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T.O.N.T.O. - The Original New Timbral Orchestra
A dialog with Nicholas Kent

photos courtesy Kevin Lightner

NK: I'm a friend of Malcolm Cecil and spent time chatting about features on his big, mostly custom synth, T.O.N.T.O. (of TONTO's Expanding Head Band fame).

He and former partner Robert Margouleff specified the features for TONTO, which Cecil designed or helped design a number of custom modules for (He has an electrical engineering background). Many of the custom ones were Serge built. The synth as a whole was begun on a foundation of a IIIC in the late 60s and they added some semi modular synths from Arp, Oberheim, etc. for cost effectiveness later. In the early 70s it became the first Polyphonic CV synth. Both Tom Oberheim and notoriously Yamaha learned from and engineered around his patents.

Its certainly worth a solid footnote in Serge history since TONTO contains a lot of custom early Serge work. And of course the N.T.O. in TONTO  isn't a coincidence, there are early prototypes in TONTO. Malcolm Cecil remembers it as 1973, '74 at the latest when Serge started building modules for TONTO. This went on for 3 or 4 years as he remembers.

One of the key reasons for building a lot of custom modules was Cecil's desire to have voltage control on parameters unavailable on manufactured modules like Moog made. A key acheivement was the voltage controlled ADSR, which Cecil came up with and they collaborated on the design of. Serge eventually built a rack full of them for TONTO.

The first ASR "Arabesque" generators were made for TONTO. While Serge only produced 2 for TONTO, each had 12 stages. Some VC Phasers and Schmitt Triggers were built for TONTO.

There are some un-Sergelike but more Mooglike OSCs and filters on TONTO too. All of them have features in addition to those found on Moogs. Such as voltage control of the Q on the filter, a subharmonic generator on the Oscs that locked in steps, etc.

EGRES: About what year was TONTO designed/built?

NK: It started in '69, maybe as early as '68 with Margouleff's stock Moog IIIC, many Moog modules in it are are date stamped with '68  dates. They wanted to push electronics into creating new musical sounds - Hence create New Timbres. Around 1970 another goal was set to make it into a true polyphonic instrument and this was acheived by 1971. Its set up as 10 voice multitimbral. It was mostly finished by the mid 70s. For example several SEMs seem to be the newest major addition. I know he has something old by John Blacet in there, and there is some rack EMS gear, their later digital sequencer and their Vocoder 2000.

EGRES: It's still intact & being used, isn't it?

NK:Yes, it was running in a storefront in Manhattan for about half of 1999. At this moment (Spring, 2000) its in storage while remodels the new Manhattan commercial space he operates out of. I saw him dissassemble parts of it, it breaks down fast considering its size, lots of multipin busses. The 9 big cases and several freestanding items are disconnectable from each other

EGRES: Was there a TONTO/Stevie Wonder connection?

NK: Yes, he and Margouleff struck a deal with SW and collaborated on the synth work for all the now classic early tomid 70s Stevie Wonder albums Talking Book, Innervisions, about 4 I think including the song "Superstition" which was on "Talking Book" but became a big single too).  They took received an associate producer credit. The collaboration eventualy broke up due to financial matters and to a lesser extent album credits or lack there of, It didn't help that I think Yamaha lured him with the GX-1. Cecil claims Yamaha developed their polyphonic technology based on seeing his display at the '71 AES.

He received 1 or 2 grammys for engineering personally and of course it's a great credit to be associate producer on the album of the year or 2 (Stevie Wonder albums like "Talking Book"). He also did multiple hit albums with the Isley Brothers and still collaborates with Gil-Scott Herron (though not synthwork like in the 70s). He engineered the T-Rex's best known one, but no synths are on it. He even worked on a vintage Steve Hillage album. He's currently doing a lot of mastering for All Media, a Manhattan based CD duplication company.

I looked at a published interview he did last year. He gives the Serge module count as "over 70", what's interesting is while some are Moog clones with added improvements which are modules proper, some are full rack width panels that are complete synth voices (I think he's counting those as several modules). Except for the SEMs and a 2500 filter everything is vaguely Moog patterned visually, so none of the Serge stuff looks anything like his later designs.