Robin Hatch Goes on a Journey of Discovery with the World's Largest Analogue Synthesizer
"Thoughts are difficult, but if you put a melodramatic score under them, it can be funny, and that makes it easier to grapple with," she says of TONTO
Published Oct 26, 2021The largest analogue synthesizer in the world has called Canada home since 2014, and a year after the famed TONTO had been set up and settled in Calgary, Robin Hatch was onstage with a Toronto cover band, laying down keyboards while performing one of the instrument's greatest creations: Stevie Wonder's "Superstition."
"That got me into the album Talking Book," the composer and multi-instrumentalist tells Exclaim! of Wonder's undeniable single. "But also, this big rabbit hole of how many clavinets were used on that recording — eight layered parts, so the rhythms are just insane. It's impossible to play the entire thing as just one person if you're covering it."
Apart from the level of difficulty, few things are as funky as the combination of Wonder's myriad clavinet parts and steady Moog bassline — sounds that were achieved through use of the groundbreaking instrument known by keyboard wizards the world over as The Original New Timbral Orchestra. Acquired by the National Music Centre in late 2013 from late inventor and original owner Malcolm Cecil, the eye-catching modular synth is now at the centre of Hatch's latest album T.O.N.T.O., named for its progenitor.
Decades on from TONTO funking up beloved tunes from Wonder, the Isley Brothers, Gil Scott-Heron, the Doobie Brothers and many others, Hatch channels neoclassical, new wave, pop and prog rock styles and structures, creating instrumental vignettes in which the assembly of wood and wires speaks to a range of thought and feeling — the music of our minds.
TONTO was the first (and is still the largest) multitimbral polyphonic analogue synthesizer on the planet, meaning it was one of the first instruments of its kind capable of producing multiple timbres with different voices simultaneously. As its full name implies, the collection of modules that form TONTO can interface with one another as if players in an electric orchestra. Its many pieces — including synths by Moog, Oberheim, ARP, Serge and more — are housed within a 20-foot diameter semi-circle of curved wooden cabinets standing six feet tall. The cover of Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson's 1980 particularly plays up its resemblance to a spaceship's controls.
Hatch draws a more modern parallel in likening it to "the first digital audio workstation, but analogue," sharing, "It's hard to explain to someone why it's cool that you can have four synthesizers playing at once. Until TONTO was made, that was unheard of. 'The Stevie synth' resonates with a lot of people. If you know 'Boogie On Reggae Woman,' that wild bassline going on underneath is TONTO, and it's a good example of the pitch shifter. The song 'You and I' off Talking Book has this sort of soaring sine countermelody that goes over the piano line, and I think that's the best example of the Tonto ARP.
"When people get that it's like having a robot chamber group automaton, it's this almost stoner moment where it takes a certain brain to think, 'Whoa, that's really cool.'"
Soon after the "Superstition" cover, Hatch had a formal introduction to TONTO at annual music trade show NAMM in California, where she spotted "this Doc Brown, mad scientist guy wearing all-white overalls at the Moog booth." It was Malcolm Cecil, who regaled Hatch with details of TONTO's invention and importance before gifting her an autographed CD from Tonto's Expanding Head Band, the British-American duo he formed with Robert Margouleff. While in Calgary on a 2019 tour with Whitehorse, Hatch paid a visit to TONTO's current home at the NMC, and the wheels began turning on an application for a residency with the instrument.
Further encouragement came from Margouleff, whom a friend put Hatch in touch with, after the engineer and former TONTO owner heard the composer's solo piano recordings, suggesting ways in which her compositional approach could translate to the sizeable synth. He would also come to bring Hatch's T.O.N.T.O. over the finish line as mastering engineer, while Cecil sadly passed away two weeks after Hatch's time with TONTO.
"I certainly wish Malcolm had heard it," she reflects. "After that happened, I think it became apparent that for closure on a personal level that I wanted Robert to master the album."
Hatch is a supreme talent, a self-acknowledged perfectionist who has successfully auditioned to play with Dweezil Zappa and been a member of bands covering everyone from Roy Orbison to Weezer. By her own admission, she was a modular synthesis novice heading to Calgary to record with TONTO over four days. Her time as the touring keyboardist of Our Lady Peace led to early experiments in synthesis with a Nord Lead 2X, and she later came to own a Prophet 12 and an Elektron Analog RYTMII drum machine. During the pandemic, an appearance on a livestream for political podcast TrueAnon fostered further drum machine learning, while composition work for American political podcast Blowback led her to synthesizer ideas "from a Vangelis, Bryan Ferry kind of world." Hatch names Evan and Geordie Gordon's work in Islands offshoot the Magic, Dan Boeckner of Wolf Parade and Operators, and Tangerine Dream's 1973 album Phaedra as further analogue inspirations that helped in her residency preparation.
One of the top search engine hits for the phrase "tonto synth" is a Reddit thread from a user in search of a virtual TONTO VST plug-in. While no such software exists, Hatch's closest approximation ahead of hitting the studio came through using virtual models of TONTO's individual modules. In spite of the year-plus it took for the NMC to restore TONTO, she extols the retained "old, busted quality" of the synth's pieces, compared to its digital counterparts.
"These are 50-year-old synthesizers and are kind of broken. It's impossible to get rid of all the electrical noise. There would have to be a feature in the VSTs to make them sound messier," Hatch explains, going into great detail about the painstaking process of tuning TONTO and how Cecil had jury-rigged the synth's manual pitch shift control using the joystick from a model airplane remote. "Previously, I was just kind of clicking around in the VSTs of those synthesizers in Logic in order to try and figure out, 'Okay, if I move this cable here, it does this.' It's only when you're really forced to have that immersive experience that you actually learn.
"You hear a lot about 'happy accidents' in modular synthesis, and I resent that I'm putting out an album like this and saying, 'That's what it is.' In my head, I'm a perfectionist, and I don't want there to be accidents. But those were ultimately what make those synths so special."
Working with engineer Jason Tawkin, Hatch would spend three hours of the day's session dialling in sounds, learning the ins and outs of voltage-controlled oscillators, voltage-controlled amplifiers, gates, control voltage and more before recording the material that would form T.O.N.T.O. While a longer in-studio period would surely have led to further experimentation and a greater command of the modules, Hatch feels, "I was never going to get a Royal Conservatory-level performance from the synthesizer, but I tried to write or modify recordings so it was fun, even if I could only get, like, one of the parameters of the sequence that I wanted to dial in ready for recording."
Opener "Buttercups" had its topline melody bloom months earlier as a guitar lick, before its form on TONTO's ARP 2600 was paired with the dreamy ostinato of the synth's second ARP unit. Hatch explains that, throughout recording, she kept watch over an envelope filter to keep the pitch and volume of TONTO's lower notes stable while higher notes were played: "It was like trying to do damage control on detuning the entire synth, while also avoiding something suddenly turning into a noise song."
With its eccentric melody and shifty bassline, "My Lucid Mind" is what Hatch calls "the best representation of when all your meds hit in the morning." She feels, "Using the kind of bubblier, zany synths is the funniest possible way to poke fun at yourself for having racing thoughts all the time, but also to make it interesting musically," citing the work of Frank Zappa and Raymond Scott as inspirations.
Across the album, Hatch enlists a group of talented collaborators to bolster her TONTO creations. On "Brazil," she beams when discussing the rich bass tone created by TONTO's Serge module, highlighting the skill in BADBADNOTGOOD's Leland Whitty recognizing the need to detune his sax on the fly in conjunction with TONTO's pitchy electronics. The improvised "Mockingbird," with overdubs from Nick Thorburn of Islands, is led off by TONTO's Maestro Rhythm King drum machine before an arpeggiator and the envelope filter of its Moog Modular 3 lift the song to new heights on dynamic, rhythmic wings. On "Inspector," drummer Lowell Whitty keeps the beat through a slew of time signature changes in step with a racing chiptune synth, as Hatch's melody ducks and dives in between.
Outside of TONTO and her collaborators, Hatch's album also features a Yamaha CS-80, Oberheim Four Voice, RMI Explorer and an ARP Solina. "The NMC asked, 'Besides TONTO, what other synths do you want?' It was like in a movie where they tell the princess, 'Choose whatever fancy dress you want,'" she jokes. "I got to write back and be like, 'a CS80, I would like to play a Linn drum machine,' and it was all set up in the room when I got there."
Hatch was also thrilled to make use of Randy Bachman's Roland RE-201 Space Echo and Echoplex on the recording, along with a phaser once used by Nash the Slash. As an avowed fan of Canadian classic rock, "It was all I could think about the whole time. I mean, as embarrassing as it is, it's almost as cool for me to play Stevie Wonder's synth as it is to play Randy Bachman's Space Echo — don't make that the headline."
T.O.N.T.O.'s two longest compositions, "Airplane" with Völur violinist Laura Bates and "The Standoff" with saxophonist Joseph Shabason, are two of the album's deepest explorations of the intangible. Where electronic music would traditionally lean on the rhythm of a beat or bassline to move a listener, Hatch feels timbres can function in similar fashion: "It's almost like one of those Brian Eno Oblique Strategies where you ask yourself not 'Is this song good enough?' but 'Do I feel, when I listen to this, that I have subjectively expressed how it feels when I feel this way?'"
"Airplane" concerns sexual assault, with Hatch choosing to reflect a more sorrowful sadness as opposed to anger. Past the song's halfway point, she plays a howling keyboard from Ontario instrument maker Therevox that evokes a surfacing and exorcism of traumatic feelings, while the bouncing pair of ARP 2600s throughout capture "the occasional glimpses of light" in sorting through one's mental baggage.
"The Standoff," meanwhile, finds Shabason lining up alongside a pair of synths Hatch has set to "obnoxious" synth brass tones, conjuring a wide-angle Western scene where eyes are narrowing and hands aren't too far from holsters.
"I liked the idea that these two synths were arguing with each other. I used panning and, because the tones are so close in nature, there's a point where they cross over and pan back to separate sides," Hatch explains. "It does sound to me like they could be passing by each other like cowboys, or they split off and take to their respective sides. That's sort of a good example of maybe not of resolving baggage, but of how the mind fights itself."
She continues, "Thoughts are difficult, but if you put a melodramatic score under them, it can be funny, and that makes it easier to grapple with. I think, in the interest of not making things worse for myself, when I assume all of us will be hit with COVID trauma in five years, I was like, 'I have to fix what's already bad.' You can't treat your own brain like a synthesizer, but you can care for it."