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.
The Tape Recorder as a Musical Instrument: Placing Hugh Le Caine’s Special Purpose Tape Recorders in Context
James Mooney, PhD, is Associate Professor of Musicology and Music Technology, University of Leeds, UK. His current research focuses on the history and development of electronic musical instrumentation. He co-leads the Music, Science, and Technology Research Group and sits on the committee of the Musical Instrument Resource Network, UK—a subject-specialist network that promotes understanding of issues surrounding the care and display of musical instruments and collections. He is a subject specialist in electronic music for the Computer History Museum (Mountain View, CA).
After World War II, magnetic tape technology—advanced rapidly as part of Germany’s war effort—came into its own as a new musical medium. European and North American avant-garde composers became interested in the extended timbral and structural affordances of tape and its associated tools and techniques as ways of creating what was variously known as musique concrète, electronic music, and tape music. It was in this context that Hugh Le Caine (1914–1977), a Canadian physicist and ex-World War II radar engineer working at the National Research Council in Ottawa, designed and built a series of five “Special Purpose Tape Recorders.” These enabled composers to transpose, combine, and dynamically inflect sounds recorded on up to twenty independent tape channels, effectively transforming the tape recorder into a sophisticated musical instrument for electronic music studios. The first model is currently on loan to the National Music Centre and will, by special arrangement, be moved from its usual location (as part of the NMC’s Plugged In exhibition) into the conference venue for viewing by delegates during my presentation. Le Caine was not alone in his efforts to instrumentalize the musical potentialities of magnetic tape. Many composers and sound recordists creatively employed cutting, splicing, looping, and compositing techniques in their work with commercial tape recorders. Those with electronics skills sometimes modified their machines, e.g., to provide variable speed or multi-tracking capabilities. Some studios commissioned specially designed tape-machines for specific creative operations: RTF’s two phonogènes, Philips’ tape-loop player/recorder, etc. Entrepreneur-inventors exploited tape’s imitative capacities in new musical instruments like the Chamberlin and Mellotron. Le Caine’s tape recorders stand out as unique, however, as I shall elaborate: the extent of their programmability, musical expressivity, and electro-mechanical ingenuity are characteristics that make them, I will argue, some of the most advanced tape-based musical instruments ever made.