Theremin 1

Apart from the Stylophone, another instrument I’ve always been fascinated by is the Theremin, and I’ve always planned to make one.

I know the project I’m about to describe isn’t a proper theremin, but it has an oscillator, and pitch and volume are controlled by hand without touching it – which are amongst the essential features of  a theremin – so it seemed like a good place to start.

The Theremin is an electronic instrument named after the man who invented it in Russia in about 1920, Lev Sergeyevich Termen,  It’s called the Theremin, not the Termen, as Leon Theremin is the name by which he became known when he came to America in the late 20’s – probably a better representation of the family name, which is not Russian in origin, but French.

LeonTheremin, c.1924, public domain, from Wikipedia

Theremin disappeared back to Russia after just a few years, and did not reappear in the West for over 50 years (1989, by which time he was 92 years of age!), but left designs for his instrument which were manufactured under licence by RCA.

As I see it, there are two essential features of the theremin, pertaining to how it is played, and – more technically – how exactly the sounds it makes are produced.

First of all, as mentioned above, it is normally played without touching it: instead, pitch and volume are controlled by moving the hands nearer to or further from antennae – like radio aerials – on the instrument.  This is a pretty unique feature, and came about because Theremin invented it not while trying to make a musical instrument, but in the course of obtaining an audible response to scientific experiments he was conducting at the Physico-Technical Institute in Petrograd (St Petersburg).

The classic theremin features a vertical, radio-like antenna for pitch control (played by the right hand), and a horizontal loop (played by the left hand) to control the volume.

Secondly, the notes produced by the theremin do not come from the output of a single oscillator: instead, it has two oscillators, which run at radio frequencies (RF), and are too high to hear.  However, if there is a difference between the two frequencies, this produces a third tone, which is much lower and which you can hear.  When the player moves nearer to or further from the antenna, this alters the difference between the two high frequencies, and raises or lowers the audible tone.

(Another electronic instrument invented independently at the same time as the theremin, The ondes martenot, also uses the same principle of two high frequency oscillators producing a third, audible tone, but this is essentially a keyboard instrument  – although it also includes a ribbon controller as an alternative to the conventional keys.)

It is typical to hear melodies played on the theremin which feature a great deal of portamento – sliding from one note to the next.  This is almost inevitable, as there is nothing to guide the player to find the correct note, other than their ears.  Skilful performers can avoid doing this all the time, but it would be a terrible waste not to make a feature of it, since the theremin makes it easy.  It is typical, although not a necessity, for melodies to be quite high-pitched, and players will usually employ techniques that produce vibrato.

These typical theremin sounds – often described as ‘ethereal’ or ‘spooky’, and frequently found in horror or science fiction contexts – are a product of the two important design features described above.  Other instruments have been designed which mimic the sound of the theremin (including my recent SoftPot Stylophone), but unless the sounds are produced by the player’s proximity to the instrument, using the body’s natural capacitance to affect the pitch and volume of RF oscillators, it isn’t a proper theremin.

The Electro-Theremin or Tannerin, developed by Paul Tanner and featured on the Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations, was such a good imitation that people used to think it was a real theremin; but it was controlled by a slider.

According to Google, today would have been Robert Moog’s 78th birthday.  As you can see, they’ve illustrated this with a (functional!) version of his famous synthesizer.

Robert Moog's Birthday

Before inventing this, however, young Robert was heavily into theremins, studying the Leon Theremin-designed RCA model and inventing his own – proper – instrument.

It’s not entirely a coincidence that my SoftPot Stylophone – and the earlier Cybersynth – sound a bit like a theremin, but this was the first time I’d constructed an instrument meant to be played without touching it.

In fact, the particular instrument I built is an ‘optical’ theremin, with pitch and volume controlled by two light-dependent resistors, and the basic circuit was so simple, I had to try it:

Optical Theremin circuit

This circuit came from Graf’s Encycopedia of Electronic Circuits (Vol. 5, I think), but seemed to me to have something of the look of a ‘Lunetta’ device about it. I’ve already digressed into the history of the theremin, so I’ll save discussing Lunettas for another time.  (If you don’t know what a Lunetta is, start here: https://docs.google.com/document/edit?id=1V9qerry_PsXTZqt_UDx7C-wcuMe_6_gyy6M_MyAgQoA&pli=1#heading=h.6a4696420d74 and here: http://electro-music.com/forum/index.php?f=160).

Anyway, I was sure I’d seen the 4049 chip on which the optical theremin is based being used in Lunetta circuits. I had all the parts to hand – including the 4049 which I had recently salvaged from a project board I’d put together so many years ago I’d forgotten what it was originally for; and even the transformer, which I’d recently bought for another project – and it fitted on a 1” square piece of veroboard tucked inside the case of one of the broken Stylophone Beatboxes I had acquired.

It was ultra-simple – and it worked!  However, once I had finished it and played with it for a while, I realised there were some slight problems in being able to play it effectively; and I also began to wonder how I could make it sound more interesting and varied.

I’ll describe my variations on the basic circuit in a follow-up post.  Information on Leon Theremin comes from Wikipedia and Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage by Albert Glinsky (Foreword by Robert Moog).  The Wikipedia article has a number of very useful links to websites on Leon Theremin and his wonderful instrument.


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June 2012

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