If you’re like most of us…
The first time you heard about the theremin went something like this…
You’re watching an old Led Zeppelin video and you see Jimmy Page waving his hands around in the air like some evil sorcerer.
And then you hear the crazy sounds apparently coming from nowhere…
And then you noticed that tiny little box with the antenna…
Then suddenly…all the confusing details make sense.
And after a little bit of online investigating, you finally discover what the damn thing is actually called…it’s a theremin!
Generations of musicians have gone through those exact moments, and fantasized about what it might be like to actually play one.
Yet for some reason, very few ever took it upon themselves to buy one and try it out. If you’re reading this post though, I’m guessing you’re one of the brave ones.
So if you’re considering buying a theremin, you’ve come to the right place because in today’s post I reveal all the juicy details of this little-known instrument.
Ready? Let’s begin. First up…
A Little Background History
If you’re wondering where exactly this instrument came from (as I was)…
Here’s the super short explanation:
Russian physicist Leo Theremin built the first theremin back in 1920…
And according to many sources, it’s credited as the first electronic instrument ever invented.
Eventually he brought his invention out West in hopes of making it popular in America.
But for many years, his efforts were mostly in vain, and the theremin went unplayed by all but a select few musicians.
That is until the 1950’s when Robert Moog began building his own theremin’s and the instrument gained some degree of popularity in the decades following.
Finally in 1994, the film Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey was released, and the instrument gained perhaps it’s highest level of popularity to date among musicians and filmmakers.
What Exactly Can This Thing Do?
If it’s been a while since you’ve seen a theremin in action, here’s a quick video of Jimmy Page doing his thing, with Jack White and The Edge watching in admiration:
Now, while I’m sure you loved that clip…
You should know that the theremin is capable of far more than just psychedelic effects.
Yes, it’s a great tool for creating spacey sounds in sci-fi films…but it can also be played as a traditional melodic instrument as well.
For example, here’s a pretty impressive video of a well-known player named Pamelia Kurstin using it to play a walking bass line.
Pretty cool huh?
Now a word of warning: what you just saw is theremin-playing at its highest level, so it’s unlikely sounds like that will ever be coming from your hands.
But we all gotta start somewhere right?
So up next, here’s an explanation the basics…
How the Theremin is Played
The theremin is controlled with two antennas.
- loop antenna – to control volume
- rod antenna – to control pitch
Typically, the right hand controls pitch, while the left controls volume. Although either way works fine.
- By moving your hand closer to the loop antenna, volume increases.
- By moving your hand closer to the rod antenna, pitch increases.
And it’s pretty much that simple. However, using this knowledge to actually create music is a different matter entirely.
So here are some simple examples of things you could do…
- Use fluttering gestures with your volume hand to create a tremolo effect
- Do the same with your pitch hand to create a vibrato effect.
- Make a sweeping motion with your pitch hand to create spacey effects.
- Make a pecking motion with your volume hand to produce distinct notes.
Starting to get the idea? And after that, the possibilities are pretty much endless.
7 Cool Theremins to Check Out
Now that you’ve gotten some background on this fascinating instrument…
All that’s left to do is pick one out and start playing around with it.
So to help you with this part…
I’ve made a list of 6 of the most popular theremin models on the market today.
Here they are, starting with…
1. Moog Etherwave Standard
As I mentioned earlier in this post…
Next to Leo Theremin, Robert Moog is perhaps more responsible for the popularization of the theremin than anyone in music…
And even today, Moog Music is undoubtedly the brand best known for making quality theremins.
And their baseline, and best selling model is the Moog Etherwave Standard.
Like the other theremins on this list, it comes equipped with the following standard features:
- 5 octave pitch range
- mic stand adapter
- power adapters for 110V and 220V
- 1/4″ line level output for your amp or audio interface
NOTE: Because line level output is much hotter than instrument level output, the Etherwave (like most theremins) is ideally be paired a keyboard amp, NOT a guitar amp.
One unique feature of the Etherwave is its two knobs that allow you to control the waveform and brightness.
As a bonus to get you started, it also includes a DVD tutorials:
- Mastering the Theremin with Lydia Kavina
- Clara Rockmore, the World’s Greatest Theremin Virtuosa
Check it out:
2. Moog Etherwave Plus
The next model up in the line of Moog theremins is the Etherwave Plus.
It has all the same great features of the Etherwave Standard…
But with two notable upgrades.
The first one is the added 1/4″ stereo output, which is great for silent late-night practice on headphones.
The second one is the ability to use the theremin as a controller for other analog synths.
And it can control not just volume and pitch, but most other settings as well.
However, since I can only assume most of you reading this article are NOT synthesizer geeks…if you DON’T need these features, you can probably stick with the Etherwave Standard.
Otherwise, check it out:
3. Moog ThereMINI
So you’ve probably noticed a trend in my theremin picks up until now, yes?
And it’s not because I’m biased, but only because quite honestly…
There aren’t a lot of other competitive brands with theremins that are ready available online.
So for my final Moog pick, I’ve saved what some might consider the best of them all: the Moog ThereMINI.
Compared to the previous 2 analog models we just covered, you might call this one the “digital” model.
Because its built-in sound engine adds a TON of useful features you might find very useful.
First off, there’s a built-in tuner which gives you accurate feedback on the notes you’re playing in real-time! As you can imagine, it’s a great tool for beginners learning the instrument and for anyone wanting to develop their ear.
Next there’s the outputs, which allow you 3 convenient ways to hear yourself play:
- a speaker on the top
- a headphone jack on the front
- two line level outs on the back
Next there’s the sound bank which allows your to store multiple preset combinations of tones, scales, playing ranges, and effects.
One of the most useful effects worth noting is the stereo ping-pong delay. If you are a fan of Jimmy Page’s work, you may have noticed that delay is one of his go-to effects.
Finally, there’s the amazing feature known as assistive pitch quantization which you might refer to in simpler terms as “Auto-Tune for the theremin“.
Using a single setting, you can position this function anywhere between two extremes:
- At maximum position – every note in the specified scale will be perfectly in tune, making it impossible to play a wrong note…kinda like the Cher/T Pain effect.
- At minimum position – it’s essentially OFF, allowing you full control of the pitch, and full ability to mess things up as well. 🙂
For beginners, this tool can be especially useful because you can set it to give you just enough “help” to make things sound decent. And as you improve, you can gradually set it to give you less help until you no longer need any at all.
Pretty cool huh? Check it out:
4. Zep Theremin
Now that we’ve thoroughly covered the Moog’s…
Let’s move on to the next most popular brand on the market: Burns Theremins.
And the first one I definitely recommend you check out is the Zep Theremin.
As you might guess from its name, it’s modeled after the one used by Jimmy Page in the iconic Led Zeppelin movie: The Song Remains the Same.
If if you need a little reminder of its awesomeness, here’s the highlight clip:
If you’ve watched that movie as many times as I have, you’re probably sold on this theremin already.
However, before you scroll down toward that Amazon link…hear me out first.
You see, the Zep Theremin, unlike the previous theremins we’ve seen, only has a single (pitch) antenna.
And this is actually quite common with less expensive theremins.
The problem is, with no volume antenna, you can’t really play individual notes with this thing, and it is really only good for making ‘bow-like’ continuous sounds…
Which is fine for making cool Jimmy-like effects, but NOT fine if you ever want to play one of those walking bass lines like in the video we saw earlier.
Got it? Good. Here’s the links:
NOTE: A great user tip I found was to pair these single antenna theremins with a volume pedal. Try it!
3 More Burns Theremins
To finish out this post, there are 3 more Burns Theremins that are definitely worthy of mention.
The only problem is…
As you’ll notice in their company product descriptions…
Their writers absolutely suck, and they offer no real useful information on any features.
So for the most part, I was unable to find any juicy details on how these theremins compare to each other, and how they compare to the others we’ve seen thus far.
NOTE TO BURNS THEREMINS: Hire better writers guys! 🙂
Normally I would have taken these off the list entirely. However with theremins, there really aren’t a whole lot of alternatives to choose from…and many people want cheaper options than the pricey Moog models.
PLUS…despite the lack of info on these guys, the user reviews on each of these theremins are still excellent. So definitely pay close attention to those.
Anyways, here they are: