The theremin is a single oscillator electronic musical instrument with two metal rods used to control pitch and amplitude by the human performer using hand gestures. The left rod (a horizontal hoop) reduces the amplitude as the left hand is moved closer to it, while the right rod (a vertical pole) increases the pitch as the right hand is moved towards it.
How does it work?
Well, you stand in front of the theremin and wave each of your hands near to one of the two metal (radio-type) ‘aerials’ or ‘antennas’ that each creates its own electromagnetic ‘field’. The distance of your hand from one controls the pitch (frequency) and the distance from the other controls the volume (amplitude) of its oscillators. To play higher notes, just move your hand closer to the pitch controller, and to play louder notes, move your other hand away from the volume controller. Most players use their right hand to control the pitch and their left hand to control the volume, although some performers prefer the opposite way – always someone has to be different it seems!
What does it sound like?
“Oowah, Oowah” – what’s that spooky sound? Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Mais non, mes amis, c’est un Theremin! I first heard this instrument while watching old movies back in the 1950’s such as Bernard Hermann’s “The Day The Earth Stood Still”, Miklos Rozsa’s “Spellbound” and Samuel Hoffman’s wonderfully-named “It came from Outer Space” and I kind of wondered what instrument was making this sound. But in 1966, when I first heard the intro to the Beach Boys hit record “Good Vibrations” which featured an Electro-Theremin, I really started to sit up and take notice! I quickly learned that the instrument had been invented by a young Russian physicist named Lev Sergeyevich Termen (better known as Léon Theremin) in October 1920 and patented by him in the US in 1928. But this was just the beginning of its fascinating story!
The RCA Thereminvox
US Manufacturer RCA introduced the first commercially-produced version of the instrument, which they called the Thereminvox, in 1929 – immediately following the Stock Market Crash that year! One of the most well-known performers to adopt the instrument, Clara Rockmore, toured extensively playing classical repertoire on this instrument and it was popular with a number of others, including Alexandra Stepanoff who played the theremin on NBC Radio back in 1930.
The theremin fell out of use by classical musicians after WWII when newer electronic instruments came along, but, in 1954, Bob Moog began making his first theremins while he was studying at high school! This early experimentation directly led to the invention of the Moog synthesisers and Bob Moog’s theremins are still around and in use to this present day!
By the early 60’s, Bob Moog and his father had made and sold more than 1,000 custom-built theremin kits. Then he built his first modular synthesiser prototype in 1963! In 1967, he established R.A. Moog Inc. and started manufacturing his Modular Synthesizers I, II, and III – which were quickly adopted by film composers. In 1968, Wendy Carlos’ ground-breaking Switched-On Bach album was recorded using just one custom-made Moog Modular synthesizer. In 1970, the Minimoog Model D synthesiser was launched and sold more than 12,000 before production ceased in 1981 – the year I bought my second-hand late-70’s model!
In 1991, Bob Moog designed the Series 91 Theremin, which was produced by Big Briar until 1996. in 1993, Bob Moog’s build-it-yourself Theremin article appeared in Electronic Musician and the instrument he designed for this article became the Etherwave Theremin, which continues to be sold today in kit and assembled forms. Rudi Linhard developed the LMC MIDI conversion kit for the Minimoog, which Big Briar sold and installed until 1999.