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How a Theremin Works


Variations on a Theremin
She may not be using a Moog, but Barbara Buchholz, a famous modern thereminist, nevertheless demonstrates the enduring appeal of the theremin.
She may not be using a Moog, but Barbara Buchholz, a famous modern thereminist, nevertheless demonstrates the enduring appeal of the theremin.
Stringer/Entertainment/Getty Images

Relatively simply circuitry coupled with a certain cult novelty makes the theremin one of the most hackable instruments out there. From vintage, vacuum tube devices to musical toys made out of LEGO bricks, there are theremins and theremin kits to suit every fancy.

Probably the most popular version on the market today is the Moog Etherwave Theremin. The Standard Moog Etherwave features pitch and volume antennae, as well as rotary pots for controlling waveform and sensitivity. The Moog Etherwave Plus contains all the features of the standard version, plus it can act as a controller for other Moog analog devices. Last but not least, the Moog Etherwave is also available in kit form, enabling users to customize their theremin's housing and circuitry.

Analog theremins built with tube circuitry are also of great interest to theremin-o-philes seeking to recreate the elusive tones of early devices. Theremin expert Arthur Harrison has built a Web site, Theremin.us, dedicated to spreading knowledge about theremins and theremin-building. He offers kits for sale as well as detailed instructional articles, including schematics, on constructing vacuum tube powered theremins. Even Harrison, however, warns against the dangers involved with building these devices, which use lethal AC voltages.

Other types of theremins include:

  • Optical (photo) Theremins: These are instruments that use light sensors or an infrared field instead of an electromagnetic field. More novelty than high art, optical theremins can be made from spare parts. The Web site Legoengineering.com even has instructions on making a simple "light" theremin from NXT LEGO blocks equipped with light sensors.
  • Solar Theremins: A solar theremin is a specialized optical theremin that captures and converts solar energy to make a musical tone. "Make" magazine sells a simple solar theremin kit through its Makershed store for less than $20.
  • Theremin Controllers and Video Theremins: New interactive video game technologies like the Wii and Xbox Kinect can be hacked so that a player can use a game controller or, in the case of the Kinect, his own body to manipulate other synth devices and produce theremin-like sounds. Synthesizer enthusiasts are also writing software code that enables users to play a "video" theremin using Xbox Kinect [source: Thereminworld.com].

Endlessly eerie and magnificently mysterious, the theremin has inspired musicians, scientists, makers and artists for generations -- and will, no doubt, continue to do so for generations to come.

Find lots more information about this noir novelty on the next page.


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