The funky physicist: Hugh Le Caine and the Electronic Sackbut Synthesizer

Laura Brown
31 May 2014

Above: The Electronic Sackbut Synthesizer at the Canada Science and Technology Museum (Wikimedia Commons/David Carroll)

Electronically synthesized music is everywhere these days. You can hear it in a pop tunes by Katy Perry, in a Tiesto remix of "All of Me" by John Legend, in the rap riffs of DJ Snake and Lil Jon, or in dance remixes of dubstep.

Did You Know? The original sackbut was a 15th century musical instrument. It was an early version of the trombone and used a slide mechanism to change pitch, providing a lower range of sounds than a trumpet.Did you know there’s a strong Canadian connection to all that electronic music you love to groove to? Hugh Le Caine (1914-1977) was a Canadian National Research Council (NRC) atomic physicist whose passion for the physics of sound and music led him to build the first voltage-controlled sound synthesizer between 1945 and 1948. He called it the Electronic Sackbut Synthesizer.

A synthesizer is an electronic device that reproduces sound. Sound synthesizers can produce familiar, natural sounds like the trill of a bird, the drip of water in a pan, or the sounds of acoustic musical instruments, such as a piano, violin or flute. Synthesizers can also create some very unique, original sounds that have no natural equivalent.

Le Caine was interested in making an electronic musical instrument that could be played in real time by a real person. The performer would be able to control the sounds produced by the synthesizer using directional pressures that changed the background voltage and, as a result, the sound characteristics.

The Electronic Sackbut could only produce one note at a time, but the performer could control that sound in many ways. For example, the operator could change sounds by applying different pressures to the piano-style keys and by pushing or pulling them in different directions. Using the right hand, the amount force used to press down on the keys determined the volume (loudness) and side-to-side movement of the keys changed the pitch (frequency of vibrations). Performers could even create a vibrato (a pulsating change in pitch) by shaking or wiggling a key with their finger.

The Hugh LeCaine project

You can listen to samples of musical compositions created by Hugh Le Caine and played on the electronic sackbut on the Hugh Le Caine Project website:

Pressure-sensitive finger-pad controls operated by the left hand made it possible to change different aspects of the sound waveform, or the shape of the sound wave over time. This altered the timbre of the sound, the characteristic that makes one sound distinct from another, even at the same volume and pitch. Timbre is what makes it possible to distinguish the sound of a flute from the sound of a piano or the sound produced by a human voice.

Le Caine gave a number of public performances with his original sackbut synthesizer to demonstrate the sounds and music it could create. These shows were so successful and generated so much interest that in 1954 the NRC gave him a dedicated lab space to pursue his sound technology research on a fulltime basis. Between 1969 and 1971, Le Caine refined the pressure-sensitive devices that controlled timbre on the sackbut synthesizer. In 1971, he he made a prototype of a commercial sackbut synthesizer using modern design techniques, but it was never mass-produced or sold to the public.

Did You Know? “Dripsody”, Hugh Le Caine’s most famous composition, was produced by electronically manipulating and multiplying the sound made by a single drop of water.Although Le Caine’s synthesizer never became a commercial success, many of the other sound technology products he developed were put to use in music labs at different Canadian universities during the 1960s and early 1970s. He personally helped to establish the very first electronic music labs at the University of Toronto (1959) and McGill University (1964), where he also taught and influenced new composers of electroacoustic music. These labs were almost entirely equipped with the sound technology produced by Le Caine’s lab at the NRC.

Before his retirement in 1974, Le Caine developed over 20 different sound technology innovations, including new instruments, the touch-sensitive keyboard, and the variable speed multi-track tape recorder. In many ways, his innovations were ahead of their time and some features didn’t find their way into commercial products until the late 1980s.

The next time you find yourself boppin’ or groovin’ to some funky electronic embellishments in your favourite music, remember the electronic sackbut and Hugh Le Caine’s contribution to these now-familiar sounds!


Early Synthesizers, Keyboard and Performance Instruments: The Electronic Sackbut (Canada Science and Technology Museum) Electronic sackbut (Gayle Young, Electronic Sackbut Synthesizer (Canada Museum of Science and Technology, YouTube) Hugh LeCain Biography (Gayle Young, Sackbut (Encyclopaedia Britannica) Scientists & Innovations: A New Era in Electronic Music (National Research Council of Canada) Vanilla Ice Remembers The Electronic Sackbut (Strombo, YouTube)

Laura Brown

Laura is an Education Specialist with Let’s Talk Science. With a background in agricultural sciences and visual arts, she is interested in most everything, from pigs to Picasso! She developed her love of science and technology from her parents and teachers.

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