Video GamesE3 2010It’s #&*%ing Science!

We know you’re out there: somehow, you haven’t heard the gospel of the Theremin, the first great electronic instrument of the 20th Century. Our friend Yaniv Fituci, associate producer for G4 TV, takes on the topic and some condenses it into the space of about three minutes, through the magic of lots of jump cuts. (It’s called MTV-style-editing, and I hear these kids love this MTV thing. It’ll be huge!)

It’s actually a pretty darned good explanation, and features the innards of a Moog Theremin kit getting replaced with an Altoids tin. The choice of the Moog kit, while pricey, is spot on: I’ve seen some disastrous and frustrating results with some of the other kits out there, not to mention the Moog model looks and feels utterly gorgeous when it’s done. Bonus points for celebrity cameos by our boys Bre Pettis and (Handmade Music co-organizer) Collin Cunningham.

If you’ve been looking for a three-minute video you can use to help explain to the uninitiated what a Theremin is and how it works, it’s worth a try. Comments welcome.

It’s #&*%ing Science! The Science Behind Theremins

  • http://youtube.com/gordoncharlton Gordon Charlton

    Er, as the hand moves towards the pitch rod the pitch gets higher, not lower.

    #factfail

    Apart from that, good vid.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    @Gordon: they moved so fast, I actually missed that they got that backwards, but thanks. That is important. ;)

    I was actually unaware of the metal detector comparison, but it's absolutely right; Wikipedia has a good explanation:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metal_detector

    And that means with just one project in the classroom, you should be able to demonstrate BOTH a metal detector AND a Theremin. (and capacitance, and magnetic fields, and electrical circuits, and oscillators, and wave properties of sound, and frequency… that's got to be the most bang for your buck in just about any class! Do that on day one, the Pythagorean Theorem on days two, and send everyone home for the year.)
    http://iopscience.iop.org/0031-9120/40/2/007;jses

    In fact, I think it's time to reevaluate a set of classroom projects for teaching.

  • http://robotcowboy.com Dan Wilcox

    I have a moog etherwave kit. I highly recommend it. I have used it for a number of shows .. can't beat seeing people's eyes bug out when they see me playing it!

  • http://youtube.com/gordoncharlton Gordon Charlton

    Here's a guy that makes music with a metal detector.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ptssH3O14A

    Now I need to figure out a cheap metal detector with a headphone socket so I can do that. Got any suggestions?

    (Also, the knobs on the etherwave are pots, not caps.)

  • http://youtube.com/gordoncharlton Gordon Charlton

    Also amazing coincidence that you put this immediately after the Jasuto review – I'm planning to use Jasuto to process my theremin sounds. Just waiting for the etherwave to get back from modding. Got a little box to feed line-level in and out of my iPod Touch already…

  • Panic

    Did he say "Capacitors" when he should have been saying "Potentiometers"?

  • http://stanzaproductions.com Stan9FOS

    I went the old-school route with my theremin; the Paia kit, which is a handful of parts & a box to put them in. No wimpy hard-wired circuit board here, & it took about a week's work to sort it all out & solder it together. I've always wanted a Moog, but the price break of just $50.00 between the kit version & a completed unit never pushed me into the "must have" zone.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    The PAIA kits are very, very good. I think they're engineered well enough that they manage to be cheap without sacrificing quality.

    Some of the people who invest in the MOOG, though, make it their primary instrument. So by that measure, it's incredibly cheap.

  • Philippe LeSaux

    @Panic: yes, he did, several times.

    Been wanting to build a theremin for a while, but from scratch (no pre-wired pcb), and not for $340. Good vid though, aside from some fact fails.

  • Paul

    @Panic: I cringed when I heard him say that.

  • http://www.synthwerks.com Synthwerks

    I built a few theremins from a kit offered in the Popular Electronics magazine back in the early 70's. The kit was made by a company in Texas, They worked great. I still have the article with a PCB printout. The main difference it had from all the commercial Theremins I have played since then is the volume plate worked in reverse. On it the volume and pitch got higher as your hand got closer. It was MUCH more ergonomic and easier to play than the Moog style action. I can't play any of the new ones cause I just can't change my thinking to the way they play now.

  • http://www.synthwerks.com Synthwerks

    I re-read my post and it sounds like the pitch and volume were on one antenna. – there were two. You could use anything metal for the antenna too – I used two pieces of coper PCB facing upward.

  • Charlie Lesoine

    Man, theremins are really hard to play. I sold mine and bought an SP-404sx. It was pretty styling though:

    http://www.theremin.ws/index.php?page=showcase&am

  • http://youtube.com/gordoncharlton Gordon Charlton

    The wavefronts look great, but the linearity is not as good as the etherwave so they are a bit harder to play. (linearity is the property that the same change in position in the pitch field will cause the same change in pitch whether in the low register of the high register. Most theremins have compressed higher registers to a greater or lesser extent.

    One way of making it easier is simply not to worry about pitch. It means you can't play greensleeves, but with a few simple guitar effects you can make good sounds. Well, good if you like that kind of thing. I do. Click on my name for some examples.

  • http://dmlandrum.noisepages.com/ Darren Landrum

    I found these two Youtube videos describing how to make a theremin (though without a volume antenna) using a trio of AM radios:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PSYPUhPGavQ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=04l0esNefYI

    The fellow who did this also did a write-up explaining the build:

    http://www.box.net/shared/kgdstzwaoc

    Now, I haven't tried this, so I don't know if it really works or not, but if someone wants to give it a go, it doesn't look to hard.

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  • Simon

    Capacitors = Potentiometers? (that you solder together?!)

    Robert Moog = inventor of the synthesiser?

    I've seen better on CDM.

  • http://saavedra@jos.ph joe

    awesome! I am also a proud owner of an etherwave kit. It is one of my most prized possessions, and I recently modded it with a laser cut acrylic top and tri color LEDs!

    instructable here:

    http://www.instructables.com/id/Augment-a-Moog-Et

    Also, I would like to add that he was incorrect about the pitch antennae (backwards), and definitely shuddered when he connected the "capacitors" (which i think he repeated more than once) -100 points G4

  • Josh T

    Awesome coverage. Regardless of the capacitor mix-up I think the explanation was pretty spot-on. Got my kit in the mail now!

  • Parham

    I gotta get me one. That G4 segment was done so properly, as a music aficionado I have to step my game up on this. Does G4 do segments like this all the time?

  • Foosnark

    The claim that one oscillator was for pitch and the other for volume is kinda misleading. Technically, the volume control *is* handled by an oscillator in some way that goes beyond my electronics understanding… but the audible pitch itself is created by two oscillators.

    One oscillator is fixed, the other variable, both run at above audible frequency. Heterodyning between them generates audible output. At those high frequencies, the tiny shift in capacitance from having your hand near the antenna makes enough of a difference.

    Optical theremins tend more toward single-osc designs.

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  • http://youtube.com/gordoncharlton Gordon Charlton

    @Foosnark – uh, it's not entirely unreasonable to say the pitch is generated by an oscillator. It is more a simplification than an inaccuracy.

    Usually when I explain how a theremin works to people who ask me I start by saying it has a Beat Frequency Oscillator (this is the term Moog use) controlled by the pitch rod, feeding an amplifier controlled by the volume loop.

    (It is misleading to call the rod and loop antennas – they aren't, they are capacitor plates albeit oddly shaped ones. In the original patents the term antenna is only used in a sentence emphasising that they are not antennas. It's an understandable confusion though. They sure do look like antennas, and there's radio frequency stuff going on. So meh, everyone calls them antennas, who am I to swim against the tide. :-)

    If they are technically inclined, I then explain that a BFO consists of two Radio Frequency Oscillators which are heterodyned together and the upper band is filtered out, leaving the Beat Frequency – the audible tone.

    (How the oscillator in the volume loop works puzzles me a bit too. There are several different schemes. As I understand it they depend on the notion that the higher the frequency, the greater the energy in the signal. But don't ask me for more detail than that.)

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Right, it is actually relatively fair to ascribe the two parameters to the two oscillators — it's just not entirely fair to say one or the other *generates* the pitch.

    Actually kind of amusing to read these discussions. Even by modern terms, the Theremin defies logic. It has things that looks like antennas that aren't, two oscillators that sound like one, and an abstract approach to volume.

    So, yeah, we might need to try again to fit a proper, exactly-precise explanation of capacitance and the principles of the Theremin into three minutes!

  • http://youtube.com/gordoncharlton Gordon Charlton

    Yeah, they tried that once – a complete explanation in three minutes. Unfortunately the audience experienced a minor technical hitch. In theremin circles it is known as "the Scanners effect."