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In Memoriam: Keith Barr 1949-2010

Keith Barr

Audio pioneer and innovator Keith Elliott Barr—perhaps best known as the founder of Alesis Electronics—was found in his home in Vancouver, Wash., on August 24, 2010, and had passed away due to an apparent heart attack. He was 60.

Barr had an interest in electronics from an early age. At age 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, N.Y., 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 Caribbean 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 ceased operations. Later that year, chief designer Barr moved to California.

One of Barr’s main reasons for moving far from Rochester—other than the benefits of being located near the nation’s largest music studio and entertainment community—turned out to be integrated circuits (ICs), 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 guest house of a small, run-down home in Hollywood that was equipped with a machine shop and a chemistry lab, Barr was always 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

In 1985, Barr developed the XT reverb, and brought in a friend named Russell Palmer handle the business side of Alesis and oversee its sales. As a successful record promoter with a keen awareness for 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 recalled. “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 trade shows) 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.

The Alesis ADAT caused an uproar on its launch in 1991.

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 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 SR-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, Numark owner Jack O’Donnell acquired the
company and continues Alesis’ mission of creating affordable production

Although distraught by the turn of events, Barr re-focused his energies
on developing integrated circuit designs, which always had been his
main passion at Alesis. He founded two companies: Exelys (sports
technology products) and Spin Semiconductor, which creates complex
ASICs (Application-Specific Integrated Circuits) for audio and music
applications. Barr’s design for the FV-1 ASIC put a complete digital
reverb on a single chip for OEM installation into compact mixers,
guitar amps, etc.

In 2006, Barr authored ASIC Design in the Silicon Sandbox, a book on
building mixed-signal integrated circuits that was published by

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.