Theremin and Tuning Plugins

Posted: 9/21/2014 3:52:30 AM

From: Northern NJ, USA

Joined: 7/29/2014

Some people were interested in what tuning/pitch correction plug-ins can do with the theremin so I'll create a thread to discuss. I've spend the day playing around a bit with tuning programs and the Etherwave. These programs  are mostly meant for the voice, but you would expect the theremin would transfer over well. 

Autotuning from the theremin perspective is an effect so I'll discuss this topic here. Basically there are two main products: (Antarestech) Autotune and Waves Tune. Both are amazing programs with a lot of sophistication and control. Autotune has both a real-time low latency version and the flagship product for post-processing. Waves Tune is meant for processing recorded lines only. There's also another popular product called Melodyne, but I don't have access to that.

There are three main ways I expect to use pitch correction with the theremin:

1. Fix minor pitch errors here and there in a performance the way a record company might use it to clean up tuning imprefections in a recording. I'm a ways off for this kind of fine tuning use right now but I can see how Waves or Autotune could be a lifesaver for someone who just made the performance of their life but a couple notes were off. Frankly, I can't argue with this kind of use because its done everywhere.

2. Clean up a performance of a piece (maybe correct a lot) of mine that I can't play well enough now, but this will at least give me a good idea of what it would sound like.

3. Use it in real time as a training aid. (Have to see how feasible this is - need to use Autotune Live for that).

All these programs work best if you are only slightly off key of course. The farther off you are, the more correction they have to do and the bigger the chance of tuning artifacts being injected.

Fortunately both let you vary the speed at which the tuning occurs (along with numerous other parameters). So you can slowly move to pitch retaining inflection or go to full quantized mode (Autotune by the way is what is used to create those Cher/T-Pain like vocal effects controlled by a set scale, usually major) - I need to see if this  transfers to the theremin as an effect that could be useful. You can also control the pitch correction from a keyboard through MIDI playing the notes you want the program to move to. That obviously would have to be a post-processing effect.

So a quick look at Waves Tune first. You run this as a DAW insert plugin on a prerecorded line. Play (or quick scan) the line through it and it creates a very interesting tuning map on the screen with its suggested tuning which you can then edit to your heart's content. After that when you play back (assuming the plugin is activated) the tuning map will be played on the line. It works best if you set a base key (assuming you have one in your piece).

Here's an example of the tuning map for a section I played that was on the hairy edge of being in tune. The orange line is the actual pitch. The green line is the Wave Tune correction that will be played if you do not edit it. It tries to also indication the notes you play with bars. These bars can be moved to any pitch line for gross pitch correction. You can also use a drawing tool to shape the green line if you don't like the exact pitch it selected. As you can see it does not try and totally correct pitch but it leaves the original pitch inflection in there. You don't want to totally correct a singer. Wave Tune  also can add vibrato and various humanizing features (so can Autotune). Note the short transitional "notes" between the main notes. This is where you can see the portamentos between notes - you'll see this in sung lines as well. These typically should not be messed with too much or you will loose a lot of the expression in your performance.

Waves Tune Map #1

And here's an example where I drew straight lines to fix pitch for a section. This is not going to be as natural a tuning of course fixing pitch like this. This obviously creates a more pitch quantized feel, which may be right for a certain effect you are trying for, but not right for natural pitch correction.

Waves Tune Map #2

I can definitely see that these tuning programs can be useful (not saying for correcting on a massive scale for performance). 

Here's some examples I recorded:

The first is an uncorrected version of an exercise I wrote to help me learn (only been playing a bit less than 2 months now).

Uncorrected Performance

This is the autotune corrected version that I manipulated a bit moving notes that it though were a semitone off (one of the problems of these programs - if you are mostly past the halfway point they will move your note). But I kept all the internal inflections that Waves created.

Corrected Performance

And here's an interesting comparison. The first phrase uses the drawing tool to straight line the pitch (after keeping initial inflections at the beginning and ending of notes). The second phrase uses the original inflections as in the previous example.

Overly Corrected Version

As you can hear, this is a pretty interesting program. I did not spend a lot of time fine tuning things and removing some artifacts caused by the tuning process, but I can see you can tweak things much more than I did here. For example there is a knob to finely move that green line within your note.

In short, in certain cases, I don't think anyone would be able to tell short bits were corrected with Waves Tune.

Next I need to experiment with Autotune Live allowing you to correct in real time. That should be interesting.


Posted: 9/21/2014 5:25:39 AM

From: Tucson, AZ USA

Joined: 2/26/2011

Rich great graphs and experiment.

I am not a Thereminist and I like the sound of your pitch. I know this is a demo but your style to me is like you are playing a keyboard and not a theremin so why not use a keyboard and avoid the correcting?

The correction software is interesting and I would like to see if corrected notes can still blend in without being obvious when there is a lot of vibrato and flowing notes, what ever they call it.

If this turns out to be a good tool, it is wonderful you are sharing this as most Thereminist keep to themselves anything that might give them an edge. imho


Posted: 9/21/2014 12:50:42 PM

From: Northern NJ, USA

Joined: 7/29/2014


You can use the keyboard to track your pitch. I did not do that in these tests (used the GUI in the tool). Interesting comment as I'm a keyboard player. I think the real issue is I'm still so new to this that I am reaching to keep in tune more than anything else and that makes me limit vibrato and left hand motion - and that comes across as more discrete note based, like a piano. Hopefully I can start to add some more expression soon.

I did not spend a lot of time correcting here. You can do really fine corrections while keeping the overall pitch structure of your piece in tact.

People don't realize it but not a day goes by that they do not hear pitch corrected music. The key is to make the corrections unhearable.

I can guarantee you can do fine theremin pitch correction that no one would ever be able to detect. The software now is that good. But let's say I have a performance with a few notes off. Frankly, I see no reason not to use this great tool - better than sounding out of tune. Purists may recoil at that notion. But that's the way of the world today in general.

By the way, these tools can impart some really nice vibrato I've found as well. 

I'll do another experiment playing something way, way off and see how it can be corrected. That could be a fun experiment.

I also bet you I can come up with a way to control dynamics with a volume pedal through external processing unit so that I can play pitch with my left hand and MIDI keyboard in the right to control pitch while running through the real-time MIDI controlled tuning plugin. This might be a very interesting effect. I'll have to hook something up to experiment with that later. Maybe then run that all through a Voice box in fully quantized mode on a scale and I bet I can come up with a really cool T-Pain-like Theremin-based effect.



Posted: 9/21/2014 2:53:01 PM

From: Northern NJ, USA

Joined: 2/17/2012

"Frankly, I see no reason not to use this great tool - better than sounding out of tune. Purists may recoil at that notion. But that's the way of the world today in general."  - rkram53

I agree, and with your caveat as well.  If any instrument is in need of autotune it's the Theremin.  Though this will inevitably lead to people in the future watching a Clara video and labeling her a hack for being slightly out of tune here and there (rather like porn may alter real-life expectations of beauty and proportion).

"Next I need to experiment with Autotune Live allowing you to correct in real time. That should be interesting."

Yes.  After experiencing the pitch quantization function in the (ill fated) Theremini (falsely marketed as pitch correction and a playing aid), I am very interested in what a live application of modern SW pitch correction can do, and in particular what the experience feels like to the player.


Perhaps it was just RCA market-speak, but I truly wonder how acceptably playable a Theremin could be made for the average person who walks up to one for the first time?  I know it's kind of a crutch, but could the inclusion of auto-tune, and perhaps some sort of pitch display, enable one to more or less instantly play a tune with no prior experience?  My initial Theremin experience ("first time") was fascinating from an EE POV, but fairly off-putting from a musician POV.

Posted: 9/21/2014 3:04:02 PM

From: Northern NJ, USA

Joined: 7/29/2014

And that's what's so great about these tools. You can set them so that you can retain some of the "out-of-tuneness" by slowing down how fast they correct the pitch. The whole point is to retain the "you" in the performance but correct things that just, well, need to be corrected.

This is a very interesting Waves video for those who want to know a bit more about how to use that.

Wave Tune Video - Basic Use

But they cost as much as your Etherwave does (though each company has "Lite" versions for less).


Posted: 9/21/2014 3:23:12 PM
RS Theremin

From: 60 mi. N of San Diego CA

Joined: 2/15/2005

Hello Rich,

I really like what you are demonstrating, I always pick on digital stuff but Control is where I always say digital shines. Maybe some of our Master players are not as good as we are led to believe, or are they? We will never know. (-'

Do I feel the rumble of backlash, hold on. . . we all have our own secrets of the craft which makes it fun.


Posted: 9/21/2014 5:32:08 PM

From: Northern NJ, USA

Joined: 7/29/2014

So I did a whacky experiment. Created a performance that was absolutely, absurdly off pitch and out of tune.

Then I ran Waves Tune on it and started dragging notes to the correct pitches, changing note transitions to match, etc. Could have spent more time fixing a few little quirky transitions, but I think you'll get the idea of how powerful these tuning programs are. Of course in this case Wave Tune would simply try and throw each note to the closest good pitch (but those were nothing near what was needed). So major surgery was required.The green line is my corrected version - the original Waves Tune correction would be a lot closer to the orange line.

Here's the Waves Tune map for a small corrected section. You can see how far I had to pull things (corrected green line) from the original performance (orange line).

Absurd Correction

Here's the original recording:

Totally Off Key and Out of Tune Performance

And here's the Waves Tune corrected version:

Waves Tune Corrected Version

Very interesting. Conceptually, I didn't think I could get it to sound this close. This is a very powerful tool.

Waves Tune also lets you carve up notes if say you have a note too long that needs to transition to another note. So theoretically, you could give me one long sustained note and I could carve it up into something like what you hear above. That actually might be useful for some modern composition. Remember that these tuning programs are also used to create artificial vocal effects (for albums that sell in the millions). 

Quite an interesting area for theremin experimentalists. They really need to check out pitch manupulation programs. AntaresTech for example has other plugins used for morphing the voice in various ways - creating robotic effects, grizzly voices, supernatural voices, etc. I'm interested how these might be used with the theremin for those interested in effects processing. Perhaps down the road I'll start another thread for voice morphing as applied to the theremin. I have a number of things I can test there as well.




Posted: 9/23/2014 2:51:50 AM

From: Northern NJ, USA

Joined: 7/29/2014

So for the final Waves Tune test, I took the performance of my arrangement for theremin and keyboard (played with 8DIO's Adagietto strings sample library) of Elgar's Nimrod (from Enigma Variations) and processed a number of things to correct pitches that were just unacceptable. I also turned on the tools 20 ms vibrato to see how that would sound (though I added a lot of vibrato in the original to get to pitch easier).

I didn't try and make things perfect. The intent was to see how Waves Tune can be used for anyone's current level of performance to correct things to some acceptable point. I still left in all the pitch fishing which I could have removed with other post-processing tools. It's still me. Still the original performance, but better. And I got that high note in that I ran out of room for in the original.

Here's the original again:

Nimrod - Original Performance

Here's the Waves Tune cleaned up version:

Nimrod - Waves Tune Cleansed Performance

For purists, Nimrod is one of the variations and there really is no introduction to it in the original score. It just follows from the previous variation (so excuse me for writing an idiomatic introduction - as the poor thereminist needs a bit of time to get their bearings - at least this humble one does).

As a composer, this program is a God-send. I can now write or arrange pieces for theremin and play them with my meager ca. 2 months of experience with the instrument - and correct them to the point I can get a very good idea of how the piece will sound. In fact, this piece has so many jumps in it, I bet it would give the best thereminists fits without pitch preview. I also think a professional would be silly not to use these pitch correction tools if they have one or two bad notes in an otherwise beautiful performance - if the goal is to create a recording (time is worth $). Look at all the other processing techniques thereminists or their producers likely add to their recordings (delay, reverb, EQ, compression, tube amplification, tape emulation, and likely a lot of other things as well - yea not everyone, but this is just common recording technique now). i might start another thread to discuss all these current day recording/processing tools.

On to real-time pitch correction programs with the theremin.




Posted: 9/24/2014 3:20:15 AM

From: Northern NJ, USA

Joined: 7/29/2014

Well I started experimenting with Autotune real-time pitch correction. Have to do some more playing around but my initial reaction is that anything that quantizes too suddenly is not helpful as 1) you do not want to play perfectly in tune on the theremin (that takes part of the magic away from the sound) and 2) you don't want unexpected note transitions caused by quantization.

Vibrato is the enemy of quantization. Pitch must be totally flexible when you play. Vibrato can easily move +/- 50 cents on the theremin or more depending on the kind of piece you are playing. Auto pitch correction has a tendency to pull you off too much as you go past the 50 cent boundary and approach another note (why you need to set the quantization speed pretty low so you can let your ear quickly pull you back before quantization stikes).

But if you set it too low, in effect you are not doing that much differently than you would do without the correction. Having pitch correction as post production tool is way, way, way more powerful for me.

But there are two cases where I think real-time pitch correction is handy:

1. As a quantization effect (you can do a few really interesting things with it)

2. There is a mode of training that makes good sense to me with real-time pitch correction. Hold back the vibrato for practicing playing in tune and if you play in tune enough, you will not have any of your notes be pulled off a semitone in either direction. So while I would be very leary of using it in a live performance situation (other than as an effect), it can be a very effective training tool. Record yourself with Autotune live and play back and hear if all your pitches are the ones you wanted to play (they may waver in pitch as long as they are not pulled off to adjacent semitone - that means you are on the edge of being in tune or out of tune at that point). If you hear any trailing to an adjacent semi-tone, practice some more.

Have to play around more as there are a lot of settings and some of them may make more sense for real-time theremin performance.


Posted: 9/24/2014 8:40:35 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

Its real interesting to explore the possibilities.

It seems to me from what you are saying, that pitch correction is best employed at the mixing / production stage - to correct minor gaffs or to transpose if the piece requires this as its being worked on.

I personally think this is the best use of auto-tune for all instruments (voice included) -

It also seems that real-time auto tune, regardless of how implemented or set up, must interfere with the musicians control of the instrument to some degree.

And here is where I question the rationale behind live auto-tune.. It seems to me that the players who will be least adversely affected by auto-tune are those who are able to play in tune anyway, and who least "need" it - those who are off-key a lot of the time are the ones who will gain the most 'benefit' from it, but this comes (perhaps?) with a high price - because rather than developing their ability to play in tune, they will be developing their ability to play auto-tune.. Will they develop techniques that will actually impair their ability to play the theremin unassisted?

I really have no idea about the answer to the above - I am torn between thinking that the encouragement a player may get from a little auto-tune help will be beneficial, to thinking that it will lock the player into a dependency that will prevent them from really discovering the theremin.

And there is a part of me which, although I dont like it, thinks there is some "Darwinian" filter which we often try to overcome, and this leads to lower standards.. Without Pitch correction, those without the required skill to play a theremin are more likely to give up and drop out - They may then take up a more suitable instrument for their abilities and be better off..

But with pitch correction, this 'filter' (like so many 'filters' in our modern world) gets bypassed, allowing people entirely unsuitable for the instrument to 'propagate' resulting in general lowering of standards, but (IMO worse) people who are (rightfully) dissatisfied with their "achievements" - People who could, had they been 'evolutionary' "filtered out", have found something better suited to their abilities, and gained a lot more genuine satisfaction from doing something they were really capable of.

I know ;-) I am a miserable wet blanket! Really not in tune with the bull that our era promotes endlessly - the daft idea that one can achieve whatever one sets ones mind to achieving.. IMO, its this idea more than any other, and the frustration / expectation it carries with it, that is most responsible for the dissatisfaction and unhappiness in our western world, and is the biggest boon to the advertising / marketing industries who feed off it.



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