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.

[via Open Electronics]

28 thoughts on “Finally, A Modern Theremin

  1. At least 272 people in Japan can play a melody on a Theremin. They Guinness-ed their lot into a heavenly rendition of Amazing Grace.
    In tune, awesome. Tuning up, like being in a bird and seal park.
    I like the whole idea though, especially the C/V out.

  2. The lady in the video looks like she’s trying to play a violin with her right hand. I guess if she’s left handed that would make sense, but I know I would prefer to have the pitch antenna on my left hand.

  3. I was surprised to learn that the theramin also wasn’t used in Louis and Bebe Barron’s incredible soundtrack for “Forbidden Planet” (although the Barrons did use theramins in other music).

    1. Yeah, production on that was really interesting. I understand the Barrons had circuitry that was terribly overloaded to get some of their sounds, so much so that it would occasionally burn out. They’d capture that audio on tape tracks because it was seldom reproducible.

      And the irony of that classic music score was that the musicians union, which the Barrons were not part of, wouldn’t allow the score to be called “music”, hence the credit for them reads “Electronic Tonalities by Louis and Bebe Barron”.

    1. The hardest thing to play with a theremin is doing it without the vibrato, because you have to hit every note right on the first try.

      The tuning of a theremin isn’t stable, so you’re always playing by ear. If you tend to get sweaty hands from stress, the tuning can change from the start to the finish of the piece you’re performing even if you were nailed to a board to keep you otherwise steady, because the conductivity of your skin changes.

  4. I keep wondering if you could do this with motion/position sensors instead of antennae. Would they be sensitive enough to pick up all the subtle motions and hand orientations that the radio system can?

      1. Those antennas are parts of resonant circuits whose resonant frequencies are disturbed by the proximity of grounded objects.

        To implement reliable spacing between notes, those resonant circuits cannot produce or control the sound directly. There must be something between the sound producing oscillator and amplifier and the resonant circuits whose function is to scale those circuits outputs.

        If that midstage something should produce voltages, that would turn the antenna fed resonant circuits into controllers that would fit quite well Moog’s classic designs that use voltage controlled oscillators and voltage controlled amplifiers.

        Again, I’m no expert.

        My goal was to show that the theremin can be played well by a skilled musician and that it can be part of an ensemble that plays together and in tune with each other. You have my apologies if you didn’t like that band’s performance.

  5. Without a demo with someone who can play Theremin at lest a little bit on this thing, I would not believe that their circuit is acceptable. Unless the field sensitivity in the pitch antenna is somewhat linear, a Theremin is useless.

  6. Unless the field sensitivity in the pitch antenna is somewhat linear? Ever look at a fretboard? All the string family has a non-linear pitch curve. In the above video of Good Vibrations I see a “linear” slide wire on the box. It is a Tannerin of not much more than an octave. The first of the wire on a drum-knob on a pot controllers was the Ondes Martinot dating from the same era as the theremin. Interesting that he plays it right handed, as I do with a slide guitar with self sustaining tech built into the instrument. The bar has the volume control built into it for one handed control!
    Only the drum-knob on a pot design can be made linear and is placed above or below a keyboard for a familiar feel.

    Remember though, there are no frets or keys in the human voice.

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