Celebrating 50 years of The Original New Timbral Orchestra – The synth of all synths


Impressive to say the least. TONTO or The Original New Timbral Orchestra synthesizer celebrates 50 years. Still seen as the world’s largest synth, even though debatable from a different perspective considering the setup. The mastermind behind this beast was an Afro-English bassist tech guy named Malcolm Cecil who lived above a midtown-Manhattan advertising recording studio.

TONTO began life as a series III Moog modular synthesizer. A second Moog III was added in 1971 and TONTO continued to expand with various custom built as well as standard modules (somewhat modified) from many synthesizer manufacturers including Serge with Moog-like panels, Oberheim, Arp 2500/2600, EMS, Roland, Yamaha, etc.

Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh once stated:

“Once upon a time, Tonto represented the cutting edge of artificial intelligence in the world of music.”

In late 2013, the National Music Center acquired TONTOl. It was the first and the largest, multitimbral polyphonic analog synthesizer. This means that it was one of the first synthesizers capable of producing many tone colours with different voices simultaneously.  It was created by Malcom Cecil and Robert Margouleff in 1968 and marked the first attempt at creating a universal language for different synthesizers to communicate with each other, which was revolutionary. TONTO still remains the largest analog synthesizer in the world.

As a former radar technician for the Royal Air Force, Cecil was a principal bassist with BBC Radio and had regularly played bass guitar with an early U.K. blues band that included the likes of Ginger Baker, Graham Bond, Jack Bruce, Long John Baldry and Charlie Watts. His first encounter with synthesizers came in the United States in 1968 when he met Margouleff, who had just purchased one of the first Moog Series IIIc models to finish the soundtrack of Ciao! Manhattan, his movie starring Warhol-starlet Edie Sedgwick. Cecil wanted to learn how to play the Moog; Margouleff wanted to learn how to record. So the pair became partners.

Under the band name Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, Cecil and Margouleff released the highly influential album Zero Time. The album demonstrated the rich, layered sounds of the massive synthesizer and attracted significant attention.

But it was when a 21 year old guy came into the picture that TONTO’s real fame began.

““I heard a ring at the door and …. stuck my head out of the window to see who it was,” Cecil recalled in 2013. Bounding down three flights of stairs, he encountered “this black guy in a pistachio jumpsuit who seemed to be holding our album underneath his arm.” It was Stevie Wonder.

TONTO was used on multiple Stevie Wonder and The Isley Brothers albums in the 1970s and was featured in the cult classic film Phantom of the Paradise. Diverse artists such as Joan Baez, The Doobie Brothers, Quincy Jones, Randy Newman, Bobby Womack and many others also used TONTO on recordings in 1970s and 1980s.

“Superstition” happened in Electric Lady. It was originally written for Cecil’s friend Jeff Beck who was visiting New York, though Stevie ultimately reneged on his offer. The core keyboard sound of “Superstition” was Wonder’s electric keyboard being fed through TONTO. The famous bass line was all TONTO. The song demonstrated for the first time the potential of the synthesizer being something mainstream, a keyboard-controlled instrument that could add an entirely new sonic palette to popular music. Wonder was playing most (sometimes all) of the instruments in the studio himself anyway, and TONTO now allowed him to also control the final arrangement. Wonder sat at the keyboard, while to his back Cecil and Margouleff were in perpetual motion, patching together sounds in real-time like musical switchboard operators.

For a while the Record Plant became Motown and the R&B community’s L.A. home, and TONTO was always a creative draw. Quincy Jones was working on Body Heat nearby in Studio C. Stevie worked there on Minnie Riperton’s album Perfect Angel, which contained the hit “Lovin’ You,” and on albums for his then-wife Syreeta Wright. He wrote songs for Rufus and Chaka Khan, including “Tell Me Something Good”, and added TONTO’s unearthly textures to recordings by Diana Ross and Dionne Warwick. If anyone during that period other than Stevie pushed the limits of how TONTO could sound, it was the Isley Brothers, who worked with Margouleff and Cecil on their hit “That Lady” at the same time the pair were working on Innervisions. “God had his hand on our shoulders. We lived a good life,” Margouleff recalls.

But TONTO also had its bad times as Mark Mothersbaugh recalls. He was in fact responsible for rescuing one of the most famous modular systems in the world from obscurity. In the mid 1990’s TONTO resided at Mutato Muzika studios the headquarters of Mark Mothersbaugh and Devo which is the basis of the widespread rumour that Mark had aquired TONTO. Actually it has been in the private ownership of Malcolm Cecil since 1975 when Robert left the Head Band to pursue his career as a producer.

“For a while I had TONTO in the basement of my studio,” says Mark Mothersbaugh. “One of the producers for Devo on our Freedom Of Choice album, Bob Margouleff, had built a synthesizer in the early ’70s, with Malcom Cecil. It looks like you’re standing inside an eyeball that’s synth module racks, shaped so that when they all fit together, you’re standing inside. It’s a very ’70s idea of space and the future. When they built it they used the original Moog oscillators and mixed in Buchla components, and a couple of other companies along with it. They had all these giant rack space things that are just one oscillator, the earliest Moog oscillator you could buy. People would come over to my studio, and they would spend all day getting one synth sound that they could record on this old, big modular synth. And they’d get it and go ‘OK, that’s what it was like in the old days? I like the new days!’ None of them ever switched over to all analogue after that, but it was fun to have it at the studio for a while.”

During the coming weeks, NMC artist-in-residence, Canadian Indigenous duo A Tribe Called Red, will be working with Cecil and the instrument on new music. Nervous about how TONTO will behave without Leimseider by his side, band co-founder Tim “2oolman” Hill says, “That’s the thing about TONTO, it is unpredictable; it has a human sense. It has a presence.”