It seems like everyone, including yours truly, complains about modern music. Teenagers yelling about how sad they are, pop princesses making formulaic, auto-tuned music, guitarists who refuse to learn more than three chords…
In reality, though, there is plenty of creative, satisfying music still being made, it’s just not necessarily what you’ll find on the radio. Even genres that seemed like dead ends twenty years ago, like electronica and metal, continue to evolve. Part of this is about stylistic refinements and cross-pollination from other styles, but technology also plays a role. And the latter doesn’t always have to mean digital editing and effects.
On the one hand, you find the desire to go retro. There are few technical reasons, for instance, to prefer vacuum tube amps over modern gear. Even so, musical greats like Jimi Hendrix are so well-loved partly because of their genius at working with their equipment’s limitations, so people continue to emulate them.
This is fine, but there’s also no reason not to push the boundaries in the other direction. One cheap, easy way of doing so and expanding your range is to get a theremin.
History and Use of Theremins
This piece of gear has actually been in existence since 1920 (invented in the Soviet Union, which has, in fact, produced some great tunes). For the most part, it used to be seen as something more useful for producing atmospheric effects for movies than a serious musical instrument.
Even so, bands such as Led Zeppelin, Portishead, and the Rolling Stones have all used it to good effect; even classical musicians play it on occasion (check this short sample).
How to Play It
Unlike every other instrument, you never lay a finger on a theremin while playing it. Where you hold your hands relative to an antenna determines the volume and pitch produced, and this can travel smoothly without regard to normal scales.
This makes it both easier and more difficult to play than traditional instruments: anybody can make a cool sound with it, but playing a melody well is quite a trick. This is actually what makes this particular model the one we like best, especially for background soundscaping rather than main themes.
Unlike a professional theremin, you only control pitch, while varying the volume will require a separate pedal (you can also splice in any kind of effect pedal if you like, using the ¼ TS jack on the rather awkwardly short cable). This makes it much easier to get the hang of things, although you’ll probably need some guidance to get started:
Another thing we like (though you might not) is its small size. At around 6 inches long, it’s perfect for placing on a tabletop or next to a mixing desk, but this does make fine control more difficult.
In other words, this is a relatively cheap theremin that’s great to play around with and find out if you want to use this fluid, violin-like sound in your music. If, however, you’re a serious musician rather than a hobbyist, you’ll quickly get frustrated with its limitations (and you’ll have to pay a lot more to get something much better).