How useful are knobs on Theremins ?

Posted: 4/25/2009 9:40:23 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

From Here (

[i]"For the electronic musician my opinion is that presets are an undesirable aspect of electronic music" - GordonC[/i]

I could not agree more! - In fact, I would go as far as saying that even providing storage for editable user created 'presets' has had an adverse effect on electronic music - But EM has changed completely since I first messed about with it in the 70's.. it is now "mainstream".. And preset synths sadly dominate.

I would never even think about designing an analogue synth which was primarily preset based, or did not have a plethora of knobs - and have had the same inclination with my Theremin ideas..


I am now thinking again.. What is the point of knobs if one is not able to 'twiddle' them in real-time during a performance? After honing my design down to way less than I personally wanted, I still end up with 9 knobs to control tone, modulation and filter ...

.. and this does not include the other knobs for tuning, output, preview etc.. One could get any kind of sound and any kind of harmonic variation as a function of pitch and/or volume.. BUT .. I do not believe a Thereminist (classical or experimental) will be able to make use of this versatility in performance... so they would end up setting the knobs for a single tone prior to the performance, and MAY tweek one or two knobs during performance.

This may not give them the ability to change the sounds in a way that was as useful as if they were able to adjust a single knob which morphed the sound between 2 selected presets, and perhaps had two other knobs which could be assigned to one parameter for each of the 'paired' presets... There would also be a means - probably rotary encoder - to select the presets in real-time.

The creation of these presets could be done through a less intuitive interface (such as digital interface with LCD, menu selection, and all the other horrid stuff we have been forced to accept with synths and synth modules)

This is NOT an announcement of what I am going to do! - I thought I had a direction I was sticking to, and, mostly, I am still following that plan - but the user interface is still open for modification.

[i](in fact, to fully implement every possible combination of waveform to both reference and variable oscillator, and so provide a complete harmonic 'pallete' I would need 18 knobs - have cut this down to 9 knobs and one switch by forcing the same waveforms to both reference and variable oscillators, or by using the 3 position switch selecting alternative fixed ramp or square wave to reference oscillator.. This scheme limits the pallete - Working out the effect of adjustments is a bit like raw manipulation of operators in a FM synth.. not intuitive! Everything is possible - but what to twiddle to get the sound you want, well - experimentation is really the only route. As with FM, presets become a requirement .. I could give access to all 18 'knobs' with a digital interface)[/i]

My problem is that I am rapidly running out of time and have run out of money - I must get something ready in the next few months or I will be forced to give up.. it is trying to get the balance between development time and complexity and coming to market with something good, desirable and affordable which is driving me nuts!

Fred Mundell
Fundamental Designs Ltd.
Electronics Consultant.
<- See Profile Image for Email.
Designer of Theremins and other alternative electronic music controllers and instruments.
Posted: 4/25/2009 10:36:19 AM

From: UK

Joined: 4/15/2008

I found this interesting reading, and will offer my thoughts for what they're worth, (quite probably very little indeed).

Presets or knobs? In my opinion both have their advantages/disadvantages. I have one theremin with presets and one without, and find it impossible to say which is the best option. With the E-Pro, I tend to lazily stick to my two or three favourite presets, and have the custom-setting (which uses the knobs) left at my favourite ''chosen'' sound; I'm probably missing lots of other great sounds, but I'm happy with what I'm using regularly.

My other theremin just has the usual number of adjustment knobs. I've experimented a lot with these to find the sounds I especially like ... however, now I've done so, I've noted down the knob/dial settings for my three or four favourites and tend to stick to those. Being able to set a few custom presets would be handy ... but would only save me the few moments it takes to turn the dials to the noted/memorized settings. True, if you wanted to change settings in the middle of a piece presets are handy ... but I can honestly say I've never done that, and can't imagine I ever would, (classical playing - I guess for experimental players that might be different). I tend to chose a sound that suits each individual piece ie vocal operatic-sounding, flute-like, or violin/cello-like etc and set before playing.

That being said, if you have as many as nine adjustment knobs, then that complicates things. I suspect I'd feel a little ovewhelmed by the possiblilities and, as usual, stick to the few sounds I find that I like, (although memorizing nine-plus knob-settings for each chosen sound would be difficult for me).

In my opinion, (which is that of a fairly inexperienced but regular classical-style player), I would tentatively suggest focussing on your new theremin's strengths and not getting bogged down by too many complications. I think there's often a stage during product-development where a designer feels the need to satisfy everyone. This is only natural when hoping to maximise profit, but there can then be a danger of the opposite happening, because the initial focus can get lost in the fog of ''other-things-which-could-be-usefully-

From what I've read here, your theremin's principle strength, (plus clear gap in the market and major selling-point) would be its linearity. THIS is what will bring you customers whether you have presets/knobs/dials or whatever. I would respectfully suggest that you don't lose sight of the fact that an affordably-priced linear theremin will fill the present gap in the market, anything, no matter how potentially useful, that might increase the price or make you miss deadlines should perhaps be jettisoned; I suspect you cannot afford to miss this present market gap, and it is unlikely to last indefinitely. An affordable new linear theremin could have had a virtually exclusive sales opportunity since the E-Pro disappeared - so, in a way, you're already 12 months overdue ... and every month that passes brings us a month closer to the next Moog Pro-theremin.

Summary of my thoughts:
Focus; don't lose sight of your main selling-point.
Keep it simple - avoid price-inflating complications.
Don't try to please everyone - it's impossible.
Move ahead before this window of opportunity closes.
Posted: 4/25/2009 12:56:25 PM

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

[i]"will offer my thoughts for what they're worth, (quite probably very little indeed)"[/i]

Quite the contrary! .. Thanks for these useful insights, and particularly for your summary advice.

I had planned not to say anything about this Theremin idea - I feel I risk (rightfully) becoming a bit of a joke with premature announcements of impending product "launches".. And as far as missing the 'window' I suspect that other Theremins will be launched this year which will give far better linearity than what people have been used to.. I think I need linearity + advanced tone control to really stand out from the crowd..

But what I produce, and when I expect it to get to market, I shall not announce until it is singing and ready to roll! - I may surprise you all and launch a guitar! ;-)
Posted: 4/25/2009 2:48:25 PM
Jeff S

From: N.E. Ohio

Joined: 2/14/2005

Thereminstrel has covered many things very well and highlighted some very good points. I will try not to be too redundant.

The best approach would be to offer a reasonably affordable theremin with superior linearity and enough flexibility and quality in the timbre controls to please the greatest number of people. As Thereminstral said, determine what is missing in the current market and offer something that sets you apart from the crowd.

A couple of very good presets are not a bad thing. Bad presets are always bad. Programmable presets will make the greatest number of people happy. The reason is that very few of us will ever completely agree on the timbres we like. But, when we create the timbres we prefer, there is often little reason to experiment further. Of course this applies much more to those who prefer "traditional" sounds than to the pure experimentalist. One thing that is clear to me is that there is a small but defined segment of the theremin community that prefers the sound of the Tvox Tour Theremin, which is not available in any other model before or since. (BTW…I am not one of them.)

IMHO...The wisest approach would be similar to Moog Music and many of the other vintage synth manufacturers. Offer the best practical product you can to please the greatest number of people with the manufacturing and monetary resources at your disposal. THEN....assuming you exceed the break-even point, offer an optional "expansion unit" to those who crave greater options and flexibility. Only you would know if this is a viable option design-wise.

I would hate to see you sacrifice your family's financial future just to please a group of people you hardly know. That would certainly be a tradgedy.
Posted: 4/25/2009 2:48:41 PM

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

[i]"It feels like using a steamroller to crack an egg." - Gordon C[/i]

Gordon - I think these days the "egg" is a laptop and software, and the "steamroller" is dedicated hardware!

I also have an aversion to using PC's for such 'menial' tasks, and I dislike (intensely) having to go down the PC+software route.. but for more obscure tasks where there is not an obvious large demand for dedicated hardware, it does make sense.

Also, legislation and red tape has now made bringing a product to market far more difficult - If I was to design and build a CV processor, with the probably small volume that would be made, I could only (perhaps) afford to do this by making them personally (outside the remit of the Company) and sell them by word-of-mouth and try to "stay off the radar".. But, by law, I am not allowed to sell anything which does not comply with minimum requirements.. Product must be CE certified (for sale in Europe) and RoHS compliant, and I have just had letters about WEEE which are just a complete nonsense - up front notification of minimum payment for end-of-life disposal of product (yes! - if one manufactures something, one must now pay in advance for its "green" disposal!)

Even doing most of the above by self-certification, the 'red tape' cost for bringing any electronic product 'legitimately' to market is not likely to be less than £1000..

When using a PC and software, these costs have been dissipated by the huge volume of PC's amongst which they are shared - and software is virtually free (unless one pays the huge sums required for Microsoft certification) from red-tape costs.
Posted: 4/25/2009 3:08:59 PM

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

[i]"I would certainly hate to see you sacrifice your family's financial future just to please a group of people you hardly know. That would certainly be a tradgedy"[/i]

Thanks Jeff!

Reality is slightly different - I am not doing any of this "to please a group of people I hardly know" - I am obsessive, and proud, a bit arrogant, and financially often foolish and reckless.. Over my lifetime I have often had good income, but never invested one penny - I ALWAYS gambled it on some some venture or invention, and lost.. This never really bothered me - I was having fun, doing what I enjoyed, Learning.. and there was always another something to try after I had worked a bit and got my finances back to a point that I could start again (ie - not in the red - LOL! :)

Things are a bit different now with having a family, and being older, and skills being less in demand, and the global economy in meltdown... LOL ... So there are real practical reasons why I want to produce something that pleases as many people as possible...

But, the real motivation behind what I am doing is to make something which pleases me.. and I am fussy (verging on pedantic)!
Posted: 4/25/2009 4:47:23 PM

From: Colmar, France

Joined: 12/31/2007

One of the best theremins, the Tvox Tour, has (besides pitch tuning and the auto volume adjust) only one big knob which allows to vary the waveform from sine to triangle. That's it and that's enough for this instrument.

More knobs (or presets) allow perhaps more variation and combinations, but are they (musically) useful and so needed?

I know that this reply seems contradictory to some statements I did some months ago in a situation where I was less experienced in playing and treated such questions in a more academic way.

I reflected this matter in the last months and I came to the conclusion that waveshaping is not as important as I thought before (as long as the sound isn't too rough). Take the example of the Anthony Henk 1994 prototype. It has a more or less clean sine output and most of us would qualify this sound as uninteresting or even boring. But hear Lydia Kavina playing on it. Her ability to shape the tone with her hands makes it more interesting (in my ears) than any electronic device could ever do.

There exists an old Armenian tale which underlines that:

There was an old man who owned a cello. This cello had only one string and the man spent many hours every day to play just the tone of this string. This got on the nerves of his wife who one day asked him: "Why do you play always the same tone? If others play a cello they have four strings and use their fingers to produce a multitude of tones..." He replied: "You are a woman. Your hair is long and your mind is short. Others do so because they are searching the right tone. I have found it."
Posted: 4/25/2009 5:22:39 PM

From: Croxley Green, Hertfordshire, UK

Joined: 10/5/2005

I think a pertinent question is - what is the motivation to twiddle knobs during a performance, and why are thereminists less needful of it that other synth players - particularly old-school players?

Having spent a little time playing with a recreation of a classic synth on my daughter's nintendo, a lot of it comes down to the user interface - the keyboard is no more than a set of switches. Every note is [i]exactly the same[/i]. Perhaps my hair is long, but without a bit of judicious twiddling I find it boring.

Contrast this to the theremin, where no two notes are ever the same, and every note can be subtly shaded in skilled hands.

Not that there is no room for expression via timbral variation too. I [i]love[/i] theremin with pedal wah. (Auto-wah, not so much. All it says to me is "Comedic trombone stings. Wah wah wah waaaaaah.")
Posted: 4/25/2009 6:06:43 PM

From: Colmar, France

Joined: 12/31/2007

I think we will be falling back on the question if the theremin was to see as an individual instrument or as a synth-like device.

As an individual instrument it should rather have its individual and recognizable tonal character. I'd compare it to a specific violin, which always sounds like this specific violin, even when played by different players who will naturally also have their part in giving the music its tonality. But nobody would have the idea to ask a trombone sound from a Stradivari violin.

A theremin as a synth-like device would have to produce a great variety of timbres by using its gesture control mechanism. So it should naturally allow wide variations of the tone.

The theremin designer has an advantage over the violin maker since he is able to satisfy both demands by adding cv outputs. So the player can choose if he buys only the theremin with its individual sound or if he buys still an external synth which would allow him to produce whatever sound and effect.
Posted: 4/25/2009 7:34:29 PM

From: Croxley Green, Hertfordshire, UK

Joined: 10/5/2005

[i]a synth-like device[/i]

I looked up Synthesizer ( on wikipedia and by the definition it gives -

[i]an electronic instrument capable of producing a variety of sounds by generating and combining signals of different frequencies. Synthesizers create electrical signals, rather than direct acoustic sounds, which are then played through a loudspeaker or set of headphones.[/i]

- the theremin IS a synthesizer, albeit a very simple one. Signals of different frequencies are combined to create an electrical signal which is audible through a loudspeaker. (Admittedly most synths do not deal in radio frequency signals, but then the definition does not specify which frequencies can be combined.)

In a sense Fred's innovation is to give the performer opportunity to vary the waveforms prior to combining them, something which is commonplace in other synthesizers.

What is uncommon about the theremin is that it can be played as an acoustic-like device.


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