Artist Needs 13 Theremins

Posted: 4/29/2015 11:42:56 PM

From: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Joined: 4/24/2015

Christopher - ha ha!  yes, a horizontal coil with a sanded off strip and a slider!  i have one of those... in fact, "that" is what came before the radio sink!  back in 2009 i took a radio building workshop and wound magnet wire around a toilet paper tube, sanded the side, and used a paper clip as the tuner... the only electronic component was a single germanium diode.   in the workshop, someone mentioned that they knew people in town who heard radio in their sinks and in their fridges from the shortwave site... so i decided to try to make my own radio sink. for the sink, i was trying to do it with no electronics and no wire at all... i was trying to use the copper pipe as the coil... that "tuning dial" pipe was playing the role of the paper clip... shorting out the coil at the desired frequency... but according to my calculations, i would have needed 40 metres of pipe!  i had it in an art gallery once and cheated by putting an ipod in the drain pipe and attaching a speaker... but i felt dirty doing that... so, i may cheat a bit in a different way, and incorporate a real diode instead of trying to make one out of the drain trap. :-/

The Towers:
As for all those towers, it was the Radio Canada International shortwave transmission site.  The 13 towers were merely the supports for the antenna curtains, horizontal wiring between them.  Tower heights ranged from 150 feet to 430 feet tall. They were situated in that precise location and in that formation in order to take advantage of the conductive properties of the saltwater marsh (below sea level!) next to the Atlantic Ocean. They were situated to be able to broadcast across the ocean to Europe, Africa, South America, and the Arctic. Built during world war 2, and used heavily during the cold war.  This site was also used by other countries, including Radio China, NHK Radio Japan, Voice of Vietnam, etc. etc.  right up until 2012... when budget cuts came... the powers that be decided that everyone has access to internet or satelite now, so shortwave must be obsolete.  HEARTBREAKING! (we all know that internet can be censored, and that digital recievers are not accessible to everyone) once torn down, this site will never be rebuilt now.  I was there throughout the demolition... the antenna wire alone weighed 40 000 lbs of copper wire that went for scrap metal.  The whole infrastructure was dismantled for scrap instead of reused. :-(  I felt so helpless... a real loss for international communictions. i had no money to buy the site... no real power per se... so I was merely a witness...  I documented all alone in the middle of winter... it was like watching something die.  You can see a preview clip of my documentary here (I hope to have the film finished by August):

and footage of the towers falling here (they did it in freezing cold winter so the marsh would be frozen enough that they wouldn't sink too deep when they fell):


Beth - getting AC power at 250 feet?... well, I work in film, and most film rental houses rent AC in 25 foot lengths, and we often rent quite a lot of it when working with lighting and such... 250 feet of AC easily gets used on a film set... so I figure I'll just rent a dozen or so 25 foot lengths of AC... carry it as a coil and unspool as I climb... or I was also thinking taking up a battery pack with a transformer to convert the DC to AC.  Also, most towers have lights to warn airplanes... I doubt they have outlets to tap into... but you never know, each site is different... I still don't have permission to do this yet... so once I find a site that will give me permission, I would have to discuss electrical logistics and safety with the site manager.  Likely I will have to get some hefty insurance too... last time I had to buy a sizeable liability insurance before they let me climb...


xtheremin8 - thanks for the info and the links! wicked!
and yes, placing contact mics on those wires... they were exactly like aeolian harps!  the problem with the guide wires, vertical stays, and halyards, was that there was a lot of metal hardware and clamps that gave a more mechanical sound... i was surprised to find out that i got much better sound (drones with haunting harmonics and subharmonics) from the towers themselves.  often from the ladder.  a 430 foot ladder in high winds (winds on the marsh often get up to 50kph or more) makes for quite a vibration!  I haven't cleaned up all the recordings yet, some still have a bit of noise, but each tower really did seem to have it's own voice... here is a link to the sounds of one of the towers (Tower O)... these are the sort of sounds I want to trigger with the theremins... and also the images... I would like to also trigger video so that when you are listening to tower O, you see the visual portrait of tower O:


Anyhow... if I do manage to get permission to take the Etherwave up a tower, in addition to AC, I'll probably have to figure out how to deal with temperature changes, as well as interference from the surrounding antenna... I won't be climbing or playing theremin near anything that is actively transmitting shortwave as the RF radiation is too dangerous for long exposure... so I think it will just be the metal, the wires, the temperature, and the heights that I will have to contend with. :-)


Posted: 4/30/2015 12:35:40 AM

From: Northern NJ, USA

Joined: 7/29/2014


OK. Lets all take a big breath here. In my mind you may be planning on doing way too much to try and get proof of concept. The very first thing that you need to do is write down the design framework as this is a really cool, but by no means simple project and it's not clear to me what all the "goesintas" and the "goesoutas" are on this one. You don't need a "theremin" so much as an antenna controlled on/off gate from what I am seeing - and Thierry is still your go to guy there. But I may not fully understand the goals.

So you want 13 antenna controllers that will somehow feed CV or MIDI data to a computer that will then be read by a MAX MSP "program" you write and I assume play one or more of 13 sound files that you either load up into memory or play from disk using MAX MSP. And I assume those sound files are supposed to loop as long as you are close enough to an antenna? So you could have all 13 files going at the same time, worst case. But in truth, all you need is for each antenna to function as an on/off gate, and then have a method of reading all those gates to trigger playing of sound files (I assume). Or is it more complicated - does each antenna have a multiplicity of files that need to be played?

Now you wanted to use a pitch to MIDI converter that you would I assume run lines into a MIDI DIN box that would have 13 connections and then likely a USB out to your computer? Or the pitch to MIDI converters might be USB out, in which case you need a couple USB hubs. But you can't use pitch as control as two antennas may be playing the same "pitch" and I think you want each antenna to operate independently.

The MAX MSP program would it is assumed see data is on a MIDI channel (say note on/note off) and start playing and stop? If you are trying to do this by recognizing a MIDI pitch on a single channel - you could have 13 of the same pitches going on at the same time - how will you know which antenna is on? Na - I think you want each antenna to be its own MIDI channel for simplicity.  If you have a 16 channel MIDI box to connect to, that problem is kind of solved (maybe you could use two 8 channel boxes - those are kind of inexpensive - you could check MOTU, etc). The good thing about MIDI is that MAX MSP probably handles it directly so not that much to program (though you want to trigger video files too now).

Now if you work with Thierry to get a CV out antenna, I guess you could work it so each antenna puts out a different voltage. OK now you have voltage not MIDI - but at least they are unique voltages (no use creating a CV voltage that maps to pitch or you are back to the duplicate pitch issue). You certainly don't want to get 13 CV to MIDI converters - they ain't cheap. But same issue - how will you convert that voltage into something that the computer can read as individual I/O lines to trigger your sound files? A LabJack box might be a good solution for you (if that can be interfaced to the MAX MSP). That way you can treat the voltage as a gate - heck Thierry can figure out how to get anything out of that antenna I am sure (maybe a Digital I/O signal into some box like I mention that you can read inputs on in MAX MSP). There are also ways of using an audio card on a computer as an input source.

The LabJack UE9 and T7 models can speak TCP directly (in other words a software program can read if the lines are on or off). You need to be able to open a socket, send some particular bytes and read back the response (if MAX MSP can do this). The bytes you send and receive are in the Modbus TCP protocol. [Don't worry if this is alien language - from what I'm reading it should be able to be done - you are going to have to be a MAX MSP programmer to do this project anyway - lots off help on the web here]. So one solution might be to see if Thierry can get that antenna to gate a voltage on/off when you are within a certain range of it. You can wire that to a box that you can read the voltages on (or maybe trigger a digital IO on/off). A am assumming there will be a wire running from each antenna/theremin to your conversion equipment whatever that will be (I don't think you want to create wireless controllers of some non-interfering sort for this). Then MAX MSP sits in a loop reading the 13 lines and when it sees one go on it starts looping the sound file - and turns it off when it sees it go off). We're assuming MAX/MSP can play 13 sound files at the same time of course.

Of course there are a lot of other design options.

Really, really interesting project - but have you designed it yet (I mean basic system architecture)? All this long mess above is really asking: Did you create a drawing for how you think this will all work where all your outputs and inputs are accounted for so that it seems to do what you want it to? That's your starting point and it could save you a lot of time and also much better help communicate your goals.


Posted: 4/30/2015 12:59:36 AM

From: 60 Miles North of San Diego, CA

Joined: 10/1/2014

xoadc - I love your youthful enthusiasm as much as catching the breath of babies so I might live a moment longer. I had a vision of you climbing the tower dragging up an EtherWave Standard and amp. It did not end well for the equipment. My 10K-Tip of the moment is to have Thierry adapt his pitch only theremin to audio modulate one of these modern marvel walkie-talkies. They have an 18-mile range and everyone in the city could tune into your experience, if they purchase a talkie for $10, once you reach the Summit. With the wind blowing in your hair you could wave it around with the pitch responding to the surroundings on top. Be sure to bring up an extra talkie so you can hear yourself play and communicate with the people on the ground and around the city.

The copper tubing Arts needs to be insulated from the ground completely by resting on dry wood blocks.


Posted: 4/30/2015 1:31:38 AM

From: züriCH

Joined: 3/15/2014


just want to say...sometimes we only can witness stuff and as you did so well, preserve things in some way. for some reasons.

thanks for sharing those vids and that real cool drone. ;-)

namaste, and good luck.


Posted: 4/30/2015 2:08:49 AM

From: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Joined: 4/24/2015

Rich!  thank you for the detailed response, questions, and ideas!

as for being overly ambitious... yes, it is... i applied for funding to do this project, and i expected to get rejected, so i wasn't worried... but i got the grant, and was then like... oh shit. i have to really do this now!  but a lot more planning has gone into it than has has been explained on this thread so far... i was trying to be concise (i have trouble being concise... i use a lot of words sometimes, most times).

so here are the plans so far:

1 - time and money - i got funding from the canada council for the arts that will support me for over a year to focus on this.  i quit my day job and almost 100% of my time is now on this project (not quite 100%... i still have to finish that documentary film).   as for materials. it's a smallish budget, i can use the grant funding to buy components, but no capital purchases and no ready-made equipment... i did order an etherwave kit, which is not elligible in my grant, but i bought it on my credit card, and i figure i will pay that off in time hopefully... i figured if i'm going to seriously jump into this, i should have at least one solid standard pro instrument, before I start into DIY. but the rest i have to build on my own and on the cheap.)

2.--goesintas - goesouttas... i experimented with a presonus pitch to midi converter last year... but those are $100 each and cheap plastic, look really breakable... and yeah... i don't want to wind up with 13 midi cables.... so instead... i want to go through a motu... (again... not elligible for my funding... but it's something i can use later on other projects doing multiple channel sound installations... so i haven't gone that route yet, but if i do, it will be another credit card thing that i will try to pay off in the long term).... so... from the theremins, i would send CV or audio signal to the motu, which will go to the computer, and the max patch will convert either the CV or the audio to midi (if necessary)... i haven't done much work with max msp since 2007, and i see there is a new version out (max7), so I'm refreshing and brushing up.

3-- the patch: i worked with someone to build a draft patch in Pure Data last year (I didn't have a copy of MaxMSP then)... so I have a pretty solid and complex PD patch with lots of sub patches for a solo version of the performance.  In that version, I use only one theremin, and the pitch triggers the towers.. instead of a 12 note musical scale, it is a 13 radio tower scale.... it triggers both audio and video.  My pure data patch kept crashing last year so I did a version using modul8 VJ software... felt like cheating to me, but it worked, and I presented the performance twice that way.  This summer I am going to try to translate that Pure Data patch into the Max MSP patch and hope for more stability.  looking at using Bleep for the CV signals

4-- the outputs... for the solo performance, it goes out to stereo speakers and a video projector... for the art gallery installation, I plan to have one speaker per theremin.... building my own little amps (i was thinking of building LM386 amps, but they might not be strong enough)... amp and speaker installed right on the theremin stand.  or maybe hanging from the ceiling overhead... so in that case, i might be looking at a separate single max patch for each theremin, installed on a rasberri pi that goes to the amp and speaker... for the dance performance, it would go back to stereo speakers and video projection in the theatre.

I guess to better understand it... I should mention, the project has 5 stages... the 13 theremin thing is stage 2.


Here are the stages:

1. Requiem for Radio: Pulse Decay
solo performance for 1 theremin, 2 speakers, 1 video projector.
1 theremin, can conjure all 13 towers
the pitch triggers audio recordings and images of towers... i.e. instead of F# you see and hear tower K
I have presented this twice (but it needs tweaking) it's about 20 minutes long

2. Requiem for Radio: New Dead Zones
13 theremins set up in an art gallery like a scale model of the RCI shortwave site (I don't mean a literal scale model... i will likely leave circuitry exposed, and not try to make the antenna look like radio towers... the only reference will be their placement in the room relative to each other and the differing heights of antenna.)
each theremin can only conjure one of the towers... but they can all be active at once.
so if the gallery is empty, it is quiet... if there are 13 people each standing at a theremin, it is loud and you hear them all at once.  I would like to trigger video too, but I can't see how that would work in the gallery, so I probably won't go there unless I have an epiphany.  for the audio in this one, I see a separate speaker and amp for each individual theremin.

3. Requiem for Radio: Full Quiet Flutter
choreography for dancers and 13 theremins... this takes the gallery installation above (scale model of site) and puts it on a performance stage... to be performed by dancers.  for this one, I definitely want to bring the video back into it... but only want to use 1 video projector... I don't want to think about the video for that one yet (video is really just static images.. slides).  stereo sound...   For this, i was just thinking of triggering the recordings... however... the more I'm reading here on TW, the more I'm getting excited about pure theremin sound, and thinking it might be nice to have audio as well... for the dancers... to blend the audio of the theremin with the recordings of the towers, so, CV triggers the recording, while audio out plays actual theremin audio... maybe.

4. Requiem for Radio: Radio Cowers
inspired by the cow pastures around the radio towers (the techs working at the RCI site had a list of emergency numbers, and on that list was the farmer's number to call if a cow came on site... there were lots of cows) , I'm inventing an instrument... it's half built... elbow length gloves made of cow-hide from cows that lived around the towers... a violin bow made of cow bone and horse hair strapped to one arm (the exact length of my own forearm), so I bow with my arm... and on the other glove i am sewing an LM386 audio amplifier on the elbow, and an AM radio transmitter on the wrist (using the cowhide instead of circuit board, using conductive thread instead of wire - an electronic embroidery of sorts).  contact mic on instrument, runs to the amplifier sewed on cowhide on my elbow, and is transmitted from the AM transmitter on my wrist... about 10 feet... to... you guessed it... the radio sink.

5. Requieum for Radio: Deviant Receptions
this is basically just revisiting the radio sink.  I never made it work in the marsh... but I'm now willing to throw on some electronic components if necessary, so that it can receive the transmissions from the radio cower gloves.

parts 3,4, and 5 will eventually be combined into one full stage performance where the stage will have the sink on one side... 3/4 of the stage taken up with the 13 theremins... a musician to play the radio cowers instrument that transmits into the sink... and then the dancers playing the theremins.  (if there is theremin audio and not just the tower recordings then i will need one real theremin player mixed in with the dancers).  composition and choreography to follow, once it's all built and tested.

yeah... sigh.. yup. that's the whole project -- all 5 parts of it.  ambitious, yes.  i was excited, but i didn't really think it would get funding... i thought it was too far "out there"... but... it went through... so, i've got about a year to make this happen. woot!

and as for climbing a tower with an etherwave... that wasn't part of the original plan... that idea just came up last week, when i realized that hey, i have climbing certification and experience... why not? :-)
(and now i can't get that idea out of my head)

Christopher -- I love the idea of the walkie talkies!  I was thinking of pitching this to an international shortwave station to their PR department as something they could program... and maybe convince them to broadcast it via shortwave... perhaps even aim the shortwave transmissions to the decomissioned sites as I play their intervals... but walkie talkies would be great too!  and that would work from any kind of tower... even if i wind up doing it somewhere that is no longer official or active!  great idea!

As for circuit designs and builds, yes, I'm in touch with Thierry and he's offered his help!  super super generous!  I just asked him to wait until I built one of his Thierrymins, and the etherwave, and done a bit more work on the max msp patch... I don't want to waste his time... I want to make sure that I know what I'm looking for as far as the goesintas and goesouttas... as Rich said... a solid map is important... and while I have maps and pure data patches... I still have learning to do, and a lot might still change...

so first steps first... build a few existing theremin designs:
etherwave, theremax, theirrymin,
learn to play (I'm about to embark on solfege training as well to help with my pitch)
translate PD patch into Max MSP and refine....

then... then... I should have a more clear idea about what will be needed for the final 13.

phewff!  yes... Rich is right... take a big breath indeed! 
inhale, pause, exhale, pause. inhale, pause, exhale, pause.



Posted: 4/30/2015 2:34:22 AM

From: Northern NJ, USA

Joined: 7/29/2014


As an engineer - we always follow the golden rule - KISS.

I think you can get a lot of what you need to do in a very simple way without all those MIDI converters. If you can get an analog voltage or digital IO out of those antennas with Thierry's help, and you can feed a conversion box (I use LabJack as the example here but there are others). You only need to run a line (tbd) to the Labjack for each antenna (and LabJack comes with an optional wireless interface too so you can remote the computer if all those antennas don't get in the way - or just run an Ethernet line from the LabJack to your computer). You seem like you are more than capable of writing a little socket interface to collect that LabJack data from MAX MSP. From there you can trigger your audio and video files. Course it doesn't have to be MAX MSP either - just some program that can read a socket and play your files now. You could read voltage from the antennas - or just read it like an on/off gate as I suggest.

You might check this out:

Just my two cents: Good Luck!!!

Project Option






Posted: 4/30/2015 12:02:55 PM

From: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Joined: 4/24/2015

Thanks Rich!

I will definitely look into that lab jack!  Thanks for the diagram too! :-)

The On / Off gate is a great idea too!  My theremax has a 1/4" jack that reads "mute gate" and i wasn't sure what it was for yet (I was too busy focusing on the control voltages and the audio out)... but of course!  a gate! on / off!  It was right in front of me!  I sadly wouldn't be a great engineer, as I often miss the most simple solutions... using a complex system of gears, pulleys, and levers when a simple switch would do.

(edit: there is no jack that reads "mute gate"... i wrote this reply this morning at home before having coffee... I just checked again... and there is a "mute" jack and a "gate /trig" jack... i had been ignoring both of those when i was focused on audio out and control voltage out... which is probably why my pre-coffee brain conflated the two into one)


Christopher - as for insulating the sink from the ground with wood blocks... I had actually isolated the coil part of the plumbing using foam insulation pads... the legs were built from copper (more for aesthetics, and also in case I needed to change the circuit, it gave me more options)... and I used padded foam insulation wrap that electricians use... I would wrap it around the pipes at junctions where i didn't want it to join or go to the ground... for the ground of the circuit, i just didn't put any foam at the junction where it touched the leg planted into the earth.


xtheremin8 - thanks. yes witnessing things is important.  i was at the demolition site from january - april, and they didn't publicize it because they were afraid people would come steal the scrap metal. there was an english news TV crew that came once, and a french news TV station, came twice... aside from that, I didn't see anyone else documenting or witnessing this... and i was alone with no film crew... so it felt pretty solemn and heavy.  so now I want to do it justice and share it through these projects. 

Posted: 4/30/2015 12:45:55 PM

From: Cleveland, Ohio

Joined: 12/21/2014

Amanda, I don't understand about 90% of this thread.  But what about a kickstarter for the equipment your grant doesn't cover?



Posted: 4/30/2015 1:18:29 PM

From: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Joined: 4/24/2015

Thanks Beth, I think it will be fine though.  I already did an IndieGoGo fund raising campaign to raise donations to complete the film... so I don't want to ask for too many donations.  I think I should be able to pay off the gear though in a few months... I'm not too worried I have a few odd jobs and contracts lined up to organize and teach some filmmaking workshops... so I'm going to trust it will all work out.  thanks though.  :-) 

and it's just the two things... the etherwave and the motu... after that i will only be buying parts and components. :-)


Posted: 7/31/2016 1:31:55 AM
Art Harrison

Joined: 3/17/2010

We have a nice little OEM pitch-only theremin PCB, should that interest you:

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