The Story of TONTO, Part 2: The Adventurous Musicians Expanding TONTO’s Possibilities

Recently, we explored TONTO’s past. But, under the watchful eye of caretaker Jason Tawkin, TONTO’s present and future is just as bright. By taking to heart Malcolm Cecil’s vision of The Original New Timbral Orchestra as an accessible tool for musicians of all generations, the National Music Centre has been able to facilitate a number of exciting projects involving TONTO over the past few years. 

Robin Hatch’s T.O.N.T.O.

The most TONTO-centric of those projects so far has been 2021’s T.O.N.T.O. from Toronto-based keys virtuoso Robin Hatch. The record is a vivid, surreal trip that expands the borders of the instrument’s sonic geographies. 

Hatch walked up to Cecil at a trade show in 2015—not knowing who he was, just observing his cool, all-white outfit and wild white hair—and introduced herself. He explained his history and gave her an autographed TONTO’s Expanding Head Band CD, and sparked her interest in synthesis. In 2019, on tour with Whitehorse, she found out TONTO was at NMC and called in some favours to get a tour, meeting Tawkin that same day, and learning about the Artist in Residence program. She posted about the experience on Instagram, which led to a friend putting her in touch with Robert Margouleff, and when she played Margouleff some of her classical piano recordings, he floated the idea of breaking the pieces up into four separate voices, using TONTO as a free-standing chamber group.

Robin Hatch and NMC’s Studio and Electronics Engineer Jason Tawkin. Photo courtesy of Robin Hatch.

Hatch had about four days to finish the whole album, which was no easy feat, as TONTO doesn’t stay in tune for very long. In fact, Cecil invented the pitch shifter—his original one was a jerry-rigged, remote-controlled airplane joystick—to keep it in tune manually, by ear, as recording went on. Tawkin’s presence helped, though: “Jason is kind of like the priest telling the word of God,” Hatch says. “And TONTO is the God itself.”

Hatch was particularly interested in TONTO’s bass sounds, which you can hear spotlighted on “Brazil” and “Mockingbird;” its woodwinds, which have their moment on “Buttercup” and “The Standoff;” and the instrument’s ability to mimic natural sounds like water, which you can hear on “Airplane” and “Water.”

“I love the airy clarinet and brass type sounds that it can produce, which you hear a lot on the Stevie Wonder records,” Hatch says. “In my opinion, what the synth is most known for is its crazy bass sound. And then its ethereal, beautiful woodwind instrument capabilities—clarinets, brass, and then flutes, which you get from the ARP 2600 synths that are part of it. Jason and I took one afternoon and dialed in this sound that was on the software synthesizer version of the Moog modular setup—which was called ‘water’—and basically tried to recreate this water sound with the Moog. All credit to Jason there for dialing in that sound. It is cool how you can create nature sounds with a synthesizer that really do sound unlike anything you would hear on a traditional instrument.”

With its rich exploration of the instrument’s expressive capabilities, Hatch’s album testifies to the enduring power of TONTO in the hands of musicians who push the envelope—something Cecil had hoped for and fought to ensure. It pays tribute to TONTO’s past while pushing it into the future.

“I think, if TONTO was initially built to be multiple voices in one contained unit that can all function at the same time, that my album was a tribute to why it was originally created—as kind of an alien orchestra,” Hatch says.

Angie C’s Star Seeds

Speaking of the future, Calgary-based electronic musician Angie C (aka Angie Coombes) found a novel way to combine her passions for science and music through TONTO, building elements of her cosmic 2021 album Star Seeds by fusing her mind with the instrument. 

Coombes, who has a neuroscience degree, used a readily available Emotiv EPOC+ brainwave headset to achieve a special kind of synthesis. The headsets have different software algorithms, and for Star Seeds they used emotional algorithms, which measures things like stress, engagement, excitement, frustration, and meditation. The headset, of course, is digital; TONTO is an analog machine. So Coombes and her collaborator, Jane, were able to affect TONTO’s output with the emotional responses they had while thinking of different things. 

“For me, I found that by thinking of a purple flame coming down through my body, I was able to control the rate of the low frequency oscillator on TONTO,” Coombes says. “My friend Jane was sitting with the headset inside of TONTO and thinking about flying through the galaxy, and we got this wild brainwave solo from her that literally sounds like a spaceship taking off on the song ‘Worlds Away.’”

(Jane’s isolated brainwave-controlled TONTO solo from “Worlds Away”)

Coombes had previously worked on something similar by creating brainwave-controlled fashion pieces—costumes with built-in LED lights that shift according to brainwave activity. Each of Star Seeds’ six songs—created from around 20 hours of recording time—contain TONTO contributions that were controlled via brainwave.

“We would create a patch of sound with TONTO, and then we’d be using our brainwaves to interact with the instrument and play with manipulating that sound,” Coombes says. “So it became a very immersive thing. It’s almost like TONTO is a being in itself. Every day, it sounds different. And abstractly, it’s like TONTO is this otherworldly being that you’re interacting with using your mind.”

Coombes’ fusion of the natural and the synthetic, of past and future tech, illuminated a new method for interacting with the instrument while also showing her the nuances between TONTO and other synthesizers.

“Working with TONTO really drove home the difference between analog and digital synthesizers,” Coombes says. “With a digital synthesizer, or even something like a virtual instrument in your production software, it’s always approximating the smooth analog signal. If you look at a graph of an analog wave versus a digital version of a wave, the digital looks almost like a little staircase. You’re actually losing some of the quality of the sound when you move into the digital format. So what I really appreciated was being able to hear and sense the analog signal from the synth—the warmth of it, the robustness, it just has this greater power.”

Rich Aucoin’s “TONTO”

The seemingly inexhaustible Halifax-based pop artist Rich Aucoin recently announced his new project, Synthetic—a quadruple album on which Aucoin aims to have the most synthesizers ever played on a record. It’ll be released in four parts, in six-month intervals, over the next two years. While the album features a truly astounding number of synthesizers, TONTO is the only one that gets a full track all to itself, which is partly because of its ability to do so much on its own.

“The thing that really makes it stand out is because of its interaction with itself,” Aucoin says. “Other synthesizers, you know—especially for this record, it’s gonna have a few hundred synthesizers on it—they’re all added piecemeal one at a time. Whereas with TONTO, it was like using six really powerful synthesizers at the same time. And since they’re all running through one another and affecting one another, I just tracked it for three hours and played many different things. Then at the end of the three-hour jam session, I cut up my favourite sections and started building a track based on the parts that could go into one another well.”

The whole journey begins with the shadowy, futuristic lead single “TONTO,” a track Aucoin wanted to build completely from scratch as he interacted with the instrument for the first time. 

“I just wanted to honour the instrument,” Aucoin says. “I wasn’t trying to make TONTO play a song that I was coming into the session with. I just jammed for as long as I had access to the instrument, and then took all the things that I figured out with the instrument and worked backwards, making the song out of what TONTO gave me.”

What the creation processes of all these projects have in common was, at the very least, a shared reverence for the instrument Malcolm Cecil built and cared for. Intentional or not, the artists working with TONTO in the present day are contributing to Cecil’s vision of accessibility and innovation. It’s fitting that TONTO is so often used to create otherworldly music; whether it’s the staggering size, the retro-futuristic aesthetic, or the revolutionary work that’s been done on it, the instrument seems to have its own gravitational field.