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Aug. 6, 2020

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Audio inventor Keith Barr, 60, dies in Hockinson

Heavyweight rock sounds developed by free-spirited high school dropout

By , Columbian Arts & Features Reporter
Published:

You know the swirly, shimmery electric guitar texture that drives a heavyweight rock band like Van Halen or Led Zeppelin at warp speed? The way the guitar sounds like it’s blasting through the blades of a whirling fan — giving it a vibe of overwhelming velocity?

That audio effect was the brainchild of electronics wizard, inventor and entrepreneur Keith Elliott Barr, who died of a heart attack at his Hockinson home on Aug. 24 at age 60.

Audiophile magazines and blogs all over the world have noted the passing of Barr as an “engineer’s engineer” — someone who developed quality sound effects and electronic gadgetry affordable to garage-band musicians with non-rock-star budgets.

A native of Rochester, N.Y., Barr founded audio equipment manufacturers MXR and Alesis, names popular with rockers to this day. At the end of his life, Barr was working on such electronic applications as a better heart monitor and a disease-detecting breath analyzer, according to his widow, Hueichen Barr.

His online admirers say he was an across-the-board inventor and interested in everything, from chemistry and biology to electronics and sound.

“He was really into science, all about science,” said Hueichen, who met her husband in 1990 when he was doing business in Taiwan.

Hueichen said her husband’s father, a physicist, helped him master skills like building radios at an age when most kids are mastering skills like building peanut butter sandwiches.

“I was raised on vacuum tubes, and I felt like the luckiest kid on the block when my daddy bought me a bag of 100 silicon transistors,” Barr told Sound On Sound magazine in a 1996 interview.

He was also very driven and a little eccentric. Early in his career, online sources say, Barr would disappear for months at a time to go sailing and then reappear with a stack of new product designs, ready to go to work.

“He was a free spirit and he loved freedom,” said Hueichen. “He said: ‘We are all just DNA, but mine’s really special.’”

Barr and his first company, MXR, developed a battery of effects pedals that guitarists love to stomp for additional swirl, distortion and more otherworldly sounds. The first two Van Halen albums are drenched in the sound of the MXR “Phase 90” pedal. Barr’s second company, Alesis, is known for pioneering digital reverberation — making a guitar played in your kitchen sound like it’s in a soaring cathedral — and for manufacturing drum machines, keyboards, sequencers, studio monitors and other products. In 1991, Alesis introduced the first affordable digital audio tape recording, offering eight tracks of high-quality sound recording to consumers. This was a significant step toward today’s do-it-yourself home recording studios.

In later years Barr founded the companies Spin Semiconductor, producing integrated circuits for audio applications, and Exelys, a golf technology company.

“He was a high school dropout but he knew a lot more than other people,” said Hueichen. “I think he was a genius.”

Nicer people

After they married, the Barrs moved to Los Angeles and raised two children there. Barr needed to be where the entertainment industry is based, Hueichen said, but he never liked the place.

“He doesn’t like the fancy Hollywood lifestyle,” she said. “He wanted a beautiful view and countryside and a relaxing life. He came here to visit a friend and he found this house. The people here are so much nicer than L.A.”

The Barrs moved to Hockinson about two-and-a-half years ago. Their neighbor Linda Zimmerman said Barr “was extremely intelligent, and I knew he was famous, but I had no idea of his accomplishments until I started reading about him on the Internet” in the last few days.

Keith Barr is survived by his wife and two children: a daughter, 14-year-old Eviva, and a son, 16-year-old Shannon.

“I’m very proud of him,” Hueichen said.

But, she confessed, for a guy who transformed the sound of popular music, Barr wasn’t much of a musician. He could plink away at a guitar but mostly he was an inventor — and a fan.

Of whom?

“Steely Dan,” she said.

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525 or scott.hewitt@columbian.com.

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