Tuesday, November 29, 2005

R.I.P. John "PAiA" Simonton

This blog is in black because we've heard that John Simonton, founder of PAiA, has passed away. The message said, in part:
It is with heavy heart that I report the passing of John "PAiA" Simonton, sometime last week, following a battle with cancer. John created PAiA something like over 30 years ago, and was a constant source of inspiration, education, and affordable synthesizers to at least a couple of generations of us.

He once told me in an email that his grandchildren call him "Papa J" (as in "jay"), but I call him the Godfather of synthesizer DIY. Thousands of people got into musical electronics thanks to John's products and publications.

Please leave your own thoughts so that John's family and friends can see what an effect he had on so many of us. Thanks! (Just click on the word "COMMENTS", below.)

41 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

My original electronics memories are of the PAiA catalog, as well as some articles in Guitar Player magazine that usually led back to the PAiA catalog, a little treasure trove of possibilities that arrived once a year in the mail -- good ol' snail mail, of course.

I built a QuadraFuzz back in the early 80s, and I still love it and use it. I've also built a few other PAiA effects. The synth kits were over my head and too expensive (initially) or too cheap (I thought, later), so I never built any ot them. Even so, I learned a lot by reading John's articles and product info, as well as articles in Polyphony and GP magazines. His book "Friendly Stories About Computers and Synthesizers" was filled with new ideas, it took me a long time to grasp them fully.

John Simonton inspired thousands to pick up their soldering irons, and his spirit lives on today in musicians, designers, technicians, circuit benders, and others around the world. Here's to John! More influential than he likely realized.

1:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The PAIA Gnome was my first synth. I still use my goofy Pygmy Amp although it has been SDIYed to the point where only the case and the speaker are original.

John, your stuff was within reach of a high school student and planted the seed.

RIP

PLL, BFG

3:41 PM  
Anonymous Jim Patchell said...

The first synth circuits I built were from the articles that John published in Radio Electronics back in the early 70's. I was in college at the time, and the circuits captured my imagination, since at the time, building a working syntheszier seemed like an imposible dream. After college, when I could afford to actually purchase the kits, I built several, all were fun.

Rest in Peace John...I am going to miss you.

4:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The article in Radio Electronics back in 72 changed my life forever in 1975. I asked my parents if I could buy the 2700 kits so they said sure get a job (I really wanted them to offer) so being 14, I cut neighbors lawns rode my bike to Allied Electronics and Heatkit to purchase the parts and etch my own boards. I was leaning at that time to hang out with the people from the wrong side of the tracks but I learned many life lessons in the process of building the 2700’s it was my new compulsion. I kept building until I was 16 and found out about girls.

About four years ago I got back into analogs and passed the torch to my son. I remember corresponding to John as a kid and always couldn’t get home fast enough to check the mail. It’s truly amazing how a person you have never met could have such an influence in someone’s life. I truly thank you John for how you changed my life.

R.I.P.

Scott

4:23 PM  
Anonymous Ron West said...

I was one of the first to buy the Fatman desktop synth. After I spent many hours building it I was disturbed that it didn't work. I received a letter in the mail some time later that stated there was a mistake in the assembly instructions and the pot wiring was labeled backward in the manual. I called the company to politely vent (everyone makes mistakes) and find out what I needed to do. John got on the phone and said to send the unit in and he would personally rewire it. When I received it back I found that not only did he rewire it (and did a much better job that I could ever do) but he autographed the board as well. It may not be much but I've always been proud to own a unit that has been signed by the designer.

Ron West

5:07 PM  
Anonymous Ryan Palmer said...

I can still remember the joy of building my first two paia kits, the theramax & midi2cv8. John was always happy to help out when I hit a snag, always friendly to chat with over email....I can definetley say paia was my intrduction into DIY electronic for music & i've never looked back.

5:09 PM  
Anonymous Barry Klein said...

John's designs were truly his - very often unique ways of doing things that saved us money building the widgets we dreamed about playing with. Kind of like the next generation "Muntz tv" genius of his/our day. I hope his kit business continues on and inspires future kids to drop their xbox controller and build something fun.

5:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My oscillators will forever resonate in John's memory...

5:28 PM  
Anonymous david vosh said...

i remember my first synth - the infamous paia 2700 with the "shirt button" kybd -
later an 8700/kybd/dual quash to drive my serge -
paia always provided "bang per buck" and a friendly attitude.
so very sad to have lost another of the great ones -
respectfully,
david vosh

5:34 PM  
Blogger Creekree said...

I have never met John in person or exchanged emails with him, but still I felt like some part of my life vanished when I heard he passed away.
PAIA was and is for me a source of inspiration and also a source of great electronic kits... I dont know how to put it... I like PAIA and i am grateful that I could participate in what PAIA is (for the DIY community).
Hell... John, I burned my fingers a couple of times because of you, and in all honesty, I am happy about that. RIP

6:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am saddened by John's passing. I started my electronics career building the original PAIA synthesizer during high school, from his plans in Radio Electronics. I learned to lay out, etch, solder and ultimately troubleshoot the circuits I had built. Overall his kits and the "how it works" disscussions gave me alot of my experience in the audio realm.

I had recently returned to my analog roots and started thinking again about the "old days" and If PAIA was still in business.
I hope his legacy will live on

RIP

M Jaynes

6:37 PM  
Anonymous Kevin Lightner said...

When you're 13 or 14 years old and patience was just a word you'd hear from older people, the moment you'd receive a kit in the mail meant "start right now!" Everything else took a quick backseat.

There was also something about the smell of a '70s Paia Kit.
Can't put my finger on it, but it was one of those memories that will stick with me forever.

Paia's were probably the best value ever for an electronics course and synth rolled into one.
One can criticize how crude the circuits were, but in retrospect they were as simple as possible. The bare essence of a function.
Perfect for someone just starting out who couldn't understand electronic theory well then.
The kits were deceivingly informative too.
They'd challenge you to see if you would want better or would make improvements.
In short, they provided a low cost aptitude test.
If you failed, there was little money lost.
If you improved something, you yourself became better.
An unlikely idol, but one none the less.

So long John.

8:24 PM  
Anonymous Tony Karavidas said...

A lot of familiar names I see paying respect to John. Just as he touched others, he also had an influence during my childhood and in my choice of careers. The Paia 4700 kit was my first synthesizer and I built it in 1980 and even used it in several high-school bands. (Rush's Tom Sawyer comes to mind right now) That experience ended up being the catalyst that got me headed for a degree in electronics and a job in the music industry designing synthesizers. I thank John for that. I even had the opportunity to talk to him recently about my plans for Frac modules and sharing with him the long version of the above story. May peace be with you now John.

Tony Karavidas

8:48 PM  
Anonymous Dave Brown said...

I always read the articles back in the 70's but never had the money to buy any of the products. I would always get a catalog and spend lots of time looking at the various projects. More recently I bought the Theremax, MIDI2CV and the Fatman. I have had lots of email support from PAiA and only one from John which was very helpful. His kits fit a niche and building them was fun.

I gave my Fatman to my son and we hot rodded it together. He uses it as his fun synth and working on it together was great fun.

9:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am very sad about John's death as he was always very friendly and outragous helpful. He not only helped in the usual manner but also gave information you would never get from other companies/people.

May he always play his synths in heaven.

Peter

11:07 PM  
Anonymous Peter Forrest said...

Thanks, John, for helping so many people get into electronic music cheaply and creatively.
I bet there are a fair number of current small-scale manufacturers who owe you a huge debt for getting them started, years ago.
Aloha!

3:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

John is one of those people whose impact on my life cannot be understated, and I never even met the man. His work put music into the hands of so many of us young, poor kids who wanted to touch the world of electronic music but had very little money.

I actually learned what synth modules do, their names and functions, from studying the old blue mid-70s PAIA catalog (which I still have). In 1978, the only polyphonic synth I could afford was the Stringz n Thingz kit, the 'Mellotron' to my MS-10 'MiniMoog,' and that still works, too. I still have my $18 Balanced Modulator (and yes, it does have that wonderful 'PAIA smell!!').

Over the years I've built at least 50 PAIA kits, learned from every one of them. I still have every issue of Polyphony magazine and still reread them regularly, wishing there was a magazine like it today, something to encourage you to think and dirty your hands, not just reviews of software plug-ins.

My best to John's friends and family; his spirit lives on.

Ken Tkacs

5:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Reading the comments others have left brings back so many memories . . .

When I think back on it, John's influence on my life was considerable: simply reading PAiA catalogs -- and I'm sure I wasn't the only 13yo who poured over every single word of every one he got -- fired my imagination and got me dreaming and helped put me on the road to learning about an entire new world of things that I never knew existed.

Thank you, John.

Craig Becker

6:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks to John Simonton for all things PAiA.

He will be missed but fondly remembered.

6:26 AM  
Blogger chordman said...

All,
I am very saddened by John's recent passing. My introduction to analog synthesizer electronics started years ago with articles he published and more recently with the two FatMan synths that I built. John was incredibly helpful and generous. I will never forget this great and kind man.

-- Scott Gravenhorst

6:59 AM  
Blogger Jim said...

While PAiA's stuff has generally been considered of inferior design quality compared to the likes of Moog and ARP (I understand it's somewhat better now), the educational and inspirational value of his kits and documentation was definitely there for the likes of folks like me. And it was actually cheap enough to buy. In 1974, a PAiA synth was less than one tenth the price of a comparable unit from the likes of Emu (who also made kits then). Even though they sounded thin and were sort of unstable (and I was glad to move on to better instruments), I managed to wrangle many satisfying performances in many different environments (from rock bands to comedy revues to a college production of the "rocky horror show") out of PAiA instruments.

I built two PAiA modular synths (one was stolen) and several other gizmos by them. John and Marvin were always helpful on the phone (no charge for a phone call that might take more than an hour), and John's articles in his newsletters, catalogs, and "Polyphony" taught me a lot.

Bob Moog enabled the whole electronic music scene.
John Simonton enabled a generation of kids like me to participate in it.
I'm sad he's gone, and will always be grateful for what he created. Godspeed, John.

9:23 AM  
Anonymous Ivan Schwartz said...

As a kid I read everything I could regarding PAIA and drooled over the articles in the electronics magazines. My first PAIA purchase was a subscription to Polyphony and later various kits and bits. I've always enjoyed John's personal touches and bits of humor in his catalogs and articles. He will be missed but not forgotten.

10:35 AM  
Anonymous Jack Deckard said...

John Simonton got me started programming computers, with his amazing 8700 microprocessor based keyboard. I'm still coding, and owe the man, a great deal. John was the enabler for all of us who wanted to 'build it ourselves'. His influence on so may of the little guyes in EM can not be over stated. We all will miss him.

12:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is difficult to imagine where I would be today if it weren't for all of the doors that were opened by the PAiA kits that I built in my early teens. They had a profound impact on my life for which I will always be grateful.

3:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My first synth kit was a Gnome, that I built during a cruise on the USS Kittyhawk. I didn't really know what a synthesizer was, but it seemed like a fun project to try. I enjoyed the many hours building it, as well as reading back issues of Polyphony
And I still use my Paia vocoder today.

You've given a lot of inspiration to many people. Thank you John!

5:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

John Simonton obviously had a passion for something that, through sharing, created a pleasant collective experience for many people. I'm another person who discovered the R-E articles for the 2700 back in the '70's. I built it from scratch. Half the parts were used. I drew and etched the PC boards, and made a keyboard by fabricating contacts onto a Magnus air organ. It worked. I could make my own crazy sounds that were not so common in those days. My friends and family thought I was a genius. I was proud. What a great gift John gave me.

K. Heck

6:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I bought the Fatman kit to understand synthesis and to eventually learn to design and built my own synth. PAiA kits were inspirational in a way that it not only gave you that nudge to attempt to build something but influence you to experiment and come up with your own designs...and in a strange way this is the same satisfaction I feel when creating music...the ability to create something and the hear all those fascinating sounds coming out of that little box.

Another very sad loss for the synth and electronics community. Many respects to the Simonton family. May the PAiA legacy live on. RIP

AVES

10:02 PM  
Anonymous Tim "Servo" Parkhurst said...

John's designs were fun, affordable, and an electronics lesson to boot. I built a Gnome back in 1978, and it's been an obsession / interest / passion / hobby ever since.

John touched and inspired countless lives. Many, many people owe him a debt of gratitude. You will be sorely missed, Mr. Simonton. Thank you for sharing your gifts with us.

10:04 PM  
Anonymous Dan Nigrin said...

My best PAiA memory was when my bandmate and I had Richard "Aphex Twin" James over our house, prior to a rave he was going to DJ at, and where our band was also going to be playing live.

Aphex spotted an old, non-functional, rusting PAiA synth in the corner, and he immediately gravitated towards it, offering serious $$ for it, without even trying to turn it on or asking if it worked.

"Hell no" we said - how dare he try and take one of our oldest friends away???

Rest in peace John!!

7:33 AM  
Anonymous dr mabuse said...

Brilliant Folks like Bob Moog & Don Buchla pioneered ideas that permeate almost all synthesizer designs. John Simonton has had a his share of such ideas, (ie: the programmable drum machine) though he is rarely credited for them.

But i think John's real genius was of a very different stripe , a distinctly humane one. When Moog and A.R.P. were squabbling over patents and potting modules in epoxy. John Simonton was on the phone to hundreds of teenage kids (like me). Making a sincere, full-on, effort to DE-mystify these marvelous gadgets.

I believe that John was the first to recognize two fundamental facts about synthesis.
1) that KNOWLEDGEABLE customers would buy more synths
and
2) that an integration of comuputers into synthesis was the future of the industry

These two realizations were revolutionary in their time and John deserves more credit for being the first to actually invest in these (now) axiomatic concepts. My own grief over the unexpected news of his illness and death is lifted a bit in seeing how many of us are coming out of the woodwork to pay tribute to his tireless mentoring.

(there's lots of "oh wow! you too huh!!???)


John's focus was PEOPLE. He strived to connect artistic inspriration to fertile technology in the minds of his customers and he bent over backwards to make it possible for as many folks as possible to be able to afford to be Paia customers.

IMHO that is John's towering achievent and the legacy of Paia. Other great designers focused on the machines. John focused on the PEOPLE who used the machines.

He focused on US.

With John's sad passing the industry loses one of it's bona fide visionaries.

-doc

8:23 AM  
Blogger tom said...

if it weren't for PAiA, there'd be a whole generation of DIY'ers like myself who'd be completely intimidated by the thought of picking up a soldering iron and tackling a project. their kits and easy to follow instructions took away a lot of the fear, and having a finished project in your hands that you built yourself is a huge accomplishment for someone just starting down this road.

thanks, john and PAiA, for the inspiration to go places i would never have mustered on my own.



tom hampton
reading, pa

8:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've seen my life story told dozens of times in this tribute--teenage kid, scrounging enough money to buy a PAiA kit, absorbing every word of those handdrawn catalogs, dreaming of building great sound machines.

I echo so many of the sentiments offered here about John's willingness to share knowledge and his understanding that the journey was as important as the destination.

In the early days PAiA would sell the project manuals for a buck or two with complete schematics and parts list. I sheepishly admit I built a couple of projects from parts I got at Radio Shack rather than buying the kits--but I'll bet John didn't mind too much because it was obvious he wanted to inspire hobbyists to learn--why else would he give the keys to the kingdom so freely? Even today you can find schematics on the PAiA website. (To my credit, I have probably bought two dozen PAiA kits over the years.)

Sadly, John won't be widely revered as a pioneer in synthesis like Buchla and Moog, but he should be. A more aggressive entrepreneur might have taken ideas like the programmable drum machine or the programmable preset synthesizer onto a global stage, seeking the profits and glory that successful mass production can deliver. Instead, he chose to remain with the hobbyists who had little money but big dreams and bigger imaginations. For that I am immensely grateful. Much of what I know about sound production, the career choices I have made and the joy and satisfaction of building something yourself flow directly from simple projects bought at a little company in Oklahoma with the funny name.

Like many youthful endeavors, I lost touch with PAiA for many years, but was excited to come across their website about a decade ago. I wrote them an email lauding them for their efforts and was rewarded with a pleasant response from John himself, thanking me and the countless other hobbyists for keeping them in business for so long.

It is comforting to see that my positive impression of this man is borne out in the many tributes circulating on the internet by those who knew him well and others who felt his touch without ever meeting him. Rest well, John, and thanks for the inspiration!

8:26 AM  
Anonymous Werner Moecke said...

I still have in my collection a copy of "Electronics Now" magazine, 1992 issue, where I first saw one of Mr. Simonton's designs. It was a thumb-controlled electronic drum machine ("ThumbDrum"), using piezo-electric sensors sending signals to a MIDI controller board and/or tone generator board.

I first got to have a clearer picture of who this gentleman was after getting on the internet for the first time (about 1997), and visiting PAiA's website. I still own some printed catalogs that were sent to users who registered online for a free copy. And that from a guy who lives in Brazil... and yes, they sent me the catalogs!

Mr. Simonton was a true artist, and an unreplaceable loss.

9:17 PM  
Anonymous David G. Bragman said...

The first synth I ever owned was a PAIA Gnome kit. I stayed up all night building it , and it only sort of worked. I had a few issues of Polyphony, and years later I built a PAiA passive mixer that WORKED!!, perhaps because I built it carefully.
You will be missed and remembered

9:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry to hear the sad news. I built a "stack in a box" many years ago and continue to enjoy it today. John's inventions have provided me and many others the opportunity to create unique sounds to maximise creativity. He will be missed.

1:41 PM  
Anonymous adhdboy said...

John Simonton owned and operated PAIA from 1968 to 2005. All of us in the the synth-diy community will truly miss John who died far too soon at 62 from esophageal cancer. John inspired our imaginations and freely shared his extensive technical knowledge to help us build our own stomp boxes and synthesizers at a time when
buying them was out of economic reach for a lot of us. How many kids John single handedly mentored and helped learn the useful and interesting hobby of electronics via his kits, articles, and magazines may never be known but it is something to his everlasting credit. To this day seeing a PAIA catalog brings me back to when I was 16 or so and gives me a lot of really good memories and it will continue to. Goodbye John. May your travels and creativity continue on in a better place and may all of your good works go right with you. To John's family members I give my deepest condolences. A large community of people who were touched by John at
one time or another feel a sense of loss along with you. May time heal your grief and bring the memories of good times to the forefront of your hearts.

10:26 AM  
Anonymous Craig Anderton said...

I was lucky enough to get to work with John. He will be very missed -- sure, for what he did with PAiA and what his loss means for us, but he also leaves behind a family and group of friends that loved him to the very bottom of their hearts.

My take on John was that he wasn't really interested in either fame or fortune. What seemed to excite him was the process of discovery, and he loved to share that with others. Working with John on doing designs was quite interesting, as it was totally seamless and took absolutely zero effort.

John was an extremely easygoing guy who was capable of seeing the longer view and didn't sweat the small stuff. While I appreciate all that he did from a technical standpoint, what makes him memorable to me wasn't so much his technical chops -- a lot of people have those -- but his fundamental decency as a human being. And that decency infused his designs and company, which is why all of us here feel such a loss. We can always find engineers, but it's really hard to find John Simontons.

Wherever he is, though, I'm reasonably sure his soldering iron is warm...

10:28 PM  
Anonymous Robby Matthias said...

I was,like many others,very sad to hear of John's passing.My first synth was the 2720 with "buttons"
keyboard.I told John about my 2720
some yrs.ago in a phone conversation.He said"Boy,this is a little imbarassing".Like many others,I learned a tremendous amount by studying and building John's synth's.I am adding-on a wing cabinet to my old 2720,4720.
I think the greatist way to keep John's legacy alive is to keep building his designs!
God Bless you John

3:41 AM  
Anonymous David Schwab said...

Wow... I just heard this news. I have very fond memories of PAiA. I helped a friend build a 2700 kit, and I myself built a few... the Phlanger, the stereo rack compressor, and others.

I had all the issues of Polyphony and the early issues of EM. I still have the very first Polyphony somewhere...

One day back in 2004, I wondered what happened to PAiA... After Googling, I found he was still going strong, so I sent him an email to share some of my PAiA stores... we exchanged about 5 emails, and I was left thinking, cool, what a nice guy. :)

All those DIY guys... John, and Marvin Jones, Craig Anderton, Thomas Henry... those guys were heros to me and every other musician/geek that loved to build their own gear!

They really shaped who I am today.

We'll miss you John!

1:48 PM  
Anonymous Michael Simonton said...

Wondering if Im related, My Last name is Simonton and I by Mike-Synth

7:50 PM  
Blogger Bruce Cichowlas said...

I owned some PAIA synths and equipment even before I worked at ARP in the 70's. One amazing surprise coincidence was the Charles Weddington's High Technology store in Oklahoma City was a dealer of Algorithmics (my own computer company). One day I walked in there and was very much surprised to find that PAIA was located in the back of the store and to meet John Simonton. Many issues of Polyphony (PAIA's magazine) were printed on the Algo-2100 Word Processing Computer, since it was about the only inexpensive computer that could print mathematical equations then, spinning them out on its daisy wheel printer.

John Simonton probably had more influence on those of us at ARP than he imagined.

8:28 PM  

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