From Keyboard Magazine
keyboardonline.com

Vintage Gear
by Mark Vail

LEO, the Live Electronic Orchestra
Pre-MIDI Multitimbral Synth System
  

From Keyboard Magazine
keyboardonline.com

Vintage Gear
by Mark Vail

LEO, the Live Electronic Orchestra
Pre-MIDI Multitimbral Synth System
 

                

photo caption
Two main components make up LEO. Stacked at the left, from top to bottom: Roland Digital Chorus, Space Echo in Plexiglas cabinet next to Boss mixer, four Oberheim SEMs flanked on the left and right by patchbays, and two ARP 2600s. To the right is the three-manual performance console. While the dual-pier chrome pedestal came from a Hammond X-66 organ, the two lower manuals, drawbars, organ voice circuits, and chrome pedals were pirated from a Hammond Concorde.

Vital Stats
Description: Custom-built modular synthesizer system consisting of a three-manual controller with a pedalboard, the voice circuits and four sets of drawbars from a Hammond Concorde organ, four Oberheim SEM modules, two ARP 2600s and a Pro-Soloist, an 8-channel stereo mixer, Roland Space Echo RE-201 and Digital Chorus DC-50 effects — all contained with Plexiglas cabinets. External sound sources included Roland’s Pro-Mars Compuphonic, JP-4, TR-808, and CR-78. The speaker complement comprised two custom-built RTR cabinets powered by Crown CD-300 amps, and a Roland Revo organ combo amp.
Produced: Schematics completed December 20, 1974, assembly began in ’75, and system finished in May ’77. Don Lewis played LEO until 1986, before moving on to more current MIDI-based performance systems. Last March he donated it to the Museum of Making Music (www.museumofmakingmusic.org) in Carlsbad, California, where it’s now on display.
Total number manufactured: 1.
Manufacturer: Don Lewis. Pre-MIDI 4-channel polyphonic keyboard designed by Armand Pascetta. Richard Bates served as chief engineer; he helped Don put the system together, design the interfacing, and modify the Plesiglas cabinets for installation of all of LEO’s components.
Insider information: The “Pascetta parts” of LEO — four Oberheim SEMs and two ARP 2600s controlled by Armand Pascetta’s custom-designed keyboard — appeared on Sergio Mendes’s Homecooking and the Brothers Johnson Look Out for #1, produced by Quincy Jones. . . . Don Lewis performs his “Say Yes to Music” programs at schools and is a concert artist for Rodgers Instruments. His recordings can be ordered from CD BABY. For bookings, email Don at contact@donlewismusic.com .
Estimated investment: $75,000 to $100,000, including components and labor.
Current value: about $100,000.

Ever notice that your performance rig has grown so large and complex that your setup time has increased dramatically? Don’t expect much sympathy from Don Lewis. During the early ’70s, this brilliant pop/Gospel-singing organist/synthesist was touring with a Hammond organ, a Leslie speaker, a Wurlitzer electric piano, numerous analog synthesizers, and other peripherals — all of which allowed him to perform his inspiring one-man shows. “I’m taking this system into the clubs,” he recalls, “and it’s really cool, but the setup time started getting longer and longer.”

As a solution, Don designed, assembled, and built a powerful performance system called LEO — the Live Electronic Orchestra. LEO consists of numerous synth modules, parts from a couple of Hammond organs, two effects processors, some CV patchbays and audio mixers, a sophisticated custom keyboard, a vocoder, and more — most of it cleverly mounted inside showy Plexiglas cabinets.

It started with Don’s dream of combining his beloved ARP 2600, Pro-Soloist, and Odyssey synths with a Hammond Concorde organ. “When I first came to California,” Don says, “I was teaching synthesizer techniques. A student of mine told me about a guy who was inventing a keyboard that could control several synthesizers at once. I said, ‘That’s the guy I need to meet!’”

That guy was Armand Pascetta. If the name sounds familiar, perhaps it’s because Armand developed the digitally controlled polyphonic keyboard used in Malcolm Cecil’s TONTO. Armand and Don became friends, and Armand began working on a keyboard for Don. Meanwhile, Don started thinking of ways to make his performance system more transportable.

                                                                                                           

 

It took a few years to realize LEO, but the results were fantastic. Controlling the whole shebang from a triple-manual console, a few supplemental keyboards, and a drum machine, Don alternately churned his audience up with rousing barn-burners and soothed them with soft ballads and classical-tinged instrumentals. Not only could Don produce the sounds of full-on symphony orchestras and cathedral pipe organs, but he could back his tremendous lead vocals with a choir of angels . . . or heathens, or robots. I first caught Don’s amazing act at the Hungry Tiger in San Francisco in 1980, and I immediately became a believer.

Don still performs the same way today, only using more contemporary equipment such as a Roland VK-77 organ augmented with several MIDI modules. He’s quick to point out, though, that it ain’t the same. “I once heard a lady talking about the Great American Dream of coming to a country that’s a cultural melting pot of the world. She said, ‘Have you ever looked into a melting pot? Can you identify anything in it? I would rather think that our dream should be more like a stir fry, where the individuals still retain their aura and character — but their flavors enhance the flavors of every other ingredient there.’ That’s what I was trying to do with LEO. If I could describe it as a metaphor, I would say LEO represented what I think music should represent to the world: a way for people to all work together.”

bio
Mark Vail’s books The Hammond Organ: Beauty in the B and Vintage Synthesizers are available from www.backbeatbooks.com and fine bookstores everywhere.