The Man Machine: Robert Margouleff Remembers Malcolm Cecil
Early synth designer-producer Margouleff talks about the late great producer, the 50th anniversary of Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, and helping Stevie Wonder innovate.
Call Robert Margouleff at his immersive audio services studio and sound design center in Los Angeles, and you’re immediately thrust into his wonky, self-made universe: the world of the synthesizer, past, present, and future. Answering his own phone, you can hear clings, clangs, szzzzs, and other studio noise behind Margouleff before he immediately and intuitively addresses part of the reason for my inquisition: the passing of Malcolm Cecil during the Passover weekend, as well as the 50th anniversary of Zero Time, their first recorded work together as Tonto’s Expanding Head Band.
“Having Malcolm pass on Passover was so very dramatic of him, that’s for sure,” says Margouleff on the somber Sunday after having lost Cecil. Though renowned for his prowess on the bass in British jazz, blues, and R&B, Cecil may be best known as the musician/producer who, with Margouleff, built, defined, then refined the largest synthesizer in the world—”The Original New Timbral Orchestra,” or TONTO for short—before recording their innovations as the two-man Tonto’s Expanding Head Band and turning their analog roar to Stevie Wonder, who developed, with Cecil and Margouleff, R&B’s most imitated sounds. “Malcolm was a gentle man and a genius. I’m sorry he’s not around for a few more rounds, but I’m glad he’s getting the recognition he deserves for our Tonto days and the innovations we made with Stevie.”
To hear him tell it, Margouleff—by 1970 a longtime collaborator and customer of synth avatar Robert Moog—didn’t quite grasp either the mythic or factual resonance of Cecil’s additional developments to Margouleff’s self-owned Moog modular synthesizer Series III. “You never realize you’re creating when you’re inside the event,” he says. “We were in the here and now, as much as we could be from all of the chemicals. It was a job. I had to make sure I was in the studio by 7 a.m. But it was impulsive.”
Like electronica in those days, the synthesizer wasn’t a series of presets with buttons pushed for certain sounds. It was random. If you found sounds that you liked and wanted to repeat them you had to learn how to stick with them, and not worry about perfecting everything. “Based on all that, I don’t think Malcolm or I thought we would change the face of pop music—which we did. For me, it was all just based on serving the song. Together, we were like rocks on the water, Stevie being the rocks and Malcolm and I the water. We enabled him.”
Before enabling Wonder and The Isley Brothers (together), Gil Scott Heron and Weather Report (both Cecil), Devo and The Doobie Brothers (both Margouleff), or each other, the two synthesizer avatars had unique backgrounds. While Cecil came from London’s live music scene of the mid-’60s, playing with the likes of Ronnie Scott, Alexis Korner, the BBC Radio Orchestra, and Jazz Five, and engineering records by T. Rex, Margouleff started off in film with his own independent company, Centaur—his first assignment being Ciao! Manhattan with Warhol acolyte Edie Sedgwick, Jane Holzer, and Allen Ginsberg—and producing bands such as Pure Buckwheat Honey and the Moog-modular, synth-based band Lothar & the Hand People (“Lothar” being a Theremin) at his studio in NYC’s East Village.
“You never realize you’re creating when you’re inside the event. We were in the here and now, as much as we could be from all of the chemicals. It was a job. I had to make sure I was in the studio by 7 a.m. But it was impulsive.”
“I had gotten hold of a synthesizer three years before I met Malcolm, heard it at a club called Cerebrum—a very primitive, broken-up module—and it was amazing: all these sounds happening in my head, not real, just vibrating electrons. This was not a picture of a real event, but one that was purely electronic.”
Moved as he was, Margouleff contacted Robert Moog to buy a Series III, one of the first synthesizers, and the one item he took with him when Centaur went belly up in bankruptcy court. “I perfected my craft, all in a thick haze of pot smoke, and began writing some of the music that would wind up on Zero Time,” says Margouleff, who then aligned himself with Media Sound, a then-new studio and musical advertising space for everything from toilet paper to Pepto-Bismol, all composed and played on his new-fangled synthesizer. Margouleff had the run of the ship at Media Sound, and could do anything he wanted at that studio: record commercials for them in the day and do his own thing at night. “I was their mad U-boat captain,” says Margouleff. “Then they brought in another mad U-boat captain.”
Enter Cecil. Margouleff and Cecil became fast friends and collaborators with the latter suggesting to the former that his experiments in synthetic sound needed a curatorial edit and a tightening to be a valid musical experience. “I made a deal with him: if he would teach me how to become a first-class recording engineer and technician, then I would teach him how to play the synthesizer,” says Margouleff. They would roll their synth into the old church studio space on a gurney, and they began to play and add additional components to their Series III in order to craft something like an orchestra of synthesizers, the single largest multitimbral, polyphonic, analog synthesizer in the world: TONTO.
Given a $5,000 advance by Embryo, a then-division of Atlantic Records, Tonto’s Expanding Head Band released its 1971 debut (“I was high as a kite when I thought that name up, probably on peyote,” notes Margouleff, laughing), and by Memorial Day that same year, got a call from Stevie Wonder. “Malcolm phoned me to tell me we had a new client,” says Margouleff, recalling how Wonder and the TONTO teaming alone had free reign over what would be one of modern music’s greatest runs of records, 1972’s Music of My Mind, through Talking Book, Innervisions, and Fulfillingness’ First Finale of 1974.
“Stevie just walked into the studio one night with nothing but his assistant on one arm and our TONTO album in the other—the rest is history,” says Margouleff. “We provided a place for him to perform his new music and gave him a fresh palette of sound to work with. We all wore different hats—interchangeable between engineer, producer, and musicians. We created new sounds, like Malcolm’s bass sounds—he was a virtuoso. It was all highly egalitarian, very creative. And we worked with Stevie alone on Music of My Mind. Just the three of us.”
While juggling the maintenance of the analog synthesizer (“They break down a lot”) and the struggles of keeping up with making Wonder records and crafting commercials, Cecil and Margouleff moved to the house that Jimi Hendrix built, Electric Ladyland, after the death of the guitarist. “Electric Ladyland was very open, free, and freeing; a good place to be as it felt as if we were changing the world when we recorded ‘Living for the City,’ songs that helped change the social condition of the time.”
Without presets, there were times when Wonder, Cecil, and Margouleff were playing the giant TONTO together, doing their own separate pieces, mining their own unique grooves. “If you missed a sound you couldn’t go back, so you have to know when to pounce,” says Margouleff of a musician’s intuition. “Malcolm invented modules to make that more convenient and pliable—like the joystick, which is now so prevalent in synthesizer music. He did it with a controller toggle from a model airplane and rubber bands—with one direction being ‘filtration’ and the other ‘pitch.’ Think ‘Boogie on Reggae Woman,’ and you’ll hear that sound. Remember, before he became a musician he was a radar technician. We drew up schematics of what we wanted in a performing model synthesizer, and we made that happen too, an arm’s-reach synthesizer so that we could sit inside the instrument and a copper spine of bars to support the wiring and hold it all together.”
“I don’t think Malcolm or I thought we would change the face of pop music—which we did. For me, it was all just based on serving the song. Together, we were like rocks on the water, Stevie being the rocks and Malcolm and I the water. We enabled him.”
Frankensteined together from bits of ARP, Moog, and other systems and manufacturer modules with different power requirements, Cecil and Margouleff manufactured their own magic grid for TONTO—a Faraday cage that Cecil managed to fashion from his own skill sets, experience, and guess work. “I remember we had to bring it to NBC for this Midnight Special with Billy Preston, cart it in like a corpse, by hand, with all these wires hanging off of it. Everything was great when we had it on stage, until they turned down the lights, the instrument changed temperature and went bonkers, but was still impressive. That was magic, and Malcolm was a genius. We weren’t babes in the woods all high on pot. There was a cloud of pot, but there was deep knowledge between us.”
While Cecil wanted to maintain a live schedule with TONTO, Margouleff was more interested in the studio and production, and the two amicably parted ways. “Between what we did and what we did with Stevie, all the meteors came in from different directions, collided in space, and created their own universe. That was a marvelous spectacle.” Along with creating a new documentary work on Edie Sedgwick (“I’m back where I started”), along with a daily, ever-shifting array of interior and exterior sound designs and productions for all manner of clients, Margouleff just designed new wearable products to commemorate Tonto’s Expanding Head Band’s debut, as well as penning an autobiography of his life and music. “Understanding that sound is simply electrons in space that unfold in your head is the key to immersive audio, which I’m deeply involved in now,” says Margouleff. “I’m 80 years old and still producing on other planes, but I’m so very glad I had that time together with Malcolm.” FL