Category: theremin

LV-426 Autumn

The Theremin is different to conventional instruments in that making precise musical notes is one of many challenges you face when playing it. I am a reluctant practiser – I would much rather skip the whole skills acquisition phase and jump straight to the part where I am awesome at it… but that is not how life works sadly.

I have been reluctant to post recordings of my playing because I do not feel I am good enough at pitch control yet, but I decided to commit some time to ‘composing’ and recording an ambient spacescape that showcases the varied synthesiser voices that are available on the Theremini.

For the uninitiated, a Theremini differs from a classic Theremin in that it is a DIGITAL re-work of the original interface – the whole antennae thing on the original is ANALOG – the resulting analog distance from the antenna creates a smooth glissando, and generally only plays one type of noise (or voice), with variations in tone and waveform. A Theremini on the other hand is a full synthesiser (you can create totally new sounds) but uses the antennae to control pitch and volume/effect in a similar way to it’s analog ancestor. The distance from the antennae is sampled digitally, so the glissando can be much more granular.

For this piece, I wanted to get better at using my Ditto+ looping pedal – a foot-driven mono guitar pedal that lets me record and overdub over recordings live. I have been working my way through the Alien movies, and the ambient soundscape interests me greatly – it is a mood setter, so I decided to have a go at making one.

I selected the “lost in fog” preset on my Theremini, and dialed the preset effect back to about 1/4 strength (it is a stereo drift effect, lost on mono capture anyways) and tuned it to Phrygian mode (a “dark” scale). I played with the almost sub-sonic sound until I got a progression I liked and then recorded using it for about a minute, fading volume in, up and down then out at the end.

Next I chose the “Futurewarz” voice (think opening credits to the original Bladerunner movie), also tuned to Phrygian mode, and bumped the effect (a spatial delay) up to about half. This voice is really loud and harsh, so precise volume and pitch control was the aim – a restrained and minimal solo track was laid over the bass hum after much experimentation and pitch-control practise. I did NO post-processing or mixing here. The sound you hear is how it was made on the Theremin.

The result is about a minute of the sort of sound that (to me) resembles Bladerunner on LV-426 (the planet we originally met the Xenomorph in the first and best Alien movie).

Enjoy, tolerate, ignore – your choice:


So I have begun to think about the actual playing of this instrument.

Sitting at a table, with it on that table places the antennae too high, making the angles for attenuation uncomfortable and inaccurate, so I decided to buy a microphone stand to support it. On the underneath of the chassis there is a 3/8″ mike stand screw socket (female) designed just for this purpose.

I returned to Manny’s and purchased a Konig-Meyer heavy round-based black stand – the manufacturers website said it had the correct thread size head, but the ones in-store had 5/8″ screw head. I had to buy a converter (even after being assured by the salesman that it was 3/8″, until he actually looked – a bit annoying given the multiple contacts to determine this).

Theremini on Konig-Meyer stand, with DITTO+ Looper

The height is now comfortable – a side effect is that my pitch control is MUCH more controlled when standing, and when using a slightly split stance, the approach to both pitch and volume antennae work much better.

I began researching LOOPER pedals (like those guitarists use so they can self-accompany), decided on a DITTO+Looper, returned to Manny’s and purchased it, along with a compatible power supply (it seems guitar pedals do not routinely ship with them), and cable to connect it to the Theremini, and a converter to allow me to plug my headphones into the pedal OUT so I can hear the results.

Ditto+ Looper pedal

In a brief hiatus from marking, I hooked it all up to test it out. The Pedal IN and therefore Theremini OUT needs to be MONO (interestingly, the Theremini has a stereo output – most of it’s presets are “spacial” sounding, but plugging the looper into either the L or R channel makes it output balanced MONO to the pedal. I did not realise guitars output MONO – you live and learn.

DITTO+ Looper pedal

The pedal has nearly no controls – it’s simplicity is legendary. I managed to record a loop using one instrument, then overdub with another, then play live over the top of all this – this is HUGELY exciting, particularly when I get a chance to actually get musical. The looper uses solid-state storage also, so I will keep loops I like. Conventional pedals lose everything when powered down apparently, so this should be fun.

Lots to look forward to playing with.

Wot He said…

A rare recording of Lev Termin (later Anglicized to “Leon Theremin”) playing his own invention

Of note is the large amount of vibrato (note wobble) he places on every note – this is either advanced technique or a clever ruse to hide micro tuning issues (or both). Amazing control indeed from 1919 (or there about). Note his Theremin seems to have 2 distinct parts – the pitch antennae seems separate to the volume loop – it must be connected via cabinetry below but we do not get to see it.

A Record

…so I have been curious as to how I can record my progress on the Theremini, as playing the thing is a 2-handed job and I do not have a video setup that records picture and high quality sound out … yet.

In the mid 90’s, before I had a smartphone, I went through a bunch of musical appliances that let me carry recorded music around with me – cassette-based walkman, MP3 player, CD-based diskman and finally a mini-disk player-recorder.


I actually used the minidisk to record all of the stuff in the UoD collaborative project, and when I graduated to a smartphone with sufficient storage capacity, the minidisk was dismantled and put carefully into storage (and obscurity at the back of one of the shelves in the stereo unit). I wonder what happened to the rechargeable battery?

Digging through my cables, I re-discovered my Sony stereo microphone and minidisk, along with a large collection of disks (many unused). I put a newish AA battery in and, to my absolute amazement, the device sprang to life. I plugged it in to the headphones socket of the Theremini, plugged my headphones into the lineout of the minidisk and pressed record – again to my delight it captured the sound beautifully. I forgot how much I loved that thing, for many reasons including the wonderful sound quality (full digital recording) and the ease of use.

One problem solved then, I can record the sound – must get a sound editor (I think I used Audacity back in the day, must see if there is anything better that is free).

Pitch control is variable – some days it is really good, others it is really not good, not sure why. I continue to plug away at it, although I am also branching out and trying some of the other presets – some fab on-board sounds and an editor to let me make my own – so much to play with.

My Setup

Let me introduce you to the gear I have at the moment:

As well as the Etherwave Theremini, I have some Audio Technica monitor headphones, and can connect my iPad to it via a lightning->USB->USB mini dongle collection.

practice setup

The iPad runs the Moog Theremini Editor – something I am beginning to explore – it lets me create “presets” which are combinations of a sound generation technique, properties and in-line effects coupled with antennae sensitivity and other parameters that control how the noise will be played, sound and it’s relationship to the antennae.

theremini editor on iPad

The Theremini has only a few knobs and controls on the front panel, along with an LED screen showing current machine/note state. Initially I thought it would be really easy to watch the notes as the way to play something, but the more I watch, the worse it gets so I think I will try to use my reasonable sense of pitch to play it by ear. It tells you how close to the note you are playing – the slightly sharp or flat is really hard to control, and can be a result of pulse, fingernail or slight postural change – I guess muscle memories will need to be learned to better control this.

slightly flat, on target and slightly sharp

The knobs are relatively straight forward – volume is just that (there is also a “master volume” setting that is in settings, so this knob’s max is governed by that). Beside the volume knob is a “gateway to hell” known as “pitch correction“. Purists will bristle even at the mentioning of this feature – when ramped up it causes the theremini to “snap” to the note, ignoring the glissando. Purists warn that you can create the “stepped” gliss by quick finger movements and strategic use of the volume loop and I agree. I am not using this knob (at the moment) – I do not want to get used to it doing the job of pitch control, I need to learn to control it. We can also choose the “scale” and “root note” – I do not pretend to know what these mean, yet.

highway to hell

On the other side of the LCD screen, we have setup, effect (with amount knob) and preset knob. Effects can be dialed up and down, you get a real sense of the tone colour with it minimalised, but often there are resonances, filters and other spatial distortions that can be added – more on that in posts to come (when I better understand how to control that). The preset knob lets you dial any one of 32 on-board preset “instruments” in the factory default set. These presets can be changed to those on the iPad effortlessly, or an entire preset library can be brought in, making the theremini a really varied and versatile instrument.

preset and effect

I have lots to learn, but am getting my head around the actual instrument.