This Little-Known Artist and Engineer Made the Sounds of the '80s

All photos are courtesy of Ned Augustenborg and Julie Lewis.

Don Lewis is an icon in the music tech world and a pioneer of the landscape of electronic music. Despite the hardships he faced as an African-American man, his ambition and commitment to break boundaries allowed us all to experience new levels of musical exploration through his innovations with the synthesizer.

A photo of Don Lewis seated at his LEO synthesizer system.

Don was far ahead of his time in understanding how to combine several synthesizers, long before MIDI existed. His lifelong commitment had a great influence on modern music technology: without him, we wouldn't have the iconic TR-808 and FM synthesis would have probably remained under-appreciated and unnoticed.

Over the course of his life, he worked for Hammond, ARP, Roland, and Yamaha, toured with the Beach Boys, and produced platinum records with Quincy Jones.

You could even say he created the sound of the '80s. His musical and technical contributions resulted in the design, programming, and voicing of over 40 synthesizers, sound modules, and drum machines.

He spent the latter part of his life teaching a music class with Julie Lewis, his wife, at an elementary school on Catalina Island off the coast of Southern California before his death at the age of 81 in November 2022.

Let's dive deep into the life and work of Don Lewis by exploring his impact and contributions to electronic music.

To learn more about Don Lewis, be sure to tune into PBS to watch the documentary Don Lewis and the Live Electronic Orchestra, directed by Ned Augustenborg.

A photo of Don Lewis.
Don Lewis. All photos are courtesy of Ned Augustenborg and Julie Lewis.

Humble Beginnings

Growing up in Dayton, Ohio, Don found his passion for music while playing the church organ. While attending Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, he explored his love of mathematics and science by building radios and TVs for the science fair and extracurriculars. He graduated high school, attended Tuskegee Institute, and joined the Air Force in 1961. He was stationed at a base in Denver, Colorado where he trained as a nuclear weapons specialist for the Atlas missile. After completing his military duties, he settled down and got a job at the Honeywell Plant in Denver, while still playing organs on the weekend for nearby churches.

A fateful day saw Lewis wandering into a music instrument store in Denver—the store manager at the time was impressed by Don’s personality and his knowledge of organs. He encouraged him to change careers, leaving Honeywell and taking up residence at the shop as both a salesperson and repairman. This first job in the musical instrument industry would be fundamental for introducing Lewis to someone who revolutionized not only his life, but also how we experience electronic music today.

A photo of Don Lewis and Ikutaro Kakehashi.
Don Lewis and Ikutaro Kakehashi.

In the summer of 1969, Hammond was hosting a trade show in Chicago to display their latest line of organs. Lewis had been invited to perform on their X-77 and he just so happened to bring his Ace Tone Rhythm Ace FR-2L to play during his set. Little did he know that Ikutaro Kakehashi—the founder of Ace Tone which would later become Roland—was among the audience that day.

Kakehashi admired Don’s use of the Rhythm Ace, who had made few functional tweaks to the organ's presets to play rhythms to his liking. Don later opened up his Rhythm Ace revealing to Kakehashi his intricate modifications using diodes across the circuit board. Kakehashi jokingly accused Don of voiding his warranty, but was astounded by Don's ingenuity. Subsequently, Ace Tone employed him for marketing campaigns of Rhythm Ace across Japan and Asia. This was the beginning of a 40-year working relationship and friendship between Don and Kakehashi, which saw Don providing input on several future Roland products.

By the 1970s, the synthesizer was quickly becoming one of history's most influential instruments and its sound could be heard across all genres. Taking advantage of a revolutionary period in musical instrument design, Don indulged himself by purchasing all the synthesizers he could and of course learning them inside and out.

In 1974, he ventured out to Santa Monica and got a gig touring with the Beach Boys. The following year in 1975, Quincy Jones—who had a vested interest in synthesizers himself— brought him into the Record Plant Studios in Los Angeles to show him a thing or two about synthesis. At the same time, Jones was producing an album with The Brothers Johnson and recruited Don to join the personnel.

Don's synths graced the group's debut album, Lookout For #1, which became a platinum-selling success just a few months after its initial release. The success enabled the synthesist to develop a working relationship with Quincy Jones that would extend into the 80s—he eventually gained a reputation that led to more studio work with Marvin Hamlisch, Sergio Mendes, Billy Preston, and Michael Jackson.

A photo of Don Lewis seated at his LEO synthesizer system..

The Legacy of LEO

By the mid-70s, Don had enough work to afford the several synthesizers that were available at that time, and Don was a fan of using pretty much all of them, whether on stage or in the studio: ARP, Oberheim, and Roland to name a few. At a time where most consumers were fixated on one or two synthesizers, Don was constantly searching for the proper way to combine them all together.

After a while, he was exhausted by the clutter created by all of his synths piled on top of each other—while playing, he’d have to reach to control volume and manipulate modulation which proved to be arduous, as none of the synths were designed in the same way. With the dedicated aid of his hired assistant Richard Bates, Don sought to build a system that would enable all the synths to be played together in one system.

Bates and Lewis carefully constructed a three-level keyboard controller. The two bottom keybed rows were part of his often-used Hammond Concorde organ, which remained fixated to all of its foot controls and served as a foundation for the entire system. Meanwhile, the top keybed was a remarkable synth controller featuring custom buttons, switches, and knobs that were hard wired to two ARP 2600s and four Oberheim SEM voices, which were painstakingly repurposed, recalibrated and re-tuned to allow Don to play all of his synth voices polyphonically.

Moreover, he had a Roland VP-330 that served as his functional "background singers", utilizing effects such as Roland Space Echos. All three tiers were encased in a plexiglass housing that exposed its intricate wiring system. Don artfully named his one-of-a-kind creation the Live Electronic Orchestra, also known by the acronym LEO. Later on, he would add other components to the LEO such as Roland's Jupiter 4, ProMars, and a TR-808.

From 1978 through to the next decade, Don played his LEO regularly during his residency at the Hungry Tiger on Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. He would play covers and originals and play every part himself—effectively performing as a one-man band. His regular performances held their own over any premier entertainment happening in San Francisco during the time, which garnered him local fame along with continued industry work and bookings throughout the country.

Don Lewis demonstrating the LEO at the 2013 edition of NAMM.

This lone showman act, however, ruffled the feathers of the American Federation of Musicians Union, which was still implementing its age-old rules that were racially prejudiced in nature—like mandating Black musicians to be listed separately from white performers on local membership documents. When synthesizers started to gain traction, many session musicians began to worry about their livelihoods—brass, woodwind, and string players were particularly concerned because of the rising popularity of disco music, which was primarily made with synthesizers by producers such as Georgio Moroder and Gino Soccio. The fact that they could make chart-topping hits without studio musicians increasingly put these individuals out of work and thus posed a threat to their careers.

Despite all the pushback against synthesis by the union, Don remained a loyal and dedicated member until the day he received notification that he was in violation of his contract by not playing his shows with at least five union musicians. Outraged, Don resigned from the organization. Despite Don's impressive success like playing the Newport Jazz Festival at Carnegie Hall or working with musical icons such as Quincy Jones, he was still harshly treated by the organization that saw him as a symbol of what they feared: technology replacing their jobs.

The animosity the union felt towards Don got to a point where members picketed outside of one of his shows in Oakland, which resulted in Don taking legal action against the union. However, the Oakland District Court ruled in favor of the union on grounds of their first amendment right to protest. Sadly, this meant that he had no legal ground to stand upon and could not perform his solo act anywhere within the Bay area without fear of being picketed. Thus, the LEO was dismantled in 1986 and moved into a storage garage.

Don and his LEO proved that the synth industry needed transformation, but they were far from alone. By the late 1970s, Herbie Hancock and Malcolm Cecil had already begun to craft their own systems for connecting synths from various producers together. Kakehashi felt this deficiency of standardization hindered electronic music's growth, a sentiment he shared with other Japanese designers who were developing innovative products during this period.

Kakehashi invited other Japanese synth manufacturers, as well as Sequential Circuits' Dave Smith, to develop a standard for connecting synths and playing them in unison. By 1983, what is now known as MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) was established as a standard and an organization was established, led by a panel featuring designers from Yamaha, Roland, Kawai and Sequential Circuits. This arguably marks the last collective act between major music instrument brands that has ever been witnessed since then, and it was inspired in part by Don Lewis and the LEO.

Don Lewis seated at a Hammond organ.

Don's Sound of the 80s

In the early 1980s, Yamaha was determined to manufacture a synth that marked a return to top sales and popularity. After learning about FM synthesis at Stanford University, they sought out Gary Leuenberger—a musician, Yamaha piano shop owner, and friend of Don's—to help design a synth using FM synthesis. It just so happens that Gary had already taken executives from Yamaha to watch Don perform with his LEO years prior, and he wanted to enlist Don to help.

Together, Leuenberger and Lewis designed presets for what ultimately became Yamaha’s DX7 and DX9 synthesizers, and created sounds that became synonymous with countless hit 80s records. It marked a radical shift from traditional synthesis methods and initiated how we use FM synthesis today—its revolutionary technology remains Stanford's most lucrative patent and has generated millions of dollars for the university.

According to a podcast interview Lewis conducted with Sound On Sound in 2020, Don's journey with FM synthesis began earlier than what has been told. In Don's words, his first exposure to FM was in 1972 when he was invited to Stanford to meet Dr. John Chowning. "The concept of FM wasn't new to me," Lewis explains. "In high school, we built FM radios, so I knew the phenomena. I didn't know at that time that FM was no more than modulating two frequencies and then in the radio days, the carrier was the radio frequency and the modulator was the audio. There is nothing new about that, the only thing that was new was how it was applied."

He continues, "We took two audio frequencies and modulated one with another, to me that wasn't really new but what I heard was new." Don understood FM synthesis right away and thought it would be good for his old company Hammond, to invest in this new tech for their new organ. "Everyone wanted to have those sounds on their album." Lewis states. "I really look at John Chowning as the key ingredient. I met John before Gary and I totally understood what he was doing, I was totally on board with FM back in '72."

"What I heard was something I had not heard with additive or subtractive synthesis—this life that was happening after you modulated those waves together. I think it was a real blessing that Yamaha heard this, because I think they took it to a degree that we probably would not have not thought of. They thought of having multiple operators and multiple algorithms—32 if I remember correctly—to come up with sounds that [were] just brand new and sounded natural."

Later in the 80s, Don's old friend Ikutaro Kakehashi, with whom he continued a steady working relationship, was still hard at work trying to make Roland the king of the synthesizers. Don was constantly in search of programmable rhythm machines and pushed Kakehashi to keep going deeper in that direction. Don eventually made design contributions to the Roland CR-68, CR-78, and later the rhythm machine that would leave a lasting impression that continues to echo in the present day: the TR-808.

Kakehashi took a few cues from LEO as well: it's because of Lewis that we have the selectable triggers per step and the infamous, generation-defining accent and decay of the 808 kick drum sound.

Don Lewis seated at the LEO.

Unsung Hero

While not widely known or celebrated amongst pop culture, Don has been recognized for what he’s achieved. In the early 90s, Don won an appeal against the union that had barred him from performing solo with his LEO. After retrieving it from storage in the new millennium and some necessary maintenance, he enshrined this classic instrument in the NAMM Museum where it stands to this day. In honor of his impressive accomplishments, the County of Almeda commended him for his artistic achievements, and in 2016, he was renowned by the United States House Of Representatives for introducing fresh ideas to the music industry.

Music technology owes so much to Don Lewis, whose influence left a lasting mark on all genres of electronic music. From the LEO to MIDI, FM synthesis, and even the iconic TR-808 drum machine–his contributions were indisputable and ahead of their time. A true pioneer in every sense; he should always be remembered for his valuable legacy alongside other African American inventors who have pushed boundaries with remarkable innovation.

Watch Augestenborg's Don Lewis and the Live Electronic Orchestra on PBS for an in-depth look at his incredible legacy, with appearances by Don Lewis himself, Ikutaru Kakehashi, Quincy Jones, Dr. John Chowning, and more.

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