Paia Electronics started in Oklahoma City in 1967. Paia started as a consulting vehicle for John Simonton, who had just moved to Ok City right out of college to work for Tinker Air Force Base. The first Paia offices were in the back of a bowling alley, and the door faced out into an alley. Low overhead! A Paia tradition! There was a great wholesale electronic supply just a few blocks from that location, which may have aided in his site selection. Paia used that same wholesale supplier until they moved north to Edmond many years later.
John is the absolute manifestation of the word entrepreneur to me. Self motivated, self educating, ingenious with his trade, and infinitely curious about all things. I don't know if I had ever heard of an entrepreneur before I met him. And I probably didn't associate that word with him for a few years. But, in all my years in the electronics industry, and having started several businesses myself, I have come to rely on all the lessons I learned from watching and talking to John over the years. Somehow, no matter how large or small the startup operation, I continually defer to ideas and theories and processes I learned from John at Paia. In the 80's came the "entrepreneurial explosion" of hi-tech and startups, and all I could think was "been there, done that". haha
John, ever looking for clever ways to self-promote, got hooked up with the folks at Popular Electronics and Radio Electronics magazines to write construction articles with theory analysis as magazine features. By then mentioning the availability of a kit at the end of the parts list, Paia received invaluable free promotion and easy sales. If someone was interested enough to get through the article and read the parts list, they probably wanted to build the unit. And who wouldn't want to save the effort of locating the parts, making a circuit board or a case, and so on.
This wasn't a new concept. Many people are familiar with Heathkit and Eico kits from the era. Another small company from that time was Southwest Technical Products in Austin, started by Dan Meyer. They were a very similar startup, and Dan had been doing magazine articles for his kit products. Don Lancaster was also doing electronics DIY articles, but usually having another company do his kit marketing. Over time, all of these men, plus Craig Anderton and myself, all became acquaintances and friends. SWTPC went on to produce some excellent audio gear - equalizers and power amps, and theremins and the Psych-Tone composer synth.
John had a knack for being able to write about his designs, imparting a lot of theoretical analysis and details, but in a very flowing and digestible manner, and sprinkled with cute analogies and accessible stories for a novice reader. You couldn't help but walk away from one of John's articles without having learned something. This single point became one of the strongest characteristics of Paia kits over the years.
John's wife, Linda, was a great graphics artist, and was responsible for all the Paia magazine ads, instruction manuals, in-house photography, and anything and everything that was ever printed up for Paia ... even internal forms, packing slip notes, and so on. The little drawings of the Gnome and Pygmy cartoon figures were hand-drawn by Linda. Logo type stylings for the products were Linda. Many of her drawings and photographs are all over Paia manuals, Polyphony magazines, and media ads for Paia. Linda was also familiar with screen printing due to her graphics and photography work. That became very important in manufacturing. What a team. And what a concept.
Any time a new "function" came up that needed to be done, John's first instinct was to figure out how to do it in-house. To keep costs down; to keep control of the process; and just for the educational benefits of knowing how to do something new. With all the instruction manuals to do, they set up a darkroom and bought a printing press. To do the cases and front panels, they bought a punch press. He set up a 50 gallon fish tank as a bubble etcher so they could make their own circuit boards. They set up a screen printing operation for screening the resist patterns on the circuit board before etching, and then the component designators on the other side when the board was etched. The front panels and cases were screened with legends after being punched on the press. Paia was a DIY company through and through. That never changed ... they still punch their own metal. Circuit boards now go out for production, ever since the first double-sided board ... the 8700 computer. And printing now goes out, since copy houses are so predominant.
Paia started manufacturing electronic kits in the 1968 timeframe using John's designs for burglar alarms, sound effects generators, and other novelties using the emerging semiconductors and technologies of the day. John was the stereotypical hacker. Always had something clever running on the bench. Every new IC or device needed to be checked out and experimented with. Some items turned into products; others not. Increasing numbers of products became related to audio and music ... the Attack Delay unit for backwards tape simulation on guitars, the Infinity Plus sustain compressor for guitar, the Drummer Boy beatbox, the SyntheSpin rotating speaker simulator are a few examples. John had played guitar while growing up, and was always drawn to music and audio experimentation, but especially the guitar gadgets. These products and accompanying magazine articles were appearing at the same time as Craig Anderton's first articles about his Timbre Gate modular guitar processor system in Popular Electronics. So the magazines were helping develop a rabid readership who were building all these newfangled, leading-edge sound mangling devices.
Paia found new headquarters north of town in a small industrial area. The new space had a few offices at the front, and a very large open area at the rear. Around the room were various work areas for manufacturing machines, shipping area, parts kitting. But definitely still a "garage" operation ... just bigger and busier.
During this time, Paia hired formal front office management (Tinka Bolding, plus additional staff over time) and a manufacturing engineer, Jim Fleming. Jim filled that position early, and stuck with John until way after I left. Next to Linda, Jim was one of the longest employees of Paia in the early phase (through about '85 when they shut down). Additional employees were hired for the manufacturing operations, technical support and bench repair techs, ... good steady growth, with manufacturing operations slowly needing more and more space. Fortunately, John saw that most likely they would need even more space as more products were released, so he kept on the search for property and facilities to buy instead of renting. So the search for growth space was always a background task.
Meanwhile, the 60s were chugging along, and music was getting increasingly psychedelic and electronic. The mainstream press was fascinated with Wendy Carlos's Switched-On Bach, Dick Hyman's eclectic Moog recordings, Beaver & Krause, Mort Garson and the other VERY FEW people who had managed to purchase one of these elusive machines called synthesizers. These people were showing up on TV interviews, in newspapers, and in magazines. Every young rock'n'roller was hopeful to get his hands on a synth to see what it was all about. Toward the end of the 60's and early 70's, some cost effective performance synths were starting to show up as the MiniMoog, Arp Odyssey and EML-101, among others. These finally started getting the machines in the hands of local musicians. But they were still expensive, and especially so if you were still a younger or amateur musician.
So it was natural for John to be interested in these things, like all the rest of us. But, in typical John fashion, he set out to figure out the simplest circuit possible to do each given function in the synthesizer, and to come up with an admittedly simplified version of the full scale Moogs and Arps. Items were voltage controlled, but filters did not track oscillators. Not all inputs and outputs had attenuators. Oscillators weren't designed to cover the 5 or 10 octaves that commercial units did. But the voltage control elements were there. There were VCOs, VCFs, VCAs, AR envelope generators, LFOs, white noise, and some variable bias supplies to inject manual control voltages here and there. It was a great learning tool for an amateur, and you could get this for $250 or so if you were handy with a soldering iron. He wrote this project up and published it in Radio Electronics magazine starting in 1972. This was earthshattering at the time. The construction articles were necessarily spread out over several issues in order to get everything covered without taking up a whole issue just for the synth article.
The readers couldn't stand the suspense. There was the picture of this whole synth on the cover. The article covered one or two modules or subassemblies per issue. But the parts list showed kit prices not only for the subassemblies in the article, but also package prices for the full synth.
All hell broke loose at Paia. Orders started pouring in for the synth. This was the beginning of a period of about 4 years of almost uncontrollable growth for Paia. They were unprepared for the response, and were running into manufacturing delays, quantity parts negotiations and material ordering backlogs, and workspace explosion. Some of the shop machines needed to be upgraded with bigger or additional machines. And, of course, there was now demand to continue development of additional synth modules by the rapidly growing customer base.
Fortunately, John had run across two properties in the neighborhood that offered some promise. One was a small house a couple blocks away that wasn't in great repair, and was probably destined for demolition and re-use of the lot at some point. But the location was just off a major street, and John saw the investment potential, so he picked it up for a deal. That house became the "front offices" to hold additional order processing staff, filing and paperwork. There was a small room off to the side with a tech bench for customer repairs. Another small room had some gear stacked up in the corner, and had become their demo room and tech support office for talking to customers. (That became my first office when I was hired in a few months.) Other spaces in the house just stored printed literature, parts and etc. Technicians were part time, and sometimes were local customers who had struck up a friendship with John, and eventually wanted to trade some work for more kits. Brian Roth did a lot of tech work. And Richard Bugg, a local musician, put in some time talking to customers, and recording a few songs for a demo record of the synth line (one of those thin flexy sound sheets).
The other property is the now famous 1020 W. Wilshire building, which ultimately became the one and only main Paia location. That lot was several acres, and had a nice brick shop building already on it. I think it had been a frame shop. There was a big wood shop area at the rear with shipping/loading doors, spray booths, and a nice front sales area type of space. Right away, they moved all the manufacturing operations there ... silk screening, etching, darkroom, metal work, wood work. John was planning on immediately building an additional metal building across the rear of the property and butting up to the rear of the existing building, like a big "L" shape. The additional structure would be the future home of all the offices currently scattered around the neighborhood.
The purchase of the real estate was a big step for little Paia. John was establishing relationships with bankers, working on real estate and construction loans, and probably bridge loans to help with component ordering and capital investments in ever-increasingly more powerful and faster manufacturing machinery. And all the while, madly designing more synth modules at home in the lab.
This was about the time I got hired. That, in itself, was a departure for Paia. I'm pretty sure I was the first person they had ever hired from outside the OkC area. They had always used local friends and family for short term help, or getting referrals to other locals for employees. Some of the techie type employees came from the local customer base ... walk-in's that were buying product, and maybe bringing things back in for repair, and probably wanting to trade out some work for more modules or kits.
I had been a customer for several years, and had bought (in some cases) quantities of some of their audio and guitar products for assembly and resale to my local customers in Des Moines. I had probably bought the equivalent of 3 synths worth of modules, and had built them all into a Tolex covered road case that looked like an Arp 2600 head, and would hold 3 rows of modules. And my keyboard was in a separate case, again very similar to the Arp. I never waited for Paia to release their AGO keyboard. I had purchased an organ keyboard from one of the several kit organ manufacturers of the time, and got the keyboard going with their sample/hold circuit. So, when I sent them a resume' after graduating college in '74, my name was immediately familiar to the entire front office staff. And they told John the same as they forwarded my resume' to him.
I heard from John almost immediately. Within weeks, I was hired and moving away from home for the first time to end up in Oklahoma City and start my own little adventure into the music industry. Little did I know how this would pretty much shape my entire life, or of the amazing opportunities I would have presented to me as a result of this job. I worked for John from 1974 until 1981 in various capacities. My first 2 years were solidly Paia. In '76, I started the Polyphony venture with John, and began dealing less and less with the daily operations of Paia, until about '77. More specific personal information about my years there, and my contributions to the product line-up can be found here.
But I digress ... ;-)
When I started, they were swamped with correspondence from customers ... pre-sale questions, tech issues with bad kits or failed assembly. They had hired their first full time bench tech, but his work was slow and not very focused ... a lot of "shotgun" repairs - replacing all the transistors or active components on a board and hoping for the best. Due to the very high sales they had been experiencing, and the fact that a lot of novices and musicians were building the kits, there were lots of repairs coming in and they were stacking up rapidly. I spent as much time as I could with him to teach him troubleshooting theory and device physics. But was swamped with getting the correspondence done, and was on the phone almost constantly all day. I would frequently go to the bench after the tech had left, and just try to knock out as much as I could at the end of the day after the phones shut down.
This was a grueling environment, between the workload and the little funky house off on its own away from the rest of the company. The office staff (Tinka and Kathy) was even more frustrated since they were driving over to the other building many times a day. But meanwhile the construction was proceeding on the expansion on Wilshire, and John kept telling us we would all be together soon. Eventually we brought on another part time tech, George, who was really good, but still going to school. That started to help the work load a lot. I had never managed before ... I was just a techie. So this was quite a learning time ... hiring, firing, going out to tech schools to do on-campus interviewing, plus just learning all the Paia product line I wasn't familiar with. John let me build anything I wanted as a learning tool. And there were already starting to be discontinued products in the line-up, so some products were coming in for repair that we didn't even have docs on anymore.
Around this time, the office staff was ready to grow again, and they brought in a fresh face named Mona. Yep, Mona French ... a name now known to nearly all Paia customers except the early few. They hardly had room to put a third desk in the front office (the living room of the house). But Mona and I got along famously from the start. She was a common sense, down to earth, hard working gal with one of the greatest humorous personalities I've ever known. We are buddies to this day. After Paia reinvented itself in the '90's, Mona came back as office manager, and single-handedly ran the whole operation from day to day.
Eventually, the construction on Wilshire was completed the next year. What a triumphant day that was. I remember John inviting everyone over to the new building. I don't even think all the internal walls were up yet, but the shell was done, the roof was up, and interiors were in process. Champagne for all! We all sat in the back warehouse section, and probably wondered what it would be like to all be together. Heck, there were people working there I had never seen before! I was stuck in the house all day, and if they worked in the manufacturing shops then they had no reason to run between buildings. John was very proud of that moment, I'm sure. It represented Paia coming out of the "growing pains" era, and becoming a truly integrated whole ... and with room to spare for more growth, even! Everything about Paia changed for all of us on that day, I think. It had always been a cool little "family" environment, but now even more so. And I think the prolific output from Paia in the second half of the 70's is evidence of this newfound bond and increased productivity with each other.
more here re: '75 to '77 - check back!
I continued to run Tech Services as Polyphony ramped up. I was hiring bench techs as fast as I could find them. Some worked out, others didn't ... it was hard finding local talent that "got" electronic music. But, eventually, the tech staff grew to 4 people. One of those techs was Steve Wood, a guitar player that also understood the synth concepts. He was a good fit for the company, and was a high energy worker. Eventually, Steve took over management of Tech Support from me, probably around '77 or so. Another bench tech at the time was Greer Holland, who ended up becoming Mona's lifemate (see pics in the Archives). They are still together! Also, around '78 or '79 was when a young and timid Scott Lee joined us as a new bench tech. Many of Paia's customers from the 2nd Era (after the '90's) know Scott as Mr. Tech Support, as he has handled that side of the business single-handedly since that time.
more here re: '78 to '80 - check back!
In the late '70's, John got involved in several more business ventures in parallel with Paia. One was the Polyphony startup, mentioned previously. Another was High Technology (both a local hobbyist computer store as well as regional distribution for some brands). Polyphony was co-founded with myself. high Technology was co-founded with Charles Weddington. Charles had been the Tektronix sales rep for OkC, so John and I were seeing him a lot as our test equipment needs grew over the years. Then, in 1979, Charles happened to be selling his house at a time that we were just starting to look. So, we ended up buying our first house from Charles.
.... old company photos, ad brochures I was in, my home studio from the era, and more ...
in the Archive section.
Paia is still going strong .... check them out here ...