Next time you’re hating on hipsters, realize that we can thank their love of retro-futurism—at least in part—for Leon Theremin’s 1929 invention becoming the best-known “weird” instrument of our time. Of course, you don’t have to wear mustache wax to be captivated by its sci-fi siren song, not to mention the visual aspect of performing without actually touching the thing. Like many curious keyboardists, though, I play theremin cringingly badly and have never been able to justify the time investment in getting good. It’s that sort of barrier to entry that Moog Music aims to lower with the $300 Theremini. After living with one for a month, I declare the barrier lowered—a lot.
A theremin works by sensing the proximity of your hands to two antennae: a horizontal one for volume and a vertical one for pitch. (The pitch antenna is on the right, but to use your left hand for pitch, you can stand on the other side of the unit.) Closer to the pitch antenna equals higher; closer to the volume antenna equals softer. Technically, your pitch hand is affecting the capacitance of an analog oscillator, and the circuit is very sensitive. Watch videos of great Theremin players such as Clara Rockmore, Carolina Eyck, and Dorit Chrysler, and you’ll see both the subtlety of their pitch hand movements and how actively they work the volume antenna so as to voice only the desired pitches.
It’s this sensitivity combined with the lack of any tactile feedback that gives the theremin its reputation for being difficult to play. The Theremini still uses an analog oscillator for pitch control, but that oscillator’s output is then converted to control a digital sound engine derived from the Animoog iOS soft synth—and where there’s digital information, it can be quantized. The Pitch Correction knob varies this quantization to skew the machine’s hand-to-pitch judgment call towards one of 21 selectable scales (including chromatic, all the modes, major and minor blues, major and minor pentatonic, whole-tone, a few world scales, and more) for which you can also choose the root note. At maximum correction, moving your pitch hand plays only the notes in the active scale, with no portamento. At minimum, the pitch is continuously variable, making the scale irrelevant. Intermediate settings “rubber-band” your pitch to the target note, doing so more quickly as you increase the pitch correction.
Supplementing this is an onscreen pointer that shows how close you are to the target note, which the Theremini defines as whatever note you’re already closest to on the selected scale. I can’t over-emphasize how much paying close attention to this display helped my technique, eventually letting me progressively back off on the pitch correction as I practiced the illustrated exercises in the downloadable PDF manual.
On power-up, you’re prompted to run a calibration routine that establishes near and far extremes for each hand. You should definitely run it after moving the Theremini (especially if it’s to a gig) to ensure that muscle memory acquired during practice still translates as expected.
Design and Controls
The glossy white Theremini looks like the love child of a photon torpedo and EVE from the Pixar movie WALL-E. The pitch antenna is a removable aluminum rod, which snaps into a groove on the underbelly for transportation. The volume antenna is a crisp parabola that’s affixed to the left side solidly enough to double as a carrying handle. I noticed that if the external power brick was too close it affected the pitch (in a way that the wooden hutch on my desk didn’t), but the cord is plenty long enough for this not to be an issue.
For practicing, the built-in speaker is surprisingly full-range for its size. Only it and the 1/8" headphone jack are controlled by the main volume knob; for the main stereo outs, you set a ceiling volume in the Setup menu and after that, volume is what your left hand is for.
Speaking of the Setup menu, from there you can also change global settings such as lowest and highest pitches, overall tuning, which MIDI CC messages each antenna sends externally (yes, they do that), and which antenna (and whether the internal pitch correction) affects the analog CV out. Synth geeks will surely find applications here beyond the intended “my first Theremin” usage. For example, via MIDI you could use hand (or waxed mustache) gestures to add modulation or sweep macros of parameters on a connected soft synth. Setup menu settings are retained with the power off.
Sounds and Synth Engine
With what’s very close to a monophonic Animoog (reviewed May 2012) under the hood, the Theremini’s 32 presets go far beyond classic “singing” theremin leads—though of course it does those very well. “All Your Bass,” for example, works especially well for dubstep-style pitch swoops. In addition to the expected virtual analog waves and resonant filter (with six selectable types), the internal synth has Animoog’s wavetable scanning for patches with internal timbral motion.
In fact, the synth engine is fully editable in two ways, neither of which involves the front panel. Every synth parameter is accessible via a MIDI CC (there’s a handy chart in the PDF manual), and sending any value on CC 119 amounts to the “save button” that writes your edits to the current preset. Connecting both the Theremini and a Novation Nocturn to my Mac via USB, I quickly pressed the latter into service as a control panel. However, most users will probably prefer the upcoming software editor, which at press time was in beta and for the iPad only. (UPDATE, October 2014: We've since received more refined versions of the Theremini editor, and will report on our tests very soon.) I’m fine with needing MIDI or an editor to tweak deeper parameters on this type of instrument, but I did find it odd that even things you can adjust from the front panel—scale, root, and delay type/amount—can’t be saved from there. You can save them to a preset using the other methods, but I can see wanting to change the presets’ defaults for these basic settings without reaching for some external device.
In contrast to its robust CC implementation, the Theremini doesn’t currently deal in MIDI notes, either incoming or outgoing. Presumably this is because they’d be hard to reconcile with the continuous nature of its pitch-parsing mojo. So no, it won’t double as a desktop synth you can play from a keyboard, but seriously, just put Animoog on your iPad for that. (I asked Moog Music about MIDI notes via email. They said that near-future firmware updates would provide “great feature and functionality improvements” but couldn’t divulge anything further at the time.)
There’s no question that the Theremini is the ideal first theremin if you’re looking for one and sonically flexible enough to be the last one you’ll ever need. More importantly, though, it’s seductive to musicians who might never otherwise consider a theremin. Sure, you can start out with obvious guilty-pleasure uses like setting it to a root-fifth scale with the pitch correction cranked to add some hand-waving showmanship to your gig. However, that becomes a gateway drug to eventually mastering melodies, with as much or as little training-wheels factor as you need along the way. The theremin used to be esoteric, intimidating, and cool. Now it’s approachable, friendly, and cool. See what Moog just did there?
Pitch correction and visual note feedback make it fun to learn to play accurately. Goes beyond classic Theremin sounds to cover a wide range of synth tones. Manual includes helpful playing tutorials. Thorough and useful array of scales. Deep synth engine is fully editable.
You can’t save any edits to presets from the front panel—only via MIDI or the software editor.
The idea of a “theremin for everyone” was a contradiction in terms—until now.
$319 list | $299 street | moogmusic.com