/ Hugh Le Caine's 1948 Sackbut Synthesizer: Performance Mode of Electronic Instruments
ï~~ the instruments did not sound very musical, largely because the quality of the sound was too simple, too pure. He believed that the musicality of a sound resulted from the imperfections of the instrument and performer, that the slight irregularities of the violinist's wrist movement or of the bow itself brought the sound to life. As a scientist in high energy physics Le Caine had worked extensively with oscillators, wave form generators, amplifiers and other electronic equipment that was used extensively in physics to make measurements of ionization, and in radio engineering to test circuits. He was able to imagine a new concept of musical instrument and he had the understanding of electronic technology to build an instrument to demonstrate his new approach. He began to build the new electronic instrument almost forty years ago, working at home after hours between 1945 and 1948. He named his instrument the "Electronic Sackbut" and we now recognize it to have been the first synthesizer, employing as it did detailed and complex voltage control of electronic sound sources, and varied wave forms for generating timbres. II - THE SACKBUT CONCEPT The instrument was named the Sackbut after the medieval wind instrument that was the precursor of the trombone. The name could have been chosen because an important feature of the new instrument was its sliding pitch device, but Le Caine explained in the footnote of an article describing the Sackbut that "the choice of the name of a thoroughly obsolete instrument... was thought'to afford the designer a certain degree of immunity from criticism." To overcome what he perceived as the monotony of electronically generated sound, Le Caine wanted to be able to highlight the changes within the melodic line that make the tone warm and alive. He wanted a keyboard instrument that would be as musically satisfying as a violin; one that would deliver the same musical message as an acoustic instrument, but would be capable of greater variation and easier to learn to play. The subtle shading of the elements of a sound would lead to a greater expressivity and to the development of the essential continuity of a melodic line. In 1945 few scientists or musicians considered electronic testing equipment to be capable of producing an interesting musical sound. In introducing his first demonstration tape of the Sackbut, be Caine comments: "Many people think of the square wave as being basically unpleasant, but I think of it as having a poignant, mysterious and rather melancholy quality." Listening to the recording of the Sackbut's square wave we hear a simple waveform with detailed and subtle changes in the pitch and volume, and the sound is remarkably similar to that of a clarinet. Building on the example of the instruments of the 1920's, Le Caine had developed an instrument that provided detailed control of limited resources. It is a monophonic instrument for use in a live performance situation. Le Caine believed that the monophonic instrument was the most important instrument, the starting point of all musical thinking. To him the polyphonic instrument was simply an expedient solution to the problem of having too few musicians available to play monophonic instruments. III -'THE SACKBUT KEYBOARD Both pitch and volume are controlled through the keyboard of the Sackbut which is organized as a two dimensional pressure sensitive mechanism. Lateral pressure on the key results in an adjustment in pitch while vertical pressure results in an increased volume level. Because the volume control is operated continuously by finger pressure on the key, the keyboard is both touch sensitive and pressure sensitive. The performer can control both the attack, which can be adjusted from gradual to percussive, and the volume envelope which can be increased or decreased through the duration of the note. The touch sensitive keyboard is simple in concept, and in a monophonic instrument, does not add a high degree of difficulty for the performer. Le Caine perceived that the development of significant musical ideas takes place in a considerably smaller range than that D T co' F 1 C B A Fig. 2 Graph of pitch over time showing how the performer on an expressive mono phonic instrument might approach and perform a sustained note. 1 - glissando, 2 - portamento, 3 - intended pitch, 4 - vibrato. ICMC '84 Proceedings 206
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