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Mark Cottle: Theremin page

Theremin topics

Origins of an electronic odyssey

The Theremin was one of the earliest electronic musical instruments and had several significant roles in a convoluted chain of events that led to modern synthesisers and electronic music. It is a weird and amazing story and I love it so much that I was inspired to have a go at building a working Theremin, which is pictured on this page.

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The Theremin was invented in about 1920 by a remarkable Russian physicist whose name transliterates as Lev Termen. In the mid to late 1920s, under the name Leon Theremin, he travelled to Europe and the USA to demonstrate and market his creation. More recently it has come to light that part of the reason for his travels seems to have been industrial espionage at the behest of the Bolshevik government. Using his status as a scientist and inventor he would have been able to inquire into technological developments in the west.

Although he called his new instrument the "Aetherophone" his adopted surname seems to have stuck to it. Despite some limited success in getting instruments marketed by the RCA company, Theremin's achievements at the time fell far short of his ambitions, which were visionary. The real impact of Theremin the man and Theremin the machine only became apparent across decades of musical and technological history.

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The instrument

The Theremin is weird in many ways, not least of which is that it is played without being touched.

In place of the keys or pedals of a modern synth it has two antennae - one controlling pitch, and the other controlling volume. As a hand (or any other object) approaches the vertical antenna, the pitch gets higher. Approaching the horizontal antenna makes the volume softer. The knobs that you can see in the picture are for calibration of the antennae and adjusting the timbre. Apart from that there is just an on-off switch.

The science

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For the technically inclined it works on the principle of heterodyne oscillators and by using the player's hands to affect circuit capacitance.

The basic sound comes from two oscillator circuits that are tuned to frequencies high above the audible spectrum - close together but slightly differing. The signals from the two oscillators are combined to produce a "beat" frequency that is within the audible range. The pitch antenna is effectively part of a capacitor that is a component of one of the two oscillators.

The trick is to arrange the values of the circuit components so the slight variations in capacitance caused by movement of the player's hand cause appropriate variations in the pitch of the "beat" frequency.

The volume control works in a slightly different way but the underlying principle is similar. Simple isn't it?

Well yes and no...

Playing it

Because there is no physical contact with the instrument, playing the Theremin in any remotely tuneful way requires precise physical skill and perfect pitch. Few have ever played it well and it is arguable that only one person has ever mastered it.

A Russian-born former violin prodigy named Clara Rockmore stood out way above all other Theremin players for virtuoso performances in which she made the instrument sound the equal of cellos, violins, woodwind or brass. Clara Rockmore was a close friend of Leon Theremin and was part of an artistic circle in which he moved.

The man

Leon Theremin led a remarkable life that would sound like something from the realms of SF were it not a true story. It is pointless to go into great detail here as there are excellent resources on the web that do the job better than I ever could. If you want to know more then follow the links elsewhere on this page.

He went on developing electronic inventions that were way ahead of their time. There is evidence to suggest he invented a working television system. He hung out with avant garde musicians and dancers. Then in 1938 he disappeared in mysterious circumstances - there were rumours that he had been kidnapped by the KGB and, later on, suggestions that he had fled tax difficulties in the USA.

Decades later a visiting American scientist discovered him in Russia, where it transpired he had fallen victim to a Stalinist purge and been sent to a secret laboratory within the gulag system, where scientists and engineers were put to work for the regime. There, it is believed, he developed ingenious bugging systems for the KGB. He was later released and rehabilitated and continued his research in relative obscurity.

Perhaps the best testament to Theremin and certainly the most touching version of his story I have seen is the TV documentary"Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey" made by Steven M. Martin in 1993.

The legacy

Theremin dreamed of his electronic instruments supplanting traditional ones. He designed many more after the basic Theremin, including at least one that was designed to be played by dancing - the device responded to the dancer's movements like the Theremin responded to the player's hands.

Theremins as replacements for classical instruments never really worked out. The Theremin only came into its own when people tried using it to sound like nothing else on earth. Its distinctive tones can be heard on the soundtracks of a number of SF films from the 1950s and 1960s, most notably Bernard Hermann's score for "The Day the Earth Stood Still".

The Theremin was also picked up by rock musicians seeking new sounds. Users range from Led Zeppelin and The Bonzo Dog Band in the 60s and 70s to the Pixies in 1990.

Ironically the most famous track associated with the Theremin does not feature the instrument at all. Brian Wilson has said he was inspired by the Theremin when looking for weird sounds to use on the Beach Boys' track "Good Vibrations" but the instrument used on the recordings was a different gizmo sometimes known as a "Tannerin". Another band to be inspired by the sound were Portishead, who used a Roland synthesiser to emulate a Theremin sound on their first album.

Perhaps Theremin's greatest legacy is that he paved the way for pioneers who came after him. Although Theremin music didn't overthrow traditional forms, the instrument was revolutionary in its simplicity and portability. It was the first to show what might be done with the new valve technology. The state of the art before Theremin was Thadius Cahill's electromechanical Telharmonium, built between 1896 and 1906, which weighed 200 tons, needed six railway cars to transport it and had to be played in a different building to the one where the loudspeakers and audience were located because its mechanism made so much noise. That's a pretty bad state for an art to be in!

After the Theremin came the Ondes Martenot and the Trautonium, which were used by established classical composers. Bob Moog, whose Minimoog was arguably the first synth to be widely adopted by rock bands, made a living early in his career by building and selling Theremin kits using his own transistor-based circuits. Moog had a long association with the Theremin and later returned to marketing Theremin kits through the Big Briar company.

Building my own Theremin

I ended up building a Big Briar Theremin after abandoning an attempt to construct from scratch using a design I tracked down in a 1960s electronics magazine in the British Library. Although a transistor-based Theremin is quite simple in basic construction and most components are pretty common there is one element that is almost impossible to buy as an off-the-shelf item.

The antenna circuits require inductance coils with values a long way outside the available stock ranges. When the old designs were published in the 1960s, suitable coils were available because they were standard components in mass produced circuits. It is possible to wind your own coils but I decided it would finally take the project beyond feasibility for me.

Building the kit was very straightforward and it worked first time. Playing it is another matter. It doesn't take long to get the hang of the basic principles but scales and tunes are something else. Mostly it is great for making weird noises.

There is no tactile reference for the pitch you are about to play - no frets, no key positions. You only know for sure when you hear it. This makes hitting exact notes a real challenge when a centimetre or less in hand-to-antenna distance or slight changes in the position of your fingers can cover several semitones. It certainly raised my admiration for the abilities of Clara Rockmore.

There are a few peculiarities that you discover when you begin trying to play. For example, because the instrument is sensitive to the electrostatic conditions in its surroundings you have to adjust the sensitivity of the antennae before each time you begin to play. And because all parts of your body affect the electrostatic conditions, you need to keep very still when you are playing and move only your hands. This accounts for the weird zombie-like appearance of some Theremin players during performances. Some of us, however, probably look like that because we are naturally weird.

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