Podcast VOL 4: Don Lewis — Keyboardist and Inventor of the LEO Orchestra

"The Universe is an art form". Today we speak with Don Lewis, a composer, musician, educator and inventor. As a studio artist, Don has worked with such greats as Quincy Jones, Sergio Mendez and Michael Jackson. Don is also known for his collaboration with Roland Founder Ikutaro Kakehashi and his engineers. Don worked on rhythm unit design and function, beginning with the Rhythm Ace, through the TR-808.
A documentary about Don’s life and career called “The Ballad of Don Lewis” is set to be released in 2018. For more information, check out the movie website

Podcast Transcript

Narration: [00:00:05] Helping people enjoy amazing sounds and build satisfying lives in the field of audio,  this is the CEntrance podcast. Hi, I’m Michael Goodman, founder and CEO of CEntrance, the leading manufacturer of audio products for enthusiasts and industry professionals. This podcast features stories and life lessons from people who dedicated themselves to a career in audio. This podcast was recorded using our own MixerFace R4 mobile recording interface.

Michael: [00:00:33] Today on this podcast we’re interviewing Don Lewis — a composer, musician, educator, and inventor. As a studio artist, Don has worked with such greats as Quincy Jones, Sergio Mendez, and Michael Jackson. Don is also known for his collaboration with Roland Founder Ikutaro Kakehashi and his engineers. Don worked on rhythm unit design and function, beginning with the Rhythm Ace, through the TR-808. A documentary about his life and career called “The Ballad of Don Lewis” is set to be released in 2018. This interview was recorded with MixerFace R4. Don had one on his end. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. And we had one here in Chicago in our studios. MixerFace R4 makes it easy to set up a high quality audio connection between two remote locations. It natively integrates with your mobile devices for conducting interviews just like this one.

Don: [00:01:18] Oh, Michael how are you, man?

Michael: [00:01:20] I’m very good, Don. Thank you so much for joining us today. It’s a pleasure and honor. Now we’ve only met several months back at the NAMM show, but it was clear that you have a huge personality and I imagine you’d have some amazing stories to tell around the campfire.

Don: [00:01:35] Well I have to tell you, it was… It’s like we were kindred spirits. I felt like when I first met you that I had known you for many many years.

Michael: [00:01:48] You know I feel like I need to set the stage a little bit for our listeners. You originally were an electronics engineer and the Air Force and then you were able to successfully marry that with your musicianship and what came out of that was a series of exciting music industry inventions. Now just to set the stage here let’s understand your vast impact on the music industry. You actually invented several product categories, which is amazing. You were influential in making the hit drum machine, the TR-808 for Roland.

Don: [00:02:22] That history goes back to 1969 when I first met Mr. Kakehashi. He was then the president of Ace Tone electronics and Ace Tone made a rhythm unit called the Ace Tone Rhythm Ace. And I happened to be asked in 1969, my first time going to NAMM, to play for the Hammond organ company. So I was an artist with them and I had modified all the rhythms inside because none of the rhythms that they had in the Ace Tone made any sense to me for the kind of music that I was trying to produce. And so, I had wired up the expression pedal on the Hammond, which was an X-77. I hooked it up so that the expression pedal will actually give accent to the rhythm unit, plus all the modifications I had made inside of the rhythm unit to give it new patterns and new sounds. And it so happened Mr. Kakehashi was sitting in the audience when I was doing my performance. And afterwards he came up and looked at me and he says that looks like my rhythm unit but it doesn’t sound like it, what did you to it? We became instant friends because he saw that I saw something of worth in and using it when most musicians were not using you know rhythm boxes at that time. Forward 20 – 30 years. During that whole period of time I said you know every time you want to change a rhythm or add a new pattern I have to go inside and get my soldering gun and I put diodes and switches and so forth I says I need programmable rhythm. I stayed on him and stayed on him and stayed on him. And finally they came out with a unit. They asked me to come to Japan to get my opinions on that. That’s after he had founded Roland and of course that was back in ’72. And so I went and saw what they had. Gave them ideas and then they sent a unit back to me. I didn’t modify the sound but I modified the way it was used it was claves was the sound I wanted handclaps, I didn’t need claves you know, in disco music. I needed some handclaps so the way I did the timing on that made it sound like it was handclaps. And he came in to San Francisco where I was playing, he heard this he says: “How did you get handclaps. How do you get an handclaps?” He says, “Did you modify it?” I said: “No I just used this little sequencer here that’s built inside.” He talked about that they were going to upgrade this. And so he flew me back over to Japan when they were working on the TR-808 and that was the lead engineer on that was Kikamoto and Hasai and we became very very close. And that’s how the TR-808 away came about.

Michael: [00:05:52] Well, look, on behalf of the entire hip-hop industry, Thank you for doing that!

Don: [00:05:59] Well what’s crazy about that though. You know it was it did not have instant success. I mean it wasn’t until the hip hop artists maybe 10 years later found these things in  pawnshops where they were being sold for a hundred bucks.

Michael: [00:06:17] Well. So this highlights your amazing engineering side and I want to also talk about your musical side, which is also quite vast and specifically one other industry that you’ve influenced is the one man band show, which you’ve created a specific instrument for that called LEO, the Live Electronic Orchestra, which is what the film is all about. And you’ve you’ve been able to play with everybody right, Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson, Sergio Mendez, and the others and so you don’t have a shortage of people to play with. And now you want to be a one man band. Why?

Don: [00:06:58] Well actually I was the one man band before I met a lot of these people because I had a lot of – starting back and around ’68 and I was just playing organ and rhythm unit that you were talking about, the Moog synthesizers, and “Switched on Bach” was the thing that got me. I just wanted to have that synthesizer agility to play it because when I was a kid I grew up on the black side of Dayton, Ohio or the west side and we didn’t have very many things of culture in the area of symphony orchestras or anything but my mom, every Saturday, she would turn on the Metropolitan Opera and we would sit. I remember I was about four five or six years old and we would sit and we would listen to this so even though we were in this place, the radio brought this experience to my ears. And so I didn’t think as a young black guy that I could ever be a conductor of one of these orchestras because it wasn’t the thing back then. So I guess in the back of my mind I was going to be an orchestra when I was going to control an orchestra whether it be conventionally or whether now through electronics. And so I think that was always in the back of my mind. And so this became the part that really resonated in live performance. To have this facility at my hands. I always said it was like LEO was like having a 747 that could dust crops.

Michael: [00:08:52] Yeah it is amazing. For those people who get a chance to see you playing the LEO it’s just out of this world. And also, just even playing the Hammond B3 organ I was watching you play recently and as a bass player I noticed that you mostly played the pedalboard with your left foot but sometimes you actually use both feet to create a more complex bass line and you know watching you use both feet gives new meaning to the term walking bass, for sure. You’re really walking that’s pedalboard.

Don: [00:09:24] Yeah that I always like Ray Brown Bass all the bass players always love to listen to and especially in the jazz idiom. So always wanting to play bass. In fact, I tried playing bass when I was in the Air Force, upright bass and of course I couldn’t practice all the time so I was always trying to get my my calluses back up. You know what that’s like.

Michael: [00:09:57] I do want to ask you about your experience with the MixerFace R4. You had a couple of days to play around with that. How do you like it? Any suggestions any feedback for us about this little interface.

Don: [00:10:10] The only thing that I think you need to add is and it looks like there’s a hole in the back of it a clip. That you can hang on your belt or your clothes. Otherwise, this thing is amazing. I am just amazed at the quality of the sound and even as I’m talking with you over Skype, it sounds like we’re are in the same room together. I Really love all the interfaces that you have. The microphone, I’m using a Countryman condenser mic as I’m talking with you, the headset thing. It needs phantom power and I was worried at first, you know I wonder if its going to have that. I look at it, and its got phantom power. You know you want to put a high quality microphone on it or you want to use a guitar or synthesizer outputs. I’m wondering, if it’s possible for as we are talking right now, using microphones. If I had that instrument in one of the other inputs whether you and I could play together if each had an instrument?

Michael: [00:11:29] Exactly. I think that’s a wonderful idea and we’re actually working on that right now because we feel that a large proportion of applications for this product will be what’s called online Skype lessons because a whole bunch of people, guitar players, bass players  are giving lessons to students across town or across the world by using Skype as the communication medium. And I think what MixerFace does is it allows you to – it improves the last mile so to speak right, it gives you a high quality audio entry into the computer but also into the phone also into the tablet etc. And it actually allows you to have both a high quality microphone connection and a high quality instrument connection so that both sides can play – the teacher can hear every nuance in the student’s playing and give them feedback. The student improves faster, etc. Everybody wins. So we think that’s a good application and I’m really glad that you brought that up.

Don: [00:12:26] Because I’m thinking about people that you want to jam with in a completely different location and I did find also that I could use Logic, I use Logic Pro on my Mac, and I had the input tied to the MixerFace. I had that Interfaced and I could actually record whatever it was I sang right there in logic which meant that I could use the instrument to do that as well. In doing so, that would be really great if I could, say if you’re on the other end and you heard what I was playing and I could record it from this side, this would be really great tool.

Michael: [00:13:24] Not just for teaching but just for jamming together and exchanging ideas?

Don: [00:13:28] Right! Yes exactly.

Michael: [00:13:30] I understand. Wonderful, I will let you know as soon as that’s ready. And I hope I hope that’s going to be soon.

Don: [00:13:37] Oh, great!

Michael: [00:13:38] I wanted to talk about the documentary. It’s coming out and it’s going to talk about your life and career. Please tell us more about it.

Don: [00:13:47] Right now we’re very excited about the documentary The Ballad of Don Lewis. It’s been a love creation from a dear friend now I’ve known almost for 15 years, Ned Augustenborg and in fact, I’m here right here in Carlsbad, California, where he lives. We came down for this and he’s poured his heart and soul into this project and we brought out some things in the archives of the history of some of this musical technology that has come come forth within the last, I guess, 40 years. The film is ready to go. Right now we’re in the final crunch of raising money for the legalities that go on — licensing, attorneys and you know, all that kind of thing. And so this is the exciting part that we need everyone to participate, especially the folks who love all this technology that has given so much breadth and depth to the creative process in music and in the arts, period. So we are we are very excited about it.

Michael: [00:15:17] It does sound amazing. Now how long is the movie.

Don: [00:15:21] The movie is an hour and thirty minutes.

Michael: [00:15:25] So it’s jam packed with interesting information and I noticed how many famous stars are in the movie, in the film.

Don: [00:15:33] Yes. most of the people especially the music industry people would probably resonate with some of the industry people that are represented but there is particularly Quincy Jones who was my mentor for a short while. And then there’s the latest guy I think would be Brockett Parsons who’s Lady Gaga’s keyboardist and we met I think back in 2013 when I brought LEO, Live Electronic Orchestra to the NAMM show. And that was the year of the anniversary of MIDI, the 30th anniversary of MIDI. And so the museum where LEO is now has been since 2001, has been on exhibit. They asked that I would bring LEO because LEO was the inspiration for Mr. Kakehashi, who is the founder of Roland, for him to create and work with all these manufacturers to bring MIDI to the forefront back in 1983.

Michael: [00:16:57] Well I know that you are very connected with the new generation of music makers. And I can see how that helps you to stay inspired. You know that you find inspiration in the young generation, in teaching. How do you instill the legacy of high quality music education in modern youth?

Don: [00:17:22] Well for one thing I look at music as being a universal gift. It’s a necessary part of our living. It’s just not an ancillary aspect to our lives. I feel that because one year I was about to teach a course at UC Berkeley and they asked me to teach a course and I picked the course I wanted to teach I thought might be interesting and that was the history of gospel music. So in doing so, I thought it was going to be kind of a really easy thing you know, I found some of the founding fathers of gospel like like Andrew Dorsey and James Cleveland and all of that. But I had to go back further than that. I had to go back to the history of my ancestors. And in doing so there was a course being taught here at Berkeley, African polyrhythms. And the teacher was CK Lizeppo from Ghana. I walked in there and there were about 150 kids in this auditorium and he was giving us all the rudiments of the different tempos and polyrhythm patterns and so forth. And we took a break and someone asked him a question they said: “Professor Lizeppo, what is the word for music in your native tongue?” And there was this pregnant pause must’ve been ten seconds or more. And he says: “We don’t have a name for music. We don’t have a word for music.” He says: “Music is like life to us. Its as necessary as breathing and eating”. And a light bulb went off in my head. And I think for any anyone whether they’re a musician or not to understand that all that we discover right now, the universe is an art form. It is not mathematics. It is not science. Those are things that give us some understanding of an analysis of what it is but it’s an art form in art things are moving, things are living they are animated and always evolving. That’s the magic of music in real time. We can control that wave. So the big thing about music is not just the entertainment, it is about how music is helping Alzheimer’s victims. It’s helping people to understand their memories. There are people who are almost catatonic and you play a song that they knew when they were young and they start to talk. That’s the real power in music for me. And the technology that allows us to do this is just incredible. And the more we can converse in the manner that music is just not ancillary to life the more that we can understand that it actually gives life,  that’s the way that I think I would like to look at whatever legacy I could leave for the young people coming up. It’s to look at music more than just entertainment. It is life.

Michael: [00:21:08] Thank you so much for saying that. I’ve always felt that we are participating in a healing profession. I just never had the words for it and I think you’re saying it perfectly.

Don: [00:21:19] Thank you.

Michael: [00:21:20] You definitely exemplify that. In just a couple minutes remaining… I was wondering if you knew of a British musician, a younger fella by the name of Jacob Collier. He does something similar that you used to do years ago. He embraces the concept of the one man band and he loves these complicated voicings. Any thought about that direction in which he’s taking music.

Don: [00:21:48] Well yeah I think anyway that I think what’s really exciting about music is that it whatever resonates with your being with innate desire, passion. I think we were put on this earth to be co creators not just pro creators and I think it’s about the passion that people have and whatever extends whatever instrumentation extends your passion and can deliver the message or the feeling that you want people to have, you should go for it. Not everyone is going to do that but it should not be shunned because one person has that desire. As I heard you know Wendy Carlos was Walter at the point where I heard switched on Bach and I said my gosh listen to this and I said I want to do something like that, I would like to do that, you know. And that became what I thought was my my calling. But after a while I find that it’s a part of the journey. It’s a part of that journey, doesn’t have to be the end result. It’s the part of the journey and I think that’s where we are all evolving and that’s where I think Jacob may want to do this the rest of his life or he may want to change. And as an artist, as a human being, as a fellow cocreator, he has that opportunity. He has that right because that’s why we’re here. We’re not here for the institutions, we were not born for the institutions, we created those and we are here to basically bring whatever the creator wanted us to do to full fruition and that is what I want to support.

Michael: [00:24:15] I’ve learned so much about Don Lewis today — an inventor, a musical virtuoso but also, a true romantic.

Don: [00:24:25] Hahaha, yes! I am a true romantic.

Michael: [00:24:27] Thanks Don. There was a lot of fun. I appreciate it. Thank you for your time.

Don: [00:24:31] Thank you Michael. Take care.

Michael: [00:24:33] Thanks a lot. I’ll talk to you soon.


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