College Modern Music Ensemble is creating a theremin ensemble

Posted: 11/7/2010 5:21:07 PM

Joined: 11/4/2010

Hello to the theremin community!
I am the director of a modern music ensemble and am looking to augment the ensemble with up to 7 theremins for the upcoming semester for some pieces I have written. I am looking for some advice from the wider community regarding outfitting my student group with reliable theremins. Specifically, I would like to know the following:
Are there are good schematics that I could possibly give to the electronics professor and have a class build 7 theremins?
If schematics are not the way to go, then is there a good entry level theremin.
I've got a B3 that I've been working with.
I'm looking for any deal as I will most likely be funding the purchase of the theremins myself, and those students that may catch on to the instrument will probably buy the ones I have from me.
Any information would be of great help,
Thank you for your assistance!
Posted: 11/7/2010 6:49:43 PM
Jeff S

From: N.E. Ohio

Joined: 2/14/2005

Hello and welcome!

Is there any chance you can give us an idea of your location and the college you're with?

At this point in time, the Moog Etherwave would be your best choice. However, they are rather expensive. Your next best option would be the B3 Pro by Dan Burns. Or you could get the standard B3, but that's not a great choice since the case is too short. Maybe you should contact Dan and ask if he can offer a volume discount.

You need to be aware that there are interference issues with a multiple theremin ensemble. There are people here who have experience in this arena who can help you

BTW...It was not necessary to post this twice.
Posted: 11/7/2010 11:59:00 PM

Joined: 11/4/2010

Hello Jeff,
Thanks for replying, and sorry about the double posting, I first put it in theremins for sale forum and then I thought to cover my bases by putting in theremin construction ...oops!
So you would recommend the Moog kits first above any plans or schematics I could find here?
I'm currently working with the smaller size B3 with two foot pedals to modify the timbre. Does the size of the box play a role in the linearity of the instrument? I find that the field setting for pitch can't be turned up that high and that limits the octave range.
The Moogs are expensive, if I buy and build 7 it will pretty much cost me my pay to teach the class!
I teach at San Jacinto College in Pasadena. Every spring I modify a section of my chamber music class to perform music from the past 100 years. Previously we've done performances of Terry Riley's in C, and last year we gave several good performances of Cage Improvisations.
With the helpful instruction and assistence of our composition instructor, our student composers write for the student modern music ensemble as well.

As for interference, my plan was to space the theremin players around the auditorium. That should give a wide enough spread, don't you think? Also gives a good surround sound effect, as I am, in fact, surrounding the audience with the theremins and other members of the ensemble.
Thanks for your ideas and comments.

Posted: 11/8/2010 5:33:33 AM

From: Croxley Green, Hertfordshire, UK

Joined: 10/5/2005

Hi Vashtanerada, (it feels a little strange talking to a flesh-eating shadow, but here goes...)

Yes, seven theremins spaced around a reasonable sized auditorium should suffice. I have organised 19 theremins around the perimeter of a music school auditorium and while not perfect it was "good enough for rock and roll". And yes, surrounding the audience with theremins was just amazing! (Not so good for conventional western music, but stunning for experimental stuff.)

IF you still encounter problems there are two things to consider.

Firstly the orientation of the players. Some theremins can affect others at massive distances. The etherwave pro is a known culprit here, as is the volume antenna of the tVox Tour - both of which you are unlikely to be using, considering their scarcity and cost. Partially blocking the signal with the body of the thereminist has been shown to help, but implies turning one's back to at least one other player. One could perhaps go further and construct chicken-wire walls but note that this is pure guess work on my part.

Secondly, theremins interfere with each other not only through the air but also via the ground (or earth for us Brits) wire. Some (I do not know how many) theremins only require grounding for playability purposes, not for safety reasons. I have been told that this is the case for the Moog Etherwave standard and plus, but DO NOT TAKE MY WORD FOR THIS. I will not accept responsibility for frying your students. Get confirmation from a qualified electrical engineer who has examined the instrument. If you are satisfied that this is the case for the instruments you are using, then the connection can be broken by disconnecting the ground wire at the end of a long extension cable furthest from the theremin. The extension cable will provide sufficient grounding for the theremin to operate correctly.

With regard to building your own, you are on solid ground using one of Bob Moog's schematics. Several have been published in electronics magazines, so are absolutely OK to use for educational and not-for-profit purposes. The only catch is that they are aging, so some components may not be available and substitution will be required. This should, hopefully, not be a problem for your electronics professor. The obvious candidate is the first incarnation of the etherwave. Find the full article here (

Another possibility, and a build with significantly fewer components, is the Moog Melodia, which has a lovely sound and is still used by at least one professional thereminist (Rob Schwimmer - see youtube here ( Find the forty-nine-year old article here ( (And please, if you do choose this one, do share updated schematics etc. - I would love to build one some day, but don't have the skills to modernise it myself.)

Other than that, use the search function on TW with the keyword [i]schematics[/i] to find lots of discussion about what is good and what is not.

The issue with the B3 is, as Jeff noted, the length of the case. Tuning it does not alter the pitch range - that would require internal changes to the instrument - it alters the size of the playing field, and to get a reasonable size pitch field on a B3 you would have to overlap the volume field, which would mean that presence of the volume hand would affect the pitch of the instrument, particularly when trying to play low notes. Specifically the hand which is nearest to the pitch rod has the greatest effect on the pitch - if that is the volume hand then you are effectively blocking yourself from playing lower notes with your pitch hand.
Posted: 11/8/2010 7:17:58 AM

From: Canada

Joined: 8/1/2008

The VASHTA NERADA = piranhas of the ether! YIKES!

vashtanerada wrote: I am the director of a modern music ensemble and am looking to augment the ensemble with up to 7 theremins for the upcoming semester for some pieces I have written.


This sounds like an interesting and fun project, but if your music requires precision skill in order to be played, do not expect your students to be able to perform it over night. Allow me to quote the following:

"People expect to go over to the theremin and IT PLAYS. No! It takes hard work, sensitivity, sensibility....attention to detail. You have to learn it and it's not easy." Clara Rockmore

If your composition is an aleatoric, free music improvisation in which each thereminist can play at will, then no serious practice or study of the instrument will be necessary.

Whatever you decide to do, there will be a considerable investment involved. You will not only need theremins, but speakers and amplifiers as well. Even at the very reasonable price of about $500.00 per musician for a complete kit, this is going to cost you the better part of 4000 bucks!

One of the difficulties with theremin ensemble playing is that the musicians can get confused as to which sound of the many that are entering their ears, is their own. Unlike other instruments, the thereminist depends ENTIRELY upon his or her ears in order to know what note is being played. Even highly skilled and experienced professional thereminists have been known to get confused.

If you are planning on using standard speaker amps, make sure they are positioned so that your thereminists can hear themselves clearly. That means the speakers must be placed directly behind each player and raised to head level. Simply having them sit on the floor is an invitation to cacophony!

As others have pointed out, there can be interference problems when multiple theremins are placed close together. A room full of Etherwave theremins will fall silent the moment an RCA is turned on within 40 feet of them. None of the Etherwaves will work! This kind of thing has been a chronic problem for years whenever a variety of theremins of different makes and types have been presented on the same stage.

An RCA will fall silent if it is too close to high powered satellite transmission equipment. It happened to me once with Samuel Hoffman's RCA. I was at a television station where there was a serious dish array on top of the building and the whole place was bathed in electromagnetic radiation. The RCA simply wouldn't work and there was nothing I could do.

Posted: 11/8/2010 9:18:05 AM

Joined: 11/4/2010

Hello Gordon and coalport,
First off, thank you so much for your help and information, this goes a LONG way to having this unit of the class become a reality!I would really like to have them built as it would use more internal college resources rather than credit card resources...
I'm so glad someone got the Dr. Who reference, It was one of my favorite two part episodes of the past seasons! My wife got hooked on them in the second season, and now we are waiting for the next installment of British sci-fi...
I'm originally a violinist/violist, and I have been working out on the theremin on a steady basis. The main reason or reasons why I think this instrument could take off here is due to the fact that we have a lot of audio engineering students who are learning their craft but have very little in the way of actual time on any instruments. However, they may have bought an electric guitar and amp and some pedals, or an electronic keyboard and an amp. In short, the amps, we got! The good thing I see about the theremin is anyone using it will definitely have to ramp up their ear training skills in order to use the instrument.
As for the pieces I have composed, I actually began them as computer pieces, and I'll post more in the composition area, but suffice to say here, I composed these pieces using software to provide me with long glissandos between two set pitches. Now, having a glissando lasting several minutes exceeds the capability of most acoustic instruments and in fact negates most keyed or valved instruments, leaving me with trombones and the violin family (I briefly considered Bartoks solution of using multiple trombones each providing a segment of a longer composite glissando a la the Miraculous Mandarin,...still may try it just to hear a choir of trombones!) I could have gone entirely experimental and built a instrument to create a pitch and bend it, but then I thought better and chose the intrument for which glissandi are the "natural" state of being. More about the pieces in the composition section......
Is there any electronic field reader that I should use or be aware of in checking out our concert hall? Or, I guess I should just build one and then play it in the hall in all areas to see if there is going to be a problem?
Thank you again for all your comments and observations-to quote the Doctor-brilliant!
Posted: 11/8/2010 10:20:14 AM

From: Croxley Green, Hertfordshire, UK

Joined: 10/5/2005

Watch out for guitar amps - the line level output from a theremin can be too hot for some. You may have to attenuate the signal.


[i]If your composition is an aleatoric, free music improvisation in which each thereminist can play at will, then no serious practice or study of the instrument will be necessary.[/i]

Here my opinion differs from coalport's. I will concede to [i]less[/i] serious practice or study, but not [i]none[/i].

I do not think it coincidence that some of the best aleatoric and experimental players are classically skilled - I cite Lydia Kavina, Barbara Buchholz, Pamelia Kurstin, Wilco Botermans as examples. And some of the worst in both fields profess never to practice - I refrain from giving an example of this.

I like to think the time I have spent honing my aleatoric skills has been of some point, but am happy for others to draw their own conclusions.


Minutes long glissandi! I think your students will feel like Weeping Angels! -- You'll find a fair few Dr Who fans amongst thereminists - it seems to go with the territory, even though the programme has never featured one in the soundtrack. More's the pity. I would love to see this ( in an episode!
Posted: 11/8/2010 6:17:46 PM

Joined: 11/4/2010

Hello Gordon,
It's interesting you mention technique and aleatoric practice, as I had the most interesting time teaching the Cage improvisations to the students last semester, and you are right, if one doesn't know about the aleatoric or chance music, they will most likely get it wrong. My students did this in the improvisations in the rehearsals. Some students abandoned their maps and interpretations of the symbols if they found that someone else was doing something that they felt was more interesting! The chance and randomness was negated when one student decided to engage in the play swordfight that one other student was doing as part of that minute of the music. I had to remind them that the spirit of the performance partially lies in the unrelated acts coming into relation at that time.
I liked the examples you linked to in the previous discussion. The earlier melodia has a nice sound. I'm bringing both plans to converse with the electronics profs.
The void ship piece on your site was good too. Going back for a second listening tonight after class.
My pitch set is created through chance, but once there it is locked, and the challenge will be to train the student musicians to hear the departure and arrival notes. I will have up to six glissandi occurring at the same time, and some very interesting musical effects occur when that happens, but I'll jump over to the composition forum and send some information out there when it comes closer to rehearsals in late January.
Great stuff, and thanks again! I'm sure I will have more questions when the time comes to put these theremins together.
Posted: 11/9/2010 7:57:05 AM

From: Canada

Joined: 8/1/2008

Your students should do splendidly with the theremins. My concern was that you might have expected them to play note-perfect, complex harmonies and/or polyrhythms without the benefit of serious precision training on the instrument.

With the kind of music you will be doing, even if the theremin players stray from the pitch maps and graphs you have given them, it is unlikely that the audience will be aware of it. YOU would be, but it would probably not interfere with a casual listener's enjoyment of the piece.

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