Is there an instrument more synonymous with a mood than the theremin? I’d hazard a guess no. Probably the kazoo, didgeridoo or other more novelty instruments might be in with a shout, but the theremin holds the prize of being considered a serious instrument and being totally bonkers at the same time. Adding one of these to your track instantly conjures up b-movie soundtracks of Martians or some-such other wordiness.
Whether we like it or not, music instills an almost instantaneous emotional reaction in us, from epic Hans Zimmer orchestrations to lowercase ambient.If we hear the first nano-seconds of Girls Just Wanna Have Fun in a film, we are placed exactly where the music supervisor wants you to be. Music can even sometimes stir ambivalence or apathy if it’s bad enough.
A great deal of instruments, mixing or production techniques, arrangement styles or even chord structures can contribute towards this. It’s the reason we’d struggle to crowbar in some progressive metal guitars djents into nursery rhyme or a gospel choir into some industrial techno. I would go so far to say that the theremin is perhaps the biggest open goal of all.
The theremin was invented by Léon Theremin (1896 – 1993) by accident when trying when researching proximity sensors for the Soviet government in 1920. It comprises of two antennae, one controlling the pitch and the other volume. They are notoriously tricky to play.
Léon had a very interesting life including being exiled, and I wont do his life justice in these pages so please take a read of his Wiki.
It is perhaps most synonymous with Clara Rockmore (1911 – 1988), a promising violinist who through childhood malnutrition developed tendinitis in her elbow leading her to the theremin where she achieved virtuoso status. Here she is playing Song of Grusia by Rachmaninov, accompanied on piano by her sister Nadia Reisenberg.
As you can see the theremin does not require touch – the proximity of your hand to the relevant antenna. This allows fantastic legato and vibrato, akin to a violin, perhaps why Clara became interested in the instrument.
Similarly, Clara’s life deserves more than the few paragraphs I’ve given her, read more about her life here. There are some sincerely moving performances of YouTube too, so check those out.
The theremin in the rights hands (ahem…) can sound almost human-like and it’s this that has fascinated me with the instrument.
The early days of electronic musical instrument creation was to make things that sounded almost acoustic or realistic in their sound (the Ondes Martenot being another that springs to mind).
In Modern Music
During the 1950s, Bob Moog began building and selling theremins and that’s perhaps where this story begins for me. I wanted to compile a list of some contemporary (and others less so) songs that use the theremin.
Some in the list are cashing the check of its spooky connotations, others use it as a beautiful and distinct layer. I think despite the difficulty in playing theremins there is still plenty of mileage when used sparingly and tastefully in modern music.
There are some more common examples here such as The Beach Boys, Michael Jackson, Goldfrapp etc, and some more surprising inclusions (The Lightning Seeds, for example).
Have a listen through and let me know if I’ve missed anything!
This list is by no means complete, it’s just some of my favourite examples plus a few others I nabbed from other Spotify users’ playlists. Cheers!
Synthesising a Theremin
It’s possible to emulate the sound of a theremin with most of subtractive synthesiser.
Start with a sine wave or at least a very low-pass filtered waveform with more harmonics. The sound needs to be monophonic, although maybe making it polyphonic or layering multiples instances of this sound could lead to some interesting results.
Increased amounts of portamento/glide will achieve the lengthy pitch swells. Velocity or modulation wheels can be used to control vibrato (a fast-ish LFO controlling small amounts of pitch).
Finally use a long attack and released values for the amplitude envelope to simulate the creeping nature of the articulation. Add a dabble of spring reverb to make it sound extra spooky!
There seem to be a few software alternatives, although I haven’t tried any of them out so I can’t comment. There was a good iPhone app (the Thereminator) which used the phone’s accelerometer, making it probably even harder to play than a real theremin.
If you’re after the real thing, Moog’s Etherwave Theremins retail for around $400. Not cheap. Kits or off-brand models can be purchased on eBay for around $150.
If you’re a eurorack modular freak like myself, the Doepfer A-178 is an awesome alternative – I have one and I love it. This have two outputs for CV (which can be attenuate) and a handy Gate output with threshold control.
If you want to make an authentic theremin you’ll need two of them (one for pitch and one for amplification), as well as a VCO and a linear VCA. You could expand this with a pitch quantizer, VCF, additional oscillators or whatever you want.
Here’s a pretty full-on suggested system from the (impossibly difficult to navigate) Doepfer site: