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The Le Caine Instruments

A Disappearing technology

The Le Caine instruments: an excellent source for a listing of all Le Caine instruments is the well researched book by Gayle Young, The Sackbut Blues (published in 1989 by the Museum of Science and Technology, Ottawa).

A complete listing is given on page 167 of the above mentioned book. The machines relevant to the nature of today’s presentation are:

Voltage control could be applied to pitch, to harmonic content (i.e. controlling a  wave rich in harmonics, say a square wave), or to the production of  glides from one pitch to the next.  The SSSG could interact with other Le Caine units, like the TMG, the VCF and also the Multi-Track.  All  operations of the SSSG were based on variable voltage control. Le Caine  wrote “One is tempted to describe it  in the vocabulary of computer science. In a sense, it might be described as a small computer or apparatus which employs elementary logic circuits to carry out serial compositions”. (Le Caine, Science and Music, 1967. Quoted in The Sackbut Blues, p. 215).

Each  of the 36 keys (in a 37 keys keyboard, one being a ‘zero’ setting, a reference control) had its own  oscillators with waveform controls,  so  both pitch and timbre could be adjusted separately for each key. Each oscillator was able to cover the complete audio range.  Additionally, on the upper panel, there were five tunable low-frequency generators,  mostly used as signals or controls to the keyed oscillators.  The synthesizer was completed with separate envelope generators with manual controls for attack and decays, and four independently adjustable filters covering the whole range.

All functions of the Poly were voltage controlled.

Conclusion: the contribution of Dr. Le Caine to the establishment of McGill’s first EMS is very important. When the first McGill EMS opened in 1964 (directed by Istvan Anhalt), the studio was integrated almost entirely by Le Caine’s inventions: the Multi-Track (with ten stereo heads), Spectrogram, Oscillator Bank (24 oscillators), Filter Bank (six filters), the SSSG with 3 of the 13 stages timers. Additionally Le Caine prepared for the EMS a modified Ampex tape recorder (with speeds of 15, 7 1/2, 3 3/4 and 1 7/8  i.p.s, all switchable speeds); Envelope Generators, Ring Modulators and Speed Control devices for tape recorders. At the  McGill EMS, the  so called ‘Main Studio’ was, as ideated by Le Caine, “a splice-less electronic music studio”.

In the 1980’s, at the initiative of the Hugh Le Caine Project, an effort was made to bring together all surviving Le Caine creations under one roof: the Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa.  In September 1987, the McGill EMS donated all the Le Caine units housed at McGill to that Museum’s collection.  Today, the Le Caine machines are kept in the Museum’s warehouse, and can be seen by the public only on special request. On occasion, although, some of the units are re-exhibited as part of the regular Museum displays. Also, for particular shows, some of the units have been exhibited again in Montreal.

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