The Canadian Birth of the Synthesizer

Many people think that Bob Moog created the first synthesizer back in 1965. His Moog Modular set a standard that is still in use today. Compare the image below to a modern 5U system.


Of course, there were plenty of weird electronic instruments before then, from the earliest experiments using telegraphy to create pitched sounds, to commercially successful electro-acoustic instruments that are still with us in some form today, like the Hammond Organ. But Moog’s creation is often cited as the world’s first voltage-controlled synthesizer. It was a world changing instrument and there is no denying its importance in the history of electronic sound and music technology. But, in fact, the Moog Modular was not the world’s first voltage-controlled synthesizer. Meet the Electronic Sackbut.


This odd looking contraption was built nearly two decades before Moog’s world-changing instrument, by a Canadian physicist named Hugh Le Caine working for the National Research Council in Ottawa.

Obviously, it bears little resemblance to a modern synthesizer in any format! Built on a rickety-looking wooden frame, with panel indicators drawn in pencil on untreated wood and a key bed apparently salvaged from a gutted piano, it looks like something knocked up by Homer Simpson to a Rube Goldberg design. But the diversity of sounds it could produce, and how it produced them, marks it as one of the earliest, if not the earliest, synthesizers. If synthesizer is defined as an electronic instrument that uses controlled voltage as a key principle of sound generation, the Electronic Sackbut is number one.

Hugh Le Caine’s innovations in the Sackbut included the use of adjustable waveforms as timbres and the development of voltage control. Equally inspired were the playability features he developed. The instrument was played with one hand on the monophonic keyboard and the other hand on a controller that allowed for expressive change of timbre and amplitude.

sackbut sketch.gif

The sounds it could produce are truly impressive. Possibly as a wry joke acknowledging its eccentricities, Le Caine named the Electronic Sackbut after a Baroque and Renaissance era trombone-like instrument. Caine’s version excels at trombone and all manner of wind and string instrument sounds. Here, for instance, you can hear it doing a realistic rendition of the clarinet in the famous opening bars of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

With tones that mimicked acoustic instruments by changing wave-shapes, as well as the use of touch-sensitive capacitive plates, one might think it prefigured the West Coast paradigm of synthesis as pioneered by Don Buchla in the 60s. But the Electronic Sackbut also featured a standard piano keyboard as its main control surface and was designed with the needs of a traditional orchestral instrumentalist in mind; features one more associates with the East Coast paradigm and Moog. There is also an indirect link to Moog’s instrument through Gustav Ciamaga, who was familiar with Le Caine's filters and subsequently influenced Robert Moog to design his voltage-controlled low-pass filter. In reality this was an instrument with its own unique approach, one that Le Caine would develop over the years with numerous other devices.

Hugh Le Caine designed the Electronic Sackbut while working for the National Research Agency, who allowed him to set up an electronic music studio and devote himself to his musical activities full time. He was also instrumental in equipping electronic music studios at the University of Toronto and McGill in Montreal, two of the earliest studios of their kind in the world. Le Caine equipped the Toronto studio in 1959, just two years after the famous room-sized RCA Mark II synthesizer was installed at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. 

It's interesting to contrast these two births of synthesis, either side of the border. The RCA MKII was a room-filling monster that cost a quarter of a million dollars in 1957 (or half a million, depending on the source), funded by the vast resources of private enterprise in the form of RCA, then one of the world's largest electronics companies. Meanwhile, just north of the border, Hugh Le Caine was building a more modest-looking and much smaller and cheaper machine, but that was in many ways more advanced, funded by the Canadian government. A decade later Moog successfully got a (reasonably sized) synthesizer to market.

There were also attempts to commercialize the Electronic Sackbut. This is the commercial prototype of the Electronic Sackbut, designed and built right here in Montreal:

commercial sackbut.jpg

Sadly, Le Caine's work was not destined for commercial success - the prototype above was the only one ever made. One can only speculate as to why Moog went on to become a household name and only the fully committed historian of synthesis knows about Hugh Le Caine. Le Caine himself was, it seems, quite aware of this. There is some suggestion in writings about Le Caine that he felt saddened that his work was not appreciated by musicians, who were always the people who he wanted to please with his instruments.

So let's remember Hugh Le Caine, the Electronic Sackbut and the Canadian birth of the synthesizer.


For more on Hugh Le Caine and his work go to the excellent website written and maintained by Gayle Young (who also kindly permitted us to use the images in this post):