Hugh LeCaine of Ottawa created the Electronic Sackbut Synthesizer in his home studio over a period of three years from 1945 to 1948. This synthesizer is the first voltage-controlled synthesizer ever built, preceding the manufacture of commercial synthesizers by twenty years.
Le Caine, a nuclear physicist with the National Research Council, was passionate about music. He was concerned that the musical notes produced by electronic instruments in the 1930s, such as the Hammond Organ and the Morse Robb Wave Organs, lacked a certain expressivity.
Determined to shape technology for the needs of the musician and expand the possibilities of musical sound he built a synthesizer that allows for complex variations in pitch and tone. This, LeCaine achieved, through the innovative use of voltage control. The technique provides an automatic background voltage that can remain stable or be altered through the manipulation of the knobs and keyboard.
The keys are sensitive to a vertical pressure that controls the volume and a lateral pressure that changes the pitch. In this way the musician can simultaneously manipulate the volume, pitch, and timbre of each note and produce gradual transitions from one sound to the next.
The rudimentary appearance of the synthesizer its three legs made of crossed pieces of scrap wood and with instructions penciled onto its surface camouflages the brilliant concept behind this invention. LeCaine’s Electronic Sackbut Synthesizer is the precursor of today’s electronic instruments.
The Electronic Sackbut was originally created around 1945. Le Caine designed the Electronic Sackbut with three aspects of sound control, through operations on the keyboard in three co-ordinates of space:
- vertical pressure was to correspond to volume;
- lateral pressure to pitch change; and
- pressure away from the performer to timbre.