Systm: Make electricity sing: Build a thereminSynthesizers are cool, but the theremin is the original electronic instrument. We show you how to build one, and a master theremin player shows you what you can do with it.
[ Sound effect ] ^M00:00:04 >> Today's Systm is sponsored by the United States Air Force, Beck's, different by choice, and Dead Space, only the dead survive. You've probably heard the eerie notes of a Theremin in countless Sc-Fi movies and TV shows, but how much do you actually know about Theremins? What makes them tick and what it'd take to build one? We examine and build the geekiest instrument ever invented the Theremin on this episode of Systm. ^M00:00:24 [ Music ] ^M00:00:45 >> Patrick: Welcome to Systm I'm Patrick Norton and I'm Dave Calkins. So, you starred on the show, we start brainstorming ideas like rocket ship nuclear waste and Theremin were like the first three things out of your mouth. >> Dave: I love Theremins, it's a really cool, electronic instrument, it's very Systm oriented in which we're building something and it's electronic, but yet, it's off the norm -- ya know -- let's do something different, let's do something musical. >> Patrick: How do we start? >> Dave: How do we start, well, we went to a master Theremin player, a guy plays in Project Pimento, which is one of my favorite band, he spent years practicing with this thing to -- and so, we wanted to really find out what makes a Theremin tick and how to play it. ^M00:01:23 [ Music ] ^M00:01:27 >> Dave: So, before we actually talk about how to build your own Theremin, it would really help to know what a Theremin is, and how they work, and what happens if you spend 10 or 20 years practicing playing the Theremin. So, we've got one of the world's premiere Theremin players right here, Robby Virus to tell us about Theremins and give us a demonstration. Thanks for joining us Robby. >> Robby: Oh, thanks for having me. >> Dave: So, you've been playing the Theremin for how many years now? >> Robby: It's probably been about 12 year's maybe. >> Dave: 12 years and how did you get into it and how'd you find out? >> Robby: I read an article about it. There was a Theremin documentary that came out about 10 years ago and I read an article about the guy that was making the documentary and there's something about the instrument appealed to me, the idea of playing music on an instrument without actually touching anything. >> Dave: But when you do play it almost looks like you're like pulling on a string like you're playing like a harpsichord or something. >> Robby: Yeah, well you have to have -- ya know -- very strictly controlled movements in order to control it, but yeah, I'll get that a lot, I'll be playing, people will come up and wonder where the string I'm pulling on is. >> Dave: So, what exactly is a Theremin? >> Robby: Theremin is an electronic instrument. It was the first electronic instrument that was ever invented in somewhere around 1918 by Leon Theremin, he was a Russian scientist; he was actually working on radio when radio was being invented. What I've been told was that early radios had this defect that where you reach for the knob to tune them and you'd hear this WOO noise as your hand got close. And so, engineers were franticly trying to get rid of that noise and Theremin was like, "No, I like the noise, I want to get rid of the radio and keep the noise." >> Dave: For those of you who don't know, Theremins actually work by the electrical property of capacitance which is the closer you get to an antenna it's capacitance changes and it's the same principle that works when you're driving out of an electronic gate and the gate just automatically opens from your cars because basically there's a capacitance sensor under the road which senses the metal body which changes the capacitance, which is then measured and then once it hits a certain point basically an electronic timing circuit says, ooh, there's something here and it opens. They also use those in stop lights, so if you're waiting at a stop light, the new fangled stop lights, which if there's no other traffic will automatically change, what happens is there isn't a weight sensor under the tar but a capacitance sensor which is basically just a big hunk of metal. And what happens when a living creature or a big metal body gets near another plate, it changes how much capacity it has to maintain an electrical charge, which is how these work. Now, growing up when I would hear Theremins mostly it was just -- it was like a noise toy, ya know that basically -- they'd use if for a movie effect or something and somebody would kind of go like woo, woo, woo, woo, wa, but now there's more and more Theremin players really around the world that are actually playing it as though it were an instrument and -- >> Robby: Yeah, it's really had a revival in the past really 10 years, probably since the documentary came out there's been a large upsurge in interest in the number of people that are now actually -- >> Dave: And there is a -- >> Robby: playing it as an instrument and not as a sound -- >> Dave: a big group Theremin thing a little while ago, right? >> Robby: Yes, at the Disney Hall in LA it's a 10 Theremin orchestra apparently in the -- this was in the 20's or 30's and Leon Theremin, the inventor, had a show at Carnegie Hall where he had 10 Theremins on stage and all performing together and so, the LA Philharmonic actually wanted to recreate that or something like it. >> Dave: What are all the components of a Theremin? I mean, when you're wiggling your fingers I see you're moving your hands in two different directions, so how does that work? >> Robby: It's a -- let me demonstrate, so the left hand is volume. When your hand is next to the loop antenna the volume is off and when you pull your hand away [background noise] it gets louder. And then the right hand is pitch, it's coming out from this antenna the closer you are to the antenna the higher the pitch, up and down doesn't do anything it just in and out. ^M00:05:37 [ Background noise ] ^M00:05:42 >> Robby: And then in order to get the notes you have to do very precisely controlled sort of movements with your fingers. ^M00:05:48 [ Background noise ] ^M00:05:58 >> Dave: So you have sort of a mental image of -- ya know -- CDEFGABC? >> Robby: No, it's not visual. >> Dave: It's not visual at all? >> Robby: I don't really know what it is. >> Dave: It's magic. >> Robby: It's sort of muscle memory. >> Dave: Well, I think guitars are also muscle memory too, ya know as they don't know -- >> Robby: Yeah, but you kind of learn -- ya know -- I'm going up a fifth I need to do this and -- >> Dave: Now, there's a bunch of knobs down here, what do all these knobs do? >> Robby: So, this Theremin has a number of knobs, most of these are tone control it controls the wave forms so you can get a really sharp sounding tone. ^M00:06:36 [ Sound effect ] ^M00:06:40 >> Robby: That's kind of a hollow tone. ^M00:06:41 [ Sound effect ] ^M00:06:47 >> Robby: You can make it. ^M00:06:48 [ Sound effect ] ^M00:06:54 >> Robby: Really buzzy [sound effect] or more flute like [sound effect] so it's, yeah, it's mostly tone [inaudible] and then there's also a knob to control the octaves so there are 3 ranges there's low [sound effect], mid-range [sound effect], and high. ^M00:07:17 [ Sound effect ] ^M00:07:23 >> Robby: And then there's the final control, which is the most important, controls the pitch range from this antenna so you can turn this knob and the pitch field changes where it starts, where the note starts and it always ends at the antenna, but you can turn it in and out and it's important for if you're playing in a club, if you're playing next to a wall or something, ya know, the -- it's got to be capacitance in the wall or if there are wires around or if you're standing there it's gonna change the field and so, you turn the pitch knob and sort of bring the field into the range where it's controllable. >> Dave: Different Theremins have different controls, is that right? So, if I build a kit it's not gonna have all of these cool things as this one does and so on and so forth. >> Robby: Right, yeah, it certainly depends on the Theremin and on the kit if it's a kit. >> Dave: Do you build your own Theremins or do you buy them pre-made or both? >> Robby: This one was pre-made. The first one I ever got, which I have over here, did come as a kit, which I put together but I don't know much about electronics, it was the first and only time a soldered anything so. >> Dave: I don't know much about music so. >> Robby: Okay. >> Dave: Well, thank you Robby, it was certainly a pleasure. >> Robby: Yeah, thanks for having me. >> Dave: Of course. So, what's comin' up for Project Pimento? >> Robby: We have a number of gigs coming up you can find them on our website, www.projectpimento.com. >> Dave: And you have like albums and stuff there too? >> Robby: We have 2 CD's out they're both available at our website. >> Dave: Starring the Theremin and yourself? >> Robby: Starring the Theremin and myself and the rest of the amazing band. >> Dave: Excellent. ^M00:08:52 [ Sound effect ] ^M00:09:49 [ Music ] ^M00:09:52 >> Patrick: We want to take some time out to thank one of the sponsors of this week's show, EA's Dead Space, only the dead survive created by a handpicked team of horror fanatics. This is EA's first survival horror game and it's so terrifying they got an M rating, no kids allowed. Set in the cold blackness of deep space you pick up the role of engineer Isaac Clark [assumed spelling] aboard the mining ship USG Ishenbura [assumed spelling]. It's not long before Isaac awakes to a living nightmare when he learns that the ship's crew to a man has been ravaged by ambitious alien infestation. To survive you must master the art of strategic dismemberment, I like that phrase, and take advantage of the zero G environment to blast your way through your enemies. In fact, we were so inspired by the whole zero G thing, Systm's gonna attempt to create a pair of electromagnetic boots similar to the ones used in game to navigate the weightless Dead Space environment. Dead Space the game has also been a recipient of game critic awards, Best of E3 2008 for best action adventure game. You can find Dead Space in stores October 16th, if you want to play possibly the most terrifying video game ever made, preorder your copy online now, Deadspace.EA.com. ^M00:10:58 [ Music ] ^M00:11:01 >> Patrick: You never realize how complicated this is. >> Dave: What's really cool is the way that it's like he's playing the harp. I really think that this is like the harp where you're just -- you're plucking strings except he's plucking strings in the air and he just knows, he's got this perfect sense of relative distance, ya know? It's like gun slingers who can do third eye and -- ya know -- just by doing this -- ya know -- put holes in quarters from 200 yards. And he's just plucking and it's -- he can do it blindfolded, it's really cool. >> Patrick: It's really cool. So, what were you gonna say? Are you gonna build one from scratch or? >> Dave: I think we should build one from scratch, but if we did that probably we wouldn't get done for about 3 years so we went out and we looked at a couple of different kits. The thing that Robby plays is a Moog, which is a very nice kit. We wanted something that basically had a little bit more do it yourself, so we went with a different kit and it's not quite from scratch it's a full kit and it did have some problems with it -- ya know -- it's not the perfect kit, especially if you're a newbie [phonetic] and this is -- and you've got any soldering experience or anything like that. No matter what kit you buy you're gonna have to deal with the fact that a Theremin is not like a guitar where you just put the strings out and you start -- ya know -- playing it like that. There is a lot of tuning to the Theremin no matter what kind of Theremin you buy, there's a whole lot of knob tuning and things like that before you'll make it get its first sound. >> Patrick: 'Cause basically if you can solder you can put together a Theremin. >> Dave: If you can solder and use a screwdriver you can put a kit together, but once the kits together whether you've bought any given kind of kit or whether you've like just purchased one off the shelf that's totally ready to go, there's still a lot of -- ya know -- real tweaking of the different parts inside because it's an electronic instrument that you're not touching so it's real hard to get to the point where you actually know that sticking your hand out in the middle of space is doing something versus sticking your hand out in the middle of space and it's not doing anything. >> Patrick: You got it together, you powered it up, the red light goes on, you bring your hands forward, nothing happens and then out comes the screwdriver and you start adjusting potentiometers. >> Dave: And there's a lot of different potentiometers inside that need to be adjusted and the other thing is if you're not good with electronics and you just screwed something up, you swapped out two parts and you didn't know, it's not gonna work. So, there's a lot of problems in testing it and configuring it to make sure that you've done it right. I mean, after we're all soldered up and -- ya know -- went through the continuity test and everything like that, we had to sit there for a while -- ya know -- screwing things around until we could get it to make a sound and it was really -- it's difficult, and again, no matter what kit or brand you buy, it's difficult to get it zeroed in such that you know that you're having an affect on it. But it was really cool as we were sitting there -- ya know -- it's me and you and Camilla and we're screwing it together, and then all of a sudden it just starts going [sound effect]. ^M00:13:46 [ Music ] ^M00:13:50 >> Dave: So, we went with the kit called the Theremax, which was the least expensive kit available. >> Patrick: [inaudible] >> Dave: Yeah, exactly. Ya know, it was on Roger's credit card and getting Roger to. So, it was about 250 bucks, it's a good kit. A lot of the parts, if you're not used to resisters and things like that, they don't do a good job of presorting things so basically you put out this big bag of parts, especially resisters, and then you have to sort those, so I spent a long time just moving resisters around to sort them out. So, that's one of the things that people need to do. If you're not good with soldering and you've never done a lot of soldering before, this might not be a good kit for you, there's a lot of -- >> Patrick: May not be a good first project. >> Dave: It's not a good first project. >> Patrick: Build a headphone amplifier -- >> Dave: Head -- Yeah -- >> Patrick: learn [inaudible] solder joint and cold solder joints. >> Dave: If you've done a lot of soldering, you're gonna have no problem with this. If you're very experienced with soldering, this is gonna be a piece of cake you're just gonna go through this project no problem. >> Patrick: 8, 10, 12 hours. How many hours in this? >> Dave: Depending on the experience level of the person putting this together, I think our total time in the workshop was really only about 4 or 5 hours, which really isn't a lot of time. >> Patrick: Right >> Dave: If this is your first project or you haven't done a project in a long time, you could spend 12 hours on this. It's also -- ya know -- we had a little problem with the wood in terms that we needed to re-drill out some pilot holes to put the case together, things like that. >> Patrick: There were no pilot holes. >> Dave: There were no pilot holes, yeah. >> Patrick: Pilot hole base was the wrong size for the box. >> Dave: Yeah. And -- ya know -- it's just one of those things with -- ya know -- pay attention to the instruction book but also pay attention to the parts because they will vary. But, overall, even though there are a few errors in the kit, overall, it's still a really good kit. It's one of those things where they could probably clean up the instructions a little bit, go through them a little bit more. There's one part in which the instructions missed one entire big point, which was the volume control, which is the little hooped thing on the side of the thing, and they actually didn't put it in, so basically if you're putting it together exactly like the instructions but if you get everything and you're like, "Where's the hoop," it's not actually in the instructions so you have to go back and then do that. [music] >> It's time now for a word from our sponsors. Beck's, different by choice. Beck's is the number one German export beer and so naturally it's the beer of choice through the month of October. This fall Beck's want to give you the opportunity to win a trip to Germany as a part of their Oktoberfest celebration. That's right, [inaudible] Munich, the [inaudible] Berlin, the mighty wine, the history, the people, the food. If you've never experienced Germany, well, you just haven't completely lived, so register for a chance to win a one week trip to Germany courtesy of Beck's. On your cell phone text Beck's to Beers to be automatically registered or log on to Becksbeer.com for the full details. ^M00:16:35 [ Music ] ^M00:16:39 >> Dave: So to start the kit, basically you start by building the internal printed circuit board, which is a lot of small parts, and again, don't be afraid of all these small parts but take your time to make sure that you're using the right component and you're putting it in the right place. After that then you sort of flip it around and you build the actual control panel up here. I think my biggest complaint about the instructions is, is that you're running the wires and you first put them on to the printed circuit board and then you run them up here. And realistically I think it'd be a lot easier for somebody without a lot of experience if they start with the wires up here and then they run them to the circuit board and that's just sort of the way all of the components go together, it would be a little bit easier on that. Basically, if you're good with a soldering iron, if you're reasonably descent you can do all of this major stuff in 3, 4 hours tops. Ya know, be careful making everything go but basically, once you're done it's fairly easy and then you assemble the wood box, Patrick put the wood box together. Again, there are a couple of issues with this, but -- ya know -- it's an inexpensive kit you get what you pay for and not everything is perfectly lined up. So, the bottom plate is actually a lot longer so we end up with this lip here. If you're gonna be -- if you're a professional musician who's interested in a really good Theremin, you might want to go with a more expensive Moog, which actually has much more sturdy rods, but if you're gonna experiment with something like this, this is probably a better kit for experimentation for somebody who's not really that serious of a musician. But the cool thing is, is once you're done with it -- ^M00:18:14 [ Sound effect ] ^M00:18:26 >> Dave: Now, not as cool Robby's, so I can't do -- ^M00:18:27 [ Sound effect ] ^M00:18:31 >> Dave: And I'm not a musician either, but you can really get the effects here of seeing how the pitch changes as I get in and out. ^M00:18:39 [ Sound effect ] ^M00:18:53 >> Dave: You are gonna need external speakers or an amplifier or something like; we're just using our computer desk top. >> Patrick: But can you use headphones? >> Dave: You can use headphones, anything; it just uses a standard audio jack. So, if you look at the front here you can see all of our different controls, how we can operate the machine here. And if you're the kind of musician who wants to use external controls you've got all of these external foot petal type controls and, of course, you've got two bright shiny LED's, which -- ya know -- always makes things cool. >> Patrick: It's not a project if there's no LED. >> Dave: And if you like to work with wood you can stain the wood -- ya know -- probably gonna put this in our handy dandy laser etcher and put Systm across the top and stuff like that. It's a fun little kit, ya know? And for 250 bucks if you want to get into Theremins this is probably the way to go. [sound effect] >> Patrick: So, you just completed one of the final adjustments. >> Dave: So, we just took off the jumper and we tweaked -- >> Patrick: The jumper. >> Dave: the jumper. Basically, when you're calibrating it, initially, you jump away the volume so to make sure that you can get any kind of pitch in sound, once you're done with that then you recalibrate the volume. If we can get the volume up we can see that. While Patrick is adjusting it'll actually help if we're making contact. While Patrick is adjusting we're [inaudible]. [inaudible] >> Patrick: Do I have to? >> Dave: No, just -- so. Now we've got volume control here and pitch control there. >> Patrick: And dufuss [phonetic] control here. [laughing] >> Dave: If we look at the board you can see that basically you can play with things like velocity, so here why don't you -- >> Patrick: I'm gonna move out of the range of it. >> Dave: No, no, no, oh, here. So, with the -- so veloci -- put your hand. Do that -- thank you. >> Patrick: It's more complicated when you have to use both hands. >> Dave: So -- no, no, no, be steady. So, you can see that we can adjust the -- >> Patrick: The antenna was whaling, sorry. >> Dave: So, we can adjust the timber, we can hear little pitch changes there. The pitch [inaudible], the pitch trim, and the velocity, and Robby tried to explain to me what velocity was and I never quite got it at the studio. >> Patrick: We're turning velocity down. Put it up. >> Dave: It doesn't seem like there's any difference to me. >> Patrick: Try it the other way. ^M00:21:19 [ Sound effect ] ^M00:21:25 >> Dave: Obviously, neither Pat nor I are musicians so we're gonna have little problems with this. [music] >> We'd like to take a moment now for a short message from the United States Air Force. >> I'm Lieutenant Colonel John Wagner, United States Air Force. I'm the Commander of 45th Launch Support Squadron. Ya know, I've always wanted to be a part of the Space Program and the Air Force is an exciting place to do just that. Most people don't realize that the Air Force Space Program is equivalent to NASA in size and scope and most cases larger. Now, the shuttle launches about once a month and I've got 3 launches here in the next 30 days, so if you want to be in the Space Program, the Air Force is a great way to do it. ^M00:22:03 [ Sound effect ] ^M00:22:09 >> Patrick: So, you gonna take this home, practice, or is Camilla gonna get it? >> Dave: Camilla, our Swedish intern is gonna get it she has laid a claim to it, apparently she can't open up a beer bottle but she can play the Theremin. >> Patrick: You've got to quit hammer -- ya know -- we all have failures opening cans and bottles once in a while. I'll tell you what, you let her take it, but she's actually got to perform a song. >> Dave: That is a good idea. On a future episode of Systm, Camilla, our Swedish intern, will be performing the Star Wars theme. >> Patrick: Or Mary had a Little Lamb. >> Dave: Mary had a Little Lamb, we'll work with that. >> Patrick: Or the ever popular, the Vulga Boatmen [assumed spelling]. >> Dave: I think it would actually be cool if the people at home who actually build their own Theremins, or maybe already got a Theremin, could upload some YouTube video and post it on the forum. >> Patrick: I like that thought. You got any ideas, comments, or suggestions, do us a favor e-mail us; firstname.lastname@example.org and where are those forums? >> Dave: And don't forget to visit us at the forums at revision3.com slash forums and visit our archives at revision3.com slash Systm. >> Patrick: That's all the older episodes. And do me a favor; do not miss this week's Tekzilla. In case you didn't know I actually host another little show on the network, Tekzilla.com, it's your destination for technology information and advice with Roger Right [assumed spelling], flare style and a whole lot of fun. Each week Veronica and I, we basically go after the toughest tech questions we can find sent in by you the viewer, so if you need help with that network router you just bought or you just want advice on which MP3 player to pick up, you can find it all on Tekzilla, new show every Saturday morning 12 PM Eastern. >> Dave: Alright, that's it for this episode. I want to thank Robby Virus again for helping us out. You can learn more about his wonderful work at projectpimento.com and you can pick up his CD's. So, until next time -- >> Patrick: I'm Patrick Norton. >> Dave: and I'm Dave Calkins. >> Patrick: And that's it for this episode of Systm. ^M00:23:41 [ Music ] ^M00:24:35 >> Oh my God! ^E00:24:38