The Mothership Has Landed – TONTO Synthesizer Finds New Home At National Music Centre


The mothership has landed. TONTO (The Original New Timbral Orchestra), described as ‘the first multitimbral polyphonic analog synthesizer’, has found a new home.

Calgary’s National Music Centre (NMC) has announced ‘a major acquisition’, the giant TONTO modular synthesizer of inventor and owner Malcolm Cecil.

TONTO is a huge multitimbral polyphonic analog synthesizer, created by Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff in 1968. It was one of the first synthesizers capable of producing many tone colours with different voices simultaneously.

Under the band name Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, Cecil and Margouleff released the highly influential synth album Zero Time. The album demonstrated the rich, layered sounds of the massive synthesizer.

TONTO was also featured on multiple Stevie Wonder and The Isley Brothers albums in the 1970s. It also made an appearance in the cult classic film Phantom of the Paradise. Diverse artists such as Joan Baez, The Doobie Brothers, Quincy Jones, Randy Newman, Bobby Womack and many others also used TONTO on recordings in 1970s and 1980s.

After acquiring Margouleff’s share in 1975, Cecil continued to develop and expand TONTO. In late 2013, the NMC acquired TONTO and has worked with Cecil to document its intricate systems and ensure that it can continue to be used by artists at the future NMC building, opening in 2016.

34 thoughts on “The Mothership Has Landed – TONTO Synthesizer Finds New Home At National Music Centre

    1. Congratulations to both Malcolm and Robert… You two were so ahead of your time. Steveie, Minnie, Isley Brothers ,Syreeta, Billy Preston, and many more had huge careers because of the unique sound that you guys and the Imortal Tonto created! So glad Tonto has a ne permanent home

    2. I think its T.O.N.T.O., The Original New Timbral Orchestra, which has squat to do with Italy. 😀 Its also intriguing and not at all stupid. Besides, in The Lone Ranger, Tonto was always the smarter one. The thing is like a pipe organ. Each organ and each synth rig have their own subtleties. The most basic routing of T.O.N.T.O. would send me screaming into the street. Praise DAWs!

    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”

    Taken from an interview:

  2. I live in calgary and go to the Nmc about three or four times a year. I have a feeling this won’t be in the showroom until they move to the new space but damn that’s gorgeous.

      1. The National Music Center, formally known as CANTOS, has a TON of gear available for public use. I’ve never booked time with them, but I’ve been tempted to make a road trip considering what they’ve got in their collection of over 2000+ items. They have A LOT of vintage synthesizers, including an EMS VCS3, EMS Synthi 100, Moog MiniMoog Model D, Moog Lyra, Moog Apollo, a Moog Modular 55, Oberheim Four Voice, Oberheim OB-8, several revisions of the Sequential Circuits Prophet 5, Sequential Circuits Prophet T-8, Sequential Circuits Prophet 10, Arp 2600, Arp Quadra, Buchla 100, TWO Buchla 700s (one is working, and one is kept for parts), Buchla 200e, a Serge modular system from 1969, an E-Mu Audity (the one-of-a-kind analogue prototype, not the common Audity 2000), the full range of classic E-Mu Emulator samplers, a Yamaha CS-80, and a ton more synthesizers. They’ve also got recording consoles and studio gear (API, Trident, Helios, etc.), effect units, a number of rare accoustic instruments, including some early forms of the piano, and an impressively large collection of guitars. And while not all of their gear is available for public use, a great deal of it is. And to think, the NMC exists because of a mixture of public funding and donations.

        Their website is here:

        1. To clarify, only a portion of the entire collection is on display, and NMC functions more as a museum than a “public access” space. In other words, most of the collection is not “open”, so to speak, for the general public to walk in and use. That being said, most of the instruments on display are in working condition and can be heard on public tours, and several can be played by the public at the discretion of the interpreter giving the tour. Currently, the acoustic collection is primarily comprised of keyboard instruments, including pianos, harpsichords, and organs. And, yes, TONTO is currently on display.

  3. The thing that really immortalizes TONTO forever is its appearance during Guillermo Del Toro’s Halloween opening for “The Simpsons.” The band teacher is in front of it, wearing the Phantom costume and banishing Lisa when she suddenly does her improv. Once you’ve been Simpsonized, you’re in the pop lexicon forever.

  4. I knew about this system called TONTO a long time ago…. I live in Spain, and TONTO means “not so intelligent” – that’s the polite way of saying it! – but this system doesn’t look stupid or silly!!!

  5. The funny thing is,I live in Calgary,[sorry],and it’s about as synth unfriendly as a city of a miiliion can be.It’s so ironic that we have such a renowned collection at the National Music Centre,yet there is nowhere to buy Modular synth gear,or anything that isn’t Moog,Korg or Roland.

    1. Try living where i do-
      West Virgina.
      Probably about 5 synth players in the entire state.
      It kinda made me laugh, you complaining about how “theres no place to find modular gear, or anything thats not moog, korg, or roland”, when i can hardly even find that

  6. And don’t forget Steve Hillage. He and Mr Cecil used TONTO extensively on the great elpee Motivation Radio.

    Just a plug for my favourite guitarist of all time…

  7. This would seem like a great opportunity to make a T.O.N.T.O. sample pack for Reason, etc., but oh, the heresy of it. Keep in mind that its the form that makes it stand out, not the parts per se. Most of it is classic Moog, ARP and Oberheim bits, so only nimble routing can really draw out the legendary ideal. Got a few free months for tackling that? 😀 Still, it’d be nice to see it made use of musically a few more times. Its a smart move, so maybe that can happen.

  8. I am delighted to see tONTO at the museum. I hope a new generation of players will take advantage of it. Malcolm and I had a marvelous history together. WE changed the world a little bit together. I am thankful that he persevered after we went out our own, and to see his dreams realized.

  9. It’s good to know that TONTO has found a permanent home and might even be worth the trip just to see it again after 40 years or so. Malcolm and Bob, you were true pioneers and game-changers and it is a fitting tribute that your ‘baby’ is available for all to see and some to play. I feel good having turned on early to ‘It’s About Time’ and released it in the UK. Now I feel better that your work will be properly recognised for ever.

  10. I was at The Record Plant when Stevie Wonder was recording with TONTO, and I remember meeting Malcolm Cecil, and seeing Tonto up close and personal there.

  11. I’m so glad this amazing bunch of stuff hasn’t gone to the scrappy. The world’s first synth that can be played polyphonically &; multi-tonally (is that even English?) without a gazillion overdubs.
    It will hopefully be used in a proper way creating multitextured sounds as it was designed to do, rather than just a museum piece.
    Long live it’s power station sized supply box!

    And can we put in a request for Bob & Malc to be sainted?


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