Alesis Corporation - Defunct Audio Manufacturers
Alesis Corporation - Defunct Audio Manufacturers


USA based company originally founded in 1984 by Keith Barr (1949 – 2010, ex-MXR Innovations) and located in Hollywood, California, name later changed to Alesis Studio Electronics and the company headquarters moved to Santa Monica in the same state. The name of the company is a made up Greek word that means working with small elements just like analysis means breaking things into small elements, it is meant to point to the reverb products the Barr was working on at the time but the type of algorithms the company used involved repetition of small time slices of sound.

First products the company made were actually Geiger counters sold to the scientific community with the idea being that they would finance the manufacture of a reverb processor Barr was working on but sales of those were slower than anticipated so in search of further financing Barr took on a friend of his called Russell Palmer as a partner, Palmer had worked as a record plugger previously and had other background in marketing. While they did not manage to find any investors in the company due to the simple fact that there were no investors around that understood what a digital reverb was, they did however manage between them to secure enough personal loans and guarantees to finance the manufacture of the custom silicon chip used in the company’s first audio product that shipped in 1985 in the form of the Alesis XT.

The XT is a digital reverb loosely based on the MXR M-191 and featured only 2 algorithms, is as such not a particularly exiting unit, but the use of a custom silicon chip meant that the unit had an RRP of only USD 799 which was 200+ USD cheaper than the nearest competition. The XT, although functionally a bit limited, sounded as good as or better than other low price digital reverbs sold at the time. Sales were a bit slow initially despite the unit getting good reviews, but got better after the introduction of a model called XT:c that was actually the same product with improved software that allowed more tweaking of the parameters and a couple of more algorithms at an RRP of only USD 749.

The Midiverb and explosive growth

While the XT:c managed to ship a few hundred units per month which was enough to keep the company profitable and to pay off the personal loans the founders had taken it was nothing that really set the world alight, being just another mid-priced effect processor in the marketplace at a time when companies big and small were scrambling to get anything with the word “digital” on them out of the door. The next product from the company was something special however, the Alesis Midiverb reverb and Alesis Midifex multieffect processor were a new market segment on its own, a digital reverb and multieffects unit at only USD 399, but at the time they were introduced in 1986 they were alongside some Yamaha Corp. products the first affordable digital reverb/multieffects on the market that offered MIDI control.

Like the Yamaha products the level of performance that the Midiverb offered at the price was thanks to the use of custom IC’s but most of the competition was building reverbs around the Motorola 68000 which even though it was a much more flexible solution meant that they were at the least 3 times as expensive or they were using 8 bit processors with 12 bit companding A/DC's which was cost competitive but sound quality wise in a totally different league to the 14 & 16 bit Yamaha and Alesis products.

The Midiverb/Fex was initially conceived by Barr as a MIDI controlled follow-on to the XT:c with a similar price point and features but with added processing power and the ability to use it as a multi-effects device with delay, EQ and panner capabilities in addition to the reverb (not concurrently though). Palmer convinced him to turn it into a device that wold hit the magical sub-500 USD mark, but dealers told him that the average weekly wage of the working class was around 500 USD and products under that price point sold in significantly higher numbers than more expensive products simply because they were impulse buys, a wage slave would walk into a store with 500 dollars in his pocket and make a purchase on impulse because he had the funds for it on him while to buy a 600 USD product he had to save up and thus be determined to buy the product.

So the product was rethought as a budget model and while it kept the MIDI control capability and used the already finished 16 bit DSP processor and thus in some ways sounded better than its predecessor it was stripped of all controls and made a pre-set only machine. To save money it used phono connectors rather than a 6.3mm ones, only worked with line level signals, the case as a molded plastic desktop unit rather than a metal rack, the audio circuit was simplified and had only a 10kHz bandwidth next to the 14 kHz that the XT had and the power supply was the cheapest outboard 16ac wall wart they could find. The pre-set nature of the beast did nothing to hinder sales, it was equipped with 63 presets which was generous for the time and provided enough variations to be useful for almost anyone.

The same did not apply to the MidiFex however, it was hardware wise identical to the Midiverb but offered delay, Eq and stereo panning algorithms in lieu of the reverb ones, unlike the reverb effect musicians were already used to delay and EQ effects from pedals and in those 2 applications parameter control of time and boost amount are an absolute must and thus the Midifex was never as desirable a unit as the Midiverb and only sold reasonably while the latter was an enormous success. This did not really matter since as the 2 were really the same unit with a different ROM code and labels and each Midifex sold therefore contributed to the same bottom line.

The enormous success of the Midiverb in particular meant that the company was flush with cash but at the same time faced something of a dilemma, the use of custom silicon had price advantages but also meant that time to market was longer than with products that are made out of ready-made components, so the company had the money to introduce new products but while they had an improved version of the Midiverb on the drawing board there was nothing else since at the time the engineering division of the company was basically Mr Barr himself.

Furthermore the original Midiverb got old rather fast, when it was introduced no-one complained about it being pre-sets only but the competition quickly reached the same price point and offered some programmability and/or parameter control, the Midiverb continued to sell because it had traction in the marketplace and was by that time the best known budget reverb, but it was already outdated in 1987.

To get more products onto the market and thus maintain the traction they already had Alesis therefore teamed up with a couple of ex-Oberheim engineers that had a year earlier formed a freelance design company called Fast Forward Designs, and in 1987 started to manufacture MIDI products designed by Fast Forward in the form of the Alesis MMT-8 MIDI sequencer and Alesis HR-16 digital drum machine. Both were hits in their respective market sectors, the MMT-8 was in particular well designed and won awards but the HR-16 while not as classy as the MMT-8 was like the Midiverb a case of the right product at the right time & price and thus sold buckedloads.

Later the same year the company introduced the Microrack series, but these were simplified studio processors each 1/3d the size of a 1U 19” rack mount, they could be used standalone or fitted together 3 in a 19” rack by using an adaptor sold by the company or by using a shelf, this was a new form factor to the USA, the Japanese produced budget studio processors in an halfrack format but there was little support for it in the USA pro-audio industry. The initial products in the Microrack line were the Alesis Micro Enhancer which is a high frequency enhancer, the Alesis Micro Gate, the Alesis Micro Limiter and the Alesis MicroVerb reverb.

These copied the Bandive Accessit line in many ways even down to the use of the same knobs, to keep costs down only one manual was printed for the entire series and quite frankly the analogue processors owed more to guitar pedal technology than studio processor but at the least some care was taken to use reasonable quality op-amps and so on so that the basic sound quality was at the least acceptable to the owner of a small home studio. The Microverb on the other hand is interesting, it is basically a MidiVerb repackaged into a smaller box that only offers 16 pre-sets versus the 63 on the Midiverb and loses the MIDI control facilities but adds inputs and output level controls and a mix knob plus proper 6.3mm input and output jack and had an RRP of USD 249. It is in fact a better unit than the Midiverb even though the more expensive unit continued to sell, so many of the pre-sets on the MidiVerb were so similar that the loss of the bulk of them made little if any difference and the algorithms on the Microverb had been tweaked a little so it actually sounded a little better and the presence of level controls was a definite boon.

The Alesis Midiverb II was introduced in 1998, it still used the same basic chip that had been used in the Midi and Microverbs, but runs at a 50% higher sampling rate which showed itself primarily in a better audio specification. It was now housed in a 1U 19” metal rack and featured input, output and mix knobs like the Microverb and and more buttons on the front to make program change faster. The MidiFex was taken off the market the Midiverb II gained some of the effects algorithms from that unit plus a few new set of flanging effects taking the total number of pre-sets up to 99, but it was still a pre-set machine only, the main difference between the original model and the II lay in the vastly improved MIDI spec of the new unit.

Later the same year the Microverb was similarly upgraded to a Mk II status, but the only change that model received was the 50% higher sampling rate, the algorithms, housing, I/O and controls remained the same as on the original model. Two new models were added to Micro range at the same time in the form of the Alesis Micro Cue Amp headphone amplifier and the Alesis Micro Eq semi-parametric equaliser.

The highlight of 1988 though was the introduction of the Alesis Quadraverb which was their first programmable effects unit. It came with a new much more powerful version of the signal processing chip that had been used in the Midi and Microverbs, if I understand it correctly it was basically 2 or more of an the earlier version of the chip on one strata alongside other improvements, allowing the unit to chain effects (up to 4 at a time hence name). It is still a bit noisy compared to the competition and later processors even though it sported a 20 bit Sony codec but that is the fault of a budget CEM VCA chip and a couple of other “savings” made in the analogue section and as much as anything else. This did not hinder it becoming one of the bestselling effect processors of all time and its popularity with guitarists in particular opened up new markets for the company and lead to the introduction of the Alesis Quadraverb GT.

Continued on page 2

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