From Sackbut to AutoTune: A Brief History of Music Synthesis

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Do you hear that?

That’s Candian Hugh LeCaine playing his invention in 1948.

The “sackbut”, as he called it, was the world’s first music synthesizer. It could make sounds that imitated real instruments, like the piano and the trombone.

LeCaine spent his life inventing machines to effect and imitate
sounds and music. A lot of his work is reflected in technology used to
create music today.

After listening to some of LeCaine’s sound clips on the web I was
amazed by how familiar they were. They’re not very different from the
electronica music today.

Like, check this. Here’s a synth solo from the Chemical Brother’s new album.

And here, you just lay this bit of LeCaine on top.

Well, not perfect, but you can hear the connection between today’s music and a Canadian from the middle of the last century.

Ironically, though, music synthesis is supposed to sound real. That was LeCaine’s goal.

So it’s sort of like audio trickery. And it comes in all forms.

Like lip synching. You thought we left that behind with the 80’s air
band. But anyone who saw Ashlee Simpson on Saturday Night Live knows
better.

During that supposedly live performance her vocal track kicked in
way before she was ready for it. Oops. She fled the stage almost
immediately, leaving her band behind to weather the technical glitch.

Lots of major artists fall back on lip synching during live
performances. Reportedly, Gwen Stefani uses it when she finds herself
on tour with the flu.

Another musical trick is called AutoTune. This software is commonly
used to fix singing errors in the recording studio. But it can also do
intentionally funky things with vocals, like in that Cher song.

AutoTune is also used in live performances by divas like Shania
Twain and Madonna. Just in case they sing a wrong note – which happens
more often than you might think – AutoTune kicks in and fixes it on the
fly with the audience none the wiser.

All this technical wizardry might sound like an artistic crutch.

But can you blame artists for falling back on technology from time
to time. With their grueling tour schedules, you can’t expect them to
be in top form every night.

There’s just so much synthetic music around these days that it’s really become the norm. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Based on society’s fascination with technology, it’s really the natural progression in music. LeCaine would be proud.

I’m Andrew Robulack.

Originally broadcast on CBC Radio North on February 15, 2005.
Copyright Andrew Robulack 2005

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