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Moog Etherwave Theremin

The spooky Theremin tradition is carried on by Moog.

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The Theremin may be familiar and seem simple, but is very difficult to play.

  • Mar 18, 2009
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"Good Vibrations," the Beach Boys' 1966 chart topper, tries to make it sound like a happy, friendly musical instrument.*

But _we_ know the Truth, don't we!

Despite being a relatively "new" musical device, the Theremin has one of the most interesting histories of all instruments.

The Theremin was developed between 1918 and 1928 by Léon Theremin (nee Lev Sergeyevich Termen, 1896-1993), a Russian technical whiz who also invented the motion detector and had a hand in the early evolution of television. After dabbling in Captialism -- RCA manufactured the Theremin beginning in 1929 -- he mysteriously returned to the Soviet Union in 1938 and designed various devices for the KGB. He died in Moscow at the ripe old age of 97.

Why did Theremin "disappear" from the USA in 1938? The consensus is that RCA's Theremin didn't exactly turn out to be the hit that the capitalist stooges anticipated. When the USA's G-men started asking Theremin where all his RCA money went, Léon hit the proverbial road.

Astoundingly (to me, anyway), RCA advertised the Theremin as the easiest of instruments to play! The general public (who also soon faced the Great Depression) literally didn't buy it. Here's why.

The Theremin is essentially a box that sprouts two antennae. Typically, the horizontal antenna on the left controls volume while the vertical antenna on the right manipulates pitch. By moving his or her hands in the proximity of the antennae, the performer generates music without touching anything.

In one sense, then, RCA was right. If you want to make a sound with a Theremin, all you have to do is stand right up next to it. Easy! But if you want to play traditional music that involves discreet, well-defined pitches, the learning curve suddenly turns vertical. The tiniest gesture will produce an audible change in musical output. For subtle nuances, the movement of a whole hand is waaay too much. You simply wiggle fingers. Even the movement of your chest as you breathe can create sonic changes you'd wish you didn't have to deal with. And you'd better be set up with plenty of open space around you because if a cat happens to amble past ....

Beyond the struggle with sensitivity, there's the straightforward frustration of having nothing to grab or poke or whack. On a piano, all the notes are right in front of you (except for the ones in the cracks between the keys). On a violin or trombone, at least you have a certain amount of physical resistance, even if you don't have frets or valves to keep you firmly in tune. You have to be very well anchored in front of a Theremin because your spatial awareness is the only thing that will keep you harmonious.

Of course, if it's Halloween, who cares if you're in tune or not! Trick or treat!

That's the only time I usually play: Halloween.

Robert Moog (the famous synth designer) got his start as a Theremin builder when he was a kid. You can buy nice Theremins (finished or in kit form) today!

I bought my Etherwave Theremin Kit in 1999 and I doubt that the design has changed since then. Even though the Theremin's reputation may lead you to believe that it is powered by goat's blood (hey Trader Joe's!) and only comes to life every Friday the 13th, in fact it looks rather mundane. A simple wooden box with a few knobs on the front and a couple of pieces of metal sticking out is all you get.

The Etherwave kit is very easy to assemble. If you have any electronics chops at all, putting the Etherwave together yourself is cake (although it will only save you $40). The sound is what you'd expect from a Moog product: A nice fat Theremin-y timbre that can be tweaked a bit for taste. If you're looking for all sorts of presets and fancy digital signal processing that you have on your Yamaha keyboard, look elsewhere. This aetherial baby is all analog.

Once built, all you have to do is learn how to play it. By wiggling fingers. And standing as still as a statue. Without breathing. Or thinking about anything but how the heck you're going to get to that next note. That's where the hard work comes in.

As much as I like my little Theremin, I can't recommend it unless you've got about $400 you don't know what to do with and you're slightly musically insane. I'm glad there are enough folks out there who fit that description to allow Moog to keep this product alive.

If you plunk, you can take comfort in knowing that you'll be the life of the party every time Halloween rolls around. Start working on your Gort costume now!

* Actually, "Good Vibrations" uses an "Electro-Theremin." The Electro-Theremin was invented by studio trombonist (of course!) Paul Tanner. It was a very hands-on device that used a mechanical slider to determine pitch and a run-of-the-mill ol' knob to control volume. I'm sure it was still rather difficult to play well, but being able to hold onto knobs and sliders is regarded as cheating by Theremin purists.
My Etherwave Theremin in the wild. My Theremin under attack!

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April 07, 2009
Absolutely fascinating. Of course as a B-movie fan (heavy emphasis on horror and science fiction) I was minimally familiar with the Theremin and its history but I'd never heard a thing about how difficult it was to play--never given it any thought either. Bravo!
March 19, 2009
The original Queen of the Theremin was Clara Rockmore (whose teacher was Theremin himself). When you consider how hard the instrument is to play, the videos seem less comical and more amazing. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9FLdHV9DZjM Clara's daughter is now one of the top Theremin virtuosos (in the non-noise category). As far as noise goes, you're right: They're a blast. Someday I'm going to build an analog-to digital converter for it and hook it up to the computer. Then it can really get obnoxious! And to EcoMama, Theremin worked for the KGB so maybe everything he did was kept super secret in Russia? :-) Violin and trombone players usually have the easiest time making the transition to Theremin. Clara Rockmore started out as a violinist. If you've played a fretless stringed instrument, your chances may be better than you think. Thanks!
March 19, 2009
Moog + theremin = awesome. The online demonstrations I have seen with the Moog theremins, it's pretty amazing how very little finger movement it takes to make notes. I imagine it very being frustrating. But with jabbing hand motions -- massive noise potential. ooh ...fun!
March 18, 2009
That is the weirdest musical instrument I've seen to date, kudos! Unique of course, but by your description I don't think I would be very good at playing it! I am Russian by the way, but I've never heard of Termen's invention. Do you think you could add some wiki info for this data point?
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Scott Downie ()
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History [from the Wikipedia]
The theremin was originally the product of Russian government-sponsored research into proximity sensors. The instrument was invented by a young Russian physicist named Lev Sergeivich Termen (known in the West as Léon Theremin) in 1919 after the outbreak of the Russian civil war. After positive reviews at Moscow electronics conferences, Theremin demonstrated the device to Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin. Lenin was so impressed with the device that he began taking lessons in playing it, commissioned six hundred of the instruments for distribution throughout the Soviet Union, and sent Theremin on a trip around the world to demonstrate the latest Soviet technology and the invention of electronic music. After a lengthy tour of Europe, during which time he demonstrated his invention to packed houses, Theremin found his way to the United States, where he patented his invention in 1928 (US1661058 ). Subsequently, Theremin granted commercial production rights to RCA.
Although the RCA Thereminvox, released immediately following the Stock Market Crash of 1929, was not a commercial success, it fascinated audiences in America and abroad. Clara Rockmore, a well-known thereminist, toured to wide acclaim, performing a classical repertoire in concert halls around the United States, often sharing the bill with Paul Robeson. In 1938, Theremin left the United States, though the circumstances related to his departure are in dispute. Many accounts claim he was ...
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Theremin, Etherwave, Gort


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