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Alesis: The First 25 Years
by George Petersen

The first ADAT units arrive at Alesis headquarters.

The origins of the Alesis story start in 1972 with Rochester, New York-based MXR Innovations. After a dozen years of producing affordable, compact guitar effects, such as phase shifters and distortion pedals and rack-mount studio devices, the company ceases operation. Later that year, MXR co-founder and chief designer Keith Barr moves to California.

Other than the benefits of locating near the nation's largest music studio and entertainment community, one of Barr's main reasons for moving far from Rochester turned out to be integrated circuits. "When ICs first started conceivable for small companies, you had to work closely with big companies—like Texas Instruments, National Semiconductor or Motorola—to have your gate arrays made up," Barr says. "Moving to Los Angeles and starting Alesis was great because all the larger companies you had to work with were local."

The Early Days

Working out of a machine shop- and a chemistry lab-equipped guest house of a small run-down home in Hollywood, Barr was always one interested in pursuing something different: "I started making Geiger counters," Barr explains. "My Dad was a physicist and perhaps he would have been proud of me. I had a pump in the bathroom of the guest house and I'd make Geiger tubes there."

Fortunately, for the audio industry, the supply for Geiger counters far outpaced the demand, and Barr returned to his audio roots. In 1984, he formed Alesis, the name stemming from the phrase "Algorithmic Electronic Systems." Or as Barr explains it: "Reverbs are just computers that keep doing the same thing over and over again—50,000 times per second, this little computer exercises 128 discrete operations. Reverberation is generated through this concept of algorithms, which is any mathematical process that is simple in nature and runs over and over to create a complicated result. So that's where 'Alesis' came from."

In 1985, Barr developed the XT reverb, and brought in a friend named Russell Palmer handle the business side of Alesis and oversee sales. A successful record promoter with a keen eye on marketing, Palmer's skills were an ideal match for Barr's design talents. And at a then-unheard-of $799 (at the time, the least expensive digital reverb ever built) the XT reverb was a hit. "We were working out of a house, but the XT made us quite successful." Barr recalls. "The living room would fill up with boxes of XTs, we'd set them outside in the wonderful Southern California weather, and the UPS guy would pick them up." Soon Barr, Palmer and another employee were shipping 400 XTs out of his guesthouse every month. The days of affordable DSP had finally arrived.

Offering gear with near-unheard-of price/performance ratios was—and remains—an Alesis trademark and the hits kept coming. A year later, Alesis launched the 1986 MIDIverb—the world’s first professional 16-bit effects processor priced less than $1,000. Following that, Alesis teamed up with Marcus Ryle (who later founded Line 6) to produce the MMT8 hardware sequencer and 1987's wildly successful HR-16, a drum machine capable of true studio sound quality in an affordable package. But bigger things were yet to come.

Enter the ADAT

During the 1987 Audio Engineering Show in New York City, after attending all-day meetings with chip manufacturers, Barr (who rarely attended tradeshows) had dinner with the Alesis sales/marketing team, where he laid out plans to develop a pro-level studio recorder. Originally, the concept was for an analog machine, but with the availability of lower-cost DSP and converter chipsets, the idea was soon abandoned in favor of a digital approach. After a mammoth engineering project that took four years, the Alesis ADAT changed the entire recording industry, beginning a revolution of affordable recording tools. Overnight, the cost of digital studio recording plummeted from a sizable $150,000 for the Sony PCM-3324 24-track to a relatively modest $12,000 for three ADATs at their original $3,995.

Unveiled at the Winter NAMM show, on January 18, 1991, ADAT was a compact studio tape recorder that could store eight tracks of digital audio (at better-than-CD quality) on video tape, and could be interlocked with up to 15 other ADAT units, providing up to 128 tracks in all. ADAT finally delivered more than a year later, but in that time, 1⁄2-inch analog 8-track sales came to a virtual standstill, and for a while, every conversation in the industry seemed to be centered around this newcomer on the digital multi-track block.

The advantages of ADAT's modular digital recording approach were many: The system used inexpensive, commonly available S-VHS tapes; the machine sync was sample-accurate; creating clone safety backups was easy; and users just bought/borrowed/rented more transports for more tracks. Meanwhile, ADAT simplified long-distance recording with session players and opened up the concept of mega-tracking, in which as many additional takes as possible could be recorded simply by switching tapes in a multi-transport system.

The success of the ADAT was worldwide and phenomenal. The original 16-bit/48kHz ADAT was later upgraded to 20 bits, and other companies (Fostex and Studer) adopted the format. During this era, Alesis expanded its offerings into other music and audio categories, leading to the still-popular products such as the Quadrasynth (1993), Monitor One speakers (1994), DM5 drum module (1995), HR-16 drum machine (1998), Andromeda analog synthesizer (2000) and innovative AirFX (2000) and AirSynth (2001). Eventually the appeal of the ADAT tape format diminished, mostly due to the rise of inexpensive disk recording systems, but its legacy lives on in the industry-standard Lightpipe digital eight-channel, fiber-optic protocol still in everyday use throughout the world.

The Hits Continue

In 2001, Alesis was acquired by Jack O’Donnell, and the company's mission of providing production tools is ongoing, with high-end solutions such as the ADAT HD24XR disk-based 24-track and MasterLink ML9600 2-track, both offering high-resolution 24-bit/96kHz recording for serious studio applications. At the same time, Alesis keeps to its roots of creating advanced yet affordable innovations such as the award-winning MultiMix mixers, versatile electronic percussion products (DM10 Pro Kit, SR18 drum machine, USB Pro Drum Kit, DM6 Kit, SURGE Cymbals, Performance Pad) and the MasterControl and iO series of adaptable computer audio interfaces/controllers.

Twenty-five years after its humble beginnings, one thing remains unchanged: the Alesis commitment to deliver innovative, inspiring professional gear to musicians, producers and engineers of all levels.

This material is adapted from Mix magazine ( editor George Petersen's book "The Alesis ADAT: Evolution of a Revolution" and is used by permission. All trademarks referenced herein are the property of their respective owners.