February 27, 2022

Adventures with the Electro-Faustus Photo Theremin

How to use it with pedals

The Electro-Faustus Photo Theremin is not a concert-grade theremin, but it’s close enough for rock and roll. Best feature? It’s a pedalboard-friendly instrument you can play entirely with one foot. And while it may seem like a gimmick or novelty you’d only use once per live show, this article runs it through through its paces with all kinds of pedals to see what sounds are possible.

What inspired this article was plugging the Photo Theremin into the TKOG Mini Glitch on a whim and finding songbirds coming out as demoed below.

So what exactly is the Photo Theremin? It’s probably the most primitive version of a synthesizer: a single, light-controlled, square-wave oscillator with a volume knob. Here’s what it sounds like with just the Prelude Quiet Theory Reverb following:

After experiments with numerous pedals the results here are the ones worth hearing. All samples below use the following path:

Photo Theremin > Effect Pedal > Quiet Theory Prelude Reverb > TC Wiretap

Delay: Quiet Theory Prelude

I’ve put this one first since following the Photo Theremin with just about any delay is foolproof. The Prelude yields beautiful repeats with a vintage quality. This adds a nostalgic feel and gives you the classic sci-fi movie sounds associated with theremins.

Envelope Filter: Solid Gold Funkzilla

An automatic envelope filter with a compact Q (or auto-wah) gives the Photo Theremin a human vocal quality. The now-defunct Funkzilla is one of the most flexible of these filters.

Formant Filter: Subdecay Vocawah

This short-lived, underrated pedal uses opposing envelope filters to create vowels sounds. Where a single envelope filter goes “wah”, this goes “yeah” and “ieee” It’s volume triggered, so when the oscillator volume gets above the threshold the filter makes the Photo Theremin talk.

Sample and Hold Filter: Earthquaker Devices Spatial Delivery

The Spatial Delivery is an envelope filter, but also lets you control the filter with a sample and hold circuit.

Pitch: Recovery Effects White Gold Choral Synth

Since the Photo Theremin has a single oscillator, a pitch pedal that can add voices would be a logical companion, but there’s no guarantee they’ll track the natural portamento of the Photo Theremin. One pitch pedal that works really well is the White Gold. This runs the dry signal through modulation and can add voices a fifth above and an octave above for a harmonious blend.

Tremolo: Subdecay Vagabond

A full-depth tremolo is nice for creating an sound envelope for the Photo Theremin. The Vagabond has an added Drift control that can slow down or speed up the tremolo based on input volume. So as you increase or decrease the volume of the oscillator, the speed of the tremolo changes.

My take

I use the Electro-Faustus Photo Theremin more as a sound effects device. And in my sound experiments I’ve found not every pedal will work with it, especially many digital pedals. After all, pedals are typically designed for guitars. For example, the Photo Theremin changes pitch in non-chromatic steps, so a freeze pedal will never actually capture a note on the scale. Since granular pedals are essentially a form of freeze, they may not do well either. As mentioned, pitch pedals may track poorly since most are built to work with chromatic intervals. Some digital pedals are designed to work within the range of guitar strings and give you audio mush when the wide-range of the Photo Theremin oscillator drifts above or below that.

I’ve also found that some pedals that do work really don’t do much. That’s because the sound of the Photo Theremin is similar to dive bombing on one string on a slightly-distorted guitar or a sweep-controlled mono square-wave synth oscillator. Since effects like chorus/flange/phase work best with chords, they probably won’t make the Photo Theremin shine. Likewise vribrato isn’t much use since you can create a vibrato manually with the Photo Theremin more easily than with any other pedal. But…I also discovered that you never know what you’ll get until you try it.

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