Have you ever imagined a musical instrument that you can play without touching it? It actually exists and is called a theremin. How it works ? The musician plays the imaginary theremin by simply moving his hands over an electromagnetic circuit, which adjusts the volume and pitch of the sound depending on the position.
Although not widely known, this instrument paved the way for many of the synthesizers and sounds we love today. In this effectiveness and clips article, we will see what theremin is and how it works so that you can enjoy this mysterious and magical tool.
What is theremin?
A mysterious musical instrument, the theremin is a relic of a horror and sci-fi soundtrack, and an exotic choice that could add just the right touch to your next production. It was the world’s first electronic instrument and paved the way for digital music as we know it today.
This instrument uses electricity to produce two basic circuits: one that changes pitch, and one that changes volume. These parameters are controlled by two antennas, one of which is annular and the other straight, similar to a radio.
Each circuit produces a series of electromagnetic waves. To produce the tone of sound, a circuit uses a pair of tuned radio frequency oscillators, including a fixed oscillator and a variable oscillator. By moving your hands in a certain direction around the antenna controls, you get an audio output often compared to a combination of a saxophone and a stringed instrument.
Although this instrument is difficult to recognize, you will find that it is used in a number of notes and songs and is played by classical composers today.
Theremin is unique among electronic instruments; The performer does not touch the instrument when playing. Installation is relatively simple and consists of two antennas attached to a wooden box with two handles: one for pitch and one for capacity or volume.
The concept of implementation is also relatively simple, but mastering it requires skill and a keen ear. The performer adjusts pitch and volume by moving his hand near or far from the antennas. Here’s a classic example of the agonizing theremin from Bernard Hermann’s groundbreaking score, the 1951 sci-fi film The Day the Earth Stood Still (not the 2008 remake starring Keanu Reeves).
The inner workings of a musical instrument
The human body is itself an electromagnetic object. Every human being experiences a measurable electromagnetic field. Thus, our bodies are able to conduct electricity and store electrical charges.
The two theremin antennas are connected to oscillating radio frequency circuits. One oscillator has a fixed frequency, while the other has a variable frequency. Through the interference of its electromagnetic field, the performer disturbs the oscillations of the theremin. The theremin measures the difference between fixed and variable frequency oscillators and translates it into an audio signal. If that sounds like magic, that’s because it is.
The history of theremin
To understand theremin, we have to go back in time to two places: the Soviet Union and Queens, New York, in 1954. Leon Theremin is a young Russian scientist studying the density of gases in a room. The story goes that he was curious what would happen if he added an audio signal to indicate the device’s measurements. Therefore, the musical instrument was originally intended to use radio frequency to measure the properties of gases.
While doing so, Léon Thérémine realized that the device was interacting with more than just the density of gases in the room. The device responded to the relative position of his body, and could produce a strange disembodied bell as he waved his hand back and forth. Thus, through the magic of electromagnetism, the enigmatic Theremin was born! Here the maestro himself plays his part.
The European and American public did not know this, but Leon Theremin lived a double life: the life of an inventor and a Soviet spy. When Mr. Theremin presented his magical tool to Vladimir Lenin, the latter was incredibly moved. Soon, Léon Thérémine began touring European countries and the United States, where the unparalleled nature of his invention placed him in important places such as factories and patent offices. He can then submit a report on his activities to the officials in his country.
126 years ago, on August 27, 1896, Leon Teremin, a Russian engineer, was born. He is best known for inventing the theremin, considered the first electronic musical instrument. #LaPetiteInfoDuJour pic.twitter.com/TCPW9f8fQI
– Oliver Bansett 🏖️ (@ponceto91) August 27 2022
However, Léon Thérémine’s double life ended up catching up with him. He was placed on a watch list by the FBI, and in 1938 he fled the United States without a trace, but returned in 1991, shortly before his death in 1993.
Four years before Theremin fled the United States, Robert Moog was born in New York. In 1949, teenager Moog built a theremin from plans found in a copy of Electronics World magazine. Moog was fascinated with theremin, and this magic was the seed that sprouted the revolutionary inventions that Moog dreamed of, including the modular compound and many other inventions. So we can say that without theremin, there would be no bob moog.
In fact, Moog ended up creating mass-produced versions of the tool. Even today, you can enjoy models like the Moog Etherwave Theremin.
Shortly after theremin arrived in the United States, the device was licensed to RCA for mass production. RCA decided that anyone could play theremin and marketed it as such, when the truth was otherwise.
Theremin has no frets, no strings, no fingerboards, and no tuning pegs. It’s a far cry from a traditional machine as far as you can get, which is part of its appeal. With this in mind, a theremin player is incredibly skilled because they can only rely on their own personal sense of the playing field to guide their playing. Pitch and volume controls are changed with a simple flick of the hand, so this instrument is very difficult to play accurately.
Unfortunately, theremin has not attracted large numbers of users, mainly due to the inherently challenging nature of the tool. It is very difficult to master the volume and volume control settings of the device, and the unconventional sound of the instrument did not allow it to capture a large share of the music market.
Although RCA may be a little overwhelmed by the instrument’s mass market appeal, it is still highly prized today by composers and loved by performers willing to put the time and effort into creating music with this instrument.
Theremin was popularized by movie music but not only
Theremin has found a prominent place in dozens of films, contemporary classical music, and rock bands. While living in New York, Theremin taught the art of playing his instrument, Clara Rockmore. Here is Clara Rockmore performing the famous cello solo “Le Cygne” by French composer Camille Saint-Sain:
Pay close attention to the movements of his hands in this passage. See how his right hand mimics the vibration of a stringed instrument on a fingerboard? His left hand controls the volume or expression in MIDI of the instrument. Fabulous ! Clara Rockmore is considered the most famous theremin musician in the world.
Bernard Hermann was not the first composer to call upon the mystical powers of the Theremin to elicit disembodied responses in film scores. The great Hungarian composer Miklos Rosa incorporated theremin into his lines for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1945 film The House of Doctor Edwardes. Apparently, Hitchcock gave Miklos Rosa two pieces of advice, one of which was to find a “new voice” for the paranoia that is the subject of the film.” This new voice appeared in the form of a theremin.
However, the exotic theremin has always attracted exotic and wild spirits. The White Stripes, one of the most influential rock bands of the turn of the last century, incorporated the enveloping sound of the theremin into their track “Little People” from their 1999 self-titled album. Listen to the theremin’s subtle sweeps throughout the verses of this song.
You can still find contemporary players today, such as Carolina Eyck and Lydia Kavina, although it is true that finding a contemporary player can be a challenge.
Many novice players mistakenly assume that playing the theremin should be fairly easy. After all, the device consists of only two antennas through an electromagnetic field and is powered only by the human body.
However, this tool is very difficult to control. The proximity sensors, pitch circuit, and audio circuit are all very sensitive. To master pitch, tone, and volume, you must master fine muscle coordination and have a strong ear.
Learning the basics of the tool can take several hours of practice. Once you gain a basic understanding of the hand movements needed to create music, you can begin to work with your hands to create more precise expression and dynamics.
Theremin players recommend keeping your feet 30cm apart when playing. Remember that slight movement of the head, arms, or back can also affect the stationary oscillator and the variable oscillator. So you will need to remain steady and focused when interacting with the RF field.
There are different types of theremin
There are different types of theremin, and the gadget sparked a wave of DIY tools made from vacuum tubes or LEGO bricks. Since the device uses common radio waves, its sound can be perceived in many ways.
The most popular theremin on the market today is made by Moog and is called Standard Moog Etherwave. They can be purchased as a set, allowing users to customize the circuits, or purchased entirely. These theremins are considered representative theremins. You will also find other types of theremins such as:
- Optical Theremin : These theremins are similar to the conventional type, but instead of an electromagnetic field, they use light sensors. This is one of the easiest types of theremin to make at home.
- Theremin video : These interactive video game companies like Wii and Xbox Connect use theremin-like technologies so that users can use the human body as a controller.
- Solar Thermina : Solar thermions work by using the amount of incoming light to compose music. These DIY kits are relatively inexpensive and perfect for the budding theremin enthusiast.
How much does theremin cost?
The price of theremin can vary greatly, and is usually higher because it is considered a specialized tool. A theremin or device of this type usually costs between 300 and 2000 euros. DIY hardware is possible, but making your own theremin can be somewhat dangerous.
In short, if you have been dreaming of a musical instrument capable of bringing you an exotic and mysterious sound, then look no further, this is the thing for you!
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