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Malcolm Cecil, creator of the monster synth ‘TONTO’, dies age 84

Synth pioneer Malcolm Cecil passed away on Sunday, aged 84. He may not be a household name, but his invention TONTO charged the electronic revolution in pop music.

In his time, Cecil collaborated with a number of notable artists: Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder, Randy Newman to name a few. His death was announced by the Bob Moog Foundation, where he was credited as the “legendary creative genius, musician, engineer, producer and synthesizer pioneer”. 

Cecil was one of the genius minds behind TONTO – ‘The Original New Timbral Orchestra’. It’s a six-foot-tall semicircle of knobs, wires and modules and, for several years, it was the worlds largest synthesizer. TONTO is an electronic orchestra. It combined synths from Moog and ARP with an array of custom modules from a Russian composer and Jimi Hendrix’s guitar tech.

TONTO

In a review in Record World in 1971, TONTO was called “one of the weirder combinations of talent and concert hall” that “seemed capable of making never-before-heard electronic sounds“. With this incredible music maker,  Cecil and his colleague Robert Margouleff formed ‘Tonto’s Expanding Head Band’. TONTO helped generate the sounds on their 1971 album Zero Time, which is a cult classic album for electronic music.

One of TONTO’s biggest fans? Stevie Wonder. He approached Cecil and Margouleff in the early ’70s with Zero Time tucked under his arm, and requested a session with the worlds biggest synth. If you’ve ever listened to his albums Talking Book, Innervisions or Music of My Mind, then you’ve heard TONTO at play.

In fact, TONTO created that iconic riff we all know and love in Superstition. In 2008 Wonder told A&E’s ‘Biography’ that TONTO was the only machine the could manifest the unique music ideas he had in his head. In 1974, Cecil, Margouleff and Wonder won a Grammy in the engineered recording, non-classical category.

Though the work with Wonder was Cecil and TONTO’s most prominent recorded appearance, they earned credits on albums with James Taylor, the Isley Brothers, Billy Preston and Diana Ross. It was even used on the famous soundtrack for the classic cartoon Rugrats. At this point, TONTO included machines made by Oberheim, Roland and Yamaha.

It had drum controllers, sequencers and MIDI converters. It even had gauge wire that was constructed from surplus supplies made for the Apollo mission. Needless to say, TONTO was an incredibly powerful, living electronic beast, that blew away any artist lucky enough to work with it and Cecil.

Cecil’s groundbreaking contributions will not be forgotten. His sounds have inspired artists creating anything from synth explorations, to funk to pop music. TONTO now lives in Calgary’s National Music Centre, as part of its ‘living collection’. Here, TONTO is housed among other instruments and equipment that is fully operational and can be used by contemporary artists.