Moog Music Theremini Reviews

Posted: 2/20/2014 6:57:47 AM
randy george

From: Los Angeles, California

Joined: 2/5/2006

Edit: This thread has been renamed from Moog Music Theremini prototype Review to: Moog Music Theremini Reviews. The final commercial product has made its way out to customers. This thread hosts a collection of reviews and impressions.

-= Moog Music Theremini prototype - introduced at the 2014 NAMM Show on January 23, 2014 =- 

- A Review by Randy George, thereminist, published February 20, 2014 -

INTRO

     After a great bit of time spent during the four days of the NAMM show, hanging at the Moog Music booth and speaking with many Moog Music representatives I have gathered as much info as I could possibly want about the new Moog Music Theremini.  And now after a great bit of time in the weeks following the show to organize my thoughts, I'm pleased to present this review of my findings and experience.  In addition to the existing details which have made their way around the internet and theremin community so far… I have compiled this information to fill in some blanks for people who are interested in this instrument… and to provide my impressions based on my experience playing it.

     I am not representing Moog Music. I am writing this because (as many of you are aware), I am crazy about the theremin. I'm lending my voice because I am one of a few people with access and drive to get to the inside info. I imagine anyone reading this wants what I want… for the theremin to be respected as a serious musical instrument in the future. If anything new came along that would help or interfere with that, we would all want to have the inside scoop. The first obstacle is incomplete information.  This is actually a problem of the theremin in general for a number of different reasons, but mainly because of its youth relative to the lifespan of most other musical instruments in history. There is quite some distance to travel before the theremin is regarded as a very specific instrument with a defined playing methodology and not just an ambiguous noun assigned to any space controlled sound generator that creates continuous glissandi. The more we discuss in the open, the more progress we will make. But I've already digressed...

     Here's my disclaimer: The following review contains some facts about the new Theremini, but I also include my opinions and impressions about it. I am not a journalist. I rarely write lengthy reviews. Much of the initial excitement of the Theremini wore off by the time this writing was finished so if I do not seem very enthusiastic, that is probably the reason. I break the review into sections for easier readability. Also, in this writing,  I will refer to the new Moog Music instrument as Theremini. When I want to speak about theremin in general I will use the name, theremin. 

     This new Moog instrument represents the beginning steps of a new theremin design approach. The Moog Music people have told me that this instrument does not replace what it going on with the existing line of theremin products, or the future of the next professional theremin design, but I imagine everything will evolve and influence everything else eventually.  It takes a little bit of open mindedness, perspective and vision to not impulsively jump to conclusions when we are presented with something new.  Before I had the opportunity to speak with the Moog Music folks, I too arrived to many conclusions, but I also knew that I needed to have first hand experience with the instrument before I could truly make up my mind.  As with all things it's very easy to judge a book by its cover and things are always more than meets the eye. 

     It is especially easy to misjudge this instrument if it has not been made clear that the Theremini up to now (January/February 2014) is a very early prototype.   As I understand, the instrument represents a first step in a direction that will pave the way for a long term plan for future Moog Music theremins.  I can say with great confidence that Moog Music is listening to thereminists for opinions and feedback.   However, as many of us know how wide the spectrum is for what is considered proficiency on the theremin, the opinions and feedback of people who do not fully understand the instrument can have potentially damaging effects on design choices. For this reason IMO, many of us who do know and seriously play the instrument need to be as vocal about our impressions as possible. 

     I've been assured by the Moog Music people that care will be taken from this point forward (I'm sure care was taken before now). I feel good about that, but until I have an actual theremin in front of me that meets my requirements I don't want to simply take the company at their word.  I will re-iterate a main point because it was expressed to me many times... the most important detail people must know is that the Theremini is an EARLY prototype, and it must not be regarded as a finished instrument and should not be judged as a final product.  

     One of the things I was particularly concerned about when I first heard about the Theremini was how this instrument would change or affect the perception of the theremin in a global sense.  A main stream perception of something will always be influenced by the most main stream source of info. In this case, the Theremini may have a huge mass market effect because of the successful name attached to it. Because I have chosen to make the theremin a big part of my life, I was concerned about the damage control I would be forced to participate in if the new mainstream Moog theremin product was delivered to the public as a shiny toy or disposable space ship sound gimmick.  Fortunately, after test driving the instrument and speaking with the Moog Music people, I am not concerned that it will have much or any negative impact on the public perception of the instrument.  That is my impression for now…But I will not be awarding a trophy to this product until it proves itself after it ships.

     One general opinion I'd like to share …  I feel like it will be thereminists of the world who need to take the responsibility for promoting the theremin in the way that they would like the instrument to be perceived… Ultimately the Moog Theremini is not going to give people the wrong idea about the theremin in general. Only the people who play it carelessly (unaware of it's strengths and weaknesses) can do that.  

     The Moog Theremini has a key feature, pitch quantization, that at first seems like a slap in the face to anyone who has dared to develop proficiency on this most difficult instrument. IMO The idea of selling a theremin on a feature that now makes it easy to play in tune is about as ridiculous as the original marketing ploy of the RCA theremin which claimed that anyone who could whistle or hum a tune could easily play the theremin. However, the choice to add pitch quantization to The theremini is just one small portion of the whole. I think the main focus should be the new hybrid design which does represents a bold move in a direction which many current music technologies are headed. The new hybrid topology offers a design landscape that is less restrictive by hardware cost limitations of the past.  If the company wanted to expand to new markets, there must be some fundamental change in their product, and that is what has happened.  I'm sure there are quite a lot of opinions floating around about Moog Music (compared to when Bob was around), but I'm also convinced they do have brilliant people who continue to engineer their designs… and ultimately that if Bob were around, he would approve of what is going on (with regard to the new theremin).

     As a person who has dedicated a huge chunk of life to developing proficiency on the theremin, my first gut reaction to the Theremini was that it was just a double layer novelty cake… some fancy new tricks added to a fancy space controlled sound making box…  After I took the time to understand it, I realized the only way to see through the novelty was to look past the pitch correction feature, at the bigger picture.  First, we have a traditional space controlled interaction. Second, we have a traditional beat frequency oscillator design that controls the output frequency of the tone. Third, we have a traditional continuous expression antenna. Fourth, we have a new multi purpose graphical user interface and visual feedback system.  Fifth, we have new digital tone generation system with new effects/processing/modulation possibilities. Sixth, we have new I/O expansion and upgrade possibilities with the inclusion of the USB interface. Seventh, and lastly, we have the possibility of adding pitch quantization that can be used to facilitate new sonic possibilities, improved accessibility to beginners, and improved usability within the context of ensemble playing.

     It is easy to look at the Theremini and think of it as a pitch correcting theremin. However, It is just as easy to look at the Theremini as a traditional theremin with a pitch quantization feature that can be turned on. I'm sure the only reason this instrument has developed the label as a pitch correcting theremin because it was the choice of Moog Music. It is possible that prior to the NAMM show, no one at Moog Music was aware that the Theremini should be marketed any other way.  I shared my opinions with Moog Music's Product Marketing Manager, Trent Thompson and Senior Sales Manager, Linda Lafferty and after a little while, I could see the gears in their mind changing directions. The last thing Moog Music wants to do is to alienate the masses of existing thereminists by giving the impression they will only be making toys in the future. I did made it a point to stress the importance of the copy writing and feature list that accompanies the new theremini. 

     Trent told me the prototype feature list and NAMM product announcements were not necessarily going to be the same as the product's official copy and that the final details and marketing strategy was still in development. Just as the Theremini design has plenty of ways to go, it is quite possible the product details and feature copy writing could change too. Current photo's are prototype photos.  As I understand, the final details will only show up on the Moog Music website when the instrument begins line production and shipping.

     I was not at the booth all day on each day of the show, but the Moog Music folks told me crowd response was consistent throughout the show… that it was unquestionable after witnessing four days of NAMM visitor traffic… that more people stepped up to try the Theremini than there were people trying theremins at any other industry trade event. The people that walked up to test the instrument stayed longer, and nearly everyone appeared to be quite engaged with the instrument.   The extended palette of sound possibilities with pitch quantization may have been one reason… it's also possible that the booth's demo area had some influence. The theremini could be approached from any side and rotated to face the person. (More on the booth demo area later)… It could very well be that the theremin is moving further into the main stream consciousness, and people are less shy about approaching it than before.  There could be a number of reasons, but what happened is what happened.

Well, that's quite enough preface… Now, on to the Theremini instrument itself...

 

 

THEREMINI FEATURES

Heterodyning oscillator analog pitch control

     The Theremini uses a traditional heterodyning oscillator analog section for the frequency component of the tone. This would likely mean that some degree of warming up the instrument is necessary just like any theremin. The signal derived from the heterodyning oscillators, is however not a voice that is accessible in the Theremini prototype. I would like to imagine that it could still accessible for future upgrading possibilities. A huge reason for the success of the Moog Etherwave theremin was the openness of the design and the freely available hot-rodding guide. Expanding the base architecture with customizations made it a very exciting and educational experience to build a custom theremin. Down the road, I imagine there would be nothing that would prevent a knowledgable theremin engineer from locating the raw heterodyne signal of the Theremini, so I wonder now why it would not makes sense to go ahead and include it somewhere as an accessible tone option. 

     In my opinion, a digitally engineered theremin tone will rarely be an acceptable substitute for an analog heterodyned theremin tone. All the warmth, organic beauty, and constantly evolving harmonic structure is lost when reducing it down to a floating point frequency value in the digital domain. A digitally generated tone does have its advantages including control stability and versatility in the sonic domain, but at the end of the signal chain, sound is king. In the ideal modern theremin design, I think it should be up to the player for what kind of sound they wish to start from, a digital wavetable, or an analog source signal.  I hope Moog Music makes both equally accessible… if not in the new Theremini, then in the next future flagship professional theremin.

     While the Theremini prototype was not presented to the public at the NAMM show as a traditional theremin (I think it was more of a showcase of features and new possibilities),  it still operates according to the traditional capacitive space controlled interaction we are all accustomed to. This gives me some hope for the future of Moog Music theremins. Even the volume antenna on a couple of the demo units was exhibiting the chirping effect (an issue present on many Etherwaves) when it was accidentally touched. Some of this is apparent in a few of the demonstration videos that made it to Youtube.  

     Another something to note… If the analog heterodyne voice was ever accessible, the pitch would never match the pitch coming from the Theremini's sound engine…  As I currently understand, the frequency of the digital tone of the Theremini is actually a floating point MIDI frequency value which is derived from the analog heterodyne signal frequency and five parameters that define scale and offset variables. The variables are adjustable in the Theremini's setup process, which include a high and low pitch position threshold, a maximum and minimum MIDI value defining the note range, and a root note offset. 

 

Tuning and Setup Procedure

     Digital tuning of the two analog oscillators (fixed and variable) of the pitch circuit is currently possible through the setup menu, but it may not exist in the final production unit… This is very likely part of the reason why three Theremini demo units could be placed closely together without horrible cross modulation effects (more on that later).   Moog Music is aiming for a simplified setup process, but for now it is anything but simple.  The tuning of the space control zone is achieved by setting the minimum and maximum thresholds of the pitch and volume range. The Setup button is first pressed to enter Setup mode, the Amount knob allows for adjustment of the calibration, and setup Button is pressed again to save the setting. The Preset knob cycles through the various customizable parameters while in Setup mode.   

 

Tuning Volume Antenna range

     Setting a minimum dynamic level involves entering the setup mode, placing the player's volume hand at the desired location and saving the setting by exiting setup mode. The same process is repeated for the maximum dynamic level. The player's volume hand should be positioned at the maximum desired height when the Setup button is pressed again to save the setting.

 

Setting the size of the space control zone

     The same setup process applies to the placement of the high threshold pitch location (hand position nearest to the pitch antenna). After Setup button is pressed and the parameter is pulled up using the Preset knob, the Theremini displays a moving frequency value (presumably from the control frequency) in real-time on the LCD as the player's hand/body move inside the pitch field. Then when the Setup button is pressed again, the value is stored as the upper threshold.

     The lower pitch threshold position value (hand position closest to the body) had to be automated for the Theremini prototype. Anyone who understands the physics of capacitance as it relates to the pitch field will know it is not possible to save the value by pressing the Setup button because the position of the player's arm (pressing the button) would be further into the field and would create an undesired offset to the value. 

     For the NAMM show the Theremini demo units had a workaround in the firmware to address this problem for the show. However, only the Moog Music staff were able to perform the calibration. The process would be too much to explain to anyone without an understanding of the instrument.  There were many demos done at the show that I witnessed where the person playing the instrument could only access an octave or two in the upper extreme of the range.  This could likely have been due to the calibration issue.  Because the Theremini behaves according to the physics of a normal theremin, a larger person (or many people standing closely) or a person playing closer to the antenna will experience different playing arcs and ranges if the instrument was not re-calibrated each time the environment changed. For the Moog Music NAMM show booth, this was simply not possible or necessary and most visitors would not have a clue what was going on in the first place.  

     For the temporary show workaround a suitable offset was automatically created which yielded an acceptable playing arc but there did not seem to be any control to trim the resulting value. Their goal will naturally be to reduce complexity, because this instrument is after all supposed to be "easier" to play...

     According to Steve Dunnington, the solution for the calibration issue will involve a 3 second timer with some message on the instrument's LCD instructing the player to stand in the appropriate low pitch position after the timer has been engaged.   While this solution may work, it is very time consuming, very inconvenient and it offers very little in the way of quick precision adjustment. 

 

Note Range

     The note range is all handled within the setup. Any note range according to MIDI note values can be selected using the same setup process. The high and low MIDI note values are each set and saved independently.  This means pitch interval spacing is dictated by three variables: playable note range, space control zone size, and to some degree, the position of the player's body (as it would be with a normal theremin).   This makes tuning the instrument with an interval spacing approach highly complicated.  Turning a single knob and adjusting body position is clearly a more simple process than the Theremini's four independent digitally controlled threshold parameters to create the desired field spacing and note range.   In my opinion, this is not a good method at all,  but it seems the new architecture requires the various parameters to be set independently. If there was some way that an alternate simplified setup could be achieved by only turning one knob, I hope it is included in the final design.

 

My impression of the tuning method

     There are two tuning approaches that need to be clearly identified: one is a tuning method that sets a custom note range to a custom physical playing arc in the case of the Theremini. The other method is a tuning of the overall space according to a fixed note range (zero beat to upper limit) as is the case with traditional theremins.

     The setup process for any theremin must not be a challenging process… I am sure that Moog Music totally understands this, but we'll have to wait and see if they can offer an easier tuning method than what was shown in the prototype.  Turning one knob to adjust everything about the pitch range in one go would be the easiest method. With a bit of automation and programming it could be done in the Theremini, but it does depend on whether or not the Moog Music firmware engineers are aware of the possibility. The USB firmware update/upgrade system could prove to be the most valuable asset of the theremini down the road. It would leave the door open for future revisions to what ever needs fixing. The Theremini prototype's current setup procedure for tuning of the space for consistent interval spacing and playability is IMO way too broken and complicated.

     I do understand that I am in a rare minority of theremin players in the world with actual requirements of their precision engineered instruments, and I also understand this Theremini instrument was not made just for me. But I also know that the theremin can, in fact, be engineered to be easier to play… not by including features like pitch quantization…. but more importantly by making improvements in the tuning/calibration process, and linearization of the pitch field (and by allowing adjustments in the volume field).   Even with the currently complicated tuning method of the Theremini, it is likely many people will continue to believe the theremin is impossible to play without pitch correction, and will accept what ever tuning method they are given. 

     My perspectives and opinions of the tuning process are meant for theremin playing without pitch quantization.  When the feature is turned on, very little of this dissertation will matter to persons who wish to carelessly wave their hands to produce fantastic new sounds.

 

 About the Moog Music booth Theremini demo area

     The trade event environment was a very non-ideal environment to properly evaluate a theremin. The design of the demo area,  which made it very easy for people to try out the theremins at the booth, created a very non-ideal playing environment that essentially eliminated any possibility to properly gauge the linearity of the instrument's pitch spacing.  The demo area was a horizontal 2 by 4 wood frame in a zig zag shape which seems to offer a little more space between the instruments.  The theremini units were mounted on posts with mic adapters that allowed them to be freely rotated to be played from the interior of the booth and exterior (walking traffic) side of the booth.  This was an excellent choice for the show. I think it was the most user friendly theremin demo display that has ever been created. Because the Thereminis could be approached from inside or outside the booth, it seemed to make the booth design cosy and inviting.

 

Linearity

     Because the instrument is an early prototype, It doesn't make sense to scrutinize the linearity of the pitch interaction of the Theremini. In general, I did not get the feeling that the interval spacings decreased near the highest and lowest extremities in the range.  It is possible that there is not any analog linearization technique being used at all, but I am not certain. That will be a good question for Moog Music. Linearization of the highest and lowest octaves of the range could be handled in the analog domain which was the case for the Etherwave Pro, but the new hybrid architecture now opens up the possibility for linearization to be handled in the digital domain.  I am biased towards the techniques implemented in the Etherwave Pro because of my experience with the E-Pro and being able to obtain a satisfactory linear playing interaction with it.  Many thereminists have different concept of how consistent their tone spacing must be. It varies so much from player to player that IMO the topic does not make sense to explore in great depth for the Theremini prototype.  I personally have some very high standards that need to be met before I can totally approve an instrument, but I feel it's just too early to rate this aspect of the Theremini.   The changing external environmental variables at the NAMM show booth made it impossible to test accurately in the first place.

 

Theremin Wavetable sound engine

     The Theremini's tone is achieved by wavetable synthesis and processing is handled completely in the digital domain at this point. The new sound engine offers future possibilities in the modulation of waveforms over time (à la Animoog's sound engine) as well as new timbre modulation possibilities  when used with the continuous data values derived from the expression and pitch antennas (hopefully in the future after the hardware has been finalized). Updates and revisions to the feature set of the Theremini will be achieved through the USB port, using some software update application Moog Music will release. The software extensions of some of their recent synths have been very impressive, opening up many "under the hood" features of their synth products, so I would imagine there would be some great surprises down the road for Theremini upgradability.

 

Pro-Option Kit Upgrade details

     There will be a "pro" upgrade option for the Theremini.  It will consist of additional CV outputs (gate CV and volume CV via some kind of breakout cable… so that the three voltages come out of a single 1/4 inch jack). As I understand, the "pro" upgrade will also offer better analog oscillator circuitry than the base model. The Pitch antenna will be longer. The Volume antenna will be bigger and very possibly a different shape.  There may also be the inclusion of more customization to enhance playability beyond what is improved upon by the adding the "pro" antennas.  I was told the features of the base model of the Theremini were selected based on cost.  This is the reason for the Pitch CV being the only CV output.

 

Pitch Quantization

     When some of the 32 presets were dialed up, the tones had pitch quantization (pitch correction) automatically enabled.  This means a default pitch Bias value is stored within each preset. At any time however, the Pitch bias knob could be rotated to disable or modify the stored value. 

     Moog Music has chosen to use the label of "pitch correction", but I think they may not use that wording down the road when the product is finally shipping…  The feature is technically pitch quantization. They have labeled the degree of snappiness of the quantization as "pitch bias".  

     The feeling of the quantization (in my pitch hand) did varied according to the bias amount. There is a snapping of the audible pitch to its closest frequency value which basically allows a person to not have to be absolutely still in order to hold a note steady.  The note being sustained is however cold in my opinion, because vibrato could not be added to the pitch that was engaged (regardless of what the Bias amount was set to).  This is contrary to what Steve Dunnington mentioned in a couple of demo videos…  I did not feel there was any possibility for creating vibrato when selecting any pitch bias amount. Only when pitch quantization was completely disabled was I able to create vibrato.  I think the Pitch Bias is factoring in to the quantization as some combination of time component and "margin of error" offset, which allows fast sweeps to occur without quantization at lower bias values.

 

Firmware Upgrading and MIDI connectivity

     The USB connection is going to offer some great upgrade possibilities over the lifespan of the instrument. We can look forward to many new possibilities in the future: user customizable waveforms, preset configuration, MIDI input as a modulation source, MIDI sequenced playback of a live theremin performance, possibly editing i/o, and other capabilities comparable to the Animoog iOS application.

     At this time, Moog Music has said the USB port will allow access to a continuous data from the pitch and volume data streams, but that it will be in the form of a MIDI CC message… It's unclear at this time if the interface will offer MIDI Note-on/off messages that correlate to the quantized pitch output of the theremin signal. Details are not available yet about the sampling resolution in the audio signal to MIDI conversion process, but the system uses some form of microcontroller with a frequency counter to continuously derive the pitch data.  For the past three years I've been working on my own analog pitch to digital data conversion processes, so I am naturally curious about what ever technique was used.

 

Visual Feedback Tuner Display

     For reason I am still unaware of, there is a slight delay in update of pitch information in the LCD display . It is not actually updating in real-time as the currently release product specifications have implied. It may be an acceptable rate of update for people wanting to locate a note from silence, (typical of any digital tuner), but I would not rely on it for quick visual feedback, unless the refresh rate and latency was improved significantly for the final build.

     The display is a low resolution dot matrix LCD. Pixels are only able to be either on/off.  This presents some challenges from a user experience point of view, such as jumpy animation and inaccurately depicted visualizations.  Amos Gaynes told me they are aware of the limitations in the display hardware and that they will sort through these and other issues once the product finally ships or in future firmware revisions.

     

Some more inconspicuous detail

     The pitch antenna does not have threads, it is installed by inserting directly into the housing.  Four prongs on the inside hold it very firmly in place.  When the instrument housing is in it's final state there will be clips on the bottom of the instrument to place the antenna for easy storage.

     The Theremini prototype could only be grounded using an external powered amplifier or the ground screw found on the leftmost end of the back panel. 

     The line level output amount is adjustable via the setup interface… it is set up independently of the main volume knob control which only affects the built-in speaker and headphone output level. The speaker is disabled when headphones are plugged in.

 

Theremin instrument stand mount

     The instrument mount was said to be a camera tripod mount. At the show the demo units appeared to be on some kind of rotating microphone stand adapter. It is likely that the mounting mechanism that ships with the instrument should come with appropriate adapters depending on region. This is a good question for the future. I did not ask. At the show the whole Theremini instrument seemed very clumsy and wobbly when buttons were being pressed and knobs were being turned… At this point, it's fair to say that the instability was owed to what ever mounting solution Moog Music came up with for the show, and not because of the Theremini unit itself.

 

Comments about the tone presets

     I don't have much to say about the various presets, other than they sound very comparable to the sounds that can be produced in the Animoog iOS app. The presets on the Theremini contained varying scales, note ranges and root notes in addition to the timbers/waveforms. I think it should not be in the final build however, because altering the scale, range and roots would drastically affect playability and consistency of note spacing and overall playability. Moog Music is aware of this, but it made good sense for the demo units at the show to present booth visitors with the widest assortment of sonic possibilities in different ranges.

 

Playability with the pitch quantization feature turned off

     When the pitch quantization feature is disabled, the Theremini does actually feel like a real theremin.  My personal preference is for the control interaction to be the highest priority, the tone being second, and output options last.  If the theremin does not feel like the traditional interaction, then I will not care about the sonic possibilities. When I first tested the volume response, it felt slow, meaning I was not able to produce a variety of articulations… Many thereminists would understand if I used the term "molasses" (which Clara first used to describe the volume response of her custom built RCA). Based on my experience with various theremins, I am certain that the design of the Theremini volume antenna is responsible for the slacken response.   As for pitch, I am certain the Theremini can be adjusted to obtain a satisfactory pitch field interaction. The current Theremin Tuning process, a player's understanding of capacitance, and the player's awareness of their body stillness would be the first major obstacles. That could be said for all theremins.  When the pitch quantization is disabled, I must say, Theremini does NOT feel terrible. It feels okay.

     It is very important to not judge playability based on what was presented in any NAMM demo video. The people demonstrating the instrument are not skilled theremin players…  If a 2-year-old child is unable to extract the full musical potential from a concert grand piano, the concert grand piano should not be automatically judged as a toy. 

 

The Built-in Delay Effect

     There's not much that can be added to elaborate on this feature. It is pretty straight forward.  It serves a specific effects oriented theremin player.  It is very convenient to have the option of quickly engaging the effect and length. The delay duration type and amount values seemed to be stored along with some presets.  I am not entirely sure because I did not explore this detail extensively, but the delay may operate independently from any presets. It can definitely be disabled and enabled very easily at the push of a button.

 

The instrument housing design

     The chassis was architected by industrial designer Axel Hartmann.  He is a well known designer in the synthesizer ID circuit.  A search of his name on google should return enough detail. I personally do not like the design very much because of its plastic housing and shape, but it was easy to arrive to that opinion because we arrived here from the beautiful wooden housings of the past.  When I talked with Amos Gaynes about the housing, he told me that there is nothing in the design that would absolutely require the plastic housing. Anyone skilled in instrument cabinet making could design a new housing and move the circuitry without any unforeseeable complications. 

 

 

COMMENTS INSPIRED BY THEREMINWORLD

Theremini's feet:

     The table top feet (and table supports of the Etherwaves from the past) have always been intended for convenience. Anyone who is aware of the influence that a table has on the pitch/volume antenna fields will not choose to place the theremin on a table. The inclusion of the feet prove this.  Also for example, the Etherwave Pro, a professional performance theremin was never meant to be placed on a table. The RCA style cabinets were, of course, supported by their own cabinet mounts. Placing anything near the antennas affects the performance of the instrument, but it is possible that people placing their Theremini on a table will not care.

 

Lessening the "difficulty" by including quantization:

     Not everyone at Moog Music who is working on this instrument is approaching the instrument from the point of view of making the theremin an easier to play instrument.  Two Moog Music people I spoke with have agreed that nothing, not even pitch correction, will make the instrument "easier" to play.  The pitch quantization is a feature that opens the door for potential theremin players to understand the space control concept quicker….  that there does in fact exist notes that a player can locate in the space between his/her body and the pitch antenna.   According to Trent Thompson, the Marketing Manager at Moog Music, they have gathered a great deal of data to prove that the inclusion of the pitch quantization is something that will help younger players (less than 12 years old)  to more quickly understand the concept of the space control interface of the theremin.  Moog Music is totally aware of the the typical scenario of new theremin buyers.  The novelty of a newly purchased theremin wears off after a short while and the instrument end up in storage.  The choice to create a digital/analog hybrid instrument is part of a very long term plan, and the Theremini is just the beginning of that process.

 

About the pitch quantization (pitch "correction"):

     In my opinion, Using the pitch quantization as training wheels to learn the theremin is a futile approach and it will never be a useful tool for obtaining proficiency on the theremin. The only path to becoming proficient on the theremin is to understand the relationships of Proximity and Capacitance to the resulting output Frequency. This is done when a player becomes acutely aware of their body and the influence that all moving or stationary capacitive objects/bodies/arms/hands have on the tuning/placement of the theremin's output pitch.  The pitch-quantized variable-scale-type approach to training for pitch precision on the Theremini seems to completely omit external capacitive influences. If the goal is for a player to develop consistent playing technique, pitch quantization is not going to offer any advantage. The "assistive pitch correction" wording should be used very lightly, because the feature is not actually assistive for technical development. It is like giving a wheel chair to a person who is not capable of walking. It can be very liberating to gain the mobility, but it will not automatically rehabilitate the person's legs so they can one day be able to walk or run.

     There are however some great benefits of pitch quantization: generating interest in the instrument, increasing the sonic capabilities of the instrument, helping younger audiences to understand capacitive interfaces easier, offering young people a new way to learn about musical scales.  There is also one more amazing thing that could occur, but it depends on the simplicity/playability of the final Theremini design.  That is the possibility of there being a comfortable bridge between the everyday enthusiast and a person wishing to seriously develop an understanding of melodic theremin playing.  The key to gates of this theremin utopia depend on the awareness that the quantization feature can be turned OFF.

 

The design of the Loop antenna:

     The volume antenna on this basic model was designed to match the overall design. The "pro" option antennas will look different to this prototype's design. The prototype's volume antenna design could also change. I don't think it is 100% finalized yet. I had a good discussion with Steve Dunnington about the theremin's volume antenna design as it pertained to me as player. It became quite apparent that expression, articulation, and attack velocity curves were definitely not considered in the Theremini volume antenna design…  As with any area of the theremin, each section of the instrument has a world of complexity that could be explored. I imagine the "pro" version of the volume antenna will have a more refined and functional design, but that also depends on whether the current engineering team is clued in on the musical requirements of a theremin's volume antenna.

     The base model and "pro" volume antenna design may both be able to be improved, but an engineer will need to know how necessary it is to make these improvements.  It can ONLY happen if there is communication between designer and player.  If there is no system of effectively communicating feedback to the development process, we can not expect anything more than a toy at the end of the road.  As Clara made her wishes for faster dynamic response known to Lev Termen, he was able to realize the wish into a more playable instrument.  Communication was the key and it still is the key.

 

About pitch preview possibility:

     The two output signals of the theremini:  1) the headphones/ built-in speaker  2) Stereo Line level output, operate independently from one another.  Technically there are three physical outputs.  the stereo headphone output and the Left channel and Right channel unbalanced stereo outputs.  One of these could be used for a preview if someone was so inclined to add the appropriate cables, adapters, and headphone amps. The only time the individual channels of the rear stereo output are the same are when the Delay effect is turned off. Since output is sent from the digital sound engine, there is not much that would stand in the way of a custom implementation of pitch preview from being programmed into the Theremini's firmware. It would be something that Moog Music would have to decide.

     When the stereo ping pong delay is not used the two line-level outputs are identical. The second output could then easily be used for external tuners, parallel processing, auxiliary PA purposes, and more.  The stereo output will also offer new stereophonic possibilities in the future if/when modulating wave/effects are introduced in the future.

 

Multiple Thereminis placed nearby one another:

     At the show there were three Theremini units places quite close together, but they were however not interfering with each other at all, as far as I could tell.  Within the setup menu the theremin prototype included the ability to digitally control the frequency of the Variable Pitch oscillator and the Fixed Pitch Oscillator. I imagine that could be one reason they were not interfering with each other.  It is totally possible that there could have been some small degree of cross-talk that was imperceptible in the show floor environment. Two of the theremini units were set up with headphones only, and because there was not any of the usual obvious cross-talk modulation, i did not explore the phenomenon to any great depth.

 

 

FINAL WORDS

     Moog Music's new Theremini definitely has a lot of potential, but after I've dived as deeply as I have into its prototype form, I think the only way I am going to look forward to this instrument is if its major problems are all addressed before it ships to customers. I am more concerned about how the instrument will feel than how it sounds because the sound will be much easier to evolve in the future from its digital architecture. If theremini's space control zone and tuning system does not at least compare to that of a traditional theremin, we can expect that this instrument (even with it's pro upgrade) will not be a suitable as a performance instrument.  The problems I have found with this instrument may not be problems at all for people wishing to simply play the instrument as a fun special effects sound making apparatus.  It may go on to win a lot of hearts and minds and seem like a very impressive piece of space aged technology.  My wish for this instrument is that it be something that everyone can use… everyone from an enthusiast to a professional caliber musician.  I don't think it is impossible to achieve this, nor will it cost much more than it already does… but it will require that Moog Music engineers and development teams communicate directly with professional level competent thereminists in the immediate future.  

     If the Theremini is intended to set a new foundation for the next flagship professional theremin or intermediate level theremin, then it definitely needs a considerable amount of work. I will not be looking forward to the future of Moog Music theremins if a broken hybrid technology was to set the new foundation. If the Theremini is only intended to be a new entry point into space controlled instruments for novices and young people, then perhaps it will be fine any way it comes.  From what I have witnessed and experienced of the Theremini prototype, it looks incredibly promising from the point of view of sound and accessibility, but somewhat disappointing from the point of view of usability and and playability as a serious performance instrument.  I hope to have much better impressions and opinions of the final instrument later this Spring.

 

     When the Theremini instrument finally ships, and if I get one, I will most likely do another review specifically addressing playability and functionality. Good Luck to Moog Music. We hope Dr. Robert Moog sends you some good vibrations through the ether to help make the theremin what you hope it will be.  I'll definitely be among first people to embrace it if it turns out good, but I'll also be one of the first people to trash it if it turns out bad.

Posted: 2/20/2014 3:15:47 PM
dewster

From: Northern NJ, USA

Joined: 2/17/2012

Randy George, thank you very much for your extensive review!

I'm thinking the state you saw the Theremini in was more of a late prototype stage, rather than early.  So my bet is that what will end up in stores will be 95% what you saw at NAMM.  I see it at B&H on pre-order for May so they don't exactly have tons of time in which to alter and test things, particularly from a physical (as opposed to firmware) perspective.

The pitch side setup could be a simple thing: press the button far away, allow some tweaking (buttons or knob) and let the near field fall where it may.  IMO digital Theremin designers tend to get carried away with setting hard limits that correspond to specific pitches.  The timer strikes me as a cludge.

Tuners need to have a very fast response in order to be useful while playing.  They also need to be able to be used with one's peripheral vision.

Randy, you say the analog oscillator frequencies were adjustable via the front panel, could you perhaps elaborate on that?

Posted: 2/20/2014 5:00:39 PM
RSchwim

From: Brooklyn

Joined: 8/15/2009

Randy, that is a review and a half! Thank you! I am looking forward to trying one out... May get a chance next month...

Posted: 2/20/2014 5:32:26 PM
ILYA

From: Theremin Motherland

Joined: 11/13/2005

Thank Randy for interesting review!

You asking me what I'll do tonight... I will re-read it again! 

Posted: 2/20/2014 5:36:00 PM
GordonC

From: Croxley Green, Hertfordshire, UK

Joined: 10/5/2005

Wow! What a review. :-)

I expect I'll have more to say as I slowly digest all of this, but this is the first thing that occurs to me - the complexity of the setup procedure.

On the assumption that Moog are following this thread, and that everything is mutable, here is my thought.

1. Sensible defaults for the pitch range, say by default four octaves centred around Middle C. (Only a suggestion - I will defer to the opinion of classical thereminists.) For those of us that want something different, the option to drill down into a menu and change this.

2. Tune-to-interval rather than tune-to-zero-beat. As an "experimental" thereminist I use the simplest tuning technique - I stand my preferred distance from the theremin and turn the pitch tuning knob until I an standing in the zero-beat zone. This is not what classical thereminists do - my understanding is that they adjust the tuning knob until a specific hand movement causes a change in pitch of an octave or of a fifth depending on their preferred playing technique. 

I am sure that a precision player can describe tune-to-interval in more detail than I can, but my feeling is that a mechanism that automates tune-to-interval will more closely meet the requirements of the classical thereminist, and still be quite acceptable to the experimental thereminist.

Posted: 2/20/2014 7:19:10 PM
randy george

From: Los Angeles, California

Joined: 2/5/2006

dewster wrote:

I'm thinking the state you saw the Theremini in was more of a late prototype stage, rather than early.  So my bet is that what will end up in stores will be 95% what you saw at NAMM.  I see it at B&H on pre-order for May so they don't exactly have tons of time in which to alter and test things, particularly from a physical (as opposed to firmware) perspective.

I think the hardware for the Theremini base model must be around 80% final. I was told the analog section of the instrument was not finalized yet.  For the NAMM show, Moog Music had to come up with a working demo unit, and they did acheive that. In my opinion, I don't think this theremin is ready for pre-orders quite yet. Timing a release date for this instrument would definitely be a challenging step when there is a ton of money and agreements on the line. There still seems to be time... April/May is their target.  

 

The pitch side setup could be a simple thing: press the button far away, allow some tweaking (buttons or knob) and let the near field fall where it may.  IMO digital Theremin designers tend to get carried away with setting hard limits that correspond to specific pitches.  The timer strikes me as a cludge.

I think the ideal interval width tuning emulation method should require the upper pitch threshold be fixed to the data value when touching the pitch antenna.(but this still has to be manually calibrated) And the lower pitch threshold should be freely adjustable by turning a single knob.  That is the only method that makes sense to be able to approach the speed and precision of the "traditional theremin" pitch knob.  The 3 second timer solution is a terribly inconvenient and offers no precision.  There is one other thing which I forgot to add...  Until the setup mode has been exited there is no way to monitor the effects of the changes being made to each parameter. When a skilled player is tuning the pitch field of his/her theremin, he/she is constantly monitoring the sound and the feeling of the interval size with each micro adjustment of the pitch knob. This real-time audio feedback is essential to achieving a pain free accurate tuning.

 

Randy, you say the analog oscillator frequencies were adjustable via the front panel, could you perhaps elaborate on that?

The Variable Pitch and Fixed Pitch oscillators of the pitch circuit could be manually adjusted in the Setup Menu. (I don't recall what the values were. That would be useful right now :P) With the two digitally controlled analog oscillators it is possible to adjust the operational frequency of the instrument without physically opening up the instrument and turning any pots.   If I recall correctly, there was a frequency value that was showing up on the screen during the setup process. I assumed this was be the beat frequency of the two oscillators... ie the control signal frequency, not the MIDI frequency of the final audible tone.

 

Posted: 3/2/2014 6:51:58 PM
Quinomv

Joined: 7/26/2012

Thanks you Randy for this excellent and extensive article.

 

Posted: 5/29/2014 3:52:44 AM
randy george

From: Los Angeles, California

Joined: 2/5/2006

Today, May 28, 2014, the Moog Music Theremini has officially begun shipping.  To any one reading this, please be aware that the review I published in this thread on February 20 was for the prototype that I evaluated in January. It is not a review of the final product.

I would happily volunteer** again to write a review of the final product if I can be provided with an evaluation unit...  I imagine that people who care about the theremin will want to have a more in depth review of product's reliability, stability, playability, flexibility, and versatility before committing to buying it. Product details from a manufacturer can often be scarce. I find that to be the case with any theremin because there is so much about the theremin that is invisible.

**Compiling a review is no small task, especially for a theremin. I am not paid to do this. I do it out of love for the the instrument and to do my part to insure that it has a future.

Posted: 5/29/2014 5:34:02 AM
Jason

From: Sammamish, Washington

Joined: 2/13/2005

Thanks for the great write-up Randy!  I encourage you to contact Moog to get in line for a demo unit.  Alternatively, you could get one at Guitar Center and return it with 30 days I believe.  I agree - the more reviews, the better. 

 

Posted: 5/29/2014 12:16:47 PM
randy george

From: Los Angeles, California

Joined: 2/5/2006

Now that the announcement buzz is wearing off, I just realized that there was no mention made of the 'pro option' upgrade.  This can only means it is not yet ready. The "pro" upgraded model is more the instrument I would want to evaluate, but I'd definitely like to compare both versions. At the next available opportunity I will attempt to get proper word on this from Moog Music. My gut tells me there will be another long wait ahead. 

In the meantime, if anyone did order the Theremini, please post videos.  (also please make sure audio/video sync is good). The video with Dorit featured quite an array of high quality animoog-like sounds, but it was clear that not all the shots were synced with the audio.  If you post a video, we can at least compare to what we've heard before and extrapolate an impression.. the noisy NAMM show floor footage left a lot to be desired in terms of quality.

There may perhaps be more videos of the theremini uploaded, now that it is 'impossible to play a wrong note'. (I do not endorse that combination of words, btw) jeepers... look out, internetz. the invasion is about to begin.

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