The Theremin by Steve Stewart M0SSR


The picture is of an early RCA Theremin, not many about now, If you have one let me know!!

In 1919/20 the Theremin was invented by Lev Sergeyvich Termin, a Russian physicist of some renown. (Later he changed his name to Leon Theremin).

He worked and lived in the US, had many friends and was married.  In 1938 he was removed from the US and returned to Russia where he was thrown into prison.  His family and friends all remained in the US.

It is reported that while in Russia Leon reputably worked for the KGB devising other electronic instruments, one being the “Bug.” Other contraptions included devises for cleaning noisy audio recordings.

Clara Rockmore, was one of many people trained by Leon to play the Theremin.  Another was his first cousin Lydia Kavina.  Both these players’ music can be heard on the web.

What is a Theremin?

A Theremin was probably the first electronic instrument constructed that you played without touching it.  There is a box with various controls, volume and pitch and an on/ off.  There are usually two antennas one vertical antenna is for the pitch and the other a horizontal loop or large flat plate for the volume. The loop shape for the volume creates a larger surface area that can provide a faster volume response.  There is sometimes an on-board speaker but usually it is best to have the output from the Theremin go to an amplifier.  Most Theremins, like electronic organs, have a monophonic output that would require an amplifier to produce a sound or to play via headphones.  Single antenna Theremins only have a pitch vertical antenna.

How do you play a Theremin?

You will first need to tune it.  A Theremin is tuned by distance from the antennas.  That is, one hand is placed a distance from the vertical antenna – pitch – so that a ‘zero beat’ or lowest note attainable is reached which ever is preferred.  The hand should be about the height of the shoulder.  As you move your hand away from the antenna you get the lowest note, nearer you get the higher notes.  ‘Zero beat’ is where there is no sound at all in the pitch field.  To find the ‘zero beat’ you would hold your hand at shoulder height and turn the pitch control counter clockwise.  This will produce a high note.  Turn the control clockwise and you should hear the pitch turn lower and lower until it finally hits a space of silence – that is ‘zero beat.’  Once set, the lowest note can be heard again by leaning backwards slightly which shows that the field is actually behind you as well.

To set the volume it is a good idea to start with your left hand at a height above the loop antenna which you find comfortable and then turn the volume control so the sound is at its highest. There are other ways to set the volume but this is the easiest.  It is not a gain adjustment but noticeable in the speed or sharpness of a note.

You can hold your pitch hand – usually right – at zero beat any way you choose but there is a classic position, which will allow Aerial fingering, as it is called.  Hold your thumb and first finger together in a circle; notes can be played by moving your individual fingers towards or away from the antenna.  Vibrato can be achieved by bouncing the fingers at the wrist. Volume control is achieved by moving your left hand up and down above the loop antenna, the nearer to the loop the lower the volume.  Different players have their own techniques.

As a Theremin can have some 4-6 octaves, in a very short space it can be seen that just a small movement of the fingers is all that is necessary to produce a note change.

Many groups and bands have used the Theremin in their music, Elton John – ‘Rocket Man.’ Gary Newman – ‘Trois Gymnopeclics.’  Jean Michel Jarre – ‘Oxygen.’  Led Zeppelin – ‘Whole Lotta Loving,’ and many many more.

Some Theremins have also been used in the movies, The Day The Earth Stood Still, It Came From Outer Space and of course Doctor Who, to name but a few.

There is a lot of information on the website about Theremins. There are too many sites to mention here but you can type, ‘Theremin,’ into Google and follow the links.  You could also type, Robert Moog, probably the best known electronic creator of electronic Theremins and synthesisers now sold worldwide.

Steve Stewart (M0SSR) – Vital Spark March 2008.

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