Synthesist Don Lewis Has DIed

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:

9 thoughts on “Synthesist Don Lewis Has DIed

  1. I played with Don Lewis as part of the Roland US demo band at NAMM shows back in the early ’80s. He was a genuine and sincere guy, and had a good sense of humor. I always liked talking to him about music. My favorite joke with him was that people kept thinking he was Herbie Hancock.

  2. LEO is a close cousin to T.O.N.T.O., where visionaries cobbled together the synth tech of the time (check out the 4 SEMs) and mashed it into a glorious steampunk creature. There was no MIDI, just gates, pedal switches and a mass of cabling. That makes it all the more amazing.

    Don’s VP-550 humbling demo is the gold standard for vocoding. Roland’s Vocal Designer is the best expression of the idea. Amazing.

    1. “Don’s VP-550 humbling demo is the gold standard for vocoding. Roland’s Vocal Designer is the best expression of the idea. Amazing.”

      His performances with the VP-550 really are amazing and extremely musical. They make the typical ‘robot’ demos look jokey. He sounds like a gospel choir and soloist.

  3. Don Lewis was the invertor of the TR-808 drum machine with Ikutaro Kakehashi who made the electronics. Don Lewis did the concept, layout and structure. The TR-808 was for LEO.

  4. A wonderful man and a great inspiration to me. I saw him perform many times at The Hungry Tiger in San Francisco. I wanted to be Don Lewis and he was responsible for getting me back into playing keyboards again in the 80s. Then, I was thrilled to be able to take a week-long class from Don at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. I have continued to play keyboards and with the technological improvements, for which he was a pioneer, I have been able to use auto-accompaniment keyboards to be a one person band and make believe I was Don playing LEO the Lewisizer. It was great to see him, many years ago now, when he came here to San Diego to play a concert at the Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park. I was touched last year and it moved me almost to tears to see the Lewisizer and Don Lewis exhibit here in San Diego County at the Museum of Making Music, Carlsbad. After that I found the video about him on Amazon which some of you reading this may want to watch to learn more about what a great guy he was and all that he humbly accomplished. I had hoped to get to see him one more time, but sadly that won’t be the case. I feel blessed to have known him and my knowing him certainly was a blessing in my life.

  5. I so appreciate all the kind posts memorializing my husband, Don Lewis. I will say that Don Lewis continues to live on through his legacy of love, music, and innovation. It’s important to note that his music career was rooted in the church where he grew up learning spirituals, gospel, and classical music. These were the base of his music when he began playing jazz, pop and rock. His electronics came from building and repairing TVs and audio receivers in middle school. While in the Air Force he was assigned to duty based on his high aptitude for electronics. Audio and music electrical engineering was always his passion and focus. For more info about the documentary “Don Lewis and the Live Electronic Orchestra” airing on PBS in February 2023 visit

  6. Don was hands down the most positive person that I’ve ever met, enormously talented, he gave in simple ways to everyone he came in contact with.

    I first met Don in the early 80s’s on a college field trip to SF. He was playing at the Hungry Tiger and I was floored by his amazing gear setup. This was pre-MIDI and he was controlling lots of stuff from a few keyboards (LEO). Then around NAMM 2013 there was this crazy gear setup (LEO) across from our booth I recognized Don from 30 years earlier and talked with him for a long time. The real blessing was that Don started to come to our Synth/Audio lunch group in 2019. It was wonderful to be able to talk and spend time with him. I gave a talk at NAMM in 2020 and Don showed up to show support and ask great questions.

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