The Electronic Sackbut comes to NMC

November 26, 2015

In the museum community, it’s standard practice to share.

Information, historical records, and artifacts all circulate between partnering museums on a consistent basis. For artifacts in particular, loans are one of the only ways certain objects are able to break free of the confines of storage and see the light of day.

It isn’t all about the “jailbreak” however—loan agreements function as part of a symbiotic relationship that benefits both the lending institution and the borrowing one.

For the lending institution, sending their artifacts across the country results in more exposure, promotion, and public access to their collection—thus fulfilling their mission of outreach and engagement with diverse communities.

For the borrowing institution, loaned artifacts can add deeper layers of context and meaning to an exhibition in a way that wouldn’t be possible with their own collection items alone.

What’s more, artifacts may be loaned from one museum to another for research purposes. If the borrowing museum has specialized expertise on staff, it is beneficial for both parties to share artifacts for the purpose of gathering valuable historical information.

This is where we find the Electronic Sackbut.

Sackbut_uncrate_840pixNMC instrument technicians John Leimseider and Jason Tawkin uncrate the Electronic Sackbut. Credit: Kirsten Christopherson.

On loan to NMC from our partners at the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa, the Electronic Sackbut represents one of the major musical and technological inventions to come out of Canada in the last century.

A deal that’s been almost 10 years in the making, the Sackbut has been sent to us from Science and Tech for the objective of research. The instrument technicians at NMC hope to create a working clone of this historic instrument for use in interactive exhibitions and educational performances.

JL_sackbut_840pixElectronics technician John Leimseider examines the Electronic Sackbut. Credit: Kirsten Christopherson. 

Developed between the years 1945–1948 by Canadian physicist and composer, Hugh Le Caine, the Electronic Sackbut is the world’s first voltage-controlled synthesizer. Decades ahead of its time, the Sackbut is now seen as an early forerunner to 1970s synthesizers — instruments that have become ubiquitous with the distinctly electronic sound of ’70s-era pop music.

Though it may not be much to look at, the Electronic Sackbut’s rudimentary appearance disguises complex and groundbreaking innovations in sound production and control.

In prior years, music-making was limited to the mechanical qualities of the instrument and the physical capabilities of the performers. Early electronic instruments produced cold, mechanical sounds that lacked artistic expression or control. Le Caine was interested in making an electronic musical instrument that could be played in real time by a real person.

Sackbut_Hugh_840pixCanadian physicist, composer and inventor Hugh Le Caine with the Electronic Sackbut. Credit: National Library of Canada.

Unlike electromechanical instruments such as the Hammond organ, the Electronic Sackbut pioneered an entirely different method of sound generation and manipulation known as voltage control (which later became the standard approach in electronic music).

The Sackbut was a monophonic instrument — only producing one note at a time. Its systems for controlling that one sound, however, were revolutionary.

The keyboard was sensitive to vertical pressure — meaning the harder you pressed on a key, the louder the sound was. It was also sensitive to lateral pressure — meaning the side-to-side motions of your finger on a key resulted in changes in the pitch of the sound. Performers could even create a vibrato (a pulsating change in pitch) by shaking or wiggling a key with their finger.

While the right hand played the keyboard, pressure-sensitive finger pad controls operated by the left hand made it possible to change different aspects of the sound waveform, which altered the timbre of the sound.

It was for this versatility in pitch and timbre that Le Caine named his instrument the Sackbut, after a 15th century ancestor of the modern trombone which used a slide mechanism to change pitch.

Though the Electronic Sackbut generated enough interest to earn Le Caine a dedicated lab space with the National Research Council to pursue his sound technology research, he never saw his major inventions developed directly into commercial products.

That being said, the Electronic Sackbut secured Le Caine’s place in music history as a leader in the field of electronic music research. Better-known contemporaries such as Robert Moog have Le Caine to thank for technological innovations such as voltage control and touch sensitivity.

The Electronic Sackbut Synthesizer


– Hayley Robb

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Want to hear more about the collections at NMC? Be sure to check out past blog entries featured in Amplify, the National Music Centre’s online magazine.


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About the Author

Hayley Robb

Hayley is an objects conservator, specializing in the care and treatment of decorative art and historical objects. At NMC, she is responsible for the recovery and reorganization of the electronic parts collection damaged in the flood. Born and raised in Calgary, she is happy to be back in her hometown after 6 years in Ontario.

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