Let's talk about the Subscope theremin!

Posted: 5/28/2021 10:04:47 AM

From: Minnesota USA

Joined: 11/27/2015

I bought my Subscope in 2018 after having spent maybe a year with an Etherwave Plus.  The Etherwave is a solid and stable theremin, but enough time had passed that I knew I was hooked on this crazy instrument and was going to stick with it so I wanted to try something different.   Part of the mystique of the Subscope was it's relative obscurity - people had them, but there wasn't any storefront where you could put one in your cart and push the button. I had nearly bought one that had luckily popped up on Ebay, (non-functional, but that's my favorite kind of bargain) for a very good price, but sometime during the Q&A with the seller it apparently got away.  By then I had to have one, so I contacted Dominik and went from there.

Right from the beginning I preferred the long narrow enclosure style, and since each is a custom build it was possible to have a little extra length built into the antenna spacing, which is a personal preference.  I was intrigued by the options that were available: 2nd harmonic module, noise source, effects insert, pitch preview and maybe more.  I left out the noise source because these options were adding up but later wished I had just gone for it.

Dominik and I had numerous discussions in the beginning and after the purchase, and I've already stated elsewhere that the whole process was a great experience and he is a nice person to deal with.  I sort of miss having a reason to contact him with questions anymore.

Anyway, six weeks after the order, as promised, my Subscope was ready.  These are the pictures that Dominik took and sent just before shipping it to me:


Although it arrived well-packaged and without any apparent shipping damage, the pitch side was not working when I received it.  A quick email to Dominik and I had the cover off (which would have happened anyway!) and found the minor problem.

Without giving away any secrets, I learned a lot by studying the insides.  The construction is modular, with separate circuit board modules for the pitch, volume, 2nd harmonic, and pitch preview circuits.  Using these small modules allows the case to be as compact and shallow as it is, and it keeps the pitch and volume oscillators right at the base of the antennas where they should be.

Other design features struck me right away and have stuck with me, and a couple ideas have worked their way into my PIII D-Lev enclosure design.  The volume loop with the adjustable angle is very handy, and in fact the simple open-ended loop antenna idea has also been stolen borrowed.  The modular approach to the design not only allows the case to be compact but also allows for easy design changes without having to always revise a large circuit board.  And his use of the threaded mic stand insert instead of the bulkier Etherwave style mount was new to me at the time and can now be seen in my own latest D-Lev.

Keep in mind that all of these images are from 2018, so they may not represent his current models.  I don't think this picture gives away any secrets, and you can see how the case is built from wood and aluminum extrusions with individual modules mounted to the front panel.  The pitch preview module is shown just above and to the right of the mic stand mount, with the 2nd harmonic and volume boards past that.  It's all very neatly built:


Labeling is very cleverly done to allow for appropriate graphics to go with the options that you choose. There is even a custom plastic screwdriver threaded into the rear panel (the tip just shows in the lower left corner above).  It looks like a knob but when you unscrew it it turns out to be the tool you need to make the sometimes seasonal internal adjustments to keep your pitch and volume pots centered (if you're a little OCD like me).

Functionally I think that the linearity and regions of slight compression in the near pitch field are very similar to those of the Etherwave.  In my opinion the volume response of the Subscope is much better, and the adjustable velocity sensing works really well.  So good in fact that it might be a good suggestion keep the effect down when learning; it can make your left hand lazy if and when you ever play a theremin that doesn't have the feature (like the Etherwave). But it works exceptionally well, I think.

The Etherwave has a fixed-length pitch antenna and because analog theremin oscillators do shift over time Moog designers chose to have a wide tuning range at the Pitch control.  This wide range gives the needed control to compensate for these drifts, but at the expense of giving you a hair-trigger pitch adjustment.  Taking a different approach, my Subscope has a metal slider that slips on the pitch antenna to effectively vary the length.  In practice, the slider is used to make the coarse adjustments for seasonal or aging oscillator drift, which allows the Pitch control knob to act as more of a vernier adjustment for achieving your zero-beat (or low-beat).  It's much easier to tune than the Etherwave.

The Subscope has a buffered mixer, so it has none of the low-end compression caused by oscillator-locking experienced in the stock Etherwave.

My 2018 Subscope has Color and Wave timbre controls with an addition of a 2-position Voice toggle switch that effectively doubles the infinite combinations available (2 times infinity; I hear mathematicians perking up).  I should say that you have infinite knob settings, not infinite voices because obviously not all timbres are producible.  These controls work differently from those of the Etherwave in that they are less linear (and this is noted in the manual).  Where the Etherwave knobs tend to go from soft to bright, these controls have their soft timbres in the center with the brighter tones on either end of the range.  It's not inferior in any way, just different, and you'll probably want to makes some notes with knob combinations as you map out your favorite voices.

The Etherwave has a power supply that provides an RF earth ground to the theremin.  The Subscope uses an isolated wall wart power supply (which I had to source separately for my country of use) and has no mains ground, which means that you'll need to have a ground connection through your audio system or other means.  More and more these days I'm just using a wrist strap ground on my volume hand with my theremins intentionally isolated from mains ground.  Some would find it annoying but I've gotten used to it, and it works when using battery power and headphones or a battery powered amplifier/speaker.

I guess this is more than enough to start with if anyone wants to jump in.  Both the Etherwave and the Subscope are fine theremins with some similar quirks characteristic of analog theremins in general.  The Etherwave is was mass produced and is cheaper, but the Subscope has some well-thought out features that make it a little more refined.  All this is in my opinion of course.

My apologies to Dominik if I've made any mistakes or said too much.  I'll fix it. 


Posted: 5/28/2021 10:52:16 AM

From: Basking Ridge, New Jersey, USA

Joined: 12/12/2020

I feel my arm being twisted out of the socket to buy one  I’m in discussions with Dominik now. The current case is much different (it’s his Subscope 120 model). In watching his impressive improvisation videos, I was surprised at how unique (and cool) his white noise feature is - very creative. I couldn’t understand what the 2nd Harmonic feature is and inquired about that. Dominik wrote back and stated 

“It can be a haunting sound, celloesque and brassy depending on the frequency and of course the settings.” 

He provided an example on the current model (again, the Subscope 120):

2nd harmonic (kicks in at 1:48min)

Clearly, he’s got a fascinating and unique instrument with plethora opportunities for creative expression. My arm is beginning to hurt. 🤪

Posted: 5/30/2021 4:33:42 AM

Joined: 10/24/2020

The Subscopes I have seen have been wonderful. Certainly the "artier" pieces inspired me to build my own instruments. 

How many theremins is too many theremins? I know for bicycles it is always n-1=enough.

It might actually be nice to have one in every room in the house. Huh...

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