Did you know that electronic music started in 1928, with the invention of the Theremin?
You might think that electronic music started sometime in the 1980s or 1990s with digital synthesizers and the beginnings of the personal computer.
Or you might imagine it started at the beginning of this century with the development of looping and sampling software on the PC and music production apps on the iPad.
Or, if you are into the current modular analog synthesizer scene (or if you are a hipster into LPs, film cameras, retro analog technology, and nitro cold brew coffee) you are probably certain it started in 1964 with the invention of the first commercial analog synthesizer, the Moog synthesizer.
What’s a Theremin?
A theremin is one of the first electronic instruments, predating the first commercially available electric guitar by a few years. It is hard to date it exactly. We can date it by patents, when it was commercially available, or when hobbyists, inventors and scientists began experimenting with it. With electronic music technology, someone has to invent it and produce the technology before musicians and composers could to produce live and recorded music.
A theremin has two antennas that control tone and volume based on how close the musician’s hands are to each antenna. The musician never actually touches he instrument. The instrument can slide between notes and create vibrato effects similar to a stringed instrument or the trombone.
The theremin is probably most famous for producing the eerie music you hear in old classic 1950s Sci Fi movies like Forbidden Planet and The Day the Earth Stood Still, but it also has been used in recordings and performances by popular groups such as The Rolling Stones, Phish, Tesla, and Led Zepplin.
In 1928, the Russian inventor Leon Theremin invented the theremin. He was involved in the music scene in New York City until 1938, when he was kidnapped by Soviet agents and returned to the Soviet Union.
The Soviet Union had other plans for him and he ended up inventing various devices for spies to eavesdrop, including a device that could record conversations by using an infrared beam to detect the sound vibrations in the glass of windows. There are more modern versions of this device that use lasers and are still in use today.
In 1966, the Beach Boys recorded a song called Good Vibrations, which is considered one of the most important recordings in rock music, because of the way it used multi-tracking techniques and placed the emphasis on studio production to create the music. It was not a merely a recording of a live performance.
The recording techniques used in Good Vibrations and in songs by The Beatles in the mid-1960s were really when techniques like digital sampling, looping and layering used in music production today were first developed. Today computers and technology make using these techniques much easier.
The Beach Boys also used an electro-theremin in the song Good Vibrations. An electro-theremin is a bit different than a theremin, but it produces a similar sound, and was inspired by the Theremin.
When Tanner could not perform live with them, the Beach Boys went to Bob Moog. Moog designed a ribbon controller for a keyboard, a strip above the keyboard that the musician could run a finger along to change the pitch of the note. It produces a similar sound to an electro-theremin or a theremin.
In the late 1950s, trombonist Paul Tanner and inventor Bob Whitsell invented the electro-theremin, which used a knob and a mechanical slider to produce a sound that mimicked the Theremin. In 1966, The Beach Boys hired Paul Tanner to play the electro-theremin on the recording of Good Vibrations.
In 1949, at the age of 14, Robert Moog, inspired by Leon Theremin, built his first Theremin from a design he got from a magazine. In 1953, Moog designed his own theremin and started a company. In 1964, he created and began selling the Moog synthesizer, which was the first commercially available analog synthesizer and the beginnings of the synthesizers that we commonly hear in music today.
Moog Music in Asheville, NC still makestheremins and analog synthesizers. They also make several synth apps, including Animoog which has a special Animoog keyboard designed for use with a touch screen.
At the time of writing this the iPhone version is around $4.99 and iPad version is $29.99. You can also currently get the Moog Model D app for free, which works on both iPhone and iPad, but it does not have the special Animoog keyboard, it just has a standard on screen keyboard, and it is only free for a limited time.