An inventor and composer, Hugh Le Caine spent his career in the shadows. A lab rat, he pioneered many practical concepts in electronic instruments during his decades of work at the National Research Council of Canada (NRC). His Electronic Sackbut (1945) is now recognized as the first-ever voltage-controlled synthesizer, the ancestor of the 1970s analog synthesizers. An important actor in the development of musique concrète, he collaborated to the construction of electronic studios for the University of Toronto and McGill University, pioneered many concepts in electronic instruments and tape recording, and has composed a handful of early musique concrète works, among them the 1955 "Dripsody,"which has remained a much-performed piece.
Le Caine grew up in Port Arthur (now Thunder Bay) in northwestern Ontario. His fascination with instrument-building and electronics started at an early age, but he studied to become a physicist instead. Following the completion of his Master of Science degree in 1939, he got hired by the NRC and worked in atomic physics. At home he was developing his first prototypes, including the Sackbut. From 1948 to 1951 he went to England for more studies in physics. Back to Canada he continued his work on sound generation and electronic instruments in parallel with his day job.
Public demonstrations of the Sackbut led to the NRC's permission to move his home studio to the Council and work on his musical activities full time in 1954. The first two projects he pursued were the Touch Sensitive Organ and the Special Purpose Tape Recorder. The latter was an instrument that allowed to manipulate the speed of six different reels of tape simultaneously, a way to simplify electro-acoustic composition. "Dripsody," a piece in which all sounds are derived from the recording of a single drop of water, was created on this machine. The Touch Sensitive Organ pioneered many features found in modern-day home organs and electric pianos. The Baldwin Organ Company bought the rights to the instrument in 1956 to apply the technology to its own line of products. Even though Le Caine was never able to commercially produce the Sackbut (a prototype was built in 1970), his work on filters and oscillators paved the way for Robert Moog's synthesizer.
Le Caine retired from the NRC in 1974. He died in July 1977 from the sequels of a motorcycle accident 13 months earlier. His instruments are exhibited at the National Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa (Canada) and his pieces are available on the CD Compositions Demonstrations 1946-1974. ~ François Couture