New Line of Self-Contained Theremins

Posted: 9/30/2016 5:17:50 PM
GlassMan

From: Brownsville, California

Joined: 8/17/2016

Hello to All!  For those of you who do not know me, please check out my profile.  I am still fairly new to thereminworld.com, having only posted for a couple of months as of 9/30/2016.

I own many of the available models of theremins.  I like the Etherwaves a lot, but I also love the sound of tube theremins, which are now very hard to come by, with only a single source of Keppinger-design chassis components selling off of Ebay.  Solid-state/EM theremins are currently pretty abundant, led by Moog and Burns.  Many of these transistorized instruments are great, such as the Moog Etherwaves and The Burns Pro.  Some are more or less toy-like or even downright junky, but I won't mention those names here.  The latest trend is "Optical" theremins, which are sort of like synthesizers with optical sensors instead of antennas.

Over the years, theremins have been steadily digitalized.  Starting out as vacuum-tube systems in the early 1900's, they were carried into solid-state, transistorized forms by engineers like Robert Moog.  As work now progresses into optical proximity detection, the evolution is into the realm of micro-circuitry, like computers, tablets and cell phones.

The sound has steadily evolved.  There is a very noticeable difference between the sound of an early tube system like an RCA and one of the latest, synth-engine theremins like a Minimoog.  Some people like the new sound.  I prefer the classic theremin sound-quality, so here I must make a parting of ways with the new generation.

You can't just go out and buy a classic theremin anymore.  There is one builder selling off of Ebay who can provide you with the components of a Keppinger-type system.  But you'll have to build the cabinet and do all of your own tweaking.  You can find an occasional Etherwave Pro up for sale on Ebay, for about $10,000.00!!!  Or a rare old theremin like an RCA up for sale for only $12,000 bucks or more!

If you are in the market for a theremin, you will probably end up with what's available and affordable: an Etherwave Standard or Plus. Or a Burns. Or a Theramax. Or something similar.  Fine, but your options are severely limited....

I am working very hard on a new line of "classic" theremins.  I am deliberately moving away from the little "mic-stand" instruments that are variations of small boxes.  They are unquestionably convenient if you are an on-the-go musician doing gigs all over the place.  They are equally inconvenient in that you have to deal with a mess of cables, external amps and sound systems, and probably loose effects pedals. My designs will all be self-contained - they contain their own sound systems and effects, all housed in a free-standing cabinet.

Some of the designs will use old tube components.  Others will utilize solid-state circuitry.  I will consider special orders.  I will be able to make only a hand-full of these instruments a year, so there will be some build time required.

My first prototype, the "Aria" model, is now nearing completion.  It houses an Etherwave Plus circuit board, and contains a multiple speaker sound system driven by a vintage Fender head.  There is a "Talking Machine" voice effects unit, as well as reverb and harmonizer.  There is a volume pedal.  Finally, there is a wired remote glove worn of the volume hand.  Touch buttons in the palm of the glove allow changes to sound, octavation and stand-by with a flick of a finger.

Look for my first pictures, which I will be posting here starting  around mid-October of 2016.

Wish me luck!

Jon

Posted: 10/1/2016 2:45:09 AM
jocala

From: Florida

Joined: 8/27/2016

Can't wait to see your progress. Best of luck!  

Posted: 10/1/2016 11:21:26 PM
Jason

From: Sammamish, Washington

Joined: 2/13/2005

I'm definitely excited to see what you come up with! The "instrument as fine furniture" aspect of theremins has been ignored a bit lately, so this sounds very interesting.

Posted: 10/2/2016 8:40:06 AM
GlassMan

From: Brownsville, California

Joined: 8/17/2016

Jason and Jocala,

I couldn't agree more that the physical appearance of theremins has a lot of room  for improvement!  I'm just sick and tired of ugly little mic-stand boxes, suitcases and the like, all to save weight.  Even the old RCA's had really plain, severe lines.  Everywhere you look, you will see plain wood and little boxes.  Well, you're in for a surprise.  I like curves and beautiful wood.  I also like light, color and transparency - looking into futuristic designs, too, including stained glass and fiber optic lighting that could make the whole instrument pulse and dance with shifting colors, driven by the CV (controlled voltage) output.

Still, my emphasis must remain with the sound and the response.  Fortunately, I am a perfectionist.  If nothing else, I hope to inspire other builders to take up the beautification of this very worthy instrument!

Another area crying for improvement is the physical manipulation of controls and effect pedals while you're trying to play the instrument. In order to play really well and with good intonation, you must keep your body very still.  Moving a foot or a hand toward a control or switch is more than enough to throw your pitch and rhythm off.  So I have invented my wired control, fixed in the palm of a fingerless glove worn on the volume hand.  A row of latching micro-switches can be felt and easily flicked with any fingertip, allowing hitherto impossible changes in standby, octavation, harmonization or other pre-set effects.  It is now possible to make instant, smooth changes while you play!  The remote wires run under the arm, held in place with a set of comfortable harnesses.  The wires terminate in 1/8" audio-type jacks, so they can be instantly unplugged from the side of the cabinet when not needed.  I also have a built-in volume pedal as well as pitch preview through headphones.  And LOTS more.

Look for pictures in a couple of weeks now, as the prototype "Aria" model nears completion.  The magic eye is in and works great.  It has a beautiful green glow, as the iris moves in rhythm to the volume hand.

Jon

Posted: 10/2/2016 12:11:53 PM
Thierry

From: Colmar, France

Joined: 12/31/2007

Apparently, Californian musicians don't travel and need no light-weight instruments to carry with them.

There are naturally other furniture-like instruments, i.e. grand pianos or harps, but these can be found in any better concert venue, which is not the case for a theremin. Thus, the professional thereminist needs absolutely an instrument which can they can take as a cabin luggage.

I'm excited about Mr Glassman's approach. Never heard him play in public, never saw him show up at whatever international theremin event, never saw one of our renowned professional classical thereminists play one of his instruments, but he tells us what we've obviously done wrong in the last 80 years.

Imagine Clara Rockmore playing Achron's Hebrew Melody on a illuminated theremin, changing its color with volume or pitch, using octavation or harmonization... A theremin concert is not a tinsel and glitter parade!

Posted: 10/2/2016 2:14:59 PM
dewster

From: Northern NJ, USA

Joined: 2/17/2012

Jon, I suppose we all have ideas regarding building a better Theremin, and I say the more the merrier.

Some of my observations are along the same lines as yours, that the Theremin could be made inherently easier to play on pitch, some explicit player control over timbre would be nice, and that it could be taken farther in terms of general capabilities. 

Sensitivity is pretty much fixed in an analog Theremin, which is good / bad: good in that it defines the instrument more as a constant "thing"; bad in that IMO the sensitivity is too high for the average user, and even for the more advanced user it requires a stock still pose.  This is a bad thing for stage performance use, but people have become accustomed to it via fingerings and playing techniques and such.

I think enclosures are usually selected for cost first (they can easily be the most expensive part of the Theremin), portability second, and playability somewhere after this, yielding antenna configurations that are generally too close and not ideally positioned from an ergonomic standpoint, though I think the traditional "music rest on legs" doesn't cater to portability enough and tends to conceal the performer from the audience.

In terms of blinking lights and stuff, you have to tread carefully here.  I understand levity and all when it comes to performance, but Thereminists probably have enough trouble coming across as serious musicians.  The LED tuner on mine, even though it is pointed at the performer rather than the audience, may be too much for some tastes or situations.

I don't think many users will take to being wired up to the Theremin via left hand switches and footpedals - they are fiddly and remove the "touchless" aspect, which is the main thing Theremins have going for them.  It probably comes down to how well defined these inputs are, if they are amorphous controls into a generic synth then they will have more trouble gaining acceptance.  You will almost certainly find one or two performers who strongly desire these features, but they will likely be a tiny minority of what is already a tiny minority of musicians.

I don't have plans to include pitch preview in my prototype anytime soon (I don't like the idea of having the thing buzzing in my ear all the time, and IMO pitch preview is something of a stopgap / crutch) but if I did I'd be looking into bluetooth and the like.  Having a ground wire going out to the player in the form of headphone shield could be useful in establishing player ground, but that wire dangling around could interfere with playing on pitch and is fiddly.

I think there is a value in looking at what Theremin himself did, he was certainly no slouch when it came to circuitry and ergonomics.  But I think there is a real danger in believing what Theremin, or Moog, or anyone else has done as the ultimate in Theremin design, and having this belief tie your hands as a designer.  There is much to be gained by thinking about all aspects as deeply as you can, and trying them out in prototypes, though I also think there is a real danger in prototypes as things tend to get set in stone at that point via familiarity.

If you stray too far from what a traditional Theremin is, then you might get less push back if you call it something else.  I wish you luck!  Bringing anything to market is a massive undertaking!

Posted: 10/2/2016 6:33:59 PM
GlassMan

From: Brownsville, California

Joined: 8/17/2016

Welcome, Thierry, Dewster and all!

Sir Thierry, I'm not actually doing anything yet with light effects - just thinking deeply about it.  By the way, Leo Theremin himself was interested in the synchronization of music and light.  Quoting from the book, "Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage" by Albert Glinsky, I refer to page 139.  Mary Ellen Bute (a debutante and theremin player from Houston) came to the Theremin Studio in 1931.  She was interested in color and light combined with sound, and she had worked with Thomas Wilfred on the Clavilux color organ.  She approached Theremin with help in carrying the concept further, and they worked on a system together, "Bute and Theremin showed their results to the New York Musicological Society at a lecture demonstration on January 31, 1932.  Bute read a paper based on the inventor's ideas, "The Perimeters of Light and Sound and Their Possible Synchronization," and Theremin connected the optical device to one of his electronic instruments, "So that the sound modified and controlled the light."

When you mock the concept by referring to the idea of Clara Rockmore playing a concert with light and color effects - a so-called "tinsel" parade - you might consider that the idea is not so far-fetched or ridiculous as you might think.  Clara had the greatest respect for Theremin and all of his work.

 

My goal is to preserve all of the classic theremin's best features.  I want to improve its ease of use a bit and also have a hand in the evolution of its appearance.  I am already doing it.  So are you - or you should be!  I don't expect everyone to embrace my ideas, but I think that a bit of open-mindedness is a golden trait.  Don't you?  Art, science and technology are evolving.  So are we.  We are not finished...we and everything around us will push on.  The world and the cosmos will likely outlive us.  And our inventions will evolve along with the rest.  

I have already thought of everything suggested in the last two posts - and I don't have a conflict.  Suggest away!  My answer is this: Let's wait and see the end result.  Then you can judge for yourself.  In the meanwhile, I'll proceed with my work.

In closing, I will tell you that the instrument which I'm currently working on has a very classic look and sound.  It is very solidly build and it IS heavy (it HAS to be, in order to be self-contained!) But it will roll smoothly on small wheels, two of which have brake locks.  It is made for people who won't be traveling with it a lot.  For people who want a fully self-contained theremin with everything housed in one attractive cabinet.

Other makers need not fear!  I am focused on self-contained theremins, which MUST be larger and bulkier than the little "travel" theremins.  There will ALWAYS be a need for the portable instruments - and plenty of them are out there!  But right now, no one else appears to be building self-contained theremins, so I will stay in that niche.  And I can make only a small number of instruments per year (the work is time-consuming and I am just one already busy person) so this will be a very small specialty.  I will be here for a small number of people who want something that they can't get anywhere else. 

Thanks for the interest and suggestions.  And keep creating...its great for the mind!

Jon

Posted: 10/3/2016 8:41:07 AM
Valery

From: Russia, Saint-Petersburg

Joined: 6/6/2016

theremin by Leon Korolev

 

It is a versatile Theremin by Leon Dmitriyevich Korolev 2005. In addition to antennas there are volume control buttons, attack and other options, including the fretboard Visualizer.

 

Posted: 10/3/2016 7:57:28 PM
dewster

From: Northern NJ, USA

Joined: 2/17/2012

"It is very solidly build and it IS heavy (it HAS to be, in order to be self-contained!) But it will roll smoothly on small wheels, two of which have brake locks.  It is made for people who won't be traveling with it a lot.  For people who want a fully self-contained theremin with everything housed in one attractive cabinet."  - GlassMan

My wife plays piano, and one thing I've learned from that is, even for instruments that people don't plan to move around a lot, portability is always important, and builders should never make things heavier / bulkier if they can help it.  IMO one reason the guitar is so huge is its high portability.

The Theremini is all-in-one and quite portable.  Granted it doesn't get loud and the bass response is non-existent, but I would bet that most owners would pick that trade-off.  Too bad it kinda sucks in the playability department.

Posted: 10/3/2016 8:29:40 PM
GlassMan

From: Brownsville, California

Joined: 8/17/2016

Like I keep saying, this is to be a specialty business for people looking for an a fully self-contained theremin that combines the look of beautiful wood with a rich, classic sound.  Not everyone is content with what is currently out there - there simply aren't very many choices of theremins.  Some of us would like a more substantial instrument in our homes and studios than the mic-stand models.

I spent 27 years building, repairing and tuning pianos, organs and harps.  All of these are rather heavy, substantial instruments.  But people still love them - they realize that the sound and features that they want cannot be put into a little portable box.  An example of this is portable keyboards versus pianos.  When the keyboards came in decades ago, some people thought that pianos would become outdated and even extinct.  Nope.  People still buy and love their big, heavy pianos.  And I can give you all sorts of other examples.

Many thereminists own more than one instrument.  People will keep their convenient little portables for travel.  And they WILL consider a larger, self-contained theremin with lots of nice features for their homes, studios, and yes - even concert halls, schools and universities.

It's time to think outside "the box," pun intended.  It's good for your mind and it's good for the future.

And remember to keep having fun!  That's an important part not only of music, but of a long, healthy life!

Jon

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