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  • Thom Holmes

Listening to Malcolm Cecil and T.O.N.T.O.

My Book: Electronic and Experimental Music, sixth edition, Routledge 2020.

My Podcast: The Holmes Archive of Electronic Music


Malcolm Cecil was the co-inventor, in 1971, of The Original New Timbral Orchestra, or T.O.N.T.O.. Cecil died on March 28, 2021. However, T.O.N.T.O. itself–probably the grandest of all vintage synthesizer setups–remains as part of the permanent collection at the National Music Centre of Canada. In the podcast associated with this blog I featured a variety of recordings of Cecil as well as musicians for whom he played, engineered, or produced records.


Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff met at Media Sound in New York where they worked on music for film and television. They befriended Bob Moog in 1969 and worked with Moog distributor Walter Sear to acquire their first Moog components. Somewhere between Lothar and the Hand People and making film music, they produced the first record of their own music, A Moog Mass. This was a concept album based around a thirteenth-century Catholic hymn to the Virgin Mary. The recording was remarkable for its voice synthesis techniques. Not using a vocoder, the duo processed voice through the ingenious application of the synthesizer’s fixed-filter bank modules, envelope followers, and voltage-controlled amplifiers to create the eerie, robotic sound. Wendy Carlos, whose famous synthesized vocalizations would appear on the soundtrack to A Clockwork Orange (December 1971), was working on this technique around the same time.


Originally designed and constructed with fellow producer Robert Margouleff, Cecil assumed sole responsibility for T.O.N.T.O. in 1975. It is essentially an interconnected set of analog components, including modular racks from Moog, Serge, ARP, and Oberheim, plus two ARP Odyssey synthesizers. The challenges were many, the engineering trickery extreme.


Being an engineer, Cecil often thought of new components to enhance the existing modules, drawing upon his contacts with Moog, ARP, Serge, and Tom Oberheim to get them manufactured. And of course, there was the toy-helicopter joystick that Cecil created to keep the oscillators in tune and bend the sounds, a marvelous tweak for anyone who felt inspired to make fluid, melodic synth music.


Margouleff and Cecil housed the equipment in a set of nine matching wood cabinets, arranged in a circle, with enough space for one or two musicians to reach all of the essential components while seated in the middle. The cabinetry was made by John Storyk, who was the designer of the space at Electric Lady Studios. Over time, T.O.N.T.O. evolved, adding up to three or four keyboards to control its oscillators, filters, and sequencers. Whereas it was considered state of the art in the 1970s, it is now a charming analog artifact in a world that is enamored with computer music.


T.O.N.T.O. has been well traveled over the years. The early configuration, mostly combining Moog Modular and ARP Odyssey systems, was in New York City at Electric Lady studios. That’s where Cecil and Margouleff began their collaboration with Stevie Wonder on Music of My Mind. When Wonder moved to LA, so did Margouleff, Cecil, T.O.N.T.O., and John Storyk, taking up residence in the Record Plant where their relationship with Wonder turned profitable. Taking notice of the string of hits produced with Wonder, many other rock, soul, and jazz artists began working with Margouleff and Cecil as producers, engineers and musicians. By the end of that decade, Cecil and T.O.N.T.O. were in high demand. But during the 1980s, analog synths gave way to digital synths that were easier to play and control and many lost interest in T.O.N.T.O. So, it is primarily a musical synthesizer stuck in time, an advanced, interconnected collection of otherwise incompatible instruments.


During the intervening years since the 1980s, T.O.N.T.O. has resided at Cecil’s Point Dume studio on the California-coast. It was on loan for a time at Mark Mothersbaugh’s studio on Sunset Boulevard, where it was an analog curiosity that was used artists such as Nine Inch Nails and various soundtracks. Then T.O.N.T.O. found its way to Cecil’s home in rural New York before he arranged for it to be acquired by the National Music Centre of Canada.


What did T.O.N.T.O. sound like? Fortunately, there is a lot of recorded evidence. As you might expect, it is known for the ease with which it could create variable sequences, rumbling, bubbling backdrops, and some distinctive solos, particularly using the ARP sound and the joystick controller, often used to solo on melodies with the instrument. It was all monophonic, so the deep layers of sound that were created were more a matter of playing various parts of TONTO simultaneously. This is where Cecil’s engineering magic with the instrument came into play.


Most of Malcolm Cecil's credits are for engineering, producing, and playing on the recordings of others. However, he and Margouleff released three albums of their original music and Cecil had a lovely solo album in 1981. Cecil has 187 production and technical credits to his name on a wide variety of musical albums.


I didn’t know Malcolm Cecil personally. But by all accounts, he was more than an engineer and technician. He was a spiritual musician who instinctively knew how to work with other artists. He had patience, took refuge in the Chinese moving meditation called Tai Chi, and designed T.O.N.T.O. as the kind of creative environment in which a musician could free themselves.


In my copy of his 1981 album called Radiance, there is a press release that appears to have been provided by Cecil himself. In addition to including a photocopy of a favorable press clipping, and a phone number for contacting his studio, there is a little quotation, set aside and placed in a box. I think it best captures what he was all about. It says, “To be a true synthesist . . . you have to go to a place of silence inside yourself to first create, or sense, a sound there—and then bring it into the world of our senses.”


The records featured in the podcast spanned the years 1970 to 1981 when T.O.N.T.O. was the state of the art in analog synthesis. The playlist for this episode includes the details for each recording. I included tracks that were simply not heard very much, even some by familiar artists. I selected tracks that made particularly brilliant use of Cecil’s talents with T.O.N.T.O. which he often programmed for others to play. In each case, the synth plays an important role in the song.


Playlist

1. Caldera, “Share With Me the Pain” from A Moog Mass (1970 Kama Sutra). Synthesizer programming and engineering by Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff; spoken vocals, Malcolm Cecil; tenor vocals, Robert White; harpsichord, John Atkins; synthetic speech effects, Robert Margouleff’ cello, Toby Saks. 4:31


2. Tonto's Expanding Head Band, “Timewhys” from Zero Time (1971 Atlantic). Written by, programmed, engineered, produced and performed by Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margoulff. Lyrics by Tama Starr. Recorded with an expanded Moog Modular III synthesizer. This was prior to expanding their system into what would become T.O.N.T.O.. 5:03


3. Tonto's Expanding Head Band, “Cybernaut” from Zero Time (1971 Atlantic). Written, programmed, engineered, produced and performed by Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margoulff. Recorded with an expanded Moog Modular III synthesizer. A nice demonstration of what they could accomplish with the Moog. 4:31


4. Stephen Stills/Manassas, “Move Around” from Manassas (1972 Atlantic). Synthesizer, electric guitar, organ, vocals, producer, Stephen Stills; keyboards, Paul Harris; drums, Dallas Taylor; guitar, Chris Hillman. Synthesizer programming, Malcolm Cecil. 4:17


5. Stevie Wonder, “Keep on Running” from Music Of My Mind (1972 Tamla). Synthesizers, ARP and Moog, Piano, Drums, Harmonica, Organ, Clavichord, Clavinet, Stevie Wonder. Engineering and synthesizer programming, Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff. Adds the ARP and another Moog to the T.O.N.T.O. setup. 6:38


6. Stevie Wonder, “Evil” from Music Of My Mind (1972 Tamla). Synthesizers, ARP and Moog, Piano, Drums, Harmonica, Organ, Clavichord, Clavinet, Stevie Wonder. Engineering and synthesizer programming, Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff. 3:31


7. Pat Rebillot, “The Naked Truth” from Free Fall (1974 Atlantic). Synthesizer and electric piano, Pat Rebillot. Engineering and synthesizer programming, Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff. 3:28


8. Tonto, “The Boatman” from It's About Time (1974 Polydor). Written, programmed, engineered, produced, and performed by Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margoulff. Features the expanded analog version of T.O.N.T.O. featuring ARP, Moog, and Oberheim equipment. Note the rain and thunder sounds created using the synthesizer. Reminds me of Beaver and Krause from this era. 5:04.


9. Tonto, “Tonto’s Travels” from It's About Time (1974 Polydor). Written, programmed, engineered, produced, and performed by Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margoulff. Features the expanded analog version of T.O.N.T.O. featuring ARP, Moog, and Oberheim equipment. I think you can hear the joystick that Cecil created. 8:25


10. Mandrill, “Peaceful Atmosphere” from Beast From The East (1975 United Artists Records). T.O.N.T.O. played by Claude “Coffee” Cave, Carlos Wilson; electronic music programming, Malcolm Cecil. From the liner notes: “T.O.N.T.O. The Original New-Timbrel Orchestra. This instrument consists of twelve synthesizers linked together and played simultaneously. A polyphonic touch-sensitive also plays also plays an essential role in the creation of sound when the instrument is played. We thank you Malcolm Cecil for the creation of T.O.N.T.O. 3:19


11. Mandrill, “Honey-Butt” from Beast From The East (1975 United Artists Records). T.O.N.T.O. played by Claude “Coffee” Cave, Carlos Wilson; electronic music programming, Malcolm Cecil. 4:58


12. Stairsteps, “Theme Of Angels” from 2nd Resurrection (1976 Dark Horse Records). Synthesizer, T.O.N.T.O., Billy Preston; T.O.N.T.O. programmed by Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff; produced and engineered by Robert Margouleff. Music By, Lyrics By, Lead Vocals, Lead Guitar, Bass, Kenneth Burke; Backing Vocals, Ivory Davis; Backing Vocals, Stairsteps; Drums, Alvin Taylor; Guitar, Dennis Burke; Keyboards, Billy Preston. 3:18


13. Stairsteps, “Salaam” from 2nd Resurrection (1976 Dark Horse Records). Synthesizer, T.O.N.T.O., Billy Preston; T.O.N.T.O. programmed by Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff; produced and engineered by Robert Margouleff. Music By, Lyrics By, Lead Vocals, Lead Guitar, Bass, Kenneth Burke; Backing Vocals, Ivory Davis; Backing Vocals, Stairsteps; Drums, Alvin Taylor; Guitar, Dennis Burke; Keyboards, Billy Preston. 4:26


14. Quincy Jones, “I Heard That” from I Heard That!! (1976 A&M). Synthesizer, Dave Gruisin. Synthesizer programming by Malcom Cecil, Robert Margouleff, Paul Beaver. 2:12


15. Quincy Jones, “Theme from ‘The Anderson Tapes” from I Heard That!! (1976 A&M). Synthesizer, Dave Gruisin. Synthesizer programming by Malcom Cecil, Robert Margouleff, Paul Beaver. Synthesizer, Ed Kalehoff. Also features a vibraphone solo by Milt Jackson, a trumpet solo by Freddie Hubbard, Toots Thielemans on harmonica, and Bobby Scott on piano. 5:05


16. Steve Hillage, “Octave Doctors” from Motivation Radio (1977 Virgin). Producer, Engineer, Synthesizer T.O.N.T.O., Malcolm Cecil; Synthesizer & Saucersizer, Vocals, Lyrics, Miquette Giraudy; Composed, Arranged, Lyrics, Guitar, Guitar Synthesizer, Voice, Shenai; Steve Hillage. 3:30


17. Steve Hillage, “Radio” from Motivation Radio (1977 Virgin). Producer, Engineer, Synthesizer T.O.N.T.O., Malcolm Cecil; Synthesizer, Vocals, Lyrics, Miquette Giraudy; Composed, Arranged, Lyrics, Guitar, Guitar Synthesizer, Voice, Shenai; Steve Hillage. 6:11


18. Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson, “1980” from 1980 (1980 Arista). Produced by Brian Jackson, Gil Scott-Heron, Malcolm Cecil; engineered and mixed by Malcolm Cecil; Synthesizer (T.O.N.T.O.), piano, electric piano, keyboard bass, Brian Jackson; composer, guitar, piano, vocals, Gil Scott-Heron; horns, Bill Watrous, Denis Sirias, Gordon Goodwin; drums, Harvey Mason; guitar, Marlo Henderson. 5:59


19. Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson, “Late Last Night” from 1980 (1980 Arista). Produced by Brian Jackson, Gil Scott-Heron, Malcolm Cecil; engineered and mixed by Malcolm Cecil; Synthesizer (T.O.N.T.O.), piano, electric piano, keyboard bass, Brian Jackson; composer, guitar, piano, vocals, Gil Scott-Heron; horns, Bill Watrous, Denis Sirias, Gordon Goodwin; drums, Harvey Mason; guitar, Marlo Henderson. 4:24


20. Malcolm Cecil, “Gamelonia Dawn” from Radiance (1981 Unity Records). Composed, Performed, Produced, Engineered by Malcolm Cecil. Recorded at T.O.N.T.O. studios in Santa Monica, California. From the liner notes: “The Original New Timbral Orchestra is the world’s largest privately built and owned synthesizer standing some six feet high and twenty feet in diameter. It was designed and built by Malcom Cecil.” In addition to Cecil on T.O.N.T.O., this track features Paul Horn on “golden” flute. 4:35


21. Malcolm Cecil, “Dance of the Heart” from Radiance (1981 Unity Records). Composed, Performed, Produced, Engineered by Malcolm Cecil. Recorded at T.O.N.T.O. studios in Santa Monica, California. 3:28


Background music:

  • Caldera, “Make Me Carry The Death Of Christ” from A Moog Mass (1970 Kama Sutra). Synthesizer programming and engineering by Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff; spoken vocals, Malcolm Cecil; tenor vocals, Robert White; harpsichord, John Atkins; synthetic speech effects, Robert Margouleff’ cello, Toby Saks.

  • Tonto's Expanding Head Band, “Riversong” from Zero Time (1971 Atlantic). Written by, programmed, engineered, produced and performed by Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margoulff. Recorded with an expanded Moog Modular III synthesizer. This was prior to expanding their system into what would become T.O.N.T.O.. 8:01


Here is the video produced with Malcolm Cecil by the National Music Centre of Canada.


This short history of T.O.N.T.O. at Rolling Stone magazine is also of interest.


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NOISE AND NOTATIONS

Electronic and Experimental Music

Notes on the development and continuing history of electronic music, its creators, and the technology.