In Memoriam: Keith Barr 1949-2010

Aug 25, 2010 6:48 PM, By George Petersen


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photo of Keith Barr

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."

photo of Keith Barr, Russell Palmer

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.

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