Pioneering Synthesist & Producer Malcolm Cecil Dead At 84

Pioneering synthesist, composer and producer Malcolm Cecil has died at the age of 84.

Malcom Cecil (1937 – 2021) was born in London and got his start in the 1950s playing bass in groups like The Jazz Couriers and Blues Incorporated.

But he’s best known for his work after he moved to the United States and paired up with producer and synthesist Robert Margouleff, who had purchased one of the first Moog Series IIIc modular synthesizers. The duo saw the future for synthesis, and decided to create the largest synthesizer in the world. They created a massive modular system, made up of synths and modules from a variety of manufacturers, dubbing it TONTO (The Original New Timbral Orchestra).

The duo called themselves Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, and released their debut album in 1971, Zero Time. The album is instrumental and features six compositions that range in mood from the funky opener, Cybernaut, to the more ambient Aurora.

While the album was not a hit, it was ahead of its time and demonstrated how synthesizers could be used for more than ‘Switched On’ covers and so-called ‘Moogsploitation’ albums.

It led to what’s arguably Cecil & Margouleff’s most influential work – their pioneering engineering and production of the 1970s. They worked with artists like The Isley Brothers, Richie Havens, Billy Preston, The Doobie Brothers, Steve Hillage, Weather Report and others.

During this time, they partnered with Stevie Wonder on four pioneering albums, which many consider to be his ‘classic period’. Wonder had already had a long career as a child artist at Motown, but wanted to establish himself as an adult artist. With the help of Cecil & Margouleff, he did this brilliantly with a series of widely acclaimed albums: Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale.

Songs like Superstition, You Are the Sunshine of My Life and Boogie On Reggae Woman didn’t just demonstrate Stevie Wonder’s creative genius, they showcased the programming and production work of Cecil and Margouleff and demonstrated he possibilities of synths and electronics in popular music.

Rapid changes in technology led to synthesizers becoming more accessible by the late 70s, and to the rise of digital synthesizers like the Yamaha DX7 in the 80s. But the rise of interest in analog synthesizers in the last decade or so has led to a new appreciation of the work of Cecil & Margouleff, and the recognition of TONTO as an iconic instrument of analog synthesis.

Here’s a 2016 NAMM Oral History interview, in which Cecil discusses getting his start in England, his jazz career, how he got involved with electronic music and synthesizers, working with Stevie Wonder and more:

Here’s a discussion between author Mark Vail and Cecil from Knobcon 4. In the discussion, Cecil talks about creating TONTO and some of it’s unique technical aspects:

In 2014, TONTO found a new home at Calgary’s National Music Centre (NMC). Now housed at NMC’s Studio Bell, TONTO has been restored and is being used for a new generation of artists.

In this 2020 NMC video, Cecil discusses the ergonomic and electronic challenges that led to TONTO’s unique design. And NMC’s Jason Tawkin gives a tour of the various instruments that make up TONTO:

via Michelle Moog-Koussa

15 thoughts on “Pioneering Synthesist & Producer Malcolm Cecil Dead At 84

  1. Really sad to hear this, I got the chance to meet and converse with him at Knobcon a few years ago. Great guy, very willing to share his stories.

  2. RIP Malcolm….you’ve migrated to another higher dimension…..I’ll be listening for your vibes!! Bon Voyage!!

  3. Soul Brother Malcolm and thanks for your contribution to black music culture!

    Stevie Wonder – Seems So Long

    Stevie Wonder – Keep On Running

    Stevie Wonder – Creepin’

    Isley brothers That Lady, Pts. 1 & 2

    Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson – 1980

    Minnie Riperton – The Edge Of A Dream

    Rest In Music! Malcolm may the sound of the universe open her arms.

  4. my problem with guys like him and stockhausen: they were firstly interested in sound, not in making music, that was worth listening to imo. with the exception of pete townshend (“don´t get fooled again”).

  5. The album cover for Gill Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson’s 1980 is shot in front of the giant modular. I always wondered why more wasn’t made of it on the record. That and what possessed Gill Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson to don rhinestone boilersuits and cowboy boots.

  6. The image of T.O.N.T.O. was the pipe organ of my newbie years. Malcolm did us all a solid by helping to create the ultimate boutique synth. None of us will ever get to play it, but its still a basic template for thousands of rigs. Beautiful work all around.

  7. Sad news, indeed.

    I have fond memories with Malcolm, Stevie Wonder, Greg Phillinganes, Nathan Watts and myself together at Wonderland studios in the 90’s, a couple of blocks south of the Wiltern theatre in LA. Malcolm and Stevie had not worked together in years and years.

    Among other things, we were sampling the big modular Moog with Malcolm at the helmet, combining it with Stevies Akai-sounds, sampling it into the Synclavier, adding my sounds to it, and out came these giant bass sounds, found on the song “Force behind the Power”, a song Stevie produced for Diana Ross.

    Rest in peace.

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