Everybody just be quiet and look at this for a second. Absolute madman and legend Linus Åkesson has turned a Commodore 64 computer into an actual functioning theremin, and I’m losing my goddamn mind over how cool it is.
To be fair on the excitement, I’m a bit of a theremin fan, and yes we do exist, and hello to any others out there. To everyone else, I welcome you on your journey to enjoying one of the first electronic instruments ever to be invented. If you’re after a C64 that games instead of plays wonderous music, check out these prebuilds on offer (opens in new tab).
As Linus Åkesson explains in his video, (opens in new tab) the theremin was invented back in 1920 by Leon Theremin and became widely known as that thing that makes sci-fi noises. This was because it was so unique and wildly alien compared to other sounds of the time. Think of that high pitch alien wobbly sound mimicked in things like the Dr Who intro or and you’re on the right track. It quickly became associated with the extraterrestrial and paranormal for films.
Which is very fair because the theremins themselves are pretty supernatural. You don’t even touch them to play and instead they work by generating electromagnetic fields between two antenna points that are then manipulated in the air by the player to change the pitch and volume. It’s the ultimate in look mum no hands, of weird sci fi sounds.
Or it was until it got taken that one step further by being made out of a freaking Commodore 64. Of course this C64 theremin sounds a bit different to the usual open wailing as it’s using the C64’s lead sound to make noise. Åkesso explains that he used the C64 in conjunction with two 555s, four resistors, a spoon, and a clamp to create this amazing machine. He also includes a complete explanation for how the project works, including a bunch of the interesting science behind it (opens in new tab).
His YouTube video (opens in new tab) above also gives a more in depth explanation, along with a performance of the device playing alongside a piano. Åkesso notes that it’s quite difficult to play but also says “Still, it’s a very special feeling to hold a tone in front of you in the air.”
Sadly, for many of us theremin lovers (DOZENS OF US) the instrument doesn’t get nearly enough love or use, especially in modern music. Now that synthesisers are commonplace the creepy tones are simply easier to achieve through other methods, with more precise keyboards and software. GarageBand for example, has a 50’s sci-fi alchemy synth keyboard that approximates a theremin nicely, which you can hear in my ambient sci-fi podcast (opens in new tab), but no actual direct theremin comparison. Here’s hoping someone adds a C64 theremin sound ASAP.