This interview with Malcolm Cecil, conducted by Doug Lynner and Bryce Robbley, dates from November 1976 and appeared in Synapse Magazine. Please note that all (c) are with the Magazine and its authors. Because the original article only contained black/white photo’s, we have added some colourfull picture to add value to this article.

Malcolm Cecil, composer, performer, programmer and producer has been heard on some of the most influential albums of our time, among them “Fullfillingness First Finale” and “Innervisions” by Stevie Wonder for which he and his former partner Bob Margouleff received a grammy for the best engineered non-classical recording of 1973. Malcolm’s instrument TONTO has been seen the world over as part of the environment for Ken Russel’s film “Phantom of the Paradise.”

Doug Lynner: “How did you get started in Electronic Music?”

Malcolm Cecil: “My original lnstrumept was keyboards way back when you could count my years on one hand. My mother who was a brilliant keyboard artist played the pre-runner of the Hammond organ -called the Nova chord. She used to play It professionally during the war at a dance hall. And so, from very, very young I was exposed to the sounds coming from the keyboard. In fact, the Nova chord is more like the synthesizer than the Hammond organ; it had a lot more variables on it and it was a lot more electronic in generation and so on. I think it is one of the transitionary instruments between the organ and the synthesizer. I was exposed to my mother operating this thing by sitting next to her as a very young child and I must have absorbed a lot of this. There was nothing else to watch but the people dancing, and I was into music. So I used to delight, when she wasn’t looking, to turning the knob that turned off the sounds. She would have to look around for it – you know, little kids’ tricks. By the time I got to the age of about thirteen, I was interested in dancing music. One of the things that really bugged me was that I could never find a good bass player to play with. So I figured, here is an instrument that’s very neglected. Here’s the place I can excel. By the time I was sixteen, I had saved up enough money, got myself a bass and really got stuck into it. This is what the world endowed I should play. This is my instrument and I’m really going to get into it. Meantime, still at school, still studying, still passing exams, going on to advanced studies, physics and so on – and two minds. What am I going to be? “Obviously you’re going to be a scientist or at worst an engineer,” my parents thought. But if you asked me? Well, I enjoy playing. I’m going to be a musician. “But you’ve got to have something behind you,” so I got pushed to be responsible. “You’ve got opportunities second to none, go to the universities, get your degree and then you can work on being a musician if you want to.” Those are the standard arguments. I stuck it out as best I could and did a reasonable amount of work towards It. But as time went by, it became evident to me that I was much more interested in music than I was in science and math. What I did was, work more and more, and harder and harder and eventually got myself in the position where at the age of nineteen, I was voted in the Melody Maker poll as number 3 in the country as a bass player. I was playing with the Bill James trio at that time, it was one of the top jazz trios In England. That, of course, was one of the hottest periods for me as a bass player and what happened was the inevitable. Dr. Fewks failed me on thermodynamics, not in the examination but on attendance. He had found a rule somewhere that said I had to attend sixty percent or more of his lectures, otherwise my deferrment from the Armed Forces would be discontinued. It made no difference that he banned me from his class. “You’ve got to go in the Forces,” my principal said, “a couple of years in the Forces will straighten you right out laddie. Make a man out of you.” Really what they were telling me was – stop your antics going around playing music when you should be studying. We’ll teach you a lesson for it. So they put me in the Forces. Eventually, the Air Force put me into a category which was as low as you can get and still be in. All the disadvantages. They had to put me in trade group number two and I had the choice of going Into radio or radar. I didn’t know anything about radar so I said, “OK, I’ll go for radar,” knowing they would have to train me. So they put me on a nine month course, which I passed out of with merits, and they ended up trying to get me to be an instructor. At that I time, I couldn’t be anywhere nine months and not start something in music. So I started this jati club and • I wanted to stay there so I got this job as an instructor – helping the educational guy teach sergeants basic arithmetic, english, and stuff. They were overstaffed, so after two or three months just fooling around trying to find out what the situation was going to be, they finally posted me to a research unit where I’d learn still more because now there _was equipment that was totally unique and that’s where I first ran Into DC control voltages and analog situations. I started having practical situations with a plotting cable and computers getting into all sorts of interesting automatic antennas that would track aircraft, all sort of stuff that was research level at the time.”

Bryce: “What year was this?”

Cecil: “It was ’58; came out in ’61. The equipment then was a little more primitive. There were no Moog synthesizers, but then I didn’t know I would be a Moog synthesis!. The music was still the bass and jazz clubs and so on. That’s when I met t Mike Jeffries who was to become Hendrix’s manager and we got together and discovered “The Animals” and in fact, their recording of “Ho,;se of the Rising Sun” was my first record as an engineer. I went in there, not knowing a damn thing, and got down the track that was to make Michael a lot of money when we had parted company. However, I got posted back to London and away from all that was going on and immediately decided I had had it with the Air Force and wanted to get out as quickly as possible. I just waited till it came time for my discharge and then went straight into music. Essentially what happened then was that, I went through five years of being a bass player in residence at Ronny Scott’s club, then went on from there to BBC because I got tired of the jazz thing and people saying, “oh, he can’t read, he’s a good jazzer, but he can’t play anything else.” I wanted to prove that a good jazzer could make a good straighter anytime. I got a job as principal bass player at BBC and during a three and a half year stint with them, got very sick; went in the hospital, had operations on both lungs and ended up being told to leave the country for a warmer climate because of trouble with my ears. Eventually, because of my health, I went to Africa for a year, couldn’t stand the politics, but did get better; realized I would have to move on and ended up coming to California. I got in touch with an American friend I knew in Los Angeles, Lloyd Morales, who is a drummer now with Bobby Benton. Lloyd was kind to me, put me up for several months and helped me find contacts with the music industry. I was working with Lainie Kazan as a bass player but 1 was also working at Sun West Studios as a consultant. I tried to get my green card for permanent residence status in California which proved to be absolutely impossible. After three unsuccessful attempts to come in, with help from Senator Murphy, Pat Boone, and Lainie Kazan, none of the petitions were accepted; I was on my way back to England with my tail between my legs and stopped off in New York to do a final gig with Lainie at the Plaza Hotel. Just while I was there I happened to go down to the Record Plant and they needed somebody in the technical area and said, “yeah, we’ll apply for you to come into the country as an audio/video repairman, you’re obviously qualified” and then they looked at my papers and said, “why didn’t you come in as that before?” So I started to work for the Record Plant and from there I went on to Media Sounds as chief engineer. That is where 1 really went on to synthesis because that was where I met Bob Margouleff and that was where Tonto was conceived.”

Bryce: “When was that?”

Cecil: “Late ’69.”

Bryce: “So Moog was In existence at that time?”

Cecil: “Yeah, Bob Margouleff bought one of the first Moog’s and was in the process of figuring out how it worked. When I came along, he was doing things with a limited amount of success because his technical expertise was very limited. Here I came along and was eating it up with all the electronic experience, it jelled. Right there. Keyboard experience, bass playing, the whole thing jelled. Bob and I decided we were better off together than we were individually because he had the equipment, and I had the know-how. And so, we made a fine team and we stayed together and produced “Expanding Headband,” Tonto’s first album. Doug: “What was your original concept of Tonto?” Cecil: “Well, Tonto was the idea of an expanding band. It was going to be more than just the two of us. We were going to form an alliance with every synthesist in the country. We were going to take a tape and put a track down and send it to the next guy. He was going to put another track on it and he’d send it to the next guy, like a chain letter. The idea being to call it, “The Original New Timbral Orchestra.” It was a nice non-descriptive title and we decided for short it would be called the “Head Band.” It was a nice play on words and it was one of Bob’s brighter name ideas. After we produced the first album, we were doing a live performance as follow up to try and help sales. It really got to be an interesting situation because what happened was, we were running nine feet along the equipment and that got to be an exhausting situation running from one instrument to another. That was when we conceived of the idea of building new cases that were circular and building it much more ergonomically. In other words, on the back, you try to make them ergonomical from the serviceman’s point of view. On the front, they should be ergonomical from the operator’s point of view. That’s how  MORE Malcolm ~ Tonto is designed. The back is m perfectly servicable; from the front it’s perfectly playable. Fortunately at that time, Stevie Wonder got hold of a copy of our album through a friend of ours and Stevie came down to the studio with Ronnie Blanco on one arm and Gene Keyes on the other. He came zooming Into the studio saying, “Hey man, where do I play these sounds. Who makes these sounds. Where do I get my hands on these instruments?” So we started a relationship with Stevie that went on for three years and produced “Music of my Mind,” “Talking Book,” “lnnervisions,” “Fullfillingsness First Finale,” plus 245 or 250 other tracks in various stages of completion and 40 finished tracks some of which I believe are on Stevie’s new album though I haven’t heard it yet. It got a very good review and I’ve heard they’ve given me a credit on the cover and so I presume they used some of that material even if it was just the basic track of whatever. I haven’t worked with Stevie in the past two years. However, I was very pleased that he was involved with the instrument at the time he was because it enabled Bob and I to pour every cent we earned into Tonto. As time went by, our viewpoints changed and Bob got more and more interested in the production and engineering side. His attitude was that we should be doing more production and engineering and that’s where the money is and the instrument soon won’t be unique anymore and our money will go nowhere. Anyway, he has this thing that he’s not a live performer and my background was performance. I was interested in live performance – which was the main reason Tonto was born – not just to record but for live performance – to be a playable instrument. A Rolls Royce among_ its class. So that left me with – well, am I going to carry the whole thing on my shoulders or am I going to split the whole instrument down the middle and Bob and I take half and half? We finally decided that rather than break the instrument up I would take on the responsibility of the company’s debts and give Bob his freedom to go and do whatever he Poge20 “They don’t hove to know too much about synthesis. just o little bit about relating what they have In mind.” wanted, and from then on, it was up to me. So I took over about $50,000 worth of debts and attempted to complete Tonto and to complete this room because this room wasn’t built then. I have been attempting to continue on with the idea of Tonto and what it stands for and I’ve tried to keep it up to the state of the art; I’ve been getting it polyphonic. My ultimate goal is to make It polyphonic and touch sensitive. There are some bugs to be ironed out of the polyphonic touch sensitive. Combining the two creates problems of it’s own, but now they have been thoroughly researched and are soluble. I can’t say it’s solved, I can’t actually play it for you. However, the situation is that Tonto has to earn its own keep. Hence, I built this room with the last of the “loney that could have gone for the polyphonic keyboard. Tonto (the room) was acoustically designed so that it doesn’t have any standing waves 9r resonances in the audio spectrum and It gives you a clear indication of what you’re programming. One has to be able to hear clearly no matter what instrumenf you’re playing, synthesizers especially, because nuances of the sound are everything in the end. To be able to hear subtle differences is very important. So consequently, the room is part of Tonto; you’re sitting in the instrument and the instrument Is not complete without Its voice, so to speak. We have a 24 machine with Dolbys; we have a 24 track board, a two track, an excellent monitor system, a·n Eventide digital delay and all sorts of usual accouterments that one would have in a professional control room. So we have in this room both an instrument and professional control room equipment, the players, and that leaves you in a position of maximum advantage. Joan Baez was here recording both sweetening and environmental tracks, waves, wind and gulls, animals for a song of hers called “Seabird” and several other tracks on her upcoming album. We’ve had James Taylor here doing stuff; we have Billy Preston here working on his current album with my ex-partner Bob who’s acting as producer.”

Bryce: “Where would you like to see Tonto get to?”

Cecil: “I’d like it to go into live performance. I’d like to see it in the concert hall with a fullsized symphony orchestra opposite it, or maybe a whole rock group or both.”

Bryce: “What kind of Interfaces have you done with visuals so far?”

Cecil: “We’ve done a couple of films; bits and pieces for some features and a couple of B movies, the usual sort of stuff you get when you’re on the fringe of the film business but so far I haven’t had what I really like which is like “2001.” I’d like to land the score but I’m competing with Leonard Bernstein and every great composer in the country; unless someone looks at Tonto and says, “Wow, I gotta have that In my movie!” They used it in “Phantom of the Paradise” and there was an agreement that they were supposed to have used it on the sound track when it was depicted as being played in the picture, but they blatantly broke that agreement and then settled with us out of court. They had some bloody piano playing in the background; I couldn’t believe it It was a very, very hardening experience. But I believe that in the end, it will come right; that somebody will see the potential in Tonto and will see the potential in the sort of albums I’ve been doing. I don’t even have an American contract for my albums; that’s how sort of underground Tonto is. My albums are sold in the rest of the world by Polydor which is the number one company in most of Europe. So I enjoy a lot of sales outside this country, but the first album “Tonto’s Expanding Headband” was on Embryo which was Herbie Mann’s label; a subsidiary of Atlantic and was re-issued when we got our Grammy. Bob and I got a Grammy for engineering and for co-production on Stevie’s album; besides Stevie’s Grammies, we got one for the best engineering of a non-classical recording of ’73 for “lnnervisions.” When that happened, Atlantic pulled the album out of mothballs and re-issued it with our names big and prominent on it and sold another few hundred thousand. Although it’s difficult to get an accounting from these people so I’ve got to get that together at some point in time. There’s no fortune there but there might be a buck or two. Certainly enough to finish the touch sensitive polyphonic keyboard. The other album I’ve done is the “Pyramid Suite” which is the story of the pyramids. There’s no American deal for that; have had lot of tries to get one; nobody seems to know what the hell to do with it. So that’s lying silent at the moment and I’m working on another album which is a series of thirty-six images. The images were drawn by a fellow named Fuji; they’re air brushed and all mandalas of various types; most of them circular. They are being used in training ladies who are going to give birth. The childbearing exercises are practiced while these images are projected on the ceiling and the ladies are lying on their backs on the floor. When It comes time for them to have their baby, the Images are projected according to the stage they’re In. The idea is that even though they might be in pain, it Will help to release the pain and will turn into a pleasant experience.

Bryce: “Are there any people inuolued with synthesis currently that you haue a strong respect for?”

Cecil: “Well, there are a number of people in the field who I have a lot of respect for. There’s people like Peter Zinovieff, one of the unsung heroes in the synthesis world who’s behind EMS and all their things. Most people don’t realize how heavy his equipment is, they don’t know how to use it. I think that Mr. Pearlman and the Arp company have done a sterling job in a lot of things. Bob Moog, I don’t think he really knows who I am, or what I do but he’s a man who I have the greatest respect for, along with Walter Carlos. There is Serge Tcherepnin and Armand Pascetta. Most of Tonto’s equipment in the last four years has been built by Serge, Armand and myself, or some combination of us. I think Tom Oberheim did a good job as well, especially the expander module and polyphonic keyboard.” Bill Matthias Doug: “What does Synthesis mean to you and how do you approach it?” Cecil: “Hegel was, to my way of thinking, the first man to define the process of synthesis. I’m not talking about the dictionary definition, if you look it up in the dictionary, it will say something like: synthesis: a fusion of elements, OK, that’s great, but it doesn’t tell me the process How do you fuse the elements? Hegel came up with the first basic principal of synthesis. He said: first one takes the process of the reality around you and looks at it and says: this is thesis, there is a theory to the way this is. We’ll apply it to sound, so the thesis of sound will be the theory of sound; which is the understanding of how sound behaves. The next thing to do is to negate that thesis and the antithesis of sound, is of course, silence. But, silence doesn’t exist anywhere. I thought silence really existed, and I was fortunate enough to have an illicit turn in one of John Lily’s little think tanks; you know, where you lie in this thing and you are the same weight as the water and you don’t feel anything and are cut off from all sensory inputs, and I thought it’d be beautiful and quiet. The only trouble is, you get in there and you hear bump, bump, bump, bump and you think, “what is all that noise? Is there a pump going here?” and you realize “yes, there’s a pump; it’s called my heart. What is all this rushing sound? My God, it’s my blood.” So I began to realize that in this real world there Is no silence. The only place there’s silence is in the imagination, so you go from the world of thesis sound into the world of imagination where there’s no sound and you negate that, you create sounds within that silence and that’s synthesis. The limits of the imagination will determine how good or bad a synthesis! you are. Then there’s one final process which Hegel doesn’t talk about. Hegel talks about the three part process: thesis, anti-thesis, and synthesis, syn-thesis. I took one other analysis, because by taking what you have synthesized, and analyzing it, and pairing it with reality, what you come up with is a comparison, you come up with an ability to judge how close you’ve come to what you’ve imagined in the anti-thesis.”

Bryce: “A lot of the things that we’ue talked about so far are mostly lnuolued with the people that are manufacturers or lnuentors. Are there any artists who’s work you are particularly interested in?”

Cecil: “Oh yes, Tomita, he”s super, sometimes his sounds are a little electronic for me, but that’s OK. I like the way he gets out there and says, “Wei~ the hell with it. You can go whooooooo,” and he does, you know, right in the middle of Debussy, ah, nothing is sacrosanct and he lets it all hang out there. I think Larry Fast Is doing a good job with Synergy. I like Stevie Wonder’s use of the synthesizer, especially Tonto. Billy Preston and Joan Baez, really use it well. I’ve found that most artists once they become familiar with what the capability is, are capable of producing incredible things,  MORE Malcolm FROM PAGE21 because they get fired up. I’ve found that there are a lot of people who I have never heard of, who are playing on records, when you look at the credits, you can’t even find out who it was but they’re doing things which are really superb. Even way back to the Beatles, there’s an incredible amount of synthesizer on the Beatles, most people don’t realize it, but that was incredible. I don’t know who played it, whether it was George Martin, or one of the guys in the group or somebody theY. brought in, I don’t know. But I gotta teU you there’s some of the most beautiful synthesizer work.”

Bryce: “Do you find that most of the people that utilize your studio are impressed with the magnitude of the possibilities or do you think that there’s a little bit of intimidation that takes place? What kind of reactions do you get?”

Cecil: “It depends on the egos of the people who enter. There are two types of spirits so to speak with which one can approach Tonto – you can look at it and say, “ahhhh, what a great, ahhhh, let me at it.” In other words, the challenge aspect. But for people who are perhaps a little less secure, in their ability to get into it, and people who haven’t dealt with the synthesizer much, then it’s a little freaky anyway; they are not expecting anything quite of the magnitude that they see in front of them, especially people who don’t play keyboard too well. So you either get the one reaction or the other, the people either become intimidated or they’re literally drooling. In the end. what usually Synapse happens is, provided I can set up communication with the individual concerned, they don’t have to know too much about synthesis, just a little bit about relating what they have in mind and a little cleaning up of common terms between us. We’re relating pretty well from then on, they usually get what they’re looking for and I can usually get close to the programs that they’re talking about. Very often they’ll introduce me to their sounds, they’ll bring a record along and play it, “not quite like that but that sort of thing you know?” And it gives you a starting point, it’s mainly vocabulary and communication between the programmer and the performer. Most of the people who come here know what they want to hear, when they come in the door. The difficulty is when they don’t know what thev want.”

Bryce: “A lot of people use the phrase: ‘state of the art.’ What do you think at this point the state of the art is?”

Cecil: “Well, ‘state of the art’ is always an everchanging parameter; the state of the art yesterday is different from the state of the art tomorrow. What it really means is how far have we come at this point. The state of the art today in synthesis to me is really the equipment that is available to us. People are always coming out with something that’s a little bit newer and a little bit better, or with the trade off, you get a little bit more distortion but is a bit higher level. You’ve always got to trade one thing off against the other. As far as pitch generation, we can get fairly close with synthesizers to accurate pitch, but good musicians often complain about the out-of• tuneness of the instrument, relative to what they’re used to in terms of piano tuning, organ tuning, and fixed acoustic Instrument tuning. So there’s an area there that could be improved upon a lot. ‘State of the art-wise’, as far as creating timbres or colors are concerned, we have some excellent filtration. I still believe that the original low pass coupler and a high pass Moog unit is the most comprehensive filter available. It’s a MORE Malcolm pity it doesn’t have a voltage control of resonance and a few other things, but over all you can get the widest range of sounds out of that Moog equipment. The real state of the art is the imagination of the synthesis!, how good he is at his gig. Whether it’s environmental sounds like wind, rain, and white noise, or whether it’s pure pitches, it’s up to the imagination of the individual. That’s what’s more important – the artist’s use of imagination, rather than the equipment itself.”