Waukesha County Man Takes Hands On Approach To Building Theremins

By Trevor Keller | October 21, 2021


Charles Collins has always enjoyed tinkering with electronics. He spent time three decades ago fixing instruments in a music store.

“I like to know why things break or why things do what they do,” says Collins.

One day he came across a brochure highlighting an unusual electronic instrument, the theremin. Invented by Leon Theremin more than 100 years ago, the instrument is essentially a small box with one or two antennas.

“A theremin has two circuits, two basic components inside. One being the pitch circuit and the other is the volume,” says Collins.

Theremins are different than almost any other musical instrument because it’s played without any physical contact. A performer manipulates the tone and pitch by hovering their hands over the theremin and carefully controlling the shape and distance of their hands in relation to the device and the antennas.

“It operates with two radio frequency oscillators, mixing them together to form a third frequency, which has an audio tone,” says Collins.

It creates an eerie, ethereal sound that was common in 1950s science-fiction movies. The sound of the “monster,” as Collins describes it. Once he learned about the theremin, he had to have one.

Collins recalls, “I was able to find one at a swap meet and the guy thought it was a burglar alarm that didn’t work very well. It was inexpensive and it was fascinating and I thought, you know, other people would like this. Maybe I could make a cheap one, and it took off from there.”

More than two decades later, Collins is still building theremins. His website “Theremaniacs” ships devices all over the world. Collins spends a lot of time in his basement workshop, trying to get the sound of a new theremin just right.

“It’s essentially a pretty simple circuit. It’s still challenging,” says Collins, “When things don’t work quite right, there’s a reason and sometimes that reason can be very elusive.”

Ironically, Collins doesn’t know how to properly play the instrument, but he still enjoys making them. He estimates he’s made more than 10,000 theremins in 25 years.

“I didn’t want to work at a factory, so I essentially made my own factory,” says Collins.

Trevor Keller

Trevor Keller

Trevor Keller is Executive Producer of “Wisconsin Life” for PBS Wisconsin. He loves photography and is always looking for a new Wisconsin park, trail or scenic overlook to explore.

Sign Up Form

Sign Up for Our Bi-Weekly Newsletter

Get your favorite Wisconsin Life stories, meet the crew, and go behind the scenes.

Our Favorite Collections

Storyteller Rodney Lambright II's comic series about the rich relationship between a single father, his young daughter and his retirement-age parents.
For the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, we discover how Wisconsinites experienced the war both at home and on the battlefield.
Ice, cold and winter are an integral part of what it means to live in Wisconsin. "Ice Week" explores the many ways that ice defines us.
Food plays a central part in many holiday traditions. This series honors the foods and meals that make the day.
Escape winter with a look at some of Wisconsin's favorite sports and games.
"Living the Wisconsin Life" is an online series exploring the little things that make living in Wisconsin fun, interesting and meaningful.