THEREMIN: The Left Hand of Darkness

Posted: 3/13/2012 11:10:58 PM

From: Northern NJ, USA

Joined: 2/17/2012

I own a Theremin (EW Standard), have been doing some design work recently in the field, and fancy myself more of a budding (though middle aged) controller designer than anything else when it comes to electronic instruments.  I think Bob Moog said a long time ago (I'm paraphrasing) that sound synthesis was fairly mature and it was time to move on to developing more expressive controllers.  (For all the good it has done I believe MIDI’s limited bandwidth has hindered this terribly, but that’s another story.)

So with controllers I'm always thinking about ergonomics: how the player will possibly hold the instrument and use it, if the input scheme and layout are intuitive and expressively playable in ways the designer might or might not have fully anticipated, whether it might cause injury long-term, etc.  So the Theremin seems to me to be a kind of exotic and clever parlor trick that accidentally caught on more than anything else.  The whole "The only instrument that you play without touching!" thing I see as more of a bug than a feature, because I'm acutely aware of how much tactile feedback is important in playing any musical instrument.  To remove it completely is nonsensical and practically an act of musical heresy IMO.  When I see a Theremin player incorporating the case in their technique by resting or sliding their hand on it I find myself nodding in agreement.  Many non-musical lay and academic people I've encountered seem to perceive lack of tactile feedback as an evolutionary step forward, and I can't help but wonder if the Theremin is somewhat to blame for this notion.

Anyway, I haven't come here to bury the Theremin, but to possibly improve it.  The point of this thread is to ask: what if the left hand could firmly hold onto the Theremin?  If it could, then the player wouldn't have as much trouble gauging precisely where their right hand was because as animals we have a pretty good relative sense of where our limbs are in relation to each other.  Every time I see a Thereminist I'm struck by how they have to stand there stock still like a stone statue, while drummers and guitarists get to emote all they want and still play fairly well.  Granted, even with the left hand grasping it one would still need to remain relatively unmoving, but it would be a much easier thing to do with that support.

The left hand on the Theremin would also allow the player to manipulate more than one parameter with it - volume obviously, vocal tract formants, waveforms, filters, harmonics, unison notes, offset notes - the sky's the limit basically.  Think of a semi-polyphonic Ondes Martenot or an Electronic Sackbut but updated with the abilities of today's technology.

I’m wondering what people here think about this - would the whole non-conforming left hand touching thing be accepted by Theremin players as a genuine Theremin, or do you think it would be largely rejected?  Would something like this be desirable to you personally?  What would you have the left hand control?  Would you be interested in building or buying one of these?  I’m not saying I’m going to start making anything like this tomorrow, but am entertaining building and selling some kind of musical instrument or controller at some point in the future.


Posted: 3/13/2012 11:54:12 PM

From: Northern NJ, USA

Joined: 2/17/2012

An addendum: I'm thinking the left hand controls might be capacitive as well, so that finger distances and positions would influence the parameters while the palm rests on the case.  The Thumb could perhaps operate a piezo pad.

Posted: 3/14/2012 12:35:57 AM

From: Flying with the Phoenix

Joined: 3/9/2011

I think the idea of a "new" type of electronic instrument would be worth the effort. Let me say that IMHO a true Theremin is a type of electronic instrument, with two antennas, that is ONLY played, without any physical contact at all. With that said, a single antenna instrument of any design does not qualify to be called a "Theremin". I feel these types of instruments should be referred to by a different name. Don't get me wrong, I have heard many types of "Electronic" instruments producing melodious sounds that are pleasant /entertaing to listen to, but would not IMHO be called a "Theremin". If you played a "Violin" that sounded like a Theremin, it would still be a "Violin", by the same token if you played a "Theremin" and it sounded like a "Violin" it would still be a "Theremin". I know I am just being critical about what one may call (A Theremin), but------- if it ain't a Theremin,----- it shouldn't be called a Theremin. So a "non Theremin" instrument as you described in your post, which would perhaps sound like a Theremin, but be more intuitive to play would be a sellable item. Being able to produce the same "type" of music as the Theremin, but with (if you will) a shorter lerning curve, would be fantastic. Now that I've  said enough to get "put in my place" by the keepers of the Ether, you have my opinion. :~]

In His Service -- Dana

PS. There's just something about expressing / playing the Theremin with absolutely no physical contact with the instrument that would be spoiled if one were to "touch" anything but the Ether, which is that - that can't be touched, but only felt / experienced.

Posted: 3/14/2012 12:55:13 AM
RS Theremin

From: 60 mi. N of San Diego CA

Joined: 2/15/2005

dewster: I think your ideas for a new instrument are brilliant; defining what to call it may be the issue as some people struggle with the definition of words, one would be marriage. I prefer to call myself single. lol

As a non-musician I think I became a purist in what defines a theremin. First of all a theremin must use RF heterodyning as that alone is what attracted Lev Sergeyevich to the original idea. An old friend of mine had your same thoughts fifty years ago after watching Samuel Hoffman struggle setting up his theremin. Today the Hoffman theremin which I think is the finest of them all is owned by one of TW's own. The man in the photo below brought more attention to the theremin than anyone had before and he just called his newly designed instrument The Box. His name is Paul Tanner who used his instrument to give the theremin like sound to the original "Good Vibrations"; ignore the fat guy on the right. Paul used a vacuum tube audio signal generator with a wire and pulley mechanism. Later on the band used a transistor oscillator and it lacked in the sweetness. Bob Moog came out to check Paul's device and called it a toy...and that is the truth and the rest of the story.

Tanner & RS Theremin

Interesting coincidence but the FrontPage & Jon B currently mention this subject about the Beach Boys. Here is a charming interview with Dr Paul Tanner.

Posted: 3/14/2012 6:16:26 AM

From: Colmar, France

Joined: 12/31/2007

There exist already lots of continuous controllers with capacitive and resistive control. That's just another family of instruments:

- The Ondes Martenot
- The so-called "Tannerin"
- The Eowave
- The Haken Continuum 

But if you want absolutely to reinvent the wheel...

Posted: 3/14/2012 9:06:56 AM

From: Croxley Green, Hertfordshire, UK

Joined: 10/5/2005

Hi, Dewster.

You are describing the Kovalsky theremin, named for Leon Theremin's assistant in Russia. I have not been able to find much information on the web about it - perhaps if I spoke Russian I would fare better, it is not well known outside of Russia - but there is a picture of one at the lower left on this page.

From the samples I have heard there does not seem to be any special advantage to the Kovalsky theremin when it comes to intonation - it is still very easy to be off-pitch! 

It should be easy for a person with an electronics background to build an adaptor to convert a two antenna theremin to a Kovalsky theremin, simply by rotating the theremin so that the volume loop is out of reach and hence the theremin is always playing at full volume, and then feeding the audio signal into a conveniently located box of circuitry that can control the volume and waveform as you describe.

Please keep us informed of your progress if you do decide to build such a device - it is something I am very interested in. :-)

Posted: 3/14/2012 12:16:02 PM

From: Canada

Joined: 8/1/2008

The only person I know of who plays the Kovalsky theremin today is Olga Milanich. She can be heard in the following YT video:

Olga also participated in the recent "THEREMINOLGY" festival in Moscow.

There is no advantage to the Kovalsky instrument. The only reason he came up with the innovation in the first place was because he suffered an injury to his left hand so he assigned volume control to a pedal and used his left hand to control an articulation switch (Martin Taubman did essentially the same thing with his "electronde"). 

Posted: 3/14/2012 2:46:03 PM
RS Theremin

From: 60 mi. N of San Diego CA

Joined: 2/15/2005

 Thierry said: But if you want absolutely to reinvent the wheel...

Let’s not be stagnant in our thinking! I will share some light hearted rambling.

This gets back to that other post about the open.theremin where I mentioned my first skateboard had metal wheels. Innovation and adaptation are what propel us forward in everything we do. I currently do adaptive theremin design with my modular approach because there is more to a musical instrument than just looking cool or playing it well. There is the Spirit of Theremin himself and that is very important. If someone plays a theremin that sounds like a flute, I have no problem if they call it a theremin flute. If they bow a saw and it sounds like a theremin I would think that is a really good theremin in spirit.

Though I can’t play, I can teach theremin playing to a few local “master musicians” that have interest because of everyone’s efforts at TW, with your sound tracks and the invention of YouTube.

Innovation lead to reinventing of the metal wheel after someone said “It can’t be done” or you are wasting your time.

Thierry, have you ever ridden a skateboard? I have had theremin builders from Finland send me photos of theirs in front of their homes but they have very little smooth surface to ride on and they are indoors most of the year but they still ride. They even BBQ in the snow like I would at the beach, now that is innovation! This is fascinating for me because it very rarely rains here and has never snowed and fog? Where does that come from?

This is a great thread, a collective of individuals knowledge.

Posted: 3/14/2012 4:44:10 PM

From: Northern NJ, USA

Joined: 2/17/2012


"...if it ain't a Theremin,----- it shouldn't be called a Theremin"

That's my feeling too.

"So a "non Theremin" instrument as you described in your post, which would perhaps sound like a Theremin, but be more intuitive to play would be a sellable item. Being able to produce the same "type" of music as the Theremin, but with (if you will) a shorter lerning curve, would be fantastic."

IMO the Theremin is one of the most difficult of instruments to master.  I was pretty discouraged after buying the EWS kit.  Part of my frustration was due to the inadequate tuning instructions, but the lion's share goes to the lack of tactile feedback.  It would be neat to have capacitive strip for pitch input in addition to the pitch antenna.  Maybe put LEDs above the strip for pitch feedback on both.  I like the whole "music stand" physical design of the earlier Theremins.  An internal speaker would be nice so that the whole thing would be self-contained for easier practice.

Posted: 3/14/2012 4:59:20 PM

From: Northern NJ, USA

Joined: 2/17/2012

@RS Theremin:

"I think your ideas for a new instrument are brilliant"

Thank you, you're much too kind!  And thanks for the Tanner link (great interview) and the Hoffman pointer.  Just watched Hoffman on YouTube, wow he was an excellent player.


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