Music would not be the same without the invention of the synthesizer. It had a great influence on its evolution and it also created some of the music styles we listen to today, such as Hip Hop, Pop and Electronic music. When we listen to the radio, most of the sounds in today’s music are created by synthesizers or samplers. As far as we know, the first voltage-controlled synthesizer to be built is the Electronic Sackbut, invented by Hugh Le Caine.
Hugh Le Caine was brought up in Port Arthur, Ontario. When he was young, he imagined “beautiful sounds” that he thought could be created by electronic inventions, so he started experimenting with electronic devices and building instruments. Growing up, he earned a Master of Science Degree from Queen’s University and even joined the National Research Council of Canada, where he got recognized as a scientist and published useful papers, but his passion for music stayed with him. In 1945, he began to work alone in his personal studio and designed several music instruments such as the Electronic Sackbut, the Touch Sensitive Organ, the Special Purpose Tape Recorder, the Printed Circuit Keyboard, the Spectrogram and the Oscillator Bank. A couple of years later, he did 4 years of Graduate Studies in Physics, but went back to his work on electronic music. When he was older, Le Caine composed music. In 1955, he composed “Dripsody”, which probably still is one of the most-played examples of “musique concrète”, but said: “I did not regard myself as a composer. However, I felt that the only way to understand the composer’s interest in the apparatus was to try to use the equipment myself in the various current musical forms”. He died of his injuries from a motorcycle incident in July 1977.
The Electronic Sackbut’s prototype was built inside a desk, between 1945 and 1948. There were two creative ideas that stood out in its conception: the development of voltage control and the possibility to adjust wave forms as timbres. It had an automatic background voltage that could change in proportion to the user’s needs. The right hand played the keyboard and affected the pitch by applying horizontal pressure and the volume with vertical pressure. The left thand controlled different aspects of the timbre of the sound. Each finger controlled its own aspect. The index finger operated the device to alter the wave form. A moveable pad made a link at any point inside the range of many possibilities.
Le Caine redesigned the Electronic Sackbut in 1969 with up-to-date technology. There was an attempt in 1971, when it was completed, to manufacture it commercially as a voltage-controlled electronic keyboard instrument, but it failed. For the level controls, the final Sackbut exploited integrated circuits and the range was brought to seven octaves. Inside, there was a pressure sensitive device that controlled the degree of frequency modulation with low register noise, and added high register frequencies. There also was a piece to quickly adjust the wave shape.
As for its influence on music, we could say it had a big one, even if it was not manufactured, because it was the first voltage-controlled synthesizer. In the 1960’s, electronic instruments entered Rock Music. Joe Meek was one of the earliest to use it with his album “I Hear a New World”, recorded in 1951. The Beatles are also a good example of its usage. They first used it in “Strawberry Fields Forever”, in 1967, and even The Doors for the title track of their album “Strange Days” Many musicians and bands used it to complete their sound and it took a leading place in the sound of progressive rock bands, who dominated Rock in the 1970s, such as Pink Floyd and Electric Light Orchestra. Although it was used a lot, some artists were against it. Some bands, like Queen, even wrote in their album liner notes that they did not use a synthesizer. In the 1980s, digital audio was developed, which made creating electronic sounds easier and led to the apparition of Synthpop, the music style that features the synthesizer as the main instrument and influenced most mainstream bands. Towards the end of the 1980s, some bands replaced all instruments by synthesizers, like the Eurythmics and A Flock of Seagulls. Big Beat emerged in the 1990s. It sounded similar to Electronic Music with a little bit of Rock, and it was popularized mostly by Fat Boy Slim, The Prodigy and The Crystal Method.
As for the 2000s, many music genres appeared because of the advances in music software. The easier access to music creation led to an increase of home-produced Electronic Music. Indietronica, a music genre that began in the early 1990s, became popular with acts from around the world, like Lali Puna from Germany, Broadcast from the United Kingdom, Justice from France, and many more. Dance-punk, which developed in the 1980s, was revived through acts like Liars, The Rapture and LCD Soundsystem. There was also a renewed interest in Synthpop, with Fischerspooner and Adult, and in mainstream synthpop with Ladytron, Cut Copy and The Killers, using vintage synthesizer sounds. Even in styles like Post-hardcore and Metalcore, some groups began to use synthesizers to produce rhythms or beats, and auto tuned vocals. It has been referred to as Electronicore, Synthcore and Trancecore mostly. Bands such as Asking Alexandria, Attack Attack! , Enter Shikari and Public Relations are good examples of this fusion of genres. Nowadays, almost every music genre we have is based on electronic music, like Hip Hop, Dance, Electropop, Hardstyle, etc.
In conclusion, even if Hugh Le Caine failed to manufacture the Electronic Sackbut, its innovative idea influenced music history. Music would probably sound different today if the synthesizer did not exist, and the Electronic Sackbut is one of the reasons why it was developed that way. As Vanilla Ice said in an interview with George Stroumboulopoulos: “By the 1970s and ‘80s we had Kraftwerk, Men Without Hats and now we have Daft Punk. And all of that thanks to Hugh Le Caine.”