Eulogy for Keith Barr by Ron Wilkerson
I asked Hueichen if I could say a few words about Keith. I am deeply thankful to her for this opportunity.
For those of you who don’t know me, I am Ron Wilkerson, and over the past 27 years I have been Keith’s employee, his competitor, his marketing advisor, his employee again, his new-product guinea pig, his business partner, his philosophical sounding board, his golf partner and most importantly, his friend. Outside of my wife Beverly, Keith was probably the most influential person in my life, as I know he has been the most influential person for many other lives here in this room and well beyond.
To know Keith is to be touched by him, to be given a gift of his knowledge, his experience and, most of all, to feel the passion with which he lived every day of his life.
I first met Keith Barr the way thousands of other people did, through one of his musical innovations. I was very young, and playing keyboards at a gig at the Highland Inn in Rochester, New York. In the middle of a song, a friend of mine, Michael Laiacona, came up to the stage and, without asking my permission, unplugged the audio cord of my Wurlitzer electric piano and pulled this funny orange box out of his pocket, plugged it in and stepped on the footswitch. Of course, that box was a Phase 90, one of the first ones hand-made in Keith’s basement with his partner Terry Sherwood. Michael was Keith and Terry’s self-appointed salesman and first-line promoter of the Phase 90. I was blown away by the sound of Keith’s invention, as were thousands of other musicians by that and so many other creations from his incredible mind.
As a starving musician, I first did piece work for Keith by stuffing parts into circuit boards on my kitchen table. I earned a dollar for a Phase 90 board, fifty cents for each Distortion Plus. And when I had built every board they had in stock, and they had nothing else for me to do, I went to work at MXR as shipping manager. Of course, I knew nothing about shipping, let alone managing, but that was the environment that Keith had created there. He gave all of us an opportunity. What we did with that opportunity was entirely up to us.
Keith created a really magical environment at MXR, as he has done at all his companies ever since. Keith’s world was a place where you didn’t need a degree or previous experience to do a job, just the desire and perseverance to see the task through to the end. Nobody at MXR was even close to age 30, and yet there, running the MXR machine at 100 MPH, was Keith, its resident genius, president and chief engineer at the wheel as though he had been there his entire life. You never even remotely questioned if Keith knew what he was doing. It was self evident. Keith knew what he was doing. Period.
When Keith was working on a project, he was simply driven beyond limits known to most other human beings. I remember frequently coming in to work to find the engineering department with lights darkened, Keith sound asleep on a beat-up old green couch after having spent the entire night working on a new product. Richard Neatrour, Tony Gambacurta, and the other engineers would be working at their engineering tables under the light of desk lamps and speaking in whispers with the phones silenced to allow Keith to catch up on the sleep he had missed the night before.
A few years ago, when Keith wrote his book, The Silicon Sandbox, because he knew I was a writer, he asked me to help him with the biography. Keith didn’t really need my help, he was a fabulous writer, but he just needed another ear to listen to his words. That’s where I learned some details of his life that I never knew before. It didn’t surprise me to learn that Keith didn’t much conform to the classroom standards of Rochester public schools. But it went beyond that. Here are some lines he wrote from his bio for the book: “Largely self-educated, Keith designed his first salable electronic product, a biomedical device for his physician-uncle's practice, at the age of 12. Stifled by traditional education, he decided to take all of his high school's advanced science courses, before quitting school on his 16th birthday to work as a technician and then an engineer, starting his first audio company when he turned 21.” Who among us has that level of self confidence? His story is beyond remarkable. But remarkable was just Keith’s everyday world.
When Mike Laiacona left MXR to form Whirlwind, I briefly left with him before deciding his company wasn’t right for me. I came back to MXR, tail between my legs, praying that I could get my old job back. Keith's business partner, Terry Sherwood said, “I don’t know Ron, you have to speak to Keith,” which was akin to an audience with the Pope. As I stood there quivering before him, Keith informed me that, unfortunately, my job in shipping had already been filled by someone else. But in his view, I always seemed like a capable guy. Was I interested in a job in International Sales? Turns out that MXR’s Dutch distributor was coming that very afternoon, and I was the only guy around who knew his name, let alone how to fill out an export declaration for his orders. That’s the way it was at the companies Keith created. Can you do the job? If so, here’s the opportunity. It wasn’t long before I was heading all of sales, and advertising along with it.
Keith and I had some great successes as well as fabulous fights over advertising creative. We were two headstrong young guys: both of us with strong and sometimes opposing views. Who was going to win? But even when I clashed with Keith, the one thing I never objected to was his passion to do things the best they could possibly be done. The first ad MXR did for the Phase 90 was the back cover of Rolling Stone. I want to say that again: the back cover of Rolling Stone. This was when Rolling Stone meant something. It was totally Keith’s idea. It was a rich color photo Keith had taken of the Phase 90 propped against a moss-covered log in a forest. It was simply gorgeous. The only line in that ad was one Keith created. It said “MXR: We Are Here.” What boldness. What incredible self confidence. What a passion for living life. But that was Keith.
Eventually, after MXR grew to unbelievable heights, I needed to find my own voice, and I left MXR to go to an upstart Japanese company known as Roland. This was at a time when “made in Japan” was not a compliment. Roland had just started an effects pedal division known as BOSS. I had fun with my new job, kind of sticking it to MXR by building up BOSS sales. We became very successful. And I thought, because of that, Keith would hate my guts forever. Especially when, due to market stresses by BOSS and other factors, MXR eventually closed its doors. But when I saw Keith after that at a NAMM Show, his reaction was just the opposite. He said he respected me and the work I had done for BOSS and hoped we could work together again one day. How unbelievably generous of him. But that’s how he was.
Keith was not one to rest on his laurels after MXR. He went on to found Alesis, which eclipsed MXR in every possible manner, with devices like the Midiverb, ADAT Digital Recorder, HR16 Drum Machine and so many others. At Alesis, Keith Barr literally democratized the concept of digital multitrack recording for musicians. Prior to Keith’s invention of ADAT, digital recording was afforded to a privileged few professionals as digital recorders and consoles would cost well over $100,000. Keith’s ADAT recorder brought the cost of an 8-channel digital recorder down to less than $4,000. This invention literally changed the music industry, making the digital home recording studio possible for nearly any musician. Every subsequent recording device afterward has been built on Keith’s ADAT design of professional recording at consumer prices. This was an absolute revolution in the music industry, and in music-making, that enabled anyone to produce studio quality recordings in their own bedroom. This is how music is made today. ADAT and his other product developments literally changed the way contemporary music was created. Thousands, perhaps millions of musicians will forever be in his debt -- as were Keith’s associates and co-workers at Alesis raised in their professions by the tidal wave that was Keith.
The fact that Keith was responsible for so many breakthroughs in technology is completely due to the passion with which he embraced life. Whenever Keith became interested in something – technology, science, philosophy, music, politics, friends or relationships — he pursued that interest with a passion that was simply off the charts. Although to most of the world he seemed to be reclusive, when you became Keith’s friend, you were allowed entre into the mind of one of the truly original thinkers of our age. It was not unusual for Keith to spend hours on the phone discussing subjects ranging from the everyday to the great issues of life, all with an intensity that revealed his love of life and the world around him. When the phone would ring at my house, and my wife would pick it up and say, “It’s Keith,” I would grab a cup of coffee and head to my office knowing I had to get my mind in gear, because I was in for at least an hour of Truly Intense Conversation. I know that Keith had these conversations with many of you. Poltics, religion, technology, art, nothing was off the table. And I know that you were as stimulated as I was by them.
Lately, Keith and I talked a lot about God. Keith didn’t subscribe to the traditional religious view of God. He recently said to me, “Ron, I get the father and the son bit, but what the heck is the holy ghost?” As I stammered to find an answer about God’s spirit and his presence in the material world, Keith would move past that to express his belief in God through scientific terms. He saw God in the stars and in the cells, molecules and atoms that make up our universe. Science told him that God exists. Keith was an explorer in every facet of his life. And I know that, even now, he is still exploring.
On a lighter, somewhat related topic, in May of this year, Keith sent me a phrase he composed for a bumper sticker he wanted to produce:
I KNOW MY GOD
IT TAKES FAITH
TO BELIEVE IN
A month or so ago, Keith sent me some thoughts in an email. This is something to which he admitted being “a bit proud,” and he wrote this for his friend Anthony Newett, Glenn Beck’s composer, who is struggling to make it as a working composer. Keith’s words:
Not a day shall pass,
When I fail to bring the world,
One step closer to my dream.
Keith said about this: “It’s kinda’ haiku, definitely the result of all the tender Japanese anime I’ve been watching. What I enjoy about it is that it presents an opposite approach to success. Most people try to bring their dream to the world. You need to reach out. Yep, I’m definitely in a ‘zone.’” That was Keith, on July 21st, 2010.
But for all his magnificent technological accomplishments, I believe that being a husband and a father was probably his proudest accomplishment of all. He spoke often with me of his love for Hueichen, Shannon and Eviva. Like many of us, Keith waited until later in his life to settle down with a family. And I know that he was glad that he did, because of the patience and maturity the years gave him. He loved Hueichen and the children, and sought to encourage them in any way that he could. He always wanted to be there for them. I want to ask all of those here to keep in touch with them, especially Shannon and Eviva, to be available to them, to tell them stories about their father. Each of you have remembrances that are precious to you, and will be so important to them as they grow into adulthood and need to learn more about their father. Please be there for them.
Since 2002, Keith has been my business partner. After he left Alesis and was looking for his next great challenge in life, I invited him to play golf with me early on Tuesday mornings. These were some of my fondest memories of Keith, as now, both of us middle-aged guys, we putted in our golf cart around the LA City golf courses and ruminated on life, love and technology. Keith had absolutely no interest in learning the game. He’d whack the ball without a care where it went, never keeping score, never remotely caring. But he loved the excuse the game gave him to be out in nature, with the fresh air, the birds, trees, flowers, and especially in a place where he could smoke cigarettes without anyone complaining about it.
These were some of my favorite times with Keith, where I could watch his mind grow fascinated by ideas, like the way gravity caused the golf ball to roll away from the hole -- and he saw a product there. And as a middle-aged guy, when I developed a heart arrhythmia, Keith saw a product there, too. And undaunted by never being in the medical field, he created our MicroHolter ECG Recorder, which is currently awaiting approval of the FDA. Keith didn’t live to see this product come into the market, but I know he was so thrilled by creating something that would actually save lives by detecting heart disease. That product will be just a part of his legacy. The saddest part of Keith’s passing is knowing that the world is denied more innovations borne of that creative passion.
So I want to say, to Keith, thank you. Thank you for your life, your friendship, your family, your love, your creations and most of all your passion. You are a person the world will not soon forget.
KEITH BARR OBITUARY
December 15, 1949 – August 24, 2010
ENGINEER OF MAJOR DEVELOPMENTS IN MUSICAL ELECTRONICS
Keith Barr, 60, a major figure in the design field of digital multi-track recording and musical electronics, died suddenly of an apparent heart attack at his home in Brush Prairie, WA. He is best known for his Los Angeles-based company Alesis and his invention of the ADAT digital recorder, which became the audio industry standard for digital multi-track recording in the 1980s and 1990s.
Largely self-educated, Keith designed his first salable electronic product, a biomedical device for his physician-uncle's practice, at the age of 12. Stifled by traditional education, he decided to take all of his high school's advanced science courses, before quitting school on his 16th birthday to work as a technician and then an engineer, starting his first audio company when he turned 21.
In 1972, Keith founded MXR Innovations, based in his home town of Rochester, NY, which virtually created the industry of guitar pedal effects with its Phase 90 phase shifter, and other effects products which became the defining sounds on many records of the era. After MXR closed in 1984, Keith, who had subsequently moved to Los Angeles, founded Alesis Studio Electronics, which grew to dominate the music industry in analog and digital audio effects, synthesis and other technologies. Alesis products, including ADAT, were largely based on Keith’s ASIC (Application Specific Integrated Circuit) designs and took advantage of Taiwan-based manufacturing. The company was sold in 2001. In between audio companies, he designed and marketed a radiation detector for lab and field use.
Keith has authored a number of design and technical patents. Of his current companies, Exelys creates products in the fields of medical and sports technology, while Spin Semiconductor develops ASICs for OEM sales. In 2006, Barr authored ASIC Design in the Silicon Sandbox, a book on building mixed-signal integrated circuits that was published by McGraw-Hill. His sports product, the Exelys BreakMaster Digital Green Reader, is a device used by hundreds of tour pros on the PGA, LPGA and Champions Tour as well as by thousands of regular golfers. His most recent product development, the Exelys MH1 MicroHolter, is an ambulatory ECG (electro cardiogram) recorder, currently pending FDA approval for its release in the field of medical technology.
He is survived by his wife, Hueichen, son Shannon and daughter Eviva.