Category: synthesis

Mix

Furthering my home studio resources, I did a whole bunch of research regarding DAW components. A Digital Audio Workstation is something I have sort of messed around the peripherals of, producing audio on my laptop for decades, but hardware was limited to a good stereo microphone and mini-disk recorder.

After much research I determined I needed 2 channels input, 2 out, and wanted something that would essentially extend my laptop “soundcard” given nearly every laptop has a poor excuse for a soundcard that pretends to be more than it is – this is annoying. For example, although it provides a single 3.5mm STEREO plug out, there is no plug for an INPUT. I (foolishly) bought a USB C “SoundBlaster” external “soundcard” only to discover that it’s INPUT only captures MONO, even though the packaging and advertising material says different.

The soundblaster thingy is however useful for Zoom meetings etc as I can plug my wired headset into it and nicely separate microphone from speakers, but as a music capture device it is useless. I was using my wife’s gaming PC soundcard to capture samples form my MiniDisk as stereo digital files to use on my laptop – a clearly ludicrous and inconvenient solution.

When I was forced to buy my own laptop (as I recently retired and no longer have a school-provided laptop), I could not find a cost-effective solution built in to a laptop so looked for other options.

I settled on an Arturia MiniFuse 2 (2-in, 2-out), a lovely little USB C thingy that gives me external mixing capacity, allowing me to plug in both Theremins, or a Theremin and another device. When plugged in to my laptop it becomes the soundcard, and with it came some wonderful software to manage the DAW – including Ableton Live and the Arturia suite which I am learning to drive.

I also decided I needed some new cables, I had 2 “guitar leads” but needed more to connect things, integrate my loop pedal and also connect to the speaker, so bought some new TRS cables, and a quality Audio adapter to manage the 3.5 to 6.35mm plug issue. I also purchased a Music stand (for my iPad, which provides sound editors for both Claravox and Theremini), along with a quality USB C connector cable for the Vox.

Along the way I also decided that the microphone stand the Claravox was using (bought previously for the Theremini) was too high to play comfortably, so I bit the bullet and bought the stand designed for the Claravox (a beautiful art object in itself) – completing my Clara, finally.

I … think … I now have all the bits I need to support what I want to do. We shall see.

Gig

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.

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.

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.

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: