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Museum : PAiA Room

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. PAiA Instruments
Modular Synthesizers
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"In the '60 and '70s, numerous companies in the U.S. sold electronic kits for consumer construction, and several magazines frequently published schematics and details for building electronic projects from scratch.... As far as musicians were concerned, one of the most popular kit companies was PAiA. While there were lots of kit manufacturers around, PAiA was the most familiar one. The kits were way affordable and easy to assemble..."

"One man has stood behind the majority of PAiA's products and has maintained the company through the years: John Simonton. I rang him up to discuss the history of his company.

"What year did you make your first product?
'Right around 1970. As a matter of fact, the very first product that PAiA put out was a burglar alarm, a self-contained intrusion alarm. The first audio product showed up pretty quick after that. There were things like wah-wah pedals and a Leslie speaker simulator....'"

"Where did the PAiA name come from?
'There is a little town on the island of Maui [Hawaii] called PAiA. The name dates back to that. My mom was raised in Hawaii, and I was born in Hawaii, for that matter, in a little place called Ewa on the island of Oahu.'"

"What was the first keyboard instrument that you manufactured?
'The first keyboard instrument didn't have a keyboard at all. It was a modular voltage-controlled synthesizer [model 2700] that we did for Radio Electronics back in about '72. I say it didn't have a keyboard because it didn't; it had a bunch of switches that were homemade and, believe it or not, shirt buttons as the things that you pressed on to activate the keys. But it got such a good response that within about six months we were offering one with a regular keyboard [model 2720]. It was a big unknown at the time; we didn't know if anybody even wanted anything like that...'"

"Was the second system modular?
'The next system would have been the one that had the real AGO keyboard [model 4700], and the one after that would have been kind of an updated version of that, with a little more precision, a little quieter and so on - as it was obvious that there was a demand for that sort of thing.'

"Do you still offer any of the modules [of your old modular system]?
As a matter of fact, we still make some modules that use Curtis Chips. Curtis chips were used in the Prophet-5 and a lot of stuff from Sequential Circuits. Doug Curtis was an acquaintance of sorts and very, very talented. His chips - oscillators, filters, transient generators, and so on - were just extraordinary. We still have a quantity of those, and we still manufacture some modules that use those chips. They're quiet, they're precise, they do what you want them to do.

"'For us, it's gotten very difficult to get keyboards. The Japanese and other importers have done such a marvelous job of bringing very high-tech instruments to the public at a very low cost. In particular, during the mid-'80s, its no exaggeration to say that I could go to our local discount store and buy a complete instrument for less than PAiA was able to buy just a keyboard action. So when the situation got like that, at that point it didn't make much sense to go on with it.

"'Fortunately for us and a number of other companies, MIDI came along. One of the things that MIDI does for companies like us is it relieves us of the responsibility of having to provide a keyboard at all.... We don't have to worry about the mechanical action of the keyboard and so on. It's just all electronic, all information processing. Having MIDI come along really opened doors, not only for performing artist but for manufacturers also.'"

[excerpted with permission from the book Vintage Synthesizers by Mark Vail, copyright Miller Freeman, Inc]

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