Gear Stories With Sylvia Massy: Whole Lotta Theremin

Apr 27, 2010 2:49 PM, By Sylvia Massy



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The inventor and his instrument

The inventor and his instrument

There are conflicting reports on what exactly had happened to Theremin during World War II and the ensuing Cold War. It is known that he was “rehabilitated” by the KGB and released in 1956, when he was awarded the Stalin Prize for inventing an espionage device called the “buran,” the precursor to the modern laser microphone. The buran used infrared light reflections to detect and translate sound vibrations from distant glass surfaces and was used as a spying device against the U.S. during the Cold War. Theremin had built friendships with Americans who loved his electronic instruments and music, yet he was obliged to support his homeland by providing his scientific inventions to the Soviet government. This double alliance eventually tore Theremin’s world apart. After working for the KGB, Theremin had a lab at the Moscow Conservatory of Music for 10 years where he taught and built Theremins, electronic cellos and terpsitones. A visiting correspondent discovered him there, and when a New York Times article was published about the Russian inventor, the managing director of the Conservatory said, “The people don’t need electronic music. Electricity is for killing traitors in the electric chair.” He then fired Professor Theremin, closed his laboratory and had his instruments destroyed.

The completely uncontrollable terpsitone

The completely uncontrollable terpsitone

Theremin eventually returned to the United States in 1991. He died in Moscow in 1993 at the age of 97. His designs have been rebuilt by enthusiasts over the years, including the late Robert Moog, pioneer of the modern synthesizer. Theremin was also immortalized in the 1994 movie of his life: Theremin—An Electronic Odyssey, further reviving interest in the inventor and his instruments.  

After seeing a Theremin instrument being used in a session, I purchased a prebuilt kit model developed by Moog and sold by Big Briar (and it’s actually signed by Mr. Moog!). Modern Thereminists enjoy using “concert”-quality instruments by several manufacturers today, including Moog Music, Theremaniacs, Burns and Harrison Instruments. The “Ethervox” is Moog Music’s contribution as the world’s first MIDI Theremin. More recently, Theremin technology has been used to create a new generation of guitar effect controllers. The Probe from Z.Vex Pedals is an amazing device for your guitar, controlled by the proximity of your foot to the pedal. Z.Vex now makes several varieties of the Probe, including a Fuzz Probe, Tremolo Probe and Wah Probe.

Theremin will forever be a part of electronic music’s colorful landscape, and should be recognized for innovation and creativity in the field of music technology. I keep my Theremin in the equipment locker at the studio and look forward to every chance I can bring it out. If you have a Theremin in your closet, make sure all your foundation tracking has been done, because unless your performer is a virtuoso, this solo may take awhile. It can be a heck of a lot of fun, but can also eat up all your precious tracking time! 

Sylvia Massy is the unconventional producer and engineer of artists including Tool, System of a Down, Johnny Cash, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tom Petty and Prince. She is a member of the NARAS P&E Wing Steering Committee and Advisory Boards, and is a resident producer at RadioStar Studios in Weed, Calif.

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