In Memoriam: Keith Barr 1949-2010

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


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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.

photo of Alesis ADAT

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 tools.

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 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.

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