The most valuable modular synth

Estimated value: £100,000

TONTO, 2011 (photo: The Analog Lab)

TONTO, pictured in 2011 (photo: The Analog Lab)

Modular synths present their own set of difficulties when it comes to valuations. Vintage modular systems from the likes of Moog, EMS, Serge and Buchla command small fortunes on the second-hand market, but if you were to add another few modules, any system would be worth even more. Where do you draw the line? At what point does a group of discrete modules become a whole? What makes a collection of modular gear into a cohesive instrument? The CEMS (Coordinated Electronic Music Studio) Moog modular sold at the Vemia auctions five years ago offers one answer. A giant modular system built by Robert Moog for the State University of New York in 1970, the CEMS sold for £29,950.

Wide shot and details of the CEMS modular synth (photo: Vemia)

Overview and details of the CEMS modular synth (photo: Vemia)

But, as valuable as the CEMS is, it’s not the most valuable modular synth in existence. For that, we have to look to TONTO, the modular system built from the late 1960s onward by Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil of British electronic music duo Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, and an instrument which Peter Forrest of the Vemia auctions suggests would become the world’s most expensive modular system if it’s ever put up for sale.

TONTO – The Original New Timbral Orchestra – is a giant modular synth which was initially based on a Moog modular system, then expanded over the course of around a decade with modules and semi-modular synths by ARP, Oberheim, Serge and countless others. Whereas some modular systems might be seen as collections of mismatched modules, TONTO differs. Every unit is calibrated to run on the same control voltages and gate signals for multi-timbral polyphonic control. MIDI control was later added along with digital elements. The huge unit is housed in a semi-circular wooden enclosure, arching back over the heads of those inside it.

Although the Expanding Head Band might not be a household name, the system itself has been heard on a number of hit records thanks to Margouleff and Cecil’s work as session musicians and co-producers in the 1970s. Contributing to Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book, Innervisions, Fulfillingness’ First Finale and Music Of My Mind, the pair helped to encourage the Motown legend’s own interest in synthesisers. Through the late 70s and early 80s in particular, Wonder was virtually guaranteed to be first on the waiting list when any of the synth giants launched a new flagship model. Wonder, alongside artists like Keith Emerson and Herbie Hancock, played a pivotal role in introducing the sounds of electronic instruments as mainstays of popular music. It’s a process which was surely inevitable, but the sounds of TONTO on those early 70s albums may very well have accelerated the speed at which it took place. As such, this is a modular synth with serious provenance.

Cecil bought Margouleff’s share of TONTO in 1975 and the synth is still intact, currently residing in a studio in upstate New York. Peter Forrest describes TONTO as “the biggest and best synth in the world” and suggests that, if it were ever sold, it would be worth “six figures – definitely in dollars, probably in euros, possibly in pounds”. However, he also adds one crucial caveat, pointing out that the value of TONTO is inherently linked to the fact that it’s been designed as such a cohesive instrument: “The most important thing with TONTO is that it shouldn’t be broken up when it’s sold! It should be kept as a working unit.”

Author Greg Scarth
30th September, 2013

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