Analog vs Digital IRT theremin? Really simple e-music questions

Posted: 10/7/2007 11:19:34 AM

From: St John's, Newfoundland

Joined: 10/7/2007

Greetings, I'm a total noob on e-instruments, and don't even have the vocab to articulate what I'm wanting to describe. Please have mercy upon my massive science-ignorance.

There are electronic instruments like the theremin, which work with coils and magnetic fields and such to produce tone, right?

Then there are modern e-music instruments which involve MIDI and such, packed with microchips, etc., right?

What is the term to describe this distinction, between instruments where the electronic music is produced by relatively straightforward physics, vs. the ones using modern computer technology?

The reason I ask: I'm interested in exploring electronic music options, but am more interested in the primitive side, and have no interest in MIDI, plugging the instrument into my computer, etc.

The actual project I have in mind is an electronic hurdy-gurdy, basically just a flat slab of wood with two knobs controlling two drone pitches, and a series of buttons to produce melody notes above the drones. I'd like to track down and talk shop with the folks who build assorted little e-music toys and figure out the feasability/cost, but I realized that I barely know what I'm talking about when it comes to e-music matters.

Thanks for any advice!
Posted: 10/7/2007 1:36:43 PM

From: Croxley Green, Hertfordshire, UK

Joined: 10/5/2005

I think you nailed it in the heading - Analog vs Digital.

Analog instruments - coils, capacitors etc.

Digital instruments - bits and bytes.

Not so sure you got the right website though - device you want to make, not so much a theremin, more a synthesiser.

Posted: 10/7/2007 2:33:36 PM

From: St John's, Newfoundland

Joined: 10/7/2007

Good deal, I'm glad that I wasn't completely off on the idea!

So is a genuine theremin exclusively a analog device, and the modern offshoots and computer-theremins are digital?

Is an analog instrument still "electronic", or just "electric"?

I know my e-gurdy idea isn't quite in the theremin family, but I thouhgt this would be a good place just to check in on the basic analog/dig concept, and maybe get advice as to what sites or forums I should check for info on experimental analog instruments.

Is there a site for analog tinkerers, where I could go pitch the idea and comission such an instrument?
Posted: 10/7/2007 7:01:05 PM

From: Croxley Green, Hertfordshire, UK

Joined: 10/5/2005

Opinions vary as to the exact definition of a theremin - we really need to get out more! - but the user interface is a defining characteristic, playing by disturbing electromagnetic fields. The overwhelming majority of theremins are purely analogue, but the Moog Ethervox springs to mind as an example of an analogue/midi hybrid theremin.


I'm more on the music side than the tinkering side - I don't know of suitable forums, but I'm sure they exist.
Posted: 10/8/2007 2:22:19 AM

From: Bristol, United Kingdom

Joined: 12/30/2006

Contact this guy:

...and ask his advice. The guy's a friend of mine, pretty much builds all his instruments which are often hybrid acoustic/electronic/midi things. I doubt he has the time to walk you through such a project but I think he's able to give you some pointers.
Posted: 10/8/2007 9:01:56 PM

From: Massachusetts

Joined: 8/18/2007

[i]Is there a site for analog tinkerers, where I could go pitch the idea and comission such an instrument? [/i]

I build various analog and digital circuits.
Some of my boards are at

If you want to contact me off-list just send me an email using the address from my website.

The mail-list you probably want is called synth-diy and consists of people that build analog and digital music synthesizer circuits.

The address for that mail-list is

(* jcl *)
Posted: 2/21/2008 4:29:56 PM

From: Escondido, CA

Joined: 2/6/2008

I have had the opportunity to see a real, live hurdy gurdy. They are an interesting piece of mechanics!

I am not sure what you would want this electronic hurdy gurdy to do. What would make it NOT an electronic keyboard with a lot less keys?
Posted: 2/21/2008 10:49:53 PM

From: Connecticut

Joined: 10/10/2007

I think I can give you a good description of analog instruments vs digital ones:

An analog instrument is only limited by your preciseness, (If that's a word) for example, if you have a knob to control the output pitch of your device and the output changes no matter how slightly you turn the knob it is analog.

However, a digital instrument has limitations. In a digital instrument you may only be able to play an E, not an E flat or a high E. It has limitations.

Another way of looking at it is that an analog instrument can achieve any output frequency from 20Hz to 20kHz down to a tone as precise as the player can get such as 10.000001kHz. While a digital instrument may only be able to go from 20Hz to 200Hz to 2000Hz and nowhere inbetween.

You want analog. It is most likely better for your device.
Posted: 2/22/2008 2:00:28 AM

From: Eastleigh, Hampshire, U.K. ................................... Fred Mundell. ................................... Electronics Engineer. (Primarily Analogue) .. CV Synths 1974-1980 .. Theremin developer 2007 to present .. soon to be Developing / Trading as . ...................................

Joined: 12/7/2007

Analogue! - Drop me a line and I will send you enough links to make your head spin! Heres a start..
Posted: 2/27/2008 3:23:39 PM

From: Escondido, CA

Joined: 2/6/2008

In the electronic sense, "analog" implies that you are working with things that can have infinitely variable values ... like 0V - 10V. You can have 1.537V or 8.5V, etc.

"Digital" implies that at the most basic level (i.e one "bit") things can be in either of 2 states. A logic one is defined at one particular voltage value and a logic zero is at another voltage value. Of course you can combine many bits together and do a lot of number crunching very fast.

Electric and electronic are more or less the same thing in most people's minds. An "electric" guitar derives an analog voltage output by a change in magnetic flux as a steel string moves in the magnetic field of the pickups. Since it can the voltage output can be anywhere in a range of about 0 to 30mVrms, it is analog in nature.

An "electronic keyboard" can be analog (in the case of something like a Hammond B3 organ), but usually is digital. In the extreme, the velocity of how fast the key was pressed as well as its position (i.e. which note it corresponds to) are "processed" by a digital system. The "voices" are settings for an internal "digital signal processor" system. When it is all done crunching the numbers, its output is run through a "digital-to-analog" converter chip and that is routed to an audio amp.

Hope this explanation helps.


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