Finally, a Modern Theremin

Ever wanted to own your own Theremin but couldn’t justify dropping hundreds of dollars on one? Now you can build your own, or buy it for a quintuplet of Hamiltons. The Open.Theremin.UNO project has built up antenna-based oscillator control around the ubiquitous Arduino Uno board.

So what’s the Arduino in there for? This is a digital Theremin, but check out the video below and you’ll agree that it sounds amazing and has excellent response. The aluminum antennas used for volume and pitch are attached to the top portion of the shield but it sounds like they’re not included in the kit. Don’t fret, you can use a variety of materials for this purpose. On the bottom you need to connect a speaker cable, and also a ground wire if that cable’s not grounded.

As the name implies, this is Open Hardware and we’re quite happy with the documentation on their site and the BOM (found on the GitHub repo). This design was shown off back in 2013 hiding in a pack of cigarettes. If you don’t want to build your own they’re selling kits on their site for 48 Euro delivered, or on Tindie for $55.

Okay, we’ve screwed this up so many times that we’re going to try to get it right here: the Theremin was not heard in the opening of Star Trek the original series, or in the opening of Doctor Who. It wasn’t featured in “Good Vibrations” either. As far as we can tell, it’s not used for anything in pop culture at all… but recognizing the sound and knowing what one is remains core geek knowledge.

If you want a Theremin to play using your entire body you need the Theremin Terpsitone.

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Retrotechtacular: The Theremin Terpsitone

Léon Theremin built his eponymous instrument in 1920 under Soviet sponsorship to study proximity sensors. He later applied the idea of generating sounds using the human body’s capacitance to other physical forms like the theremin cello and the theremin keyboard. One of these was the terpsitone, which is kind of like a full-body theremin. It was built about twelve years after the theremin and named after Terpsichore, one of the nine muses of dance and chorus from Greek mythology.

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Theremin’s Bug: How the Soviet Union Spied on the US Embassy for 7 Years

The man leaned over his creation, carefully assembling the tiny pieces. This was the hardest part, placing a thin silver plated diaphragm over the internal chamber. The diaphragm had to be strong enough to support itself, yet flexible enough to be affected by the slightest sound. One false move, and the device would be ruined. To fail meant a return to the road work detail, quite possibly a death sentence. Finally, the job was done. The man leaned back to admire his work.

The man in this semi-fictional vignette was Lev Sergeyevich Termen, better known in the western world as Léon Theremin. You know Theremin for the musical instrument which bears his name. In the spy business though, he is known as the creator of one of the most successful clandestine listening devices ever used against the American government.

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Using a Theremin for Medical Applications

[Eswar] is not an ordinary 16 years old boy. He figured out a noninvasive way to measure breathing in hospitals for less than $50. He is using a theremin to measure the rise and fall of a patient’s chest. For our curious readers, this touch-less instrument was invented back in 1929 by the Russian inventor [Leon Theremin]. It uses the heterodyne principle and two oscillators to generate an audio signal. One electronic oscillator creates an inaudible high pitch tone while another variable oscillator is changed by adding capacitance to an antenna.

As you can guess the space between the patient’s chest and the antennas placed around the bed forms a tiny capacitor which varies when exhaling. With three simple TTL chips and a little guessing [Eswar] had a working prototype ready to be implemented in the real world. If you’re interested in theremin, we invite you to see one of our previous articles on how to make one in a few minutes with a soda can.

Soda Can Theremin Made In Minutes

Looking for a fun weekend project? How about building your very own sci-fi Theremin using just a soda can and a few simple components you probably already have.

Not familiar with Theremins? It’s an electronic instrument that can be played without any physical contact. Essentially, the antenna (soda can) acts as half of a capacitor — your hand acts as the other. By varying the distance of your hand to the soda can, you change the capacitance, which can then be used to modulate a sound. It was invented in 1928 by the Russian inventor [Leon Theremin], and you can actually see a video of him playing it on YouTube — we’ve never seen this before, but we must say it’s actually quite impressive!

Anyway, back to the hack. All you need are some op-amps, a few capacitors, some resistors, a diode, a breadboard, and of course — a speaker. [Will’s] gone into great detail in how each circuit works with both schematics and diagrams of the breadboard configuration — it’s a great little project even kids can follow along.

Take a listen after the break.

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IR Theremin Speaks In Four Voices


At the end of every semester, we get a bunch of cool and well-documented student projects from Cornell’s ECE4760 class. [Scott] and [Alex]’s infrared theremin is no exception.

The classic theremin design employs each of the player’s hands as the grounded plate of a variable capacitor in an LC circuit. For the pitch antenna, this circuit is part of the oscillator. For the volume antenna, the hand capacitor detunes another oscillator, changing the attenuation in the amplifier.

[Scott] and [Alex] put a twist on the theremin by using two IR sensors to control volume and pitch. The sensors compute the location of each hand and output a voltage inversely proportional to its distance from the hand. An ATMega1284P converts the signal to an 8-bit binary number for processing. They built four voices into it that are accessible through the push-button switch. The different voices are created with wave combinations and modulation effects. In addition to Classic Theremin, you can play in pure sine, sawtooth, and FM modulation.

If you’re just not that into microcontrollers, you could build this digital IR theremin instead. If you find IR theremins soulless or plebeian, try this theremincello.

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The Ondes Martenot; Better than a Theremin


[Ville] loves the sound of an ondes martenot and decided to build his own. No, it’s not made of vacuum tubes like a 1920s original, this one is made out of a cheap, off-the-shelf analog synth and just a few extra parts.

The ondes martenot is a theremin-like musical instrument; instead of waving your hands around aerials on the theremin, the ondes uses a small ring attached to the player’s finger on a wire loop and a volume lever. The ondes isn’t a common instrument by any means, but Radiohead uses one several in any event.

[Ville] began his build by taking a small, cheap, and new Korg Monotron analog ribbon synth, cracking it open, and reading the schematics. A 100k multiturn pot was wired into the monotron and fastened to a printed paper keyboard with a system of pulleys and a small metal ring. With the multiturn pot wired into the pitch input on the monotron, [Ville] had a semi-accurate and very functional ondes martenot replica.

You can hear [Ville]’s ondes in action after the break. It’s a little rough starting out, but by the time he’s looping multiple phrases it really does sound wonderful.

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