The Story of TONTO, Part 1: The (spectacular, innovative, revolutionary) Original New Timbral Orchestra

There are probably no instruments in the National Music Centre’s living collection that inspire as much awe as the Goliath, revolutionary synthesizer TONTO (aka The Original New Timbral Orchestra). And that’s because there are no instruments in the world quite like it. There’s a multitude of reasons for that—it’s the first and largest multitimbral polyphonic analog synthesizer in the world; it’s profoundly shaped the music of artists like Stevie Wonder and the Isley Brothers; and because of the very nature of the instrument, as long as it’s being used, it’s constantly shifting and changing its near-limitless sonic capabilities. As for what all that can feel like when you’re standing in the room with TONTO running?

“It’s a presence,” Jason Tawkin, TONTO’s current chief engineer, says. “When you turn the instrument on, it instantly gives you feedback, and you’re interacting with that, regardless of whether you’re just listening to it or actually putting input into the development device, playing it or manipulating the controls. It’s just such a powerful, expressive tool that it really is able to mold into all of these different characters that directly interact with your feelings. A lot of the sounds that happen make you emote things instantaneously. So I think no matter who you are, you connect with that on a human level.”

In multiple units that stand six feet tall in a futuristic, domed, crescent moon shape, TONTO commands attention without even being turned on. “When you were standing there playing TONTO, it was like being inside an eyeball,” Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh told Rolling Stone. But it didn’t begin like that. TONTO was originally a Moog modular synthesizer series III that record producer Bob Margouleff owned and Malcolm Cecil designed. It grew over the years to become a mix of Serge, Arp 2500/2600, Oberheim, Blacett, and other modules, including ones Cecil put together himself (and that’s an important note—TONTO is not really a synthesizer but a network of synthesizers). It was meant, as its full name implies, to function as a self-contained orchestra. With TONTO, Cecil achieved polyphony—the ability to play multiple notes at once—which was a radical step forward in synthesizer technology in the early ‘70s. It also included a joystick control that Cecil invented and that would eventually be incorporated in some way on the majority of modern synthesizers. 

In 1971, clocking in at just over half an hour long, Zero Time by TONTO’s Expanding Head Band (Cecil and Margouleff’s duo) arrived. The album is a wild and spacey trip of experimental electronic music that illustrates the kind of innovation TONTO is capable of. Stevie Wonder heard the record, and when he came knocking on Cecil’s door to ask the inventor and Margouleff to see TONTO, the most treasured era in Wonder’s musical career began. Over the next few years, the collaborative sessions at Electric Lady Studios would give birth to Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions, Fulfillingness’ First Finale, and Jungle Book

“Those were like, fresh sounds, you know?” Funk legend Bootsy Collins said in an interview about TONTO. “You could play the same thing on a piano or on an organ, but it ain’t gonna give you that same edge, that same flavour, or don’t touch you the same way. So, yeah, he brought a whole ‘nother dimension.” 

TONTO went on to feature on releases by The Isley Brothers (3 + 3, Live It Up, The Heat Is On), Caldara (A Moog Mass), The Doobie Brothers (The Captain and Me), Wilson Pickett (Join Me and Let’s Be Free), Billy Preston (It’s My Pleasure), Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson (1980), and many more. 

Cecil bought out Margouleff’s share of the instrument in 1975, moved it to Mothersbaugh’s Mutato Muzika studios in the ‘90s, and then eventually Cecil brought it back to his home in New York. When he was searching for a new and permanent home for TONTO, he had a couple important conditions—it had to be made accessible to active musicians, and it needed to be regularly maintained, which is a big, complex job that Tawkin now takes care of. 

The National Music Centre fit the bill, and TONTO made its way to Calgary in 2013, where it was lovingly restored by the late, great John Leimseider, who passed away just before TONTO Week in 2018. At that point, Tawkin was lucky enough to learn about the instrument from Cecil himself, but after the inventor died in March of 2021, Tawkin is the only one left, currently, with an intricate knowledge of the way TONTO works.

“It was amazing to have Malcolm take over from where John left off, because we were cut off so suddenly,” Tawkin says. “And it was really sad to lose Malcolm recently as well. But I know from my time with them that the skill sets and what’s important for maintaining the instrument and moving forward have been passed down. And I know that both of them are happy that the instrument is still making music and operating like it should.”

In 2018, The Halluci Nation (formerly known as A Tribe Called Red) collaborated with Cecil, becoming the first artists to use the restored TONTO to create their 2021 album, One More Saturday Night. In conversation with Cecil at the National Music Centre that year, 2oolman spoke about the effect TONTO had on their recording process and the album itself: “It’s special. All the bass patches that we ran through, all the sounds and stuff—it’s a combination of this formula that I never ever thought was possible. So the sound sounds completely different than anything that we could’ve dreamt up.”

“I must say, it was very, very heartening, and very gratifying,” Cecil said when asked how it felt to see artists using the instrument he so lovingly constructed. “Because Tim [“2oolman” Hill] and Bear [Witness] were really into TONTO…Tim and Bear just took to TONTO like that was their water, it was amazing.”

With Tawkin at the helm, Cecil’s vision will live on, and eventually be passed down to TONTO’s next keeper, so that artists can continue to make groundbreaking work with the instrument.

“It’s all about leaving breadcrumbs,” Tawkin says. “So my working files, my documentation, my parts, collections, my organization—all of this is work that I’m doing because I know that it’ll help the next person into the future. And it’s building that knowledge base so that it lives in parallel with the artifact.”

In a follow-up article, we’ll explore how a number of artists have used TONTO recently to help shape their musical visions.