AMIS 2022: Hugh Le Caine’s Electronic Sackbut, 1946 to 1954

The American Musical Instrument Society (AMIS) promotes better understanding of all aspects of the history, design, construction, restoration, and usage of musical instruments in all cultures and from all periods. In June 2022, their annual meeting was held at Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre.

Hugh Le Caine’s Electronic Sackbut, 1946 to 1954
Gayle Young

Gayle Young documented instruments invented by Le Caine at the National Research Council in Ottawa, then expanded her research, publishing The Sackbut Blues in 1989. Young has continued composing, building instruments, and writing about music and instruments, particularly as the editor of Musicworks magazine for over two decades.

The Electronic Sackbut was first played during World War II in after-hours jam sessions among physicists whose day job was the development of radar for the National Research Council of Canada, based in Ottawa. Acetate recordings of familiar songs played by Le Caine and his fellow physicists were made in 1946, demonstrating the instrument’s development. Le Caine designed the electronics to achieve what he described as expressivity, providing methods of gradually and simultaneously shifting pitch, volume, and waveform, through inventive pressure-sensitive control devices. Most electronic keyboards used systems of switches or buttons, each option leading to a distinct and pre-defined sound. Touch-sensitive controls were not available on comparable instruments for many years. The Sackbut electronics used capacitance to provide gradual changes in voltage that determined the nature of the resulting sound. Le Caine designed interface devices, including mobile conductive plates and methods of shifting keyboard position, to control the physical motion that increased or decreased the voltages. Playing the Sackbut was a challenge for most musicians, though apparently less so for physicists. Few musicians questioned the nature of a musical instrument. Traditional instruments come with built-in characteristics, and musical training emphasizes the enhancement of, for instance, the sound of a bowed violin, by listening to the sound produced by subtle changes in bowing. The Sackbut opened the box, and the concept of instrument lost its pre-defined identity. To play it effectively a musician learned to listen simultaneously to all changeable elements and operate the controls in “real time” to affect every nuance of the sound. It is perhaps ironic that an instrument designed to facilitate expressivity could only be effectively played by a musician able to imagine sound in terms of acoustics. Le Caine could make it sound like a saxophone or a cello.

Watch more videos from the 2022 AMIS Conference here.