Category: theremin

2021 Touchstones

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.

Band warm-up montage

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).

Listen, lose yourself in the moment.

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.


So I am gradually appreciating that finite control of the Theremin is based on a reference posture – some days, when I am tired I pitch differently to when I am rested and not fatigued. Unlike other instruments, if you move around while playing you lose your accurate rendering of notes on the pitch antenna.

You could imagine the pitch is like a series of concentric cylinders radiating from the vertical pitch antenna – increasing radius lowers pitch – anything close to the pitch antenna effects your control over it. In the last little while I have been “gigging” with a band of colleagues (The Touchstones), and noticed as they moved about they hijacked my pitch if they came close enough – this might be a useful controllable thing eventually, but that was a revelation to them, assuming only I was on control of the instrument.

Typically I use a single path from my body to the antenna as the pitch controller because I find a single line more controllable. Standing to do this is difficult as postural changes (and tired feet and legs) change my position relative to the instrument, making reliable pitching much harder. I have noticed many Thereminists sit (well, perch on a stool) while playing, and I can see sense in that.

Theremini and Ikea BENGTERIK bar stool combo

Thank you IKEA for providing a classy solution – a wooden screw-gear stool (BENGTERIK) that looks like it was designed by the same people who designed the Theremini, same colours, matches the microphone stand etc. Together is looks like it all belongs, which is really hoopy.

The upshot of this is that, although there is a slight increase in carryables for a gig, this setup will let me develop the reliable muscle memory affording pitch control.


So….. I thought I would try my hands at full acoustic Theremini – I am not sure why I have not been able to find any examples of this on the Internet, I guess I must be pushing boundaries:

I turned the volume up, unplugged the Theremini and played for 4 minutes and 33 seconds, showcasing a total of 12 presets in what turned out to be a frenzy of hand waving, more and more obscure hand gestures, meaningful facial contortions and frenetically energetic electronica. Enjoy.

Apologies to Mr John Cage for performing a digital version of his originally analogue masterwork.

Chung Kuo (ish)

I had a song stuck in my head – “Chung Kuo” by Vangelis, from his “China” album – well, more correctly the bass line (a 4 note arpeggio that is really catchy), and I set about trying to convert it into notes

I discovered D-2 A-3 A-2 C-2 more or less duplicates it, and set about practising tightly squeezed off notes using the “All Your Bass” preset, tuned to Ionian scale, in the key of C (I like this scale for some reason). It took AGES to get reliable notes that were clipped uniformly. I then used these as a loop, running roughly 30 seconds.

I made 5 copies of this loop and copied it across to separate loop folders on my Ditto+ Looper pedal, it then changed the name to BT.WAV (Backing Track) and generated a LOOP.WAV in each folder that matched the length of the bass loop – something I did not know it was going to do.

Connecting my Ditto+ back to the Theremini, I could play the Backing Track and practise over it, then when I stomped on record, I assumed it would lay down a composite LOOP.WAV that contained both the backing track and the new layer containing my noodling – alas, LOOP.WAV only contained the overlay, so I had to merge them using Audacity in post production. I also stuck together 5 versions (or movements), and did a little fade-in and fade-out to finsh.

I like that I did not need to do any actual sound altering – what you hear is what I generated live. I have a growing collection of favourite Theremini presets – downloaded and original that do lovely things with both antennae – I particularly like those that let you use the volume antennae to shape the envelope of the note as well as it’s timbre and volume.

I like this collection of stuff a lot, and will return to the project of re-creating the rest of Vangelis’ original song, which was my original intent – more work to there, but a really enjoyable recording session.

Amped Up

I decided, as it is school holidays, to borrow an amplifier from work to try it on my setup.

Amp for the holidays - note the "gain" is nearly off

I must admit to knowing nearly nothing about such things, but was offered a QSC K10 PA box – it has a plethora of inputs at the back and I figured I could find something that let me jack in the theremini.

I borrowed an additional guitar lead so I could also inline my Ditto+ looper pedal.

Initially I came out of the L channel of the Theremini, directly into the “Line In” of input A on the Amp. Being careful to turn on the Theremini FIRST then the amp, immediately the wall of sound was deafening – I had to dial “Gain” to one click above off to make the noise controllable and tolerable.

I then calibrated the Theremini (it seemed to lose it’s settings after the initial connection to the amp), and I noticed after calibration the knobs on the Theremini did different jobs, which was odd. After unplugging and re-calibrating, I suspected it had trashed my Firmware, but checked and it is running 1.111 as it supposed to.

I then headed online to do some research, and discovered the the signal OUT of a Theremini is really HOT – waaay higher than a guitar (note to self: remember this if you ever consider jacking into an amp at a gig or anything similarly ludicrous), and it was likely messing with the amp and the electrical feedback was messing with the Theremini. So…

I found my 3.5 to guitar adapter, plugged that into the HEADPHONE socket of the Theremini and connected the amp lead to that and … problem solved.

amplified setup - note input from headphone jack

The sound is lush, LOUD and controllable. I think my neighbours are not going to enjoy the next little while, it is like a whole different instrument. The amp brings out out sonic nuances and a richness of tone that is what had originally drawn me to the instrument, so I am a happy chappy.

I am also noticing the RCA stereo input, and might try that out also (as I have a cable from my minidisk recorder that does this particular gender bend, will report back it it is any better.