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Moog Theremini

Theremin
Published May 2015
By Paul Nagle

Moog Theremini

The Theremini’s pitch-quantisation and price tag make it the most accessible Theremin yet.

Moog’s Etherwave Theremin has long awaited a sibling, but I think it’s fair to say that, when it arrived, the newcomer didn’t look, sound or behave as anyone could have predicted. Moog describe the Theremini as “a re–imagination of one of the oldest electronic musical instruments in history...” and to cut a long story short, the Theremin, named after its inventor Leon Theremin, is an electronic instrument you don’t even touch. It’s remarkably simple to play, but remarkably difficult to play well. This is where the ‘re–imagination’ part comes in because, as well as its unique appearance, the Theremini employs a form of pitch quantisation that probably seems like blasphemy to those dedicated Thereminists who’ve spent long hours perfecting the fingering of Saint–Sa ns’ ‘Swan’.

The Look

Resembling a white plastic seed pod, or an undisclosed household item from The Jetsons, the Theremini is bold, shiny and retro–futuristic. The interface is minimal: just four buttons, four knobs and a backlit LCD mostly preoccupied with tuning. It has four stubby rubber feet but is far better suited to a microphone stand than a table. Having slotted the pitch aerial firmly in place and found a position in the room with enough space to manoeuvre, it was time to connect the laptop–style power adapter and switch on.

There can be no doubt the Theremini is designed for right–handed players. The pitch rises as your hand approaches the vertical pitch antenna; the left hand’s descent towards the looped volume antenna generally (but not always) lowers the volume. It’s simple in principle, and anything but until you master the basics of co–ordination needed to play and articulate notes. Staccato notes are tough to master, which is why there are so few attempts at ‘The Flight Of The Bumble Bee’, except accidentally during epileptic fits.

To get started, you don’t even have to connect the two quarter–inch outputs because the Theremini has a small internal speaker. It distorts fairly easily, but fortunately can be disabled by plugging in some headphones. The front–loading mini headphone jack is perfect for quiet practice, something your family will appreciate in the early days.

At the Theremini’s heart is a digital synthesizer based on a simplified version of Moog’s popular Animoog (for iOS). It shares many of the attributes of regular Theremins though, not least the analogue heterodyning oscillator used to set the pitch. The antenna, your hand and body, plus any passing roadie act as capacitors and it’s important to note that, before you attempt to play the Theremini, it must be calibrated.

This is where novices often struggle, but thanks to Moog’s step–by–step instructions, that shouldn’t be the case here. During the setup process you choose the desired pitch range and follow the onscreen directions until both the pitch and volume antennae are calibrated for your room and position. Selecting a narrower range gives more control, offering the new player a better chance of finding the patch of air that matches the desired musical interval.

The setup process takes longer than an experienced Thereminist would require to calibrate a traditional instrument. To address this, Moog added a ‘Theremin Mode’ (in firmware version 1.1) in which pressing the Setup button toggles the controls between their regular functions and those of a standard Theremin. It’s not a complete replacement for the calibration routine, but anyone who has used a theremin before will probably find it faster (the Pitch knob is used to set the working range). The functionality switch is pretty fundamental to operation, so I think it would have been better had the display appeared more radically different, perhaps flipping to inverse video. In Theremin Mode, the available pitch range is not artificially constrained so the button ordinarily used to set the root of the musical scale provides octave transposition instead.

Also within the setup pages, you can optionally program the behaviour of the (USB) MIDI and CV outputs, but I was keen to start waving so decided to leave that until later.

The Future Sound of Leon

The ‘Presets’ encoder scrolls through the 32 factory sounds, with occasional but unwelcome clicks as one preset gives way to another. The first patch is a variation on the eerie wail forever associated with sci–fi movies, thanks to classics such as The Day The Earth Stood Still. Following on from that are some decidedly un–Theremin–like sounds that range from fat Moogy filter sweeps and icy wavetable glissandi to credible synth bass, warbling digital nonsense and exotically scaled pipes. As a collection of monophonic sounds to be plucked from thin air, they’re pretty diverse and ready to play. This is just as well because, until you download and run the Theremini Editor, they’re all you have.

The Theremini’s back panel includes a  ground connection, an input for the 12V external power supply, a  USB port, and quarter–inch jack sockets for CV output and left and right audio output.The Theremini’s back panel includes a ground connection, an input for the 12V external power supply, a USB port, and quarter–inch jack sockets for CV output and left and right audio output.A preset consists of waveform and filter settings that are inaccessible from hardware, plus delay values, scales and a root note. There are 22 scales on offer and these may be selected by repeatedly pressing the Scale button. I found myself constantly doing just that every time I selected a new patch and was therefore relieved to discover an option to ignore the stored values. However, it’s a global option, which is somewhat limiting. I’d have much preferred a means of selecting a patch and deciding at the time whether or not to take its scale.

Pressing the Effect button, you’re given just three preset choices of delay time with an adjacent knob to set the amount. To access more parameters, you once again need the software. There is an alternative but as it involves the USB port we’ll consider it a little later on. For simplicity, this is where an assignable footpedal and/or regular MIDI input would have been massively helpful.

The delay is stereo, but if you prefer mono operation, simply connect either output. While it isn’t the most characterful you’ll ever hear, the delay is a bonus all the same, as ably demonstrated by the more ethereal factory patches such as ‘Ghostly’, ‘Lost in Fog’ and ‘Strange Stuff’. Any Theremin can be a spooky sound-effects generator, but the Theremini hints at a whole new dimension of the weird and the unsettling.

Wave Hello

The manual offers an introduction to Theremin technique along with a brief history of ‘Bob’s first love’ to whet your appetite. Having digested the basics, there’s nothing for it but to practise. At first, the built–in tuner’s visual feedback is invaluable when gauging the distance required for octaves, fifths and so on. Eventually, I suspect most players won’t need the display at all as practised gestures and careful listening take over.

The editor features a  built–in librarian and access to all tweakable parameters.The editor features a built–in librarian and access to all tweakable parameters.I found the response perfectly acceptable and, with the pitch sensitivity set to ‘Fast’, if there was any latency, my technique (more ‘Swan’ than ‘Bumble Bee’) was never going to expose it. The reaction to volume changes wasn’t quite so snappy, but I doubt anyone who isn’t a ‘precision Thereminist’ will complain. What really turns Theremin technique on its head is the Theremini’s Pitch Correction — auto–tune for air musicians. Turning the Pitch Correction knob clockwise gradually forces your notes closer and closer to those of the selected scale. At its maximum rotation, you can deliver perfect glissandi or hurtle through scales at high speed. It’s an exhilarating experience when compared to my regular style of gradually homing in on a note with diminishing vibrato, but can be unnerving when you lock exactly to pitch and stay there despite minor body tremors. Unsurprisingly, vibrato is eliminated at the highest levels of pitch correction, but some of the mid–level settings are interesting — and vaguely comparable to choosing different waveforms of an LFO.

Pitch-correction is another example of where a footpedal or conventional MIDI input would have been highly desirable since, with both hands occupied, you’d have dynamic performance control over the correction amount.

In some patches I noticed that the volume antenna didn’t just provide envelope articulation, but performed other tricks such as closing the filter. To discover how this is achieved — and to fill your Theremini with custom patches — you’ll need to fire up the Theremini Editor.

The Editor

Lacking traditional MIDI I/O ports, the Theremini instead has a mini USB 2 socket. This is vital for communication with the free Theremini Editor, downloadable from Moog’s site. This software provides patch editing and librarian functions but, strangely, no means of creating user scales. Instead you can pick through the same 22 preset scales/modes available from hardware. These cover a broad smattering of styles that conjure up visions of exotic locations as well as typical major, minor, blues and whole-tone scales or fifth intervals. It’s a decent list but there are gaps, so it’s good to know Moog are considering adding user scales in a future update.

Within the editor you’re presented with the otherwise hidden parameters such as a selection of filters and oscillators, or more comprehensive control over the delay effect. With a quick mouse flourish you can adjust delay times between zero and 836ms and tweak the feedback and mix too. Even though the Theremini doesn’t equal Animoog for synthesis detail, the choice of filters and typical synth and wavetable oscillators adds fascinating new qualities to explore. From the Advanced page, the more adventurous performer gains antenna control over the filter or wavetable scanning. As a further treat, the editor includes a library of extra patches, many of which are improvements on those shipped.

Conclusion

In the right hands the Theremin is a beautiful and haunting instrument, right up there with the human voice and violin for expression. Unfortunately, it has the same capacity to horrify as a tone–deaf singer or inexpertly played violin, which is why Moog’s pitch-correction is such a fascinating idea.

In the Advanced screen you can assign extra functions to each antenna, like using the volume antenna for filter sweeps, for example.In the Advanced screen you can assign extra functions to each antenna, like using the volume antenna for filter sweeps, for example.The Theremini is undoubtedly easier to play than a regular Theremin, yet it’s still not easy. It won’t put your hands and fingers in the right place at the right time, nor will it hold them steady when they get there. As with other auto–tune technologies, Moog’s can be both a force for good and for evil. However, I found it far more inspiring to start from a position of being able to play a few tunes within days, rather than spend weeks of shame unable to reliably hit easy intervals.

It’s a pity there isn’t a footpedal input or regular MIDI port to provide more performance flexibility, although much can be achieved via USB and either some extra hardware or a computer. I’d also have liked to define my own scales and would have loved more flexibility when loading patches in terms of the adoption of their stored scales and roots. Lastly, the setup process is more involved than that of a regular Theremin, but I felt the clarity and customisation more than made up for it. For anyone still unconvinced, ‘Theremin Mode’ is the ideal option for the more experienced player.

It seems the Theremini is designed for people like myself who loved the idea of the Theremin but failed to progress by conventional means. Patch memories and variable pitch-correction are powerful additions to the Theremin’s repertoire and, in time, could open up entirely new musical avenues. Whether viewed as an introduction to gesture–based electronic music or as a means of escaping a bank of keyboards, the Theremini is highly recommended.

Alternatives

As a small, inexpensive, but more traditional alternative to the Theremini, I’d recommend the LV3 Theremin from www.lostvolts.com. For around £100, it sounds pretty sweet — certainly as good under my wavering control as more expensive models, and an ideal starter instrument. There have been various other ‘air’ instruments over the years, but for ‘Theremin made easy’, the Theremini currently has no competition.

MIDI & CV

Previously, it was Moog’s more expensive Etherwave Plus Theremin that sported CV outputs, and although the Theremini has just a single quarter–inch output, it has a range of potential uses. Rigged up to a 1V/oct oscillator input or used as a control source for a modular synth or Moogerfooger pedal, the Theremini can bring exciting gestural elements to your synthesis. The CV is sourced either from the pitch or volume antenna and its range is either 0–5V or 0–10V.

If you don’t have any voltage inputs to satisfy, you may prefer to generate MIDI CCs from the antennae. Any CC can be selected for transmission from the entire (0–127) range. This is unusual, given that the final few CC numbers are reserved for channel mode messages such as ‘all notes off’, ‘omni off’, etc. For higher resolution you can select the MIDI output as regular 7–bit or 14–bit data, the latter sending two simultaneous CCs.

Remember that the USB connection is the only way to talk MIDI. Moog suggest the Kenton MIDI USB Host as a potential solution for the computer–averse, although you’ll still need some kind of controller or sequencer to send the appropriate data. Hopefully, if there’s ever a MkII Theremini, it will have standard MIDI I/O because there’s tons of fun to be had with external control. The manual lists all the assigned MIDI CCs, tempting you to try setting the scale and root remotely, controlling transposition, pitch-correction amount, delay time, filter cutoff and oscillator selection.

 

Published May 2015