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Remembering Influential Producer Malcolm Cecil Who Died At 84


Imagine a musical instrument the size of a small room. That's basically how big TONTO was.


TONTO was the world's largest analog synthesizer when it was built in 1968. We're remembering one of its co-creators, Malcolm Cecil, who died over the weekend.


MARTIN: This is a 1971 recording of Malcolm Cecil playing TONTO.

KING: It was a massive semicircle, kind of like a cockpit, with knobs and plugs and cables and joysticks, all of them arced around a keyboard. And it could do tricks that no other instrument could do.

FRANCIS PREVE: It was absolutely visionary.

KING: That's Francis Preve. He's a synthesizer expert and a sound designer in Austin, Texas.

PREVE: It's no exaggeration to say it was sort of the first real-time synthesis orchestra.

MARTIN: Malcolm Cecil built something that could run a drum track, a baseline, multiple melodies simultaneously.

PREVE: There are just so many tools inside TONTO that it's just an absolute playground.

KING: And one person who wanted to play was a very young Stevie Wonder. Malcolm Cecil told the story of how they met to the National Music Centre in Calgary.


MALCOLM CECIL: Previously, when he was working for Motown, he had no control. They would call Stevie in and a Motown producer would tell him how to sing, what to sing, when to sing. And he told me, man, it came out with nothing like the music I had in my mind.

MARTIN: Francis Preve says working with TONTO inspired Stevie Wonder.

PREVE: He was so fascinated by the sound of this that many of his pioneering records, like "Music Of My Mind," "Talking Book," "Innervisions," et cetera, all of these ultra groundbreaking records came out of collaborating with Malcolm to bring Stevie's vision into a recording.


MARTIN: And Stevie Wonder was the first of many.

PREVE: Quincy Jones, Isley Brothers, Billy Preston, Gil Scott-Heron, Weather Report, the Doobie Brothers even used TONTO. Most, if not all, of the artists from the early '70s to mid-'70s who were truly interested in synthesis before it became more mainstream, more affordable, TONTO was the go-to synth.

KING: That was Francis Preve remembering the work of the late Malcom Cecil. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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