Skip to main content

Canadian musician Angie C just used a brainwave-reader to play the monster analogue synth TONTO with her mind

Angie C (Coombes) with TONTO at the National Music Centre, Calgary. (Image credit: Facebook/National Music Centre)

Canadian musician, artist and scientist Angie Coombes has made music history by tracking parts for her new album on the monster TONTO synthesizer using only her mind. 

We've all dreamed of creating that sound in our heads but Angie Coombes – stage name Angie C – has made it a reality. This recording session-cum-science experiment was conducted at the National Music Centre in Calgary, Canada, where the TONTO is housed. 

Coombes described the process to CBC's Calgary Eyeopener podcast. Her thoughts would be processed by headset via a computer, and then converted to voltages before being assigned to a parameter on the synth. 

Thinking about images and questions that stimulated more brainwave activity yielded more dramatic results – even thinking about the word "why" had an effect on volume and pitch.

"We could actually create a voltage that would go to TONTO and [then] manipulate things like reverb, low frequency oscillators, resonance cut off – and it worked," said Coombes. 

Coombes says that visualising a purple flame coming down through her body "was able to reliably bring the sound down in volume." 

It's pretty far out, and seems like a reach even for a virtual synth, but for a 52-year-old analogue synthesizer it is quite incredible.

"When [TONTO] was first created in the late 1960s, it was really quite an enigma,"  Coombes told CBC. "But where we're applying this new modern technology, with the brainwave headset to this old analog synthesizer... It's a world first." 

We're applying this new modern technology, with the brainwave headset to this old analog synthesizer... It's a world first

TONTO, full name The Original New Timbral Orchestra, was created by Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff in 1968, and has seen a lot of music history.

Stevie Wonder used TONTO extensively. Most famously, he used it to track the floor-filling bassline to Superstition. Cecil remembers Wonder telling him at the time that using TONTO was "like making music with my mind."

Coombes has used brainwaves to create art before. In 2016, Coombes designed a dress with LEDs that were lit up by brainwaves for the MakeFashion Wearable Technology Gala 2016. She hopes that this is a first step in making music more accessible.

See here more information on Angie C.