As a longtime synth geek, I sometimes wondered whatever happened to TONTO, the modular behemoth featured on Stevie Wonder's great seventies records Talking Book, Innervisions, and Fulfillingness' First Finale, and on one of the greatest electronic albums ever, Zero Time, written and performed by the enigmatic TONTO's Expanding Head Band. It was easy to assume that TONTO (an acronym for "The Original New Timbral Orchestra") had been consigned to the dustbin of musical history — after all, this was the age of miniaturization. And then I heard from a friend, the science historian Trevor Pinch, that Malcom Cecil — co-creator of TONTO, half of the Expanding Head Band, and the "Fulfillingness" of that cryptic album title — lived not far away, but near Saugerties, New York — and that TONTO was alive and well!
WHAT'S INSIDE TONTO?
2 complete Moog Model III's
2 ARP 2600's
4 Oberheim SEM's
More modules by Malcom, Serge Tcherepnin, and Armand Pascetta Roland and EMS sequencers Roland, Moog, and AKS keyboard controllers Moog ribbon controller
2 Moog 1130 drum controllers
Roland MIDI-CV converters
128 feet of power cable left over (Malcom swears) from the construction of Apollo 11
As it happens, Malcom Cecil is also an accomplished jazz bassist, a Grammy- winning record producer, and a witness to the early days of tape operating — and he is presently involved in a project to re-master rare live jazz recordings, originally made exclusively for broadcast, from lacquer discs. Trevor, who wrote about Malcom in his superb synth-history book Analog Days, suggested we pay the great man a visit. And so, on a sunny Sunday in August, we headed out for the Hudson River Valley, along with our friend, photographer and electronic music composer James Spitznagel.
Malcom lives with his wife, Polly, in a cozy house on a secluded street a couple of hours north of New York City. A wiry man with a wild halo of gray hair, Malcom is ebullient, cheerful, intelligent and enthusiastic — a personality big enough to withstand the upstaging force of TONTO! After a delicious brunch prepared by Polly (and a look at her amazing sculptures made out of molded styrofoam packing material), we headed out to the barn where Malcom's studio, and TONTO, are kept.
The studio is packed with eye candy: gold records on the walls from gigs with Stevie Wonder, the Isley Brothers, and Bobby Womack; a Studer A-820 and a Scully 2-track; a homemade adjustable tape delay, called "The Elephant Nose Machine" that Malcom made out of a defunct 3M 1" 8-track. Malcom records onto Alesis HD24s and Tascam DA98s and DA38s, through a Mackie D8B digital mixer and a pair of Genelec S30Cs. He also uses SADiE mastering software ("It replaced Sonic Solutions when they dumped audio"). And then there's TONTO, filling up half the room, the giant synthesizer looks like the control panel of a Russian nuclear power plant, exuding the awesome power of unreproducible technology. We spend a few minutes jamming with it as sound pours through two large monitors — JBL 4331s that Malcom has torn apart and rebuilt to make room for two 15" "mystery woofers".
For the interview, we sit inside a Buckminster- Fulleresque enclosure, the remains of an aborted interactive surround-sound project, which seems to have a calming effect on all of us. Beside us a Conn Strobotuner tracks our every word, desperately trying to get us in tune. Conversation with Malcom is like navigating a river — there's no stopping it, you can only hope to divert it. Over the next few hours we hear enough great stories for five magazine articles, and I know that it's going to be hard to pare them down to one!
We open our discussion with a bit of history — Malcom's childhood. He came from a musical family. His grandfather, born in the Bronx, was a theater organist and played in the Times Square movie theater. Malcom's grandfather fought the Kaiser in Europe in the First World War. The same bullet that injured his shoulder went on to kill his brother. His nurse in the army hospital would become Malcom's grandmother.
Malcom's mother was an accomplished pianist and violinist and played accordion with a gypsy band. His father was the band's manager, and he played the saxophone. Malcom played the piano (and a tiny custom-made accordion!) but gave up lessons when he realized, at kindergarten, that most families weren't musical at all. Eventually he would excel at science as well, taking physics at his polytechnic grammar school, and, later, engineering at technical college. Around this time he picked up music again, learned to play the drums and bass, and worked his way, as a bass player, into considerable prominence with Dil Jones' jazz trio, at Ronnie Scott's London jazz club, and eventually in the BBC orchestra. A stint in the RAF as a radar operator introduced him to the control voltages that he would later use as a synthesist. At the start of his engineering career, he was stationed in Newcastle, where he was working on bombing trajectories for the Air Force.
IR: Let me ask you about two early engineering jobs, The Animals' "House of the Rising Sun" and an early live recording of The Who.
There was jazz happening every Tuesday and Thursday in this pub, so I go in. There's a guy sitting there with a beard and a big pile of money. The guy was Mike Jeffries, who would later manage The Animals and Jimi Hendrix and own Electric Ladyland. Mike and I decided to start a jazz club, and we called it the Downbeat. On weekends it was jazz, and on Monday nights, Mike wanted this rock 'n' roll group of his to play. I was a real purist — had to be jazz. Well, it turns out it's The Animals, and they were using this gig as a rehearsal. And Mike comes to me one day and says, "You've got a tape machine, don't you? Come down on Monday night and record this group. I'll pay you!" So I go there and record them — I just record the whole evening. And one of the songs was "House of the Rising Sun" — Mike takes the tape, disappears down to London. Next thing I know, they've got a recording contract, and they ended up using that tape!
IR: What equipment were you using?
It was a Revox, an old Revox 2-track. It was virtually in mono, I didn't have any mixing equipment — it was basically the same information to both tracks. I had four mics on the stage — little Reslo ribbon mics — and a mono mixer. It was a real rough thing, I wasn't doing it as a recording, Mike just wanted it recorded!
IR: And the version you recorded was the same one that ended up on the record?
I think they dollied it up a bit, but basically it was the same. There wasn't much equipment around back then, they'd take whatever they had. Now, with The Who — I later came out of the Air Force and worked for a gentleman named Harold Pendleton who had an organization called the National Jazz Federation, the NJF. They had a club on Water Street in London called the Marquee — a huge club, it went from one street to the other. He wanted to have a recording capability at the club and asked me if I could put in a recording studio — at that time I was working at the BBC.
TP: This was the number one club in London for rock 'n' roll — every band in London would be playing there.
Yeah — and they had traditional jazz there as well. I was not an acoustic expert at the time, but I knew Sandy Brown, a clarinet player and acoustician at the BBC. I said, "I'm supposed to be building this studio but I don't know how to do it. I have to make it soundproof." He showed me that even a small hole could destroy the soundproofing between two rooms — he compared it to the hull of a ship. He designed the acoustic room, and I designed the control room. There were no multitracks in England at that time. We had stereo, the BBC did stereo broadcasts, but the technique was crossed mics. That was it. [To the BBC,] stereo — old stereo — was three-channel. Binaural was left and right. It's true that you get a better sound with three channels, but it's also true that you don't need a center channel to get the illusion of stereo. We did an experiment where we had three monitors — massive things made by Tannoy — at Paracinema, which we used as an audience studio for bands, comedy shows. We had all the engineers down there. Now, we knew how to transmit stereo, but we didn't know how to transmit more than two channels — nobody does it even today as far as I know, though maybe people will start doing surround soon. So two channels was what was available, and we had to show these old engineers that we could do stereo in two channels. We put up these three speakers, and out of the left speaker...