Tonto's Expanding Head Band

Tonto's Expanding Head Band was a British-American electronic music duo consisting of Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff. Despite releasing only two albums in the early 1970s, the duo were (and still remain) influential because of their session and production work for other musicians (most notably Stevie Wonder[1][2]), extensive commercial advertising work and the unique warmth and personality of their work.

Tonto's Expanding Head Band
Zero Time LP.jpg
Cover to their 1971 album Zero Time
Background information
GenresElectronic music
Associated actsStevie Wonder, The Isley Brothers

The TONTO synthesizerEdit

TONTO is an acronym for "The Original New Timbral Orchestra", the first, and still the largest, multitimbral polyphonic analog synthesizer in the world, designed and constructed over several years by Malcolm Cecil. TONTO started as a Moog modular synthesizer Series III owned by record producer Robert Margouleff. Later a second Moog III was added, then four Oberheim SEMs, two ARP 2600s, modules from Serge with Moog-like panels, EMS, Roland, Yamaha, etc.[3] plus several custom modules designed by Serge Tcherepnin and Cecil himself - who has an electrical engineering background.[4] Later, digital sound-generation circuitry and a collection of sequencers were added, along with MIDI control. All of this is housed in an instantly-recognizable semi-circle of huge curving wooden cabinets, twenty feet in diameter and six feet tall.

"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."[5]

TONTO was featured (as the "electronic room") in the 1974 Brian de Palma film Phantom of the Paradise. It was also used in the album 1980 by Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson and was pictured on both the front and back covers of this album.

TONTO was owned by Malcolm Cecil since he acquired Robert Margouleff's share in 1975. In the mid-1990s TONTO was moved to Mutato Muzika studios,[6] the headquarters of Mark Mothersbaugh and Devo, leading to widespread rumors that Mothersbaugh had purchased TONTO but this was not true. TONTO eventually made its way back to Cecil's home in Saugerties, New York. In late 2013 TONTO was purchased by the National Music Centre in Calgary, Alberta.[7][8] The NMC had long desired to acquire TONTO and upon moving it to Calgary, placed it on exhibit. In late 2017, John Leimseider completed a multi-year restoration on TONTO, replacing worn out jacks and repairing broken connections. TONTO is now playable, and is a part of the living collection of National Music Centre. Synth artists can once again record with TONTO in NMC's state of the art recording studios. [9]

TONTO's influenceEdit

Tonto's Expanding Head Band's first album, Zero Time, was released in 1971 on the U.S. Embryo label (distributed by Atlantic Records) and attracted a lot of attention. Stevie Wonder in particular was impressed enough to subsequently feature TONTO in his albums starting with Music of My Mind and continuing through Talking Book, Innervisions, Fulfillingness' First Finale and Jungle Fever; all projects which listed Margouleff and Cecil as associate producers, engineers and programmers (and winning them an engineering Grammy for Innervisions).[10] Writing in Keyboard Magazine in 1984, John Diliberto asserted that:

"... this collaboration changed the perspectives of black pop music as much as The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper altered the concept of white rock".

The remainder of the 1970s and '80s saw TONTO featured on albums from Quincy Jones, Bobby Womack, The Isley Brothers, Gil Scott-Heron, Steve Hillage, Billy Preston, and Weather Report, as well as releases from Stephen Stills, The Doobie Brothers, Dave Mason, Little Feat, Joan Baez, and others. The TONTO synthesizer was also used in Brian De Palma's 1974 movie Phantom of the Paradise as well as appearing on-screen.

A second TONTO album, It's About Time was released in 1972.

In 1996 a CD "TONTO Rides Again" was released, which features all of Zero Time plus all of the tracks from It's About Time (mysteriously re-titled,[11] apparently for legal reasons). In the liner notes to the re-release, Mark Mothersbaugh wrote:

"Once upon a time, TONTO represented the cutting edge of artificial intelligence in the world of music - Robert and Malcolm are the mad chefs of aural cuisine with beefy tones and cheesy timbres, making brain chili for those brave enough and hungry enough. Consequently, back in the cultural wasteland of the Midwest, the release of Tonto's Expanding Head Band was an inspirational indicator for starving Spudboys who had grown tired of the soup du jour. It was official - noise was now Muzak, and Muzak was now noise. So with TONTO "riding again" and the orb-of-sound resurrected, expect a healing. The masses are asses who need TONTO's glasses. Lookout, here comes TONTO!"

Also, Stevie Wonder said:

"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. 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."

In 2017, Riversong from Zero Time is used as the sole audio accompaniment in the online game Universal Paperclips.[12]

Virtual TONTO LiveEdit

Malcolm Cecil and his son, DJ Moonpup, brought Tonto's Expanding Head Band to the live arena performing at the Big Chill Festival on August 5, 2006. The festival was a 3-day affair held at Eastnor Castle in Herefordshire, about 2½ hrs drive northwest of London. TONTO was not actually there - it's far too big and expensive to ship for a one-hour performance - Malcolm Cecil created a "Virtual TONTO" and played live over pre-recorded backing tracks with a specially prepared visual show with hundreds of pictures of TONTO and Poli Cecil's art pieces. The performance was enthusiastically received by an audience of over 3,000 fans.


  • Zero Time (Embryo SD 732, US 1971)
  • It's About Time (Polydor, 2383 308, UK 1974)
  • Tonto's Expanding Head Band (Atlantic SD 18123, US 1975) [reissue of Zero Time with different cover]
  • Tonto Rides Again (Viceroy VIN6036-2, 1996) (CD compiling Zero Time and retitled tracks from It's About Time)
  • Tonto's Expanding Head Band (Malcolm Cecil, limited edition CD, 2006) (remastered CD Tonto Rides Again, with a bonus track)

Margouleff & Cecil engineering, production and programming creditsEdit

(see also Robert Margouleff Discography Malcolm Cecil Discography)

Stevie Wonder

The Isley Bros

Other acts [13]

  • Caldara - A Moog Mass (1970)
  • Richie Havens - The Great Blind Degree (1971, Synthesizer [Moog], Engineer, Remix)
  • Doobie Brothers, The - The Captain and Me (1973, Programmed By [Arp Synthesizer])
  • Gene Parsons - Kindling (1973)
  • Randy Newman - Good Old Boys (1974, Synthesizer [Moog And Arp Programming])
  • Wilson Pickett - Join Me and Let's Be Free (1975, Programmed By [Electronic Music Synthesizer])
  • Billy Preston - It's My Pleasure (1975)
  • Shankar Family ૐ Friends* - Shankar Family ૐ Friends (1974, Synthesizer [Moog])
  • Steve Hillage - Motivation Radio (1977)
  • Weather Report - Tale Spinnin' (1975)


  1. ^ "Stevie Wonder & TONTO, the funk synthesizer". Retrieved 2013-01-02.
  2. ^ "TONTO & Stevie Wonder". YouTube. 2006-08-02. Retrieved 2013-01-02.
  3. ^ "T.O.N.T.O". 2006-11-14. Retrieved 2013-01-02.
  4. ^ John Papieski. "TONTO". Retrieved 2013-01-02.
  5. ^ [1] Archived October 11, 2004, at the Wayback Machine
  6. ^ "Devo | Mark Mothersbaugh". Retrieved 2013-01-02.
  7. ^ (
  8. ^ "The Mothership Has Landed – TONTO Synthesizer Finds New Home at National Music Centre". 2014-01-09.
  9. ^ "Our Studios | Studio Bell".
  10. ^ "Awards Nominations & Winners". GRAMMY Search database - Innervisions. 2017-04-30.
  11. ^ "Orpheus Music: The Electronic Music Time Machine: TONTO's Expanding Head Band: A Synthesizer the Size of Nebraska". 2007-11-22.
  12. ^ "Universal Paperclips Credits". Retrieved December 29, 2017.
  13. ^ [2] Archived March 12, 2010, at the Wayback Machine

External linksEdit