  I like weird sonic explorations 
(Morton Subotnick, Forbidden Planet soundtrack, ...), and more 
"conventional" electronic music (especially Vangelis).  Techno-dance 
stuff doesn't have as much appeal.  So the ideal instrument would 
have lots of sonic flexibility (= Serge), but polyphony is also a 
plus (= Nord).

It seems like there's no direct support for polyphonic aftertouch on 
the Nord.  Is there some way to hack it?  (Here I am talking about 
aftertouch, when I play harpsichord - an instrument that's not even 
velocity-sensitive!)

The best thing for me, really, is to write my own software.  I've 
already started making a Serge simulator in CSound.  I want something 
like the Nord interface, but with a lot more customizability, and 
faithfulness to the voltage domain.  (That is, I want to manipulate 
continuous voltages, not discrete notes.  That's what quantizers are 
for.  Everything digital should be hidden behind an abstraction 
barrier.)  There are two problems with this - time & effort, and the 
lack of a realtime result.  At least until Moore's law has a few more 
years to operate.

I haven't even mentioned the sound differences - because I don't have 
many preconceptions about what a "fat" sound is, or what kind of 
sound I like.  But I get the general sense that the Serge's sound 
would be preferred.  I'm not blown away by the demo MP3's on Clavia's 
site.  (But I am very impressed with the Nord string sounds on Mark 
Pulver's site, and I don't see any inherent reason analog should 
always be better than digital.)

Other modulars (Doepfer, Modcan, ...) don't really make my list, 
since price is not the main concern.  It's either Serge, something 
like the Nord (is there anything else like it?), or pure software.


Well, that's about it.  Sorry for the length of my post.  Any advice 
offered would be appreciated!


Thanks,
Bob Hearn