Modifying the Doepfer A-171-2 Serge VCS for more extreme non-linear curves and more manual control over rise and fall times.
The Serge Voltage Controlled Slope is a classic design and an integral part of many modular musicians’ systems. The Doepfer A-171-2 is a faithful recreation of the original circuit. It works just like the Bananalogue VCS that has been in my case since pre-Maths times. That’s good, and bad.
The VCS easily allows one to set different contours for its rise and fall phases. But its non-linear curves are not as extreme as those possible with Maths. Setting times on the VCS is harder, as the useful range is limited to about 20% of the potentiometer’s throw. It’s these differences between these two similar function generators that this modification tackles.
The feedback that generates non-linear shapes is pre-wired on both the VCS and Maths. Calibrating the VCS output voltage from 5V to 8V has only a marginal effect. But if one patches the VCS envelope output to its ‘Both CV’ input with VC Rise + Fall set to linear, the Serge yields the desired curves. This suggests the internal CV feedback loop is capped.
Indeed, if we look at the left of the schematic, at switches SWF & SWR we find 330K resistors limiting the amount of feedback to the CV mixer to about 30%. If we lower this resistance we’ll get more feedback. I desoldered and replaced the 330K resistors with 200K but you could also try soldering another value in parallel e.g. 150K (= ca. 100K, 100%) or 470K (=ca. 200K, 50%).
This part of the modification helped clear up an oddity about the VCS: namely, why making the curves more exponential actually increases the overall envelope time. Negative feedback should make it shorter, and vice versa.
If we study the same part of the schematic again, we can see -12V across a 1M resistor feeding the summing points. Given the gain ratio set by the 100K resistor, this offsets the rise and fall rates by +/-1.2 volts. I find this counter-intuitive, so I removed both 1M resistors.
Both my Doepfer and Bananalogue modules are fitted with logarithmic potentiometers to manually set the rise and fall rates. This means, when using the VCS as an envelope or slew limiter, changes in the first 50% of the pot’s throw are imperceptible. Typical envelope settings lie between about one and three o’clock. Tapering the A50K potentiometers on the A-171-2 with a 5.6K resistor between the CW/ ‘hot’ lug and the wiper solves this. The useful range now spans from nine to three o’clock.
To solder these in place, you’ll have to unscrew the jacks and remove the board from the faceplate. I tape Gaffa around the ends of my pliers to avoid scratches. While you’re there, you can measure the output between the A50K wipers and the subsequent 82K resistors to understand how the log pots choke the voltage. I did try an S-curve taper with two sets of resistors but the quasi-linearization suggested here by Daverj worked best.
So, what does it sound like? Here are two recordings:
feeback mod: exp-fall, unmodified, 0:08 modded, exp-rise, 0:16 unmodified, 0:23 modded.
pot taper mod: cycling, rise = zero, fall manually altered. Stock VCS then modded at 0:39
These simple changes have given my VCS more whip and made it easier to use. Thanks to Dieter Doepfer for helping me read his PCB layout, Ken Stone for publishing his schematic, Tim Stinchcombe and Dave Jones.
If you’d like to try this yourself, take the usual precautions to avoid damage to yourself or your module. I will not be held responsible. If in doubt, ask Doepfer or your technician to carry out the modifications for you.