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TONTO: The World’s Largest Synthesizer

Tonto is simply an acronym for ‘The Orignal New Timbral Orchestra’, the largest and most famous multi-timbral polyphonic analog synthesizer in the world. Made by Malcolm Cecil, Tonto became one of the most famous and influential synthesizers of our time and went on to feature on albums by Stevie wonder Quincy Jones, Bobby Womack, The Isley Brothers and Gil Scott-Heron amongst others.

Cecil came from an engineering background and though he’d previously performed in jazz and blues bands, he’d always maintained an interest in electrical engineering. Cecil started building Tonto with a Moog Modular Synthesizer series III which was later joined by a Moog III, four Oberheim SEMs, two ARP 2600‘s, modules from Serge, EMS, Roland and Yamaha. To add to this, Cecil and fellow engineer Serge Tcherepnin designed many modules themselves and what started as a relatively normal sized synthesizer, now took the name Tonto and at twenty foot wide and 6 ft tall, Tonto became the largest modular synthesizer in the world.

“I wanted to create an instrument that would be the first multitimbral polyphonic synthesizer. Multitimbral polyphony is different than the type of polyphony provided by most of today’s synthesizers, on which you turn to a string patch and everything under your fingers is strings. In my book ‘multitimbral’ means each note you play has a different tone quality, as if the notes come from separate instruments. I wanted to be able to play live multitimbral polyphonic music using as many fingers and feet as I had”. Malcolm Cecil

Now that Cecil had successfully created his dream synthesizer, he decided the time was right to unveil it to the world and as a result, ‘Tonto’s Expanding Head Band’ was formed. Cecil joined forces with Robert Margouleff in the 70’s to release a number of albums. Zero time, It’s about time and Tonto Rides again, failed to sell in huge quantities however, the albums were hugely influential to artists such as Tangerine Dream and most famously Stevie Wonder, who went on to work with Tonto’s Expanding Head Band on a number of his albums.

“How great it is at a time when technology and the science of music is at its highest point of evolution, to have the reintroduction of two of the most prominent forefathers in this music be heard again,” said Stevie Wonder.“It can be said of this work that it parallels with good wine. As it ages it only gets better with time. A toast to greatness… a toast to Zero Time… forever”.
Stevie Wonder on working with Tonto’s Expanding Head Band

The video below shows Malcom Cecil, Robert Margouleff and Stevie Wonder working together in the studio and features an interview with both Cecil and Margouleff.

Though Tonto and the Expanding Head Band are still active to this day, the Tonto Synthesizer no longer remains in Mark Cecil’s hands. In the 90’s, the synthesizer was briefly in the hands of Mark Mothersbaugh and Devo, however it has now been purchased by the National Music Centre in Calgary, Canada.

Synthesizer Assembly Kits

NAMM 2014 witnessed more and more brands releasing new synthesizers and one of our favourite new products for 2014 is the Korg MS20 Analogue Synthesizer Assembly Kit.

This is a great purchase for anyone enthusiastic about building a synthesizer and this assembly kit features all the parts you need to re-create a full size MS20 synth with your very own hands.
The MS-20 kit features filters from both early and late versions of the classic synth and even allows you to switch between the two. You can find out more about the MS-20 assembly kit here

If you’d rather have your synth delivered ready-made, you can also check out our
full selection of synthesizers online here

If you’re interested in finding out more information on Malcolm Cecil, you can visit his official website here.

Article By Stefanie Chew

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