Here’s a bit of its history from the website of The Soundbeam Project – the people behind this wonderful device:

Soundbeam’s ancestor is the Thereminvox, invented by the Russian composer Leon Theremin in 1920. This machine was the inspiration behind composer and Soundbeam originator Edward Williams’ 18 year search for a device which would enable dancers to create and shape the music which accompanies them with their own body movements. The prototype of Soundbeam was built in 1984, and by 1989 the machine was being produced commercially by Cornwall-based Electronic Music Studios (EMS), developers of the VCS3 – the first synthesiser to be widely used in schools and universities, and by the more adventurous rock groups.” From

Robin Wood, involved with EMS from 1970 onwards and maker of early Soundbeam models, is still going strong and making new classic analogue synthesisers, including the legendary VCS3!

The Soundbeam model we use is the Soundbeam 2 as this is the one we’ve become used to over the years and we know how to use it. We find it very flexible to use, especially when used to control other bits of technology. However, programming it can be a bit obscure (!) and the Soundbeam Project are now up to Soundbeam 6, which is much more user friendly and makes it possible to control video as well as music.

The control unit of Soundbeam 2, showing the buttons used for programming and selecting set ups, together with the LCD display. The 4 small red lights show when one of the four sensors plugged into the back is being triggered – useful in a workshop to show if the sensor and cable are working okay.

Basically, the Soundbeam uses a sensor which sends out a beam of very high-pitched sound (ultrasound) which, when it meets an object – such as a hand – gets reflected back to the sensor. This echo is then turned into a midi message by the control unit into which the sensor is plugged. (Simply put, Midi is a system of electronic messages which tell a sound synthesiser what sort of sound to make).

A Soundbeam ultrasonic sensor mounted on a microphone stand. The white mark on the stand is to help a player visualise where the end of the beam is. The beam can be shortened or lengthened by the end points being moved and set by the control unit.

The ultrasonic beam is split up into divisions so that individual notes can be played depending on where the beam is broken. The Soundbeam control unit can also make the beam very short to being stretched out across a school hall! Our Soundbeam 2 unit will support up to 4 beams being used at the same time.

We can program each beam to play anything one of our musicians wants to play – a riff, melody, chord progression – you name it – using the sound of any instrument that’s ever been made!

A view of the back of the control unit showing the various connections used – sockets for the four sensors it can support and the ubiquitous Midi connections found throughout music technology equipment.

Sometimes it can be a bit confusing for one of our musicians to understand what’s going on, as the beam is invisible, consisting of sound. We can help to overcome this by tying a piece of string or ribbon around the sensor and stretching it out along the path of the beam. The musician can then visualise the beam better and follow the piece of string along its length to play the beam. Sometimes we can tie bits of coloured bits of paper onto the string, so someone can see exactly where the beam should be broken – for example when playing a simple chord progression.