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Part 2: Instruments for Electronic Music Studios

The Multi-Track Recorder

The first instrument built by Le Caine for use in an electronic music studio was the Special Purpose Tape Recorder or "Multi-Track" of 1955 (910219). This was the first of five Multi-Tracks built at the National Research Council (NRC) lab. Le Caine composed his landmark composition Dripsody in 1955 using the new Multi-Track and a recording of a single drop of water. Several other compositions followed.

This 1955 instrument, the earliest Multi-Track Recorder, was used by Hugh Le Caine in his landmark 1955 composition, Dripsody. (National Library)

The instrument could have been used in performance, but this was done only once; it remained a studio instrument whose sole purpose was to facilitate the "musique concrète" technique of changing the playback speed of recorded sound. It was very similar in operation to modern sampling synthesizers that are widely used in popular music, particularly in rap.

The first Multi-Track remained in Le Caine's lab at the NRC until 1959 when it became the feature instrument of a new electronic music studio at the University of Toronto. This was the first such studio in Canada, and the second in North America. The new studio made the Multi-Track available for use by many composers and had a broad impact on the development of electronic music. Composers came from all over the world to work with it.

Later versions of the instrument added many useful features. One (860005) was sent to the new studio at McGill University in Montreal in 1964; others were sent to Queen's University (870022), the University of Toronto (910220) and to a studio in Jerusalem. Requests for Multi-Tracks were received from England and the United States but, again, like the Robb Wave Organ and Sackbut before it, the commercial manufacture of the instrument failed.

How It Works

The Multi-Track used keyboards that included many features of the Sackbut. One was used to control the changes in playback speed of the six reels of two-channel tape that were playing simultaneously, and another to combine the resulting sounds into a single stereo output. Keyboards provided convenient and immediate methods of controlling the instrument, as they could be easily operated by musicians and the pitch changes produced in the prerecorded sounds exactly matched those of the standard keyboard. Playing an octave on the keyboard would double (or halve) the playback speed and the sound would rise (or fall) by an octave.

Features of newer models included improved mixers (operated by touch-sensitive keys), filters, lighted panels to show operation modes, and the capability of playing up to ten stereo tapes. The instruments also became increasingly slick-looking, and easier to operate.