Stevie Wonder and His Dream Machines

Malcolm Cecil made Zero Time alongside his fellow studio tech friend Bob Margouleff. TONTO, short for The Original New Timbral Orchestra, was the name they gave to the massive machine that generated every sound on the record—a towering bank of synthesizers they wired together, creating a magnificent and improbable Frankenstein’s monster of new tones and timbres. It weighed a full ton and was held together by 127 feet of cable sourced from a Boeing jet and an Apollo mission. The windswept, sci-fi instrumentals on Zero Time were meant as an invitation to dream up sonic possibilities, and Wonder was the first popular musician to come knocking. He had music in his head, and he must have intuited that the instruments heard on this album provided the key to liberating those sounds.

At that very moment, liberation was very much on Stevland Morris’ mind. He had just turned 21. According to contract law, he no longer had to be Little Stevie Wonder, Motown wunderkind. He didn’t have to watch all his proceeds and publishing flow to Berry Gordy, nor did he have to sing lines precisely as Gordy dictated and follow the arrangements other musicians cooked up for his material. He could make whatever sounds he wanted, and Cecil’s apartment was the first place he went.

As with any technological development, the genius really flowers when you have sober adults doing the programming and an impatient prodigy trying to play with it. Since Wonder was blind, he relied on Margouleff and Cecil to twiddle nobs and adjust levels. Whenever they found a promising sound, Wonder would pounce on it, writing a song on the spot, and they would scramble to record it. The music that poured out of Wonder during that revelatory period filled up several albums: Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions, Fulfillingness’ First Finale. Wonder’s work with Cecil and Margouleff jump-started his miraculous ’70s run, and so much of what made those albums unique came from their sounds. As Margouleff once remembered, “We started working together and suddenly we found ourselves sort of inventing instruments to play.” What began that weekend in the spring of 1971 would alter so much about how we conceive of sound in popular music that we are still learning and tracing its effects.

To create the famous wah riff that opens “Superstition,” from 1972’s Talking Book, Wonder hooked a wah pedal to his clavinet keyboard, which no one had ever done before. The tone he generated, thick enough to stand a spoon up in, is generally considered to have helped invent funk, but it also spurred on a decade’s worth of musical innovations.

The most direct beneficiary of Wonder’s wah-pedal clavinet innovation was an engineer named Mike Beigel. Beigel’s company, Musitronics, had developed a synthesizer prototype that tanked due to lack of funding. Beigel and his partner, Aaron Newman, tried pulling out a piece of the synth to stick into an affordable guitar pedal that would maybe help them recoup some of their losses. They shortened their company name to the easier-to-remember, and cooler-sounding, Mu-Tron, and put their pedal, which they called an “auto-wah,” on the market.

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