Tonto’s Expanding Head Band

Tonto’s Expanding Head Band was the electronic duo of English keyboard engineer Malcolm Cecil and American record producer Robert Margouleff. They released two albums: Zero Time (1971) and It’s About Time (1974).

Their name derived from T.O.N.T.O., an acronym for The Original and New Timbral Orchestra: a polyphonic synthesizer arsenal that Cecil constructed for the project.

Members: Malcolm Cecil (keyboards, synthesizer), Robert Margouleff (keyboards, synthesizer, 1971-75)


The project began in 1968 when Margouleff purchased a Moog Series IIIc, which caught the attention of a tech-savvy Cecil, who wanted to learn more about the instrument touted as the “first orchestra of synthesizers.”

Cecil (1937–2021) was a jazz and blues bassist who started his career in The Jazz Couriers, a late ’50s British jazz quintet led by saxophonists Tubby Hayes and Ronnie Scott. Between 1958 and 1964, Cecil played on recordings by the Dill Jones Trio, the Dick Morrissey Quartet, The Jazz Five, Annie Ross, and the Ernest Ranglin Trio. He was also in the original lineup of Blues Incorporated with Cyril Davies and Alexis Korner.

Margouleff was an early customer of Robert Moog, creator of the Moog Synthesizer. In 1968, Margouleff produced the Capitol electro-psych release Presenting…Lothar and the Hand People, one of the first albums to incorporate the instrument. This intrigued Cecil, who had a background in electrical engineering.

While Margouleff taught Cecil how to use the Moog, Cecil taught Margouleff how to work the recording console. Within weeks, they decided to build the world’s largest synthesizer. It took them three years to build TONTO, comprised of two Moog modular Series III synthesizers, four Oberheim SEMs, and two ARP 2600s, plus a mixture of brand and custom modules. The entire arsenal was housed in a half-circle of 6′ tall, curved wooden cabinets.

Caldera – A Moog Mass

In 1970, Cecil and Margouleff made their recording debut on Kama Sutra with A Moog Mass, released under the name Caldera. The album — titled Stabat Mater on the LP labels — consists of seven numbers with dark, droning electronic sounds interspersed with spoken-word hymns. In addition to the pair, the album features cellist Toby Saks, harpsichordist John Atkins, and tenor vocalist Robert White. Margouleff is credited with “synthetic speech techniques.”

Zero Time

As Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, Cecil and Margouleff released Zero Time on Embryo Records, a subsidiary of Atlantic established by jazz reedist Herbie Mann. Side one clocks in below 14 minutes with three tracks: “Cybernaut,” “Jetsex,” “Timewhys.” The lengthier flipside contains “Aurora” and the eight-minute “Riversong,” which features lyrics by author Tama Starr, the namesake of the final track, “Tama.”

Zero Time was composed, performed, produced, and engineered by the pair under Mann’s executive guidance. The gatefold cover, painted by one Carol Hertzer, features psychedelic space-age imagery with a fish-eyed view if the pair beside TONTO. The inner-spread has an abstract painting by Isaac Abrams, who also illustrated the cover for the 1968 free jazz release On Tour by the Burton Greene Trio.

Zero Time appeared on Embryo’s rock-dedicated 730 series (cat# SD 732) between titles by The Floating Opera and Mann’s jazz-pop protege act Air. The album impressed Stevie Wonder, who used TONTO on his 1972–74 albums Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions, and Fulfillingness’ First Finale, which list Cecil and Margouleff as Moog programmers and associate producers.

It’s About Time

Cecil and Margouleff shortened the name of their project to Tonto for It’s About Time, released in 1974 on Polydor. The album is split into side-long cycles: the three-piece Face Up (“Beautiful You,” “Tonto’s Travels,” “Nil Desperandum”) and the five-piece Pyramid Suite – The Pharaoh’s Journey From Death to Life, comprised of “The Boatman,” “Building the Pyramid,” “Journey to the West,” “Forty-Nine Judges,” and “Bird Flies Free.”

It’s About Time was mastered by Briton George Peckham, a technical hand on albums by Free, Hawkwind, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Fairport Convention, Jethro Tull, Stray, Renaissance, Peter Bardens, Ten Years After, Bell + Arc, Leo Sayer, and Genesis. The cover, designed by illustrator Joan Nielsen (Ballin’ Jack), shows seven of TONTO’s cabinets.

Beautiful You” features bassist Reggie McBride, drummer Steve Gadd, and guitarist Marlo Henderson. Additional guests include guitarist Michael Cembalo (“Journey to the West“) and percussionist Armand Habdurian (“The Boatman”).

Production Work

Aside from Fulfillingness’ First Finale, which features TONTO on “Creepin'” and “They Won’t Go When I Go,” Cecil and Margouleff worked on 1974 albums by Minnie Riperton (Perfect Angel) and The Isley Brothers. TONTO also appears as the “electronic room” in Brian de Palma’s 1974 rock musical horror-comedy Phantom of the Paradise starring Paul Williams and William Finley.

In 1975, Margouleff sold his share in TONTO to Cecil, who used it on 1975–80 albums by Mandrill, Chris Rainbow, Steve Hillage (Motivation Radio), and the team of Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson. The 1980 release by Scott-Heron and Jackson, titled 1980, shows the pair with TONTO on the front cover.

Margouleff, meanwhile, worked on late ’70s albums the Gap Band, Billy Preston, Stairsteps, and Moodies keyboardist Michael Pinder. In 1980, he engineered Freedom of Choice, the third album by Devo.

Cecil made one solo album, Radiance, released in 1981 on Unity Records.

TONTO Locations

In the mid-1990s, TONTO was moved to Mutato Muzika studios, the Los Angeles headquarter of Devo and their frontman Mark Mothersbaugh. Contrary to rumors, however, Mothersbaugh did not purchase the arsenal. Later, TONTO was relocated to Cecil’s Saugerties, NY, residence.

In 2013, the National Music Centre in Calgary, Alberta, purchased TONTO. Today, the arsenal sits on display at the NMC’s Studio Bell location.


In 1996, archivists Viceroy Vintage reissued the two Head Band albums on one CD, Tonto Rides Again. It features all of Zero Time and most of It’s About Time (baring “Beautiful You“). The tracks from About Time sport new titles:

  • “Ferryboat” (“The Boatman”)
  • “Pyramodal” (“Building the Pyramid”)
  • “Cameltrain” (“Journey to the West”)
  • “Judgementor” (“Forty-Nine Judges”)
  • “Freeflight” (“Bird Flies Free”)
  • “Tontomotion” (“Tonto’s Travels”)
  • “Tranquillium” (“Nil Desperandum”)


  • Zero Time (1971)
  • It’s About Time (1974 • Tonto)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *