Historic synthesizer celebrated at Calgary's National Music Centre

Officially known as The Original New Timbral Orchestra — but better known as TONTO — it’s a synthesizer built in 1968 by music producers Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff which helped spawn several albums by the legendary Stevie Wonder, and create the iconic bassline for the song, Superstition.

TONTO co-creator Malcolm Cecil will put on a demonstration Saturday using the iconic music machine

The massive TONTO synthesizer in one of the live recording studios in Studio Bell. (Rachel Maclean/CBC)

Music fans in Calgary may not recognize the name TONTO, but they will likely be familiar with some of the riffs it helped create.

Officially known as The Original New Timbral Orchestra — but better known as TONTO — it's a synthesizer built in 1968 by music producers Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff which helped spawn several albums by the legendary Stevie Wonder, and create the iconic bassline for the song, Superstition.

"The whole idea behind it was to be a basis for experimental music. Not just new sounds, people think of a synthesizer as just being for new sounds, I had ideas about different types of music," Cecil told the Calgary Eyeopener in an interview this week.

"For example, scales, microtonal scales, scales with 17 notes per octave, 19 notes per octave and so on. I'd been experimenting with those things for a long time."

The synthesizer was restored by John Leimseider, a leading electronic instrument technician, who died in September. He was set to unveil the synthesizer along with Cecil this week.

A five-day celebration of TONTO is being held a National Music Centre from Wednesday to Sunday, which coincides with the Alberta Electronic Music Conference (AEMCON).

National Music Centre houses TONTO, a synthesizer built in 1968 that is being celebrated this week.

The celebration will include a 9 p.m. performance Friday by Tribe Called Red, who are using TONTO on their upcoming album.

"It's like the Tardis in Doctor Who, because you can't program it to do something specifically, you can set up the parameters and ask TONTO to do what you want, but what comes out is beyond your control," said Ehren Thomas, who is one half of Tribe Called Red, along with Tim Hill.

Then on Saturday afternoon, Cecil will put on a demonstration of the music machine he helped create.

"Playing it is a more than a one person job. Before you can play it, you have to program it, you have to create the sounds, and creating the sounds on TONTO is something which is not a simple task," he said.

"That's one of the reasons I came up to NMC, was to help the staff understand what went into programming and how I approach it."

Along with a unique sound, TONTO has a unique look.

"It looks like the inside of a spaceship. It's an instrument that's big enough to stand in," said Cecil. "It's the only instrument, other than the sousaphone, that you get inside to play."

And the sounds it produces are one of a kind.

"It can sound like anything. It can take on pretty well anything. It's only limited by the imagination of the performer and the person programming it," said Cecil.

"Mainly it's famous for its big, beautiful, big fat bass sounds. Being a bass player, that was where I focused a lot of my attention."