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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…
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.
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.
The theremin is controlled with two antennas.
Typically, the right hand controls pitch, while the left controls volume. Although either way works fine.
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…
Starting to get the idea? And after that, the possibilities are pretty much endless.
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 7 of the most popular theremin models on the market today.
Here they are, starting with…
As I mentioned earlier in this post…
Next to Leo Theremin, Robert Moogis 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:
NOTE: Because line level output is much hotter than instrument level output, the Etherwave (like most theremins) should ideally be paired with 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:
Check it out:
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.
With separate outputs for volume and pitch, the it allows you to connect those outputs to the inputs of an analog synthesizer such as the Moog Little Phatty or Voyager.
>span class="a-list-item">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:
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 already 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:
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:
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:
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 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!
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: