Hands Off Report

Posted: 8/8/2007 4:51:21 PM

From: Croxley Green, Hertfordshire, UK

Joined: 10/5/2005

More report. Richard Helyer.

As names for symposiasts and concert goers arrived in my in-tray I did a little research to find out anything about them that could benefit the symposium. So when Richard Helyer let me know he was going to the concert I found something very interesting. He was based in the Oxford area, had spoken at Oxford Uni on the subject of theremins and ondes martenots and had a couple of his theremins in the Bate Collection (http://www.bate.ox.ac.uk/). And that the curator of the Bate Collection played the theremin.

So I contacted Richard to invite him to speak. During the ensuing conversation I learned that, sadly, the curator had passed on a few days earlier, and that he had been in touch with Lydia Kavina and George Pavlov, who currently live close by. (Apparently Lydia had been visiting the collection, which is open to the public, and was playing the instrument through the barrier. She left her card, but no-one clicked who she was until Richard turned up three weeks later and his jaw dropped.)

Now to his theremins. Interesting. Beautifully cased - I recall there are some pictures in Jon B's collection - one a squat box inlaid with marquetry and controlled by four organ stops along one side, the other a rectangular glass pyramid atop a wooden box. No antenna - these are high end optical theremins (!) with two small slots for invisible light beams, or something. (I was busy running a symposium at the time, so missed some of the details.)

Anyway, the upshot is there are two lines extending from the boxes, at 45 degree angles, like a giant V, that are the playing areas, one for pitch, one for volume. And inside are a bunch of DSPs (96 kBits) doing clever stuff, and then the signal is passed through an analogue stage to give the sound a bit of analoguey goodness.

Clever stuff includes playing exact notes and chords only, either chromatic or major or minor, as well as continuous pitch. I think he mentioned they has midi out (I can't imagine why they wouldn't) and have samples of various theremin sounds available, as well as an option for automatic vibrato.

I found these instruments very interesting. Not only because I had never heard of a high end optical theremin before, but because there is plenty of room for development, in the player interface and in the functionality, and I am keen to see how the feedback from both builders and players at Hands Off influences future development.
Posted: 8/9/2007 7:22:01 AM

From: UK,,, offshore Europe

Joined: 3/15/2007

Hi Gordon,
on the subject of optical devices, Robin Wood who builds and refurbishes the EMS synthis also builds something called Soundbeam.

Soundbeam has been used in music therapy for disabled children for many years. The "beams" send data to a MIDI controlled synth. You can build up chords using a hold function or play glissandos and do various other clever musical things. You can also have many sensors working togehter at once.


I only really thought about it after seeing the optical devices at Hands Off, otherwise I'd have invited someone along,,, silly me :(
Posted: 8/9/2007 2:37:03 PM

From: Croxley Green, Hertfordshire, UK

Joined: 10/5/2005

Hi Paul.

And that reminds me - Richard is currently selling a Synthesiser theremin-like controller via MIDI input (http://cgi.ebay.co.uk/Synthesiser-theremin-like-controller-via-MIDI-input_W0QQitemZ330153876946QQihZ014QQcategoryZ38071QQssPageNameZWDVWQQrdZ1QQcmdZViewItem) which is cheap and reputedly a lot of fun - a quick way of adding space control to your midi synth. (But be quick - the auction closes in about one minute!)

Oops. Missed it. But he says there'll be more interesting items in the coming weeks. Better bookmark him, or whatever the eBay term is.

Posted: 8/9/2007 6:18:11 PM

From: Croxley Green, Hertfordshire, UK

Joined: 10/5/2005

Elvis Leg and The Myth of Linearity

During the Saturday afternoon masterclass I was sat behind Barbara Buchholz while she played, so had ample opportunity to observe her stance at close quarters.


This is how it works - I tried it afterwards - stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, pointing straight forwards (or almost) and your legs very straight. Now bend forwards at the hip a bit. This has two effects. Firstly it places you over the instrument, which is a very dominant, controlling position and determines the position of your arms for playing. Secondly your legs lock, providing a very stable base. If you experience shaky legs whilst playing (Hi, Alex :-) you might want to give it a try. I did not find it terribly comfortable, but if it suits you, clearly it can be made to work.

Now for linearity. Lydia Kavina mentioned in passing that her tVox tour, which was designed to her requirements, is not as linear as, say, an ePro. Not a problem. Always stand the same distance from your instrument when you tune the pitch field, so that it is comfortable in the mid-range, where you will spend the majority of time playing. Step forward, into the field, to play high notes, and back to play low notes.

Again, I tried this afterwards.

An experiment. Put your pitch hand on the theremin, to play a fairly high note, and then, without moving your hand, move closer to the pitch rod. Result - the pitch rises. Reason - as your body approaches the pitch rod the field stretches out, making the spacing between notes larger and removing the problem of high notes being too close together.

The converse is true too. Moving away from the pitch rod causes the field to contract, decreasing the spacing in the low notes.

Short version. Non-linearity can be overcome by using your body to adjust the size of the pitch field whilst you play.
Posted: 8/10/2007 6:14:39 AM
Charlie D

From: England

Joined: 2/28/2005

George Pavlov explained to me that you can actually alter the linearity of the TVox, using a secondary dial concealed underneath the main pitch dial. If you remove it, there's another twisty thing there, which changes the compression of the notes in space.
Posted: 8/10/2007 9:15:44 AM

From: UK,,, offshore Europe

Joined: 3/15/2007

OK kiddiwinx,,, I've been through mii pix and uploaded over 200 now :P.

The nice thing is I'm on none of 'em :)))

It's great being behind the camera :D
Posted: 8/10/2007 2:42:31 PM

From: Surrey, UK

Joined: 7/31/2007

Not being completely au fait with this uploading palaver, I've sent a CD of my pictures to Gordon. You'll be pleased to hear, Mr Nachtsmeer ;-), that I have a couple of cool ones of you playing the 'Victor'.
Posted: 8/10/2007 5:40:50 PM

From: Croxley Green, Hertfordshire, UK

Joined: 10/5/2005

I have said photos. Only problem is, I am in the depths of Shropshire, using Windows on my father's laptop. I'm not familiar with Windows and the machine seems underpowered for the OS, so they will have to wait a while.

(On the personal front, it looks like my mac mini needed a new hard drive, and there is a fault on the motherboard of my iBook. No data loss. Might be time to upgrade to a MacBook. Which is nice, but might mean a bit more wait until I am fully operational again.)
Posted: 8/10/2007 7:51:21 PM

From: UK,,, offshore Europe

Joined: 3/15/2007

Thanx Phil,
you'll have to retouch th epiccies so that no one recognises me :) I tried playing right handed from the front, gave up and ended up strangling a few notes from around the back :)

Thanx to Gordon for the playing tips, I'll have to give that a go sometime. Hope you're enjoying yourself in the Shire of Shrops :P
bye for now, Paul
Posted: 8/11/2007 5:26:41 PM

From: Croxley Green, Hertfordshire, UK

Joined: 10/5/2005

I have to attribute the tips to Lydia Kavina.

Back to Richard Helyer, who sent Maya and I a lovely description of Hands Off, which I post with his permission...

"Thank you so very much for organising such a delightful, interesting and entertaining weekend. It was a wonderful atmosphere, exciting and yet somehow anarchic - and it was truly fascinating to meet the other inventors.

"Interacting with the players was also a really pleasant experience. As you know, I had already met Lydia and George (I'm using the English spelling, here, since Gyorgy looks somehow wrong) - but I was delighted to see how relaxed, friendly and unassuming Barbara, Carolina and Charlie were, also.

"When I was sitting in the refectory at one of the mealtimes, I thought how much it reminded me of my university days - being surrounded by sparky and intelligent people. I am fortunate enough to experience that same feeling in some other things to which I am connected, but the exuberance of the people at the Hands Off weekend surpassed the general ambience of other gatherings of academics, musicians or scientists.

"You both did really well to have pulled off this amazing weekend, and I congratulate you most sincerely. I was telling the Curator at the Bate Collection about it this afternoon, when I returned two instruments which normally reside in that collection, and I could see that he was infected by my enthusiasm for your effort."

He also provided some more information about his creations...

"Firstly, the box with the transparent sides:
1. It can play in atonal, major, minor or chromatic scale;
2. It has an "infinite tonal palette", because the control knobs on the front enable construction of myriad complex waveforms using mixed components of the first eight harmonics;
3. It can play over 1, or 2, or 4, or 7 octaves by player's choice;
4. It has inbuilt reverberation (6 different periods), distortion, and tremolo, all user-selectable;
5. It can be tuned up in semitones to match any other instrument which may operate in a fixed scale (e.g. Melodeon);
6. It can be made to shift up or down up to 3 octaves, in octave steps.

"The box with veneered inlay:
1. Plays atonally, with stops for suboctave and superoctave,
2. Has a stop for reverberation (fixed period),
3. Has a stop for tremolo.

"Both boxes operate optically, and not by using an electrostatic field.

"Both boxes contain their own amplifier and speaker, obviating the requirement for external equipment (except where extra amplification is needed for stage performance).

"There are another two things which I should mention, under development at present. The first is a new field-type (antenna) theremin called ADEPT (Analog-Digital Easier-Play Theremin) which has some features of the first optical theremin above: it plays atonally, or in major, minor or chromatic, and it has 4 levels of reverberation. It is a fusion of conventional theremin and an analog synthesiser of the 1970s type, using not one but two oscillators offering sine, pulse, saw or triangle waveforms. The two oscillators may be de-tuned to each other to give rich harmonic components. The second oscillator's output may be varied in proportion to that of the first.

"Additionally, there is an external jack to receive signals from a switch which may be hand-held whilst playing (but it is different from Wilco Boterman's glove), or else from a footpedal. The switch, when on, enables a VCF, and the characteristics of the VCF may also be controlled externally if desired. They can also operate in sweep mode from a LFO.

"There is a jack to receive signals from a similar control within the emphasis hand: reverb and "note slicing" (a bit like running the hand over a set of strings such as on a piano) can be controlled with this.

"This item will be in finished prototype, it is hoped, during this month (August).

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