Synthesist Don Lewis Has DIed

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Synthesist Don Lewis – who pioneered live synth performance with his custom rig LEO – has died at the age of 81.

Don Lewis (March 26, 1941 – November 6, 2022) was equally talented technically and musically. He started his career as a nuclear weapons specialist in the US Air Force. After his time in the Air Force, he worked as an electronics engineer. But he also was active as a choral director, nightclub musician and composer.

Lewis soon turned his attention full time to music, as a live performer, composer, arranger and producer. He worked with Quincy Jones, Sergio Mendez, Michael Jackson, the Brothers Johnson and many others.

In 1974, he created LEO, the Live Electronic Orchestra, one of the most complex and capable keyboard rigs assembled, prior to the creation of MIDI. Here’s what Lewis had to say about it:

“During the early 70’s my earliest performances with multi-keyboard setups consisted of playing organ and four monophonic keyboards. It was an exciting time for me as I explored sound synthesis. It was also challenging as I was surrounded with many keyboards some of which could only play one note at a time. Depending on the music and the sound desired, my arms were often stretched out to the limit to just reach the keyboards around me. I decided to design a keyboard console that would allow better access to the synthesizer and keyboards for performance.

As I started to design and draft on paper the ideas that were in my mind, I met people, such as Richard Bates and Armand Pascetta, who were instrumental in making my dream keyboard a reality. This new console design incorporated three keyboards and a pedal keyboard that put the playing surfaces in front of me. The synthesis and audio mixing controls were on the top and side panels. Since electronics were of major interest to me in my educational pursuits and music performances, I wanted people to see all the circuitry, therefore I encased LEO in a clear acrylic case. During performances the stage lights accented the edges which added an intriguing and dynamic visual ambiance.

LEO had a sound that was warm, ethereal, and dynamic. Combining several technologies resulted in a palette of unique sounds that were very soulful whether I was playing classical, jazz, gospel, or rock. Because of the nature of the analog sound of the synthesizers and the ability I had to create, manipulate, and play the sounds in real-time, it was an incredible instrument to play.

LEO was temperamental, needing lots of care and a stable environment of moderate temperatures and humidity. As a singer, I was able to devote more attention to delivering my message due to the new found control over sounds and dynamics. LEO propelled me to perform differently than I had ever performed before and became a musical extension of me.”

Lewis also worked as a consultant for many instrument manufacturers, including Roland, Yamaha, Hammond & ARP. Here’s an example of Lewis in action, demoing Roland’s VP-550:

Lewis was the subject of a 2020 documentary, The Ballad Of Don Lewis:

At the 2013 NAMM Show, Lewis demonstrated his pioneering synth rig, LEO (Live Electronic Orchestra):

Finally – here’s Don Lewis just grooving with LEO on a Sunday:

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