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The Moog Claravox Centennial

Celebrating 100 Years of the Theremin

Ryan Gaston · 10/22/20

Celebrating the theremin's hundredth year, Moog have introduced the new Claravox Centennial—a special edition professional-grade theremin with a classic look and modern features. Claravox will provide you years of fun, but it's no is built to top standards, and is an ideal instrument for both new and seasoned thereminists.

To many, the theremin is a quite peculiar instrument. One of the earliest electronic musical instruments, it is well-known as the only instrument meant to be played without touching...the user instead positions their hands in the air near the instrument, and by changing their proximity to the two built-in antennas, has the ability to continuously vary the volume and pitch of the resulting sound. And while that might make it sound easy, the theremin is actually quite difficult to master. The Claravox offers several options that expand the typical playing experience to make it both more approachable and more flexible than the average theremin—but to better understand what makes the Claravox so special, let's take a quick look at the history of this odd and wonderful instrument.

What is a Theremin, Anyway?

Theremin at his own instrument Theremin at his own instrument

The theremin was invented by Russian scientist Leon Theremin. Theremin had shown an aptitude for working with electronics at a young age, and attended a military engineering school, in which he studied to be a radio engineer. Eventually, he began work at the Physical Technical Institute in Petrograd, studying the use of high-frequency oscillation as a means of detecting the dielectric properties of gases, motion detection, and more.

Eventually, Theremin's work led him to discover an interrelated series of effects that led to the creation of audible tones which could be influenced by proximity to an electronic circuit, effectively treating the body like a single plate of a capacitor. He first discovered this effect in October of 1920 (yes, 100 years ago!), and quickly realized its potential as a musical instrument, performing his first concert on the device in November 1920.

The theremin is a deceptively simple instrument. At bare minimum, the typical theremin has two antennae—the player's proximity to these two antennae determines the resulting sound's pitch and loudness, respectively. Often, the instrument will also have some basic controls for adjusting the timbre. Aside from that, the sound of the theremin is up to the player...and time has proven that, even though it might seem simple, the theremin is capable of some truly beautiful and haunting sounds. In the right hands (or erm, near the right hands?) the theremin can sound like a voice, or a string section, or like something entirely otherworldly. Because of its uncanny and somewhat eerie nature, the theremin was quickly and widely adopted in orchestral music, popular music, and film scores.

Concert composers like Bohuslav Martinu, Joseph Schillinger, and Christian Wolff took advantage of the theremin's unique sound and gliding timbres, while film composers Miklós Rósza (Spellbound and The Lost Weekend) and Bernard Hermann (The Day the Earth Stood Still) solidified the instrument's association with the occult, otherworldly, and mysterious. Of course, the instrument was also famously featured in performances of "No Quarter" and "Whole Lotta Love" by Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page, and the cult classic group Lothar and the Hand People famously named their band after their own Moog theremin, lovingly called Lothar.

Theremin's work in surveillance, radio, and television technologies proceeded the rest of his life. He even created several other musical instruments, from the Rhythmicon (which eventually inspired Moog's Subharmonicon), theremin cello, and Terpsitone (a theremin-like instrument meant to be controlled by dancers). However, none of his other musical devices quite had the cultural impact of the theremin, which itself has led a tremendously varied and interesting life.

Moog & the Theremin

A young Bob Moog with an early Moog theremin. Image via Bob Moog Foundation. A young Bob Moog with an early Moog theremin. Image via Bob Moog Foundation.

The theremin has a close relationship to the birth of the analog synthesizer. While it can of course be seen as an obvious predecessor to the modern synthesizer, there's an even closer link between the theremin and the first modular synths: Bob Moog. In the 1950s, a young Robert Moog produced theremins and theremin kits—a fact which eventually brought him together with experimental composer Herb Deutsch, with whom Moog collaborated to create the first Moog modular synthesizers. An amateur player himself, the theremin remained close to Moog's heart throughout his life—and this can be seen through his history of producing and selling theremins. (Incidentally, for a deep dive into Moog history—including his work with theremins—I'd strongly recommend checking out this page on the Bob Moog Foundation site, which provides an excellent photographic timeline of Moog's life.

Of course, the early R.A. Moog theremins were his start—but his various companies throughout the years have all had a hand in theremin production. In the '90s, his company Big Briar produced a series of theremins known as Series 91, which came in three cabinet types, all quite compelling and retro-inspired. Moog Music Inc., formed in 2002 produced what are now some of the best-known and iconic theremins of all time: the Etherwave series.

The most striking model from this range was the Etherwave Pro, a theremin commonly seen onstage with virtuosic performers such as Pamelia Stickney, Carolina Eyck, Coralie Ehinger, and others (as seen in the photos above). The Etherwave Pro is, with little doubt, one of the most fully-featured theremins ever produced—its beautiful wooden cabinet includes controls for brightness, waveshape, filtering, and a host of niceties for setup and performance, including a dedicated tuner output, headphone output, and even CV outputs for interfacing with modular synthesizers or other CV-capable equipment. This now quite rare instrument is a long-standing choice of professional thereminists, but can now be difficult to track down—and when you do find one, it comes with a price.

The Moog Etherwave Standard provides an alternative for players who wanted a great-sounding, robust instrument at a more approachable price point. The Etherwave Standard has been a go-to instrument for people looking to start playing the theremin for several years. While there are other alternatives out there, Moog's Etherwave is a long-standing favorite due to its compact design, remarkable sound, and a build quality which holds up to Moog's world-class standards. The Etherwave Plus is a slightly expanded variant of the Etherwave Standard, providing a dedicated headphone output, as well as a gate output and CV outputs for each antenna (much like the Etherwave Pro before it).

Composer / performer Dorit Chrysler with the Moog Theremini Composer / performer Dorit Chrysler with the Moog Theremini

The Theremini, first introduced in 2014, offers an even more extended feature set than any of its predecessors—and at a price even more approachable to beginners. The most profound difference between the Theremini and its siblings is that at its core, it is a digital device, and not an analog one. This make it capable of a wide range of things that the other models cannot quite approach. For one, it uses a sound engine borrowed from the Animoog software, and includes a variety of presets that produce sounds ranging from traditional theremin tones to wavetable-like synth sounds. Additionally, it includes a built-in delay effect, MIDI input and output, and even note quantization—meaning that users can lock the pitch response to a scale, making it such that the particularly difficult parts of learning the theremin can be eliminated if you desire. This can be a huge help in overcoming the sometimes discouraging difficulties of getting to know the instrument and help you gradually develop technique over time...making it much more fun and usable right out of the box.

If a new thereminist wants to upgrade to a professional instrument, or if a seasoned player wants to branch out into new territories, where do they turn? You'd think that in 2020, the theremin's centennial, that there would be a professional offering available to celebrate this instrument's rich history. And thanks to Moog, now there is: the Claravox Centennial.

The Claravox Centennial

Moog's Claravox Centennial is their new flagship theremin, with a look, sound, and feel that borrows the best aspects of all of Moog's prior instruments. Paying homage to the first virtuosa theremin performer Clara Rockmore, the Claravox is one of the most fully-featured theremins Moog has ever produced: a fitting celebration of the instrument's hundred years of existence. Claravox offers the sound of a professional grade analog instrument with many of the modern niceties from the Theremini, from wavetable sound sources to MIDI support, built-in delay, and pitch quantization.

Claravox's analog sound generation circuit is directly based on the Etherwave Pro, offering continuous Wave and Filter adjustments to provide access to a wide range of tones from gentle and soft to buzzy and bright. Of course, if analog sounds aren't what you're going for, you can switch out of "Traditional" mode and into "Modern" mode in order to make use of wavetable generators, pitch quantization, and scale selection—making Claravox Centennial approachable to beginners, but also providing a new dimension of playing techniques to even seasoned performers. The quantization intensity is also continuously variable, allowing for everything from soft, smooth pitch correction all the way to hard-tuned, stepped melodic response. The on-board analog delay brings a universe of warm, dark echoes directly to the instrument itself, allowing continuous control of the delay amount, feedback, and echo time interval, making it easy to add a sense of space to your playing.

The instrument also includes a variety of performance niceties: a dedicated headphone output, a mute switch for the main outputs, and even preset storage—allowing you to quickly and reliably change between groups of settings for different songs and different performance behaviors. There is also a dedicated register control, allowing for overall transposition, as well as adjustments for pitch and volume response, allowing you to curve the antenna responses individually to suit your personal playing style. It features separate main and tuner outputs (great for ensuring your entrances are in tune).

And in terms of other connectivity, the Claravox Centennial has a little bit of everything. It features CV outputs for the pitch and volume antennas, an expression pedal and sustain pedal input, and MIDI In/Out via 5-pin DIN and USB. The USB connection also enables access to a software editor, which in turn unearths several under-the-hood features and a means of managing your presets. At the present date, this editor is available only for Mac and iOS platforms, but we're told that a Windows/Android version is in the works.

The Claravox Centennial is a beautiful instrument, and a fitting new entry into the history of the theremin as a whole. It provides a potent combination of modern conveniences and classic performance in a timelessly beautiful package. Perfect for beginners and professional performers alike, this gorgeous instrument is a testament to the innovative spirit of its predecessors, and will no doubt be seen on stage and in studios for years to come. Its retro-yet-futuristic design will fit in any environment, and the Moog-quality build makes it an instrument that will last—and one which you'll no doubt spend many years coming to know.

The Claravox is available in both right-handed and left-handed orientations, along with an optional matched walnut stand. Keep in mind that this instrument is also a limited edition release—so if you're thinking about diving into the ethereal world of the theremin, there's no time like the present. Whether you're a film composer, an adventurous soloist, or someone looking to explore uncanny sounds that feel equally at home in the past and the future—the Claravox Centennial just might be your next favorite instrument.