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Early Synthesizers, Keyboard and Performance Instruments

The Electronic Sackbut

The Electronic Sackbut (750336) was designed by Hugh Le Caine at his home studio in Ottawa, Ontario, beginning in 1945. All electronic instruments were to some extent precursors of the synthesizer, but this instrument stands out for its innovative character. Le Caine was familiar with Morse Robb's Wave Organ and the Hammond Organ, and had built a touch-sensitive electronic reed organ in the 1930s. Le Caine's Sackbut, however, used an entirely different method of sound generation and control--voltage control--a method that later became the standard approach in electronic music. Because it pioneered this technique, the Sackbut is considered to have been the first synthesizer.

The original Sackbut, built by Hugh Le Caine between 1945 and 1948. (CSTM)

The first Sackbut was operational by 1945, and completed in 1948. In 1954 Le Caine began to work full time on electronic music in a new lab at the National Research Council (NRC). His Sackbut was then brought to the NRC for further development. This is the only model that survives of four versions of the Sackbut. A second model was built at NRC labs between 1954 and 1960. Two further models were built there between 1969 and 1973 in an attempt to make the instrument available commercially as a synthesizer. The instrument was never manufactured, due mainly to economic reasons, a fate similar to the earlier Robb Wave Organ.

How it works

This technique provides an automatic background voltage that can remain stable or change according to the needs of the user. The performer's physical actions, in changing the positions of keys or knobs, are translated into changes in the pre-existing voltage, and these changes in turn are used to affect many different aspects of the sound produced by the instrument. This technique provides a wider range of possibility to both the instrument designer and the performer.
In the summer of 1946, Le Caine organized jam sessions in the basement of his house to test the Sackbut. On July 25 he recorded Stuart Jenness perform Sleepy Lagoon, Estrelita, and Stardust on the Sackbut and piano. The Sackbut was recorded first and then replayed while Jenness played the piano. The session was registered on an acetate disk at 78 rpm. This is the earliest known recording of the Sackbut, and possibly the earliest existing recording of an electronic music instrument.

The Sackbut produced only one note at a time, but its systems for control of that one sound were extraordinary: the keyboard was sensitive to vertical pressure, so that alterations of pressure produced changes in volume; it was also laterally sensitive so that side-to-side motion produced subtle (or dramatic) sliding changes in the pitch of the sound. While the right hand played the keyboard, selecting notes and controlling volume and vibrato, the left hand operated an innovative waveform control device that could continuously change four different aspects of the texture of the sound. This ability to gradually change from one sound to another was an important aspect of the instrument. It enabled the player to avoid the sudden switching between separate sounds that characterized electronic organs. For Le Caine these detailed controls contributed to the "expressivity" of the instrument, something he felt other electronic instruments lacked.
Le Caine composed the Sackbut Blues to demonstrate a spectrum of unique sounds that could be created on the Sackbut.
Courtesy of Gayle Young, JWD Music, in co-operation with the Hugh Le Caine project.

In designing the Sackbut, Le Caine adapted technologies already familiar in atomic physics, radar, and radio technology, all areas in which he had worked at Queen's University and later as a scientist at the National Research Council (NRC) in Ottawa. Le Caine used devices such as waveform generators, filters, frequency modulators, and amplitude modulators, and transposed the sounds into the human auditory range.

Le Caine's Sackbut was "pre-patched," meaning that the electrical connections within the instrument could not be changed. Later voltage-controlled synthesizers were all, to some extent, undefined, so that wires (or patch cords) could be used to link the voltages to various modules within the instrument. This approach, which required some technical expertise, is much less common today. It was related to the techniques used in electronic music studios where composers could, for the first time, experiment with the basic elements of sound and try new ideas.

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