Duelling RCA Theremins

Posted: 3/8/2015 5:18:16 PM

From: Canada

Joined: 8/1/2008

For fans of the RCA theremin, here is a new duet featuring two very different sounding RCA’s.


The Hoffman RCA is a standard, unaltered and unmodified instrument, except for its cabinet and its built-in 106 Radiola speaker. Howard "Uncle Howie" Mossman has always maintained that the cabinet of Hoffman’s instrument acts much like the resonating chamber of a cello, giving the instrument a unique sound. I’m not sure I agree but it’s a great theory! The Hoffman RCA is the “soprano” in the theremin duet.


Julius Goldberg’s RCA was modified twice in its life. The first time was in the 1930’s by Goldberg himself but these seem to be very minor things, and included the addition of a new set of lightning bolt antennas. The second time was in the 1980’s when the instrument belonged to New York musician John Snyder (who had recently bought it from Mrs. Goldberg). Its power supply overheated and self-destructed a day before a concert, so John took it to someone who installed a new power supply whose voltage outputs were not exactly identical to the original RCA specs. This gave the instrument a completely different sound, much harsher and more “brassy” than a standard RCA.


A couple of years ago, I was surprised to discover that when Goldberg’s RCA was fed into an Electro-Harmonix TALKING MACHINE, its bullhorn timbre turned into a remarkable simulation of a light, lyric baritone/tenor. That is how you hear it on SPARROW, with the TM on an open ‘AH’ sound. The rougher and “edgier” the sound you put into the TM, the better the sound will be coming out. 


BTW, the old spiritual HIS EYE IS ON THE SPARROW, which has been a standard in African-American churches for more than a century, was written in 1905 by two white guys! It was memorably performed by Ethel Waters, in the 1952 film THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING, where she sang it with little Brandon deWilde on one shoulder, and Julie Harris on the other. 




Posted: 3/8/2015 7:22:33 PM

From: Northern NJ, USA

Joined: 7/29/2014

IMHO you are the most expressive master of this instrument that ever lived!

There is just something about your playing that transcends the music.

Thanks for the rendition.


Posted: 3/10/2015 7:50:02 PM

From: Northern NJ, USA

Joined: 2/17/2012

Beautiful!  Not enough Theremin harmony stuff out there.  Thanks for posting that!

Posted: 3/11/2015 8:58:43 PM

From: Canada

Joined: 8/1/2008

The tricky thing is giving a uniquely different timbre to each of the theremins in an ensemble. The Japanese “matryomin” groups have done some harmony recordings, but the instruments are all identical (and without volume control) so the music sounds like it was made by a swarm of bumblebees. 



Then there is the question of compatibility of vibrato. As with singers, there are certain combinations that sound good together, and others that don’t blend at all. Much of this has to do with that great bugbear of all thereminists - VIBRATO. 

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