Malcolm Cecil, Synthesizer Pioneer, Is Dead at 84


Malcolm Cecil, a British-born bassist with the soul of an engineer who revolutionized electronic music by helping to create a huge analog synthesizer that gave Stevie Wonder’s albums a new sound, died on Sunday at a hospital in Valhalla, N.Y. He was 84.

His son, Milton, said the cause had not yet been determined.

Mr. Cecil, a loquacious man with a head full of curls, had played the upright bass in jazz bands in England and was the night maintenance engineer at Mediasound Studios in Manhattan in 1968 when he met Robert Margouleff, a film and record producer who owned and operated a Moog synthesizer there.

“He said, ‘Robert, if you show me how to play the synthesizer, I will teach you how to become a first-class recording engineer,’” Mr. Margouleff said in a phone interview. “We had a deal.”

They began designing and building what would become The Original New Timbral Orchestra, or TONTO. Starting with the Moog and adding other synthesizers and a collection of modules, some of them designed by Mr. Cecil, they created a massive semicircular piece of equipment that took up a small room and weighed a ton. It could be programmed to create a vast array of original sounds and to modify and process the sounds of conventional musical instruments.

Mr. Cecil and Mr. Margouleff’s partnership with Mr. Wonder ended after four albums.

“We never got the business part of our relationship with Stevie together,” Mr. Margouleff said. “Business issues made our relationship untenable.”

A year later — following technical difficulties during Billy Preston’s live TONTO performance on the NBC music show “Midnight Special” — Mr. Margouleff and Mr. Cecil broke up.

Malcolm Ian Cecil was born on Jan 9, 1937, in London. His mother, Edna (Aarons) Cecil, was an accordionist who played in bands, including one, composed entirely of women, that entertained troops during World War II. His father, David, was a concert promoter who also worked as a professional clown under the name Windy Blow. They divorced when Malcolm was very young.

Malcolm started playing piano when he was 3 and took up drums a little later. He began to play the upright bass as a teenager and was soon playing in jazz clubs. He studied physics for a year at London Polytechnic before entering the Royal Air Force in 1958. His three years as a radar operator prepared him for future studio work.

After his discharge, he was the house bassist at the saxophonist Ronnie Scott’s nightclub in London, where he played with visiting American musicians like Stan Getz and J.J. Johnson; a member of Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, a band whose evolving cast at various times included Charlie Watts and Jack Bruce; and the principal bassist of the BBC Radio Orchestra. He also had a business building public address systems and other equipment for musicians.

Suffering from collapsed lungs, Mr. Cecil decided he needed a warmer climate and moved to South Africa, where he continued playing bass. But he disliked living amid apartheid.

In the 1980s and ’90s, Mr. Cecil produced several of Gil Scott-Heron’s albums and produced or engineered albums by the Isley Brothers, Ginger Baker, Dave Mason and other artists. He also played bass on Mr. Scott-Heron’s 1994 album, “Spirits.” Mr. Margouleff went on to produce the rock band Devo.



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