By George Petersen (Courtesy of Mix Magazine)
Audio pioneer and innovator Keith Elliott Barr—perhaps best known as the founder of Alesis Electronics—passed away on August 24, 2010, found in his home in Vancouver, Wash., of an apparent heart attack. He was 60.
Barr had an interest in electronics from an early age. At 12 he created a biomedical device for his uncle’s medical practice. After being held back in the ninth grade for failing a history course, he took every science course at the school and then left on his 16th birthday. Largely self-educated in electronics, Barr worked as an engineer and technician and co-founded MXR Innovations in Rochester, NY, in 1973 with Michael Laiacona (later founder of Whirlwind USA) and Terry Sherwood.
An avid sailor, Barr was known to disappear for months at a time, roaming the Carribean in a sailboat, only to emerge back in Rochester with a pile of new designs and product ideas. After a dozen years of producing guitar effects, such as phase shifters and distortion pedals, and rackmount studio devices, the company ceases operation. Later that year, chief designer Barr moved 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, as he explained in an interview for George Petersen’s book “The Alesis ADAT: The Evolution of a Revolution”. "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 said. "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 explained. "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 explained 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."
Keith Barr and Russell Palmer in 1989
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.
The Alesis ADAT caused an uproar
on its launch in 1991
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 ADAT (Alesis Digital Audio Tape) recorder was almost ready for prime time, even though it wasn’t entirely ready.
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 multitrack block.
The 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.
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 megatracking, 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 HR-16 drum machine (1990), Quadrasynth (1993), Monitor One speakers (1994), DM5 drum module (1995), Andromeda analog synthesizer (2000) and innovative AirFX (2000) and AirSynth (2001).
Barr’s Post-Alesis Era
By 2000, the appeal of the ADAT tape format diminished, mostly due to the rise of inexpensive disk recording systems, although the ADAT legacy lives on in the industry-standard Lightpipe digital 8-channel, fiber-optic protocol still in everyday use throughout the world. Eventually, the huge Alesis business empire began to crumble and in 2001, the company was acquired by Numark owner Jack O’Donnell, who continues Alesis’ mission of creating affordable production tools.
In 2006, Barr authored “ASIC Design in the Silicon Sandbox”, a book on building mixed-signal integrated circuits that was published by McGraw-Hill.
Barr is survived by his wife and two children. He leaves behind many friends, and an industry that was forever changed by his incredible creations over a career that unfortunately ended far too soon. Keith Barr was loved by many and will not soon be forgotten.