Three Strikes You're Out - Why Digital Theremins Make Sense

Posted: 2/18/2015 4:29:33 AM

From: Northern NJ, USA

Joined: 7/29/2014

So I was thinking about the inherent limitations of the theremin and why it's basically impossible for the instrument to gain a huge following, and thought: How will the theremin survive and flourish in the future? Let's think about the issue and possible digital solutions to the problem:

1. It's too damned difficult to play and keep in tune. [Quantization and perhaps additional sensing mechanisms could perhaps let you keep in tune better and the user learn different techniques to make it easier to play. How many people who buy a theremin eventually give up? There really is no truly universal technique - as most other mainstream instruments have. Why can't a controller sense finger motions that will let you actually play it like a piano with a fixed fingering perhaps after a calibration? What's the need for antennas if you have a great sensing mechanism with as much response as a theremin but lets you do a lot more things?]

2. It can't play fast music well or music that has a lot of jumps. [What really popular instrument can't play fast? A digital theremin could include features to let you play fast passages through the addition of some special controller].

3. The tone is just grating after a while. A digital theremin can have a limitless variety of sounds from samples to all kinds of digital synthesis techniques.

Let's please set the Theremini totally aside from this discussion and think about why the idea of a digital theremin makese sense as it can in numerous ways address all three of the limitations in one way or another (though it may well mean that the theremin needs to significantly evolve in its new digital form).

Now of course the purists may have objections no matter how great the digital implementation, but the question needs to be asked (again irrespective of Thereminis) - is not digital implementation the best way to garner new interest in the theremin and perhaps evolve the instrument?

Think about any modern instrument over its first 100 years. I can't think of one that did not undergo significant changes to both improve tone and playability. What of the theremin? A big conumdrum. In one sense, its a stunning "tour de force" of modern instrument design. In another, it's actually lagging far behind what might be expected in the development of a modern instrument (for example, has moving away from tubes made it sound better). Basically someone added CV. That's about the only advance I can see from the original instruments that to me still sound better than most of the "modern" implementations.

What should the basic features of a "digital theremin" be?   Is the theremin even viable as a gestural controller when there are advances being made that might allow theremin like performance without even standing in front of a box? There may well be a world of better expression possible with the new generation of gestural controllers being developed now.

The Future of Gestural Control

For sure the analog theremin will always have its niche. I will always love it. But is that really the future of the theremin?



Posted: 2/18/2015 4:26:06 PM

From: Northern NJ, USA

Joined: 2/17/2012

"What should the basic features of a "digital theremin" be?"  - rkram53

1. Responsiveness (sufficient gestural bandwidth of ~500Hz and processing lag < 2ms).

2. Markedly better linearity than an analog Theremin.

3. Physically large pitch and volume fields (>0.5m w/ good SNR).

4. Easily adjustable pitch range (sensitivity) and pitch center (offset).

5. Synthesis that does vocals and strings adequately.

6. A visual "tuner" that can be used as an active guide during play.

I don't desire to bring the Theremini into this either, but I will note that it tends to fail items 1, 2, 3, & 6; and items 4 & 5 aren't implemented in ways that I would prefer.  Analog Theremins tend to fail items 2, 4, and 6.

"Is the theremin even viable as a gestural controller when there are advances being made that might allow theremin like performance without even standing in front of a box?"

A Theremin is a well defined thing with a long history.  Gestural control using something like Kinect is a general approach that may or may not have sufficient response times / precision to do free-form musical performance on without resorting to sequencing, quantization, and the like.  Theremin himself was attempting to do this kind of stuff (full body jesturing) with the Terpsitone and that never went anywhere, perhaps due to technological limitations, perhaps because it will never go anywhere given all the technology in the world.  The video you pointed to is kind of neat, but I can't really get into that kind of thing.  The Theremin is pretty much at the limit of what I can tolerate in a touchless musical performance.

I mean, I'd rather watch an average guitar player play the guitar than watch someone adjusting reverb by moving their arms around.  There is also the issue of genuine virtuosity when automation is brought into the mix, and virtuosity is arguably the biggest element of performance IMO.  If someone is just triggering stuff I might as well be listening to a CD.

Posted: 2/18/2015 4:51:50 PM

From: Croxley Green, Hertfordshire, UK

Joined: 10/5/2005

I don't entirely agree with your premise, Rich.

Keyboard synthesisers do resemble pianos in some ways, mainly the user interface. They have several advantages over pianos, which are prohibitively expensive, inconveniently large and heavy and only have one timbre. And you don't need to be a trained pianist to play a keyboard synth. And yet they are not the future of pianos.

Of course, it costs more to buy a synth with a keyboard as good as a piano, and piano emulation is pretty good these days, but you'd still have to learn to play like a pianist if that is what you want to do, and most pianist would still prefer a piano.

What keyboard synths have done is not replace pianos but create a new class of musician - the synth player - quite different to a pianist, and producing quite a different variety of music. Which is great. I'm all for variety and diversity.

I see the theremini in the same way, not as something which supercedes the theremin, but as an evolutionary branch from the theremin.

(And before anyone jumps in and protests "but it's not an improvement" I would counter, but evolution is not a process of constant improvement (by what standard should we judge these "improvements" anyway?) but of constant adaptation to prevailing circumstances.)

Posted: 2/18/2015 6:00:36 PM

From: 60 Miles North of San Diego, CA

Joined: 10/1/2014

David Curtis on Levnet brought this to our attention.

This is beautiful digital, why would someone not want to TOUCH it?

Posted: 2/19/2015 12:07:43 AM

From: züriCH

Joined: 3/15/2014

as subjectiv as possible,

when i had my first theremin running, without even nowing much about how they worked and not much more knowledge of electronics either, i thought that senses also the mood, state of mind, foolish me. later on i learned that this is not the case. but the idea never went away entirely: to have a instrument, you can steer with your mind. so the most consequent way would be a neuronal nervous system, if you like. whatsoever. 

some, honestly few, performances of gestural triggered music really rocked me the way a rock solid concert can. i think it must be fun for the performer & sometimes hard on the edge towards risky entertainement. right now it seems to be finally just bitsandbytes.

the difficulty with instruments is how sound is produced by the instrument and the tendencies to reduce and limit the theremin towards a controller are quite obvious. 

it's not bound to natural materials, but to good electronics, in our case of the theremin. it's up to clever guys, able to put clever software and good designed electronics and hardware into a standalone instrument, to still call it a theremin.

the different ergonomic amazements like that linn-stick are possible today. also reactable and ipad surfaces are cool. $$$?  i would even go for a continuum if i only could dive into that red silicon up to the ellbows for modulation!

a good, new 21th century theremin could be done, as far as my bit understands of all the posts about. and those 6 points above are very good. specially sensitivy and offset are important on both antennas. tuna?well, six is not essentialy needed, the one  here makes me drooling. 

what i'm not sure about is, is that new necessity of much specific extra extras ? or the fact, that to understand and perform programming is a must, to get the full potential out of the unit ? 

b.t.t.: so the digital/hybrid kids are so far the .open, the theremino and the moogie?

like it evolution, it's a dynamic thing 

Posted: 2/21/2015 2:46:06 PM

From: Northern NJ, USA

Joined: 7/29/2014

I'm just thinking in terms of how instruments traditionally develop.

The original piano was a clunky beast that did not have a great tone but evolved into a magnificent instrument in about 100 years.

The flute went from a wooden keyless instrument to a thing that has enormous expression and range of playability. Took about 100 years.

Brass instruments went from valveless overtones based things with limited playability what they are today in about 100 years. 

Look at instrument evolution. It's been about 100 years for the theremin. How has the thermein really evolved in the sense that most other instruments do? OK, tubes went by the wayside (but that in and of itself did not really improve the instrument from a sonic or playability perspective).

I'm not really knocking the theremin. I'm just saying it really has not changed as much as you would expect an instrument to, especially being an electronic instrument. I'm trying to figure out where it really is going. Frankly, I think it's caught in a bit of a vortex especially in terms of electronic instruments and digital implementation is the key for its advancement and move to greater popularity.

Also with wireless and sensing technology advancements in speed and resolution, I think it is now feasible to invent touchless gestural controllers that will have as much response and expression as the theremin, but a host of other features as well. Will the theremin seem outdated and old-fashioned in relation to the new generation of touchless gestural controllers that will soon be widespread (I think)? Everyone will be wearing contollers on themselves soon. Only logical many of them will be musical controllers that let them create music in space. Instead of standing in front of the theremin. You now will be wearing it. That to me is the real logical way for the theremin to evolve.

This is the wireless age. My point is simply I don't think the traditional theremin has much of a change of growing in popularity without things like the Theremini (and better things in the future).

But the overriding issue is that to gain a really wide spread audience, it has to be easier to play and it has to evolve to play faster. The only way to do that is through digital means of some sort in my opinion.


Posted: 2/21/2015 5:17:29 PM

From: 60 Miles North of San Diego, CA

Joined: 10/1/2014

The theremin captures a simple “principle of nature” that when harnessed can be used to make interesting music. Being difficult to play is one of her attributes, and makes it more appealing for those that seek the challenge to stand-alone.

I think digital sounds can be beautiful and I think the theremin in a few skilled hands is beautiful. The theremin is played without touching by default not choice, what advantage could this approach do for the performance of a digitally triggered instrument by not wanting to touch it when played?

The theremin is a novelty from nature while the Theremini is more like a GMO.

I have never discouraged any theremin design, as I know how difficult it is to design and build. My hope is the Theremini will drive down the used resale value of the EtherWave Standard so more are available for my research. In time my research might pull down the cost of buying an E-pro, is it time to sell?


Posted: 2/21/2015 6:30:33 PM

From: Northern NJ, USA

Joined: 2/17/2012

I think any gesture based musical instrument is actually a huge step backward.  For however futuristic it may seem (and I largely blame the Theremin for making it seem futuristic in the first place) removing tactile feedback is a really bad move.  Our fingertips have tons of nerves just itching to give our brains detailed information regarding what they are up to, and we ignore that at our peril (if we are musical instrument designers).

That said the Theremin holds a special place in my heart. ;-)

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