Don Lewis changed electronic music

Although Don Lewis is not universally known, this quiet genius has played an extraordinary role in the advancement of electronic music. He was the first person to make a programmable drum machine, in the 1960s, when he hacked an Ace Tone Rhythm Box. Upon hearing him, Ace Electronics founder Ikutaro Kakehashi said, ‘It looks like my rhythm unit, but it doesn’t sound like it. What did you do?’ Lewis became a long-term collaborator with Kakehashi, from his days at Ace, through to his next company, Roland. Lewis helped develop iconic machines like the Roland TR-808 and, later, he aided Yamaha with their revolutionary 1980s synthesiser, the DX-7.

In the early 1970s, Lewis built a live project he called L.E.O. (Live Electronic Orchestra), bringing numerous synthesisers, keyboards and drum machines together, triggered by, as he described it, two feet, two hands and his head. This prefigured MIDI by several years. His work had echoes of the technology developed by Toto’s Expanding Headband for Stevie Wonder, but was perhaps even more advanced since it was intended for live performance (mainly at the Hungry Tiger in San Francisco) at a time when none of this was possible outside the walls of expensive studios. His revolutionary work inevitably caught the attention of numerous artists, including Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones and The Beach Boys, with whom he toured. His career, like that of early DJs, was nearly derailed by the AFM (American Federation of Musicians), who took umbrage with his performances with L.E.O., arguing that his creation was killing musicians’ jobs – Lewis eventually won out.  His career had almost been forgotten when Ned Augustenborg embarked upon his documentary, The Ballad Of Don Lewis, which was released in 2020, but is being shown in the UK for the first time at 2023’s Doc’N’Roll Film Festival. Don sadly died in 2022, but not before we managed to interview him. Some of the questions below are being asked by Ned (questioner is credited), who was present at our interview.

Interviewed by Bill on 06.04.2020

Bill: Can you describe to me the effect that Switched On Bach had on you and why?
[Chuckles] There’s a thousand things in that! First it was the sound of the synthesiser interpreting what I had been listening to most of my life up until that time: classical music. And starting out playing the organ, I could to play a little Bach. So I was very much in tune with the baroque stuff. When I heard this I was like, ‘Yeah oh my God… It’s like a DJ; a DJ mixing using other people’s stuff and putting it all together. This was other people’s stuff – Bach’s music – and putting a whole new texture and flavour of sound that…. My mind was just like [blown mind sign]. I thought: I gotta do that live! Then right after that she came out with another album and then everybody started to come out with albums using the Moog synthesiser. 

Bill: At that point which synths or organs had you owned? 
I just had an organ. I always thought that the organist would the first. You’re pulling and drawing out stops and getting different textures to play. It was not really the case that organists embraced the synthesiser but that was really the way you could get a sense of orchestration. There was really only one organist who I felt fulfilled that role and that was Virgil Fox. You heard that name before?

Bill: No I haven’t. 
He did this incredible tour of the United States playing this Black Beauty, which was an organ built especially for him by the Rogers digital organ company. He went to Filmore East and played for an all-rock audience and it was all Bach. He did in the west as well. These kids listening to Bach on basically a pipe organ but the way he chose his stops was just amazing. So it was all about playing music you’d heard before but just completely changing the framework; changing the textures of the sounds that would normally play those notes and that’s what struck me about Wendy Carlos and the Moog. 

Bill: At the meeting where you met Mr Kakehashi [founder and owner of Ace Electronics, later Roland] when you gave the keyboard demonstration, was that at NAMM? 
Yes. It was 1969 in Chicago. It was in the Conrad Hilton Hotel. This was before McCormack Place was built as the convention centre and so all the NAMM exhibitors met in different hotels. The Palmer House was one, The Sheraton and so forth. So that’s where I met Mr Kakehashi. 

Bill: And when did you start to hack his Ace Tone Rhythm Box? Or how long had you had that box before you started messing around with it?
This is really cool because I think I bought my X-77 Hammond organ in 1968. I was working as a salesman at a Hammond organ store in Denver, CO at Honeywells. And when the X77 came on the floor I said I gotta have one of those to play my gigs! So I bought one but it didn’t have a rhythm unit on it and i’d been used to using rhythm units. The first rhythm unit I used was built into a Seeburg organ. For a short while they actually built an organ, an electronic organ. They bought a company called Kinsmann who were making organs and they had developed a rhythm unit but they spent so much money that they had no money to market it so they filed for bankruptcy. 

Bill: Was that the typical unit where it had loads of presets?
The Seeburg was the first organ I played professionally. When I got the Hammond I asked the sales manager which rhythm unit I could buy and he recommended the Ace Tone. So I got it and played with it for maybe a couple of months and it just drove me up the wall. I couldn’t use any of the rhythms. And so I said, does anybody have a service manual for this because I needed the schematic to see what was inside. So I got the guy from the service centre to get me one. I opened the damn thing up and found out how they were actually making the rhythms happen. So I got a bunch of diodes and I switched. There was a reel, I think, that put out 24 pulses so 4/4 time would go into it evenly and 3/4 time would go into it and six and so forth. Then you could see on the rail there was 24, it was laid out that way. So I could pick out which pulses I wanted to draw from to trigger which instruments. So then I’d wire them up to these multi contact switches because they had at least six to eight different terminals on it. So then I noticed there were basically oscillators with what we call tank circuits so you could adjust the decay or you could adjust the pitch. So I changed a few of those to get my sound. When Mr K heard it in 1969 when I was doing my demo, he recognised the rhythm box but didn’t recognise any of the rhythms. That’s how we started out. 

Bill: What was the first thing he said to you?
‘It looks like my rhythm unit, but it doesn’t sound like it. What did you do?!’ I never traveled without my toolkit. Because the other thing that I did when I interfaced the rhythm unit with the X77 I ran the output of the rhythm unit to go into the input of the expression pedal circuit so I could vary the volume of the rhythm unit with my foot as I was changing like you would play a B3 [Hammond] so you could actually put accents on the rhythm. So sometimes I would do a rhythm solo and this one rhythm running, but I’d be running it so fast that I could pop my foot down [mimics sounds: Boom! chk-chk-boom!] and he had not heard that coming from his rhythm unit. He’d never even thought about putting accents on his rhythms. 

Bill: I guess also having a programmable rhythm unit seemed unusual at the time since all the rhythm units on organs just had presets. 
Right. Most organists at that time were doing the cha-cha-cha [laughs]. 

Ned: all those rhythms created by Mr K were just popular dance steps weren’t they?
Yes. Exactly. That points out a very pivotal thing about Bill’s book [he’s in the middle of reading Last Night A DJ Saved My Life] talking about dance being the most primal aspect of our existence and cultures. The DJ is the one leading the dance and that’s sort of what I had to do when I was playing L.E.O. [Live Electronic Orchestra] at the Hungry Tiger because a lot of the music I was playing was disco. 

Bill: When Mr K formed Roland, was that directly influenced by your experiments or if not what was his motivation? 
I would hate to think I had anything to do with his separating from Ace Tone, but it seems like if you’re trying to connect the dots back then…. He invited me to come to Japan in 1971 and that’s when we did a joint promotion/tour for Ace Tone and for the Hammond organ. I toured there for about three weeks. It was my first time leaving this country and it was the most fascinating thing. He invited me and I brought my rhythm unit that I had hacked. Evidently there was a run on the Rhythm Units at the factory after the concert tour. They couldn’t build them fast enough. In the interim, during the tour, he invited me to come to the Ace Tone factory, where he was working on another rhythm unit which happened to be the FR-7L which was the later one that came out. He asked me for input on that, which I have in the other room. I don’t know if it was after he built the FR-7 whether or not decided to leave the company. 

If I remember correctly he told me there was some things he wanted to do that the company didn’t, so he decided to start Roland, which was in 1972. I don’t know how much time there was between because i think I remember going to Japan in probably the fall of ’71 and he started in ’72. He decided to start his own company, Roland, and ads he told me he told the engineers that were working at Ace Tone he did not want to influence them when he left. But when he left, they came with him anyway. I think the engineers saw what he was trying to do. Ace Tone at that time was a subsidiary of a company called Sokada Shokei and they were the importer of the Hammond organ. 

Bill: Was the first Roland drum machine, the Compu-Rhythm CR68?
The 68 was the first that Roland built. 

Bill: And what was your role in Roland, was it ever formalised? 
Well I was always being compensated with whatever the product was. And he would pay for my visits to Japan. But it wasn’t until Roland really got going that they put me on a retainer with him. I didn’t work as closely with him as his counterpart here in the US. There was a very peculiar situation here once the company got started. In the beginning, there was a very amiable relationship between Japan and the American joint venture and then when Roland really started rolling [chuckles] and being popular there was an attitude change on the American side. It was almost as though it had designed and built the instruments. 

Bill: Was that because the sales in the US were so great in comparison to other territories?
Well, Mr K had to live with this relationship for a few decades before he could buy that partner out. 

Bill: What was your role in the design of the CompuRhythm?
OK everytime Mr K would come to the US. This is during the period 1973 to… wherever he was doing business, he would always stop at my home. And he would sometimes have engineers with him and we would spend two or three days going over ideas. 

Ned: I think it’s fascinating how you described your relationship with Mr K at that time since it was pre-computer and you guys would write ideas on cocktail napkins. 
If I was in Japan or if he was here. He didn’t drink. His drink was Coca-Cola until he found out it wasn’t so good for him. Whatever napkins we had to hand, we’d write on the back of them. That was an informal way of communicating ideas. He would go back to Japan and put these ideas together to the breadboard stage and he would then fly me over to Japan and we’d talk about what we could with what what they had come up with. This was the CR78 when this came out. And the they sent me a sample and I played around with it for a week or two then I’d send back my feedback. When the CR78 came out that was the one where you could store up to four of your own original patterns. Four?! I wanted to store at least 16! Memory back then was very expensive. 

Bill: I was going to ask whether the memory limitations of the time was a factor in the retail price. 
Well, they wanted to be able to sell these things. Roland stuff has never been entry level as far as cost. It’s always been a professional price point. 

Bill: You talk in the documentary about the additions you made to the Roland 808. What was your input during the lead up to its development? Was it 1980 it was released? 
I think it was ’80 or ’81. OK so the main thing was all of those things that had previously been inside, like the tank circuits etc, I wanted all of those controls on the outside where you could reach and change them. That’s the reason they had volume controls, envelope generator and pitch controls on various instruments. The other thing was how you input the rhythms. How are you going to control that? What would the visual be? There are only 16 buttons on the 808. I asked for 24! The engineers were ingenious about how they could structure something with limitations and still come up with the same idea. So they did that by having a switch there with four modes whether or not you were doing 4/4 time and there was another switch so you could have a variation on the rhythm that you built. You had four fill-in places but they put a switch on so you could have eight. They also had a fine-tuning on the tempo because they didn’t have a real read out as far as a clock that could tell you how many beats per minute so having the fine tune on that knob was kind of cool. The outputs of each instrument, I think you’ve got eight outputs of all these instruments and everyone has its own individual audio output or you could take the mixed output. They had some triggers on the back, one that say cowbell, handclap and accents and you could take a trigger from each of those and use it to trigger something else. And that ha[pened later when I used the triggers from that to go into the Jupiter 4. 

Ned: Do you want to tell Bill the cymbal story?! [They both laugh]. 
[The story is not true] the story is the cymbal sound came from spilling tea on the breadboard, a story Don spent years telling to everyone, even though it was a prank by the engineers at Roland. 

Bill: When did you go to work for Yamaha? 
So that happened in 1983 before the 1983 NAMM show which was in June. We must’ve started a little late 1982. To give you the backstory of this. There was a guy called John Chowning, who was the godfather of FM. I was asked in 1972 by the Hammond organ company executive who was the head of engineering, Ollie Moore, asked me to come out to Stanford University to observe what John was doing. So I came out to Stanford and heard this FM demonstration. He had a quadrophonic setup. And he played a tape because he couldn’t depend on the reliability of the big mainframe at Stanford. When I heard that sound I was like Oh my God this is going to be revolutionary in making sounds. I went to the Hammond organ company and made these grandiose recommendations: help this man with some grant money. Ultimately, they refused to do it. But later on when I moved to northern California, after I got married, I spent a summer down at their workshop in Carmel, so I worked with John, John Strong, Andy Moore, Leon Smith all these guys became legendary in their contributions to computer generated music. I was trying to do something and it so happened that Gary Lundberg was a big fan of mine so he brought down all these executives to where I was playing at the Hungry Tiger [in San Francisco] and they said we’ve got to bring this guy onboard. And then they found out I had this FM knowledge and that’s how I got pulled into programming the DX7 with Gary. 

Bill: What was revolutionary about the DX7?
[Laughs] SOUND! In high school when I built an FM radio receiver, I knew that FM existed but not in the same paradigm that we’re using it for audio. The same FM that was the carrier for radio frequency that you could broadcast on then the modulator was the actual audio. I never thought of it being audio to audio. So this was a whole revolution for me of thinking but I forgot about the fact that vibrato is FM. Frequency modulation WOO-WOO-WOO [makes modulation sound]. That’s FM!  So the two went together. So I’m already thinking that way. So part of the DX7 was to get down into the processors and doing that on a much more complex platform because instead of having two frequencies modulating each other, they had six oscillator components that you could use and then they had 32 collections of algorithms you could route these operators to get together. Well that was just like going into a sandbox and making up stuff! I was more fascinated by, not the sounds we could come up with that sounded like they were emulating real instruments, I was more interested in the sounds that were completely foreign to our ears but when I say the sound was the same, it sounded like there was an evolution of a natural way of sound modulating itself.  

Bill: I’m interested in the part of your answer where you said you were more interested in the sounds you’d never heard before because even though many synth inventors were often trying to emulate natural sounds, I think the more compelling sounds were often those that were unnatural. 
It’s like we finally got out of the woods of making a violin out of special wood. Those were the physical things we used to build musical instruments. I look at sound synthesis as this. There’s the natural sounds that come from maybe your voice. I call that the organic synthesis. Then you had the era of mechanical synthesiser, which are violins, horns, drums, and then we moved from that to electronic synthesis. 

Tell me about your LEO together. I guess it was a sort of proto MIDI [the computer language that enabled different machines to ‘talk’ to each other and synch].
Coming up with different ways of realising that dream. Mine wasn’t so much that I was trying to make a revolution out of it. I call it self-preservation because I had all of these things that didn’t work together and playing in a nightclub where you have an audience you don’t have the luxury of being in a studio where you can spend time twiddling this and twiddling that. And that’s what I felt like I was trying to do. I don’t know why my fanbase, even before LEO, even stuck with me. It was more out of convenience to create a more friendly way of playing the instruments live. All I needed was a mixer to mix all of these sounds that were coming from the Oberheims, the ARPs, the Hammond and all of this. But the mixers you’d normally see had too many knobs and so I had them built in but I used the same idea as the VCA (Voltage Controlled Amplifier) so that my foot movements would change the volume or the gain on each of those. That had never been done. 

Bill: I noticed in the film that your feet are doing as much as your hands and it’s kind of mind-blowing. 
One of the things that got me learning the foot pedals was on the big pipe organ and I had to learn…. my teacher was very accommodating but she was also very aware that I needed training on how to use my feet. I just played one foot all the time. But when you’re playing Bach, you’re going to be playing both feet, both hands… and your head [laughs]! You know you might not use them all the time but you have the training that you can. One of the other things I had the mixer over here with the gain but also had a mixer to go up to the space echo and come back down.

Bill: You mentioned in passing that you worked with the Beach Boys and with Quincy Jones. Can you go into more detail about what you did? 
The only reason I came to California, was to work with Quincy Jones. I loved Quincy’s music, the big band jazz arrangements that he did. I used to sit at home and put his albums on and listen to it. I thought Hell if I’m even going to grow musically, I gotta hang out with somebody like Quincy. By that time I’d accumulated a couple of [ARP] 2600s and that was 1974. So I came out to LA. I was living in Santa Monica, started out in Marina Del Rey for about six months but that little studio apartment I started doing synthesiser tutoring sessions. I don’t even remember how I got the word out there but I got a few bites and these bites led me to other people like Armand Pascetta who put together a polyphonic controller keyboard and Armand was the one who got me in touch with Quincy because he was working at the Record Plant.

Ned: How did the Beach Boys find you?
They found me while I was still in this little apartment. It was my first gig in LA and I was working at a place called Monty’s. It was a restaurant on top of one of the big bank buildings there in Westwood. My wife Julie got me that job. She recommended that I approached the manager there. I was there for about four weeks. The second or third week I was there, these three guys came in. I didn’t recognise them but they said they’d been coming in every night for three nights in a row. On the third night they finally approached me and they invited me to their table. It was Carl and Dennis and Jim Guercio who at that time was the manager for Chicago. Carl and Dennis asked me if I would consider being the opening act and also playing in the band on their next tour [he laughs uproariously at how unlikely this all felt] Well…. I was in shock. Just being in LA I was in shock. 

What was really almost providential was the fact that there had also been these entertainment lawyers who also frequented Monty’s… I also met Mark Spitz, Jean Stapleton and all these people who were in the movies and TV used to come in this place. So I had met these guys who were lawyers and when they found out that I had got this offer he said, OK we’ll take over from here. No charge to you, but we’ll write the contract. I’d never have thought about renting my equipment out, but they put that in the contract. On top of my fee. On a different plane. They chartered their own plane but on subsequent tours everybody went on the same plane! On my tour we had a chartered plane and limousines picked us up on the tarmac and delivered our baggage. We didn’t have to do anything. It was pretty cool but there were some things I saw on the road that I didn’t think I could deal with. So I did that one tour, but it was a grand experience to see on the inside what goes on. Having been a one man show up until that I’d never had that insight, especially the rock’n’roll world. 

Ned: What kind of venues was it?
You really couldn’t have that many big venues because the sound systems weren’t that good. So we were mostly in municipal auditoriums. About one or two thousand seater. First one was in Mississippi, like an indoor basketball place with bleachers. Second was New Orleans, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, then the midwest. 

Bill: I didn’t realise you’d had all these issues with the Musicians Union. The book you’re reading also has DJs battling with the same people. 
I was reading that in your book and I was trying to figure out whether that ruling that we got [banning him from performing] which was six or seven years after because DJs were starting to come in at that time. Then we finally got the union to disappear on that particular issue. We didn’t want this to happen to any single person for the union to come in and say you couldn’t come in and play. 

When you look at what has happened in electronic musical developments subsequently do you feel vindicated? How do you feel now about the struggles you went through? 
I have to say I’m happy and grateful that I did something that would help to change the way that the manufacturers built instruments and the way that the musicians have embraced those ideas and used them, it’s not that musicians haven’t always been creative, but the tools that they use are. Looking back I had no idea that I would be affecting or have any affect like it seemingly has done. It wouldn’t have been anywhere near as effective if nobody had told the story so I’m so grateful for Ned telling this story. The way he’s put it together fills in a lot of grey spots and brings out a whole lot of knowledge and backstory of how all of these instruments came into being and musicians have been able to use them. He’s like my little brother! I feel very humbled looking back and seeing kids, even after the screening that was done at the Museum of Making Music. And there were about five or six young kids, 20 years old, who were taking courses at local colleges there and these guys and girls came up and almost looked like they had tears in their eyes, ‘Do you know how much you have changed my life?!’ People don’t realise how much their contributions are going to affect someone else’s life. What I did, was without anybody knowing. Ned has helped me and helped others who are going to see the work of what he did in telling someone else’s story. 

Ned, how did you first discover Don and what do you think his contribution is?
I was working for a cable operator in the San Diego area and part of our obligation to the municipality was to provide grants. The Museum for Making Music was a stone’s throw away from one of the studios I was managing and I was advising them where some of this money should be allocated. So people would apply for certain grants and lo and behold these two women came in and said this guy Don Lewis created this revolutionary synthesiser many years ago, and is resurrecting this instrument and he’s gonna have a concert at the MofMM and they thought it was worth documenting. Well in the back of my mind since I was a little kid I was always interested in film. For some reason I had an incredible fascination with synthesisers. It probably came from television theme songs. And I always thought wouldn’t it be interesting if somebody did a film on the concept of a human being hearing sounds that were never heard before. That was always in the back of my mind. 

I thought I wanna do this someday and I also thought maybe this Don Lewis guy might be 30 seconds in this film. I ended up calling some friends and we did a three-camera production of the concert and that went just fine. It was the day after that we met and we had a pre-interview session and within two nanoseconds I felt like Don was this friend I had in this life but also some previous life. We just hit it off. That followed the first interview, but still not know what we were going to do with this. So it was a long drawn out process over the course of a few years of getting more and more serious. There’s an incredible trust factor. Here’s this guy that wants to document Don’s life story; that’s pretty serious. What was missing in this story, because I knew what was great about Don, what was lacking was conflict, so eventually Don and Julie were reluctant to bring up the whole union conflict because they’d worked hard to forget about it. Eventually we came to terms with that and as Don said earlier, this was a message that should be shared with the world. It was an opportunity for Don and Julie, especially Julie, to contact the people in the film, many of which they had not seen for many years. Without exception these people had so much love and respect for Don.

The Don Lewis documentary is screened Friday 27th October in London, as part of the Doc’N’Roll film festival. Tickets here –>