Hugh Le Caine (1914 – 1977)

Hugh Le Caine, with his analogue synthesizer, the Electronic Sackbut.

Hugh Le Caine (1914-05-27 – 1977-07-03) was a Canadian physicist, composer, inventor and instrument builder. This weblog post asserts his claim as an inventor of the synthesizer, the Sackbut, in 1945.

Before continuing, there are two predecessors who do not quite meet the bar in terms of inventing the synthesizer. Thadius Cahill (1867 – 1934) is credited by Thom Holmes in Electronic and experimental music: pioneers in technology and composition (2002) p. 42 – 49, with inventing the term synthesizer in 1896. He did not build or design one. Instead, he constructed three telharmoniums, the first electromechanical musical instruments. These were essentially electric organs, operated by an organist/ performer sitting at a keyboard with 153 keys. The Mark I weighed 7 tonnes = megagrams (Mg), to be politically correct. The Mark II and Mark III each weighed 210 Mg. Invented and patented in 1896, before the advent of vacuum tubes, these used tone wheels and additive synthesis to generate musical sounds as electrical signals. These signals were amplified by dynamos before being sent to horn speakers. Cahill used the term synthesizer to describe these dynamos. When operating, a telharmonium consumed 671 kW of power.

The second, non-inventor of a synthesizer is Homer Dudley (1896 – 1980) who in 1939, working at Bell Labs, invented the Vocoder (a portmanteau of voice and encoder), a method/ machine that electronically reproduced speech, so that it could be transmitted over distances through telephone lines, providing greater clarity, but compressed to use less transmission bandwidth. Key features included envelope control and amplification using voltage control components.

Unfortunately, there are a pair of inventors who do have a prior claim to what some experts consider the first true synthesizer, that appeared at the end of the 1920s. French Edouard E. Coupleaux (or Coupleux) and Joseph A. Givelet demonstrated an Automatically Operating Musical Instrument of the Electric Oscillation Type at the 1929 Paris Exposition. It used four vacuum-tube oscillators to control pitch, then from that output varied the amplitude and introduced further filtering to vary its timbre. The instrument incorporated a paper-tape reader with a pneumatic tracker bar like a player piano. Holes punched in specific rows of the tape varied the instrument’s parameters, allowing the sequencing and articulation of predetermined notes and audio control.

Coupleaux and Givelet built and installed organs that generated sound from hundreds of vacuum tubes in French churches (and radio stations) during the 1930s. Yet, their synthesizer disappeared. One wonders if the potential offered by their 1929 musical instrument, was in some way beyond their comprehension. Personally, I think not. It was undoubtedly, the dismal economic outlook of the 1930s that forced them to concentrate on the most profitable options available.

Hugh Le Caine was a physicist who, after helping develop early radar systems during World War II. When the war ended, he turned his attention to electronic music devices. Le Caine invented an early voltage-controlled synthesizer nearly 20 years before Robert Moog and Donald Buchla. As an academic his work was published in engineering journals. In 1954 he was working at Canada’s National Research Center on inventing and developing electronic music technology. His technology equipped electronic music studios at the University of Toronto (from 1959), the Centre for Electronic Music in Jerusalem (in 1962) and McGill University in Montreal (from 1964).

One criticism of Le Caine was that his inventions were always in a state of flux. There was no cut-of date, at which a particular design was fixed, so that it could be built as a production model. Instead, there was always just another adjustment that needed to be made.

Electronic Sackbut (1945–73)

Le Caine began working on the Electronic Sackbut synthesizer in 1945. As this was a time when major advances were being made in electronics, the Sackbut continuously improved until it was completed in 1971. It was monophonic, but conceived with enough synthesizing flexibility to serve as the starting point of musical thinking. When it was finally launched commercially, it met with little success, because other synthesizers were much more visible.

The Sackbut used voltage control to trigger and modify sounds, a keyboard – with spring-mounted/ pressure sensitive keys, for pitch control, Sideways movement of a key resulted in a gliding of toward the next higher or lower key. Waveform and timbre could be modified using a touch-sensitive pad for the left hand with individual finger controllers. Minimal dexterity was needed to control the instrument. The thumb had two pads. One controlled the overtone balance in a note, while the other controlled frequency. The index finger rested on a movable circular pad. Pressing it changed the waveform and timbre of the sound. Touch-sensitive controls for other sound parameters. The other three fingers each had their own pressure pad that could modify the periodicity of the waveform.

Touch-Sensitive Organ (1952–57)

Le Caine recognized the advantage of a pressure-sensitive keyboard for an electronic organ, and invented a keyboard whose output volume varied in proportion to key pressure. This technology was made into a prototype, and patented. The patent was acquired by the Baldwin Organ Company in 1955. A mass-produced commercial model neve apperared. The touch-sensitive organ was used as an audio source for Le Caine’s tape compositions, such as Ninety-Nine Generators (1957).

“Multi-Track” or Special Purpose Tape Recorder (1955–67)

This was a tape recorder capable of recording and mixing multiple individual tracks. It did not record sound using multiple tape heads on a single reel of tape but synchronized playback on six individual tape reels. The resulting sound was mixed down into asingle track. Each of the six tapes was fitted with variable speed controller, a touch-sensitive, 36-key keyboard. Many composers were especially enthusiastic about this, because it provided control over speed transposition, unavailable using other technologies. Its effectiveness was demonstrated on Dripsody (1955), the sound of dripping water transposed to different speeds. The device was refined over the years, ending with a compact, solid-state version in 1967.

Oscillator Banks (1959–61) and Spectrogram (1959)

Le Caine built several versions of a device for controlling and experimenting with multiple audio oscillators. A touch-sensitive key triggered the individual oscillators, that could play sine, pulse and sawtooth waves. Versions were built with 12, 16, 24 and 108 oscillators. The oscillator bank could be programmed using an optical reader, the Spectrogram. It allowed graphical input of program instructions using a paper roll scanned by an array of 100 photocells.

Serial Sound Generator (1966–70)

Regarded as the forerunner of analogue sequencers, this device used hardwired switches to program a series of tones and effects. It was an analogue computer for programming musical sequences, giving the composer control over pitch, duration, timbre and sound repetition. It used a voltage-controlled oscillator as its sound source.

Sonde (1968)

The Sonde was designed to control multiple sine wave generators. The 200 signals were controlled by 200 slide controls. Transistor circuits reduced space requirements. Despite this, the Sonde was about 1 200 mm high and 600 mm wide

Polyphone Synthesizer (1970)

While the rest of the world was enthralled with Moog monophonic synths, Le Caine ventured into powerful polyphonic, analogue synthesizers. This voltage-controlled instrument was built for the McGill University Electronic Music Studio. Once again, the Polyphone had touch-sensitive keys and individual pitch and waveform controls for each key. There were 37 keys, each with their own dedicated oscillator.

Hugh Le Caine retired from the National Research Council, in 1974. During his career, he had produced 15 electronic instruments, and composed a number of electronic music studies. His retirement did not last long. His other interest, motorcycles driven at high speeds, claimed him as an accident victim in 1976. He died of injuries suffered, in 1977 in Ottawa, Ontario.

For additional information about Hugh Le Caine one can read Wikipedia, or visit the Le Caine website.

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