When you think about the word “cover” in the context of a musical instrument, you often jump to a “cover version” – this post is about a physical cover.
The Claravox does not come with a travel case, or any means of storage except the beautiful original packaging (which I will certainly use for transportation). Storing it when not being played, I decided it needed a dust cover, and my talented wife came to my assistance.
Essentially a rectangular “bag”, hemmed and double-seamed cotton-blend, the solution also contains an antenna sleeve for the volume antenna (the stickey-uppey one) to prevent it from eventually punching through the corner of the cover, and a headphone sleeve that allows me to hang my headphones over the pitch arm without leaving marks.
I like the simple black utilitarian style, just perfect. One corner folds over and hitches slightly on the volume antenna to make it sit square. I am hoping it will keep the instrument safe and dust-free for years to come.
When browsing the Moog website, quite naturally I was drawn to the Claravox Centennial Theremin as my “if I could have anything, I would want that” choice, only to be disappointed to learn that it was discontinued as an actively produced instrument. Mike, my best friend, now deceased, and I had discussed for many years getting a Theremin, what made a good one, whether we would buy a kit and build it or whether we would buy a pre-made one, but his declining health made such discussions merely academic towards the end.
I was not really interested in buying one second-hand: call me pretentious but I do not want to buy an electronic instrument that someone else wanted to get rid of, my experience is that they want to get rid of it for a reason. I was new to me, it had to be new new.
I bought a Etherwave Theremini because of the extra synthesiser/editor functions, and still love it for being a gentle “in” to the highly opinionated and secular field of Theremin playing. It’s digital re-creation of the Theremin experience is fascinating, yet widely reviled in the same community for whatever vapid reasons.
After a few rehearsals, and a bunch of play-list alterations, and heaps of experimentation, we were ready to go.
Our resident tech manager hooked up the Theremini in stereo (using guitar leads from both L and R outputs into an equaliser box, then via 2 microphone leads into 2 channels of the mixing desk, allocating them hard L and R ) to the PA system, flanking guitars had their own amps and the drummer…well…drummed unaided (I am guessing in a bigger venue, with a fancier sound system he would have his drums miked also?).
I found a space (the Theremin does not like to share air, so a physical distance around the instrument is necessary to calibrate it so it can be played) in the middle of the band and set up. It felt awesome to play like that – some songs worked really well with the Theremin, others I sat out, but it looked like the audience enjoyed it, and there was LOTS of interest in what that weird instrument was, and why I was waving around, and how that waving around controlled the instrument. That said, noodling was loads of fun – Theremini and Bass is a groovy combination that I would love to explore some more.
Note to self: monitoring what I am playing is _really_ important. Going through a PA usually means I am behind the speakers, so when the band is loud I cannot hear myself, making pitching problematic (or is that just avant-garde? I guess it depends how confidently I play awful notes). I must investigate either a splitter or fold-back speaker, should such a thing happen again.
The “out” maximum device volume when plugged into the guitar-jack L-R sockets is fixed by the device settings. The “volume” knob on the Theremini ceases to do anything when plugged in to anything but the headphones socket. In a revelation, I accidentally discovered that I can control the overall device volume level (not the volume antenna volume) of a preset by pressing the “setup” button, which switches between status and edit modes, then twiddling the “effect” knob raises and lowers the device volume. I am assuming edit mode also lets me tweak other parameters live, and must explore this in less time-critical moments. This was SO handy as previously I was tweaking the gain and volume on my channel on the mixing desk to equalise levels (as no 2 presets seem to be as loud as each other).
I love it that I am learning heaps by making mistakes.
Now I have done a bit of audio engineering over the years, and recording in stereo was something I did a lot of – the Sony stereo microphone and MiniDisk combination was a killer back in the day – and it still works a treat.
I had recorded Touchstones “Come Together” and this piece “Ping Pong” in stereo, and went to rip them to computer file using my SoundBlaster Play 3 USB soundcard, only to discover something unexpected.
It appears most “headset” type external USB soundcards only record in MONO, but offer full stereo playback – this was a revelation made clear from the experimental song “Ping Pong” which used hard L-R-L-R alternating channel punishment, and my rip had HOLES in it where the right channel should have been.
Laptops these days only come with a stereo headphone jack, no line in anymore – I guess hardware manufacturers figure you only need mono to support zoom calls so do not bother mounting the whole sound card experience. Seems the soundblaster was recording the left channel and copying that to the right, for a completely flat 2-ear mono. I had wondered why “come together” lacked the vibrancy of the original Minidisk recording, but… there you go. I managed to rip true stereo audio using my wife’s gaming computer – it has a REAL sound card in it (with a lovely blue line in), but i am going to have to come up with a more independent solution eventually.
This piece is an experiment in what I can achieve with the Theremini ONLY, in one take. I dialled my modification of the “Helix” preset, which uses a wide long ping-pong delay, chose the Key of C, and Major Pentatonic, dialled the pitch correction to off, plugged in my minidisk and headphones (I have a headphone splitter dongle), did a little playing before waiting for silence then hitting record.
What you hear is as I performed it, no editing (apart from top and tail trimming) – all the noise was made during the recording session, using only the built-in fx processing of the preset. I discovered that I could play inside the wide stereo field, that by pulling rapidly from highest to lowest, and getting the volume right I could get close to a kick drum sound, and love that parts sound like I used drum pads.
The delay quickly fills up, and when it gets really congested, the sound gets crunchy, and that is also sort of cool. To get the fade out I paused on the lowest note before silencing the volume antenna and waiting for the delay to decay to nothing – such an old school synth sound.
I really like this, not sure why, but I am amazed how much deliberate sound a monophonic instrument can make like this.
I was approached by long-standing member Will to try out the Theremini for inclusion in “The Touchstones” – a staff band at our College. I must admit that I did not think I could add very much musically to what was essentially a Rock and Roll outfit, but thought of my personal motto “fuck it, let’s give this a go” and did.
We gather in the old Brothers Chapel, a lovely resonant chamber with timber vaulted ceiling, now a school band rehearsal room full of gear, and have, over the last couple of get togethers thrashed out a set list, some of which allow a Theremin to noodle in more or less controlled ways among the actual instrumentalists. For reference we have Marshall and Steadman on GUITARS, Dabelstein on BASS, Johnson on DRUMS and me on THEREMINI.
I know I am the only one in the room who cannot read music, and it was initially intimidating to try and free-form noodle among some R&R standards, but there are moments when the groove really works.
Calibrating the Theremini in this space is really tricky – so little space, so much metal and other things to confuse the capacitance – I have no idea how the setup for the actual gig will go as I know the Theremini does not like to be in tight spaces, and interacts with anyone or anything that gets close.
I recorded on my MiniDisk our extended version of “Come Together”, originally by Lennon and McCartney (they were in the Beatles you know – I hope you are listening Mike because I finally came around to a Beatles song!!!! – I hope the audio quality in the afterlife is awesome because this recording is dedicated to you, my dear departed friend).
I am playing my modification of “Modzilla”, a preset that has a lot of fun playability, and I think it works quite well in this song. I have it tuned to the Dorian scale, in D (thanks Craig for the heads-up), and I have eased back the pitch correction to barely on, just to let me bend and ease in/out of notes nicely. I have done a bit of work on the volume antenna effect modulation and it allows me to envelope shape a bit – again this is fun live. I hope you enjoy it even half as much as we did playing it. You can hear band members enjoying the jam, the recording is straight from the MiniDisk, no editing apart from trim head and tail.
Knowing the key and scale of a song is really useful for pitching relevant noise into a tight rock and roll song, and I think I am getting better. I think, however, the Theremin is better suited to more “art rock” tunes.
It has been a real honour to have been allowed to be part of this ensemble, and we are nearing our “gig” – the end of year Staff Xmas party – a welcome end for the brutal year we have had.