Robert Keeley is one of the most well-known, accomplished and successful effects designers of our time. In September 2001 he launched his company when he shipped his first Keeley Compressor, and his meteoric rise as an effects designer was heady and steep. His company has continued to operate from America’s heartland in Edmond, Oklahoma, but a messy divorce and addiction to opioid pain medication nearly destroyed the life and career of this remarkably energetic and creative young man in what would otherwise be considered the prime of life. Keeley didn’t physically abandon his business, but in many respects he’ll tell you that there were times when he wasn’t really there even when he was there. Most of the time such stories are buried, discussed in hushed tones by those who might catch the hint of a rumor here and there, but a fully recovered and reborn Keeley isn’t hiding from anyone. He’s back with a new line of stellar effects and designing more every day. It is our pleasure and privilege to bring Robert back to these pages for a candid discussion of his career and the prolific development of his new Keeley effects. Please join us in celebrating Robert’s resurgence, and Enjoy…
TQR: How did you initially become interested in effects Robert? Were you playing guitar first, and how did you acquire your technical knowledge of electronics?
My grandmother got me my first guitar, it was a 1978 Yamaha FG-45 from the Music Gallery in Highland Park, Illinois. I still talk to Frank Glionna and have purchased a couple of Fenders from him. My first electric was a Danelectro from a garage sale that lasted only a while after my parents got sick of me banging away at “You Really Got Me.” My mom and dad got me my first real guitar, a 1984 Fender Squier made in Japan. It was really incredible and I couldn’t stop playing. I got to use my dad’s college day’s amp, a 1974 Peavey Deuce 2×12. Four 6L6 tubes and glorious volume for heavy metal in those days. I got my first effects pedals in West Germany in the mid-’80s. The Boss HM-2, DS-1, Ibanez DS10 and MS10, the Distortion and Metal Charger, and a horrible sounding CP-9! I’ve found some of my high school buddies on Facebook that had those first effects as I traded them around. My dad was an electrical engineer in the Air Force so he and my high school teacher Gerald Wolf taught me about electronics as a kid. My dad built all kinds of Heath Kit stuff when I was growing up, including a kit TV, so I had plenty of tubes and meters and stuff like that around.
From 1984-1988 all I did was play guitar and record on my little 4 track Fostex. I could easily put in 8 hours a day playing. When I came back to the U.S., I enrolled in a tech school to build computers and I graduated from UTI in 1989. My first job was in a stereo store named Soundrak where I started working on car stereos, CDs, home amps and receivers, VCRs, camcorders, etc. That was a blessing. Seeing how all of that audio circuitry was being built and what would break was incredibly valuable. From there I went to work for Industrial Video which was a complete work-out. I worked for an electrical engineer JT Hensley who was an old TV and Radio station E.E. that designed all of the Glamor Shots equipment. I worked on those custom systems and was involved in making circuit boards designed with OrCAD. I started working on my electrical engineering degree at that time.
From there I went to work for Audio Midwest. Again, blessed to work for a businessman extraordinaire Sandy Clemons. He was a great leader and really tried to improve every part of the employees’ lives as well as maximize sales and training and customer service. I got my first Fender amp there. It was a 1960 Fender Deluxe 5E3. My landlord got it for free at a garage sale because it didn’t work and gave it to me for free. Line cord was bad, SCORE!!! Simply the best 6V6 amp I’ve ever heard. Coincidently, I had just gotten Gerald Weber’s book, so the stars were all in alignment. From there I got my EE degree from OU and went to teach at a little private college called Vatterott. I started reading about one of my guitar heros, Trey Anastatio from Phish and his Ross Compressor. I thought back to my CP-9 days and thought, “Is there anything worse sounding than a compressor on guitar? Oh well, I gotta try one of those Ross pedals!” I ordered one from AnalogMan but they were back ordered for months so I started to build my own. In April of 2001 I finished it and was completely awe-struck. It was glorious. I had used the best military supply parts I could find and the noise level was very low. Shortly afterwards Mike emailed me to say that my order would be ready soon and I could go ahead and pay if I still wanted it. I replied no thanks, thinking, I’m going into business dude… By September 2001 I was selling my first Keeley Compressor. In fact, the first Keeley Compressor was mailed out on September 11th, that morning, before the world changed.
TQR: Was there one pedal in particular that really propelled the company?
The Compressor for sure. Heck, I’m still the Compressor guy. The TS-9 mods, the DS-1 Ultra Mods I developed for Steve Vai listening to his Live in an Ultra World, the DB-2 mods while working with Jason Barker (a good friend of Steve Carr), that’s what launched the company. Mods were new so all the players got into them. After my long and miserable divorce I had to reinvent myself. My eyes were off the ball for so long in legal struggles that I was a has-been. I had to relaunch myself. The new stuff defines me now thank goodness. The Red Dirt, the Seafoam Chorus, the Neutrino envelope filter, the new design platform and my new design team with Craighton Hale on board design and Atlee Hickerson with graphics is what I am now. I want to be sure and acknowledge them both as well.
TQR: You have created an extensive line of effects over the past decade— modulation effects, overdrive and boost pedals. Which has been the most popular and the most challenging to create?
The Seafoam chorus is really my rebirth as an engineer and effects pedal designer. It kicked my ass in every way possible. And, I got to stand proud after its release. What I wanted to do with the chorus was to find a way to craft a new type of chorus effect. Find a tiny spot where I could create something new. I wanted to use an IC no one else was using for the creation of the delayed and pitch altered signal, and I didn’t want the integrity of the player’s original guitar signal lessened. The original guitar signal remains analog, only the affected parts are run through the ES56033 IC. Next I knew that the LFO and how the chorus or modulation of the notes was going to be critical to how people bonded with the chorus. If it sounded watery and smooth, people would connect to it and want to create music with it. If it made it “easier” to play, you’d feel inspired to play. A tremendous amount of design and redesign, work and rework (and more rework) went into getting the LFO smooth and coupled to an IC I have never seen used for this function. No one was using it. And, it makes a better chorus than many similar ICs. Choosing to use an optocoupler to communicate the LFO wave form to this particular IC is where the magic happened. Not only was I fortunate to not have a noisy, thumping LFO like many designs, but the noise level went way down! Not only was the noise lowered, but the LFO was smoother and more (water) wave like! I also chose to make the effect even more unique by not putting the typical Chorus/Vibrato switch in the design, but rather a potentiometer to allow the player a custom blend. This allows players to blend between Pitch Vibrato and Chorus. I have gotten great feedback from this design choice as players have been able to create unique sounds and tones. Not since the Keeley Compressor have I felt so good about a design and sound.
TQR: Let’s review your current line of effects one by one— what they do, features, and how they are unique compared to others.
The Red Dirt is the start of the new Keeley Engineering. It’s all my TS-9 mods wrapped up in old Ebony magazine with gravy on top. It is easy to get down and dirty with. Super overdrive levels. Add a JFET buffer to the input and you have a great platform for a couple variations on the theme. The Bootlegger is a Sweetwater exclusive with more asymmetrical clipping using germanium and an LED to get a fatter, more tube-like sound. The White Sands is a very low gain version that we sent you a couple versions of. I have it worked out now. I worked the tone control section in a few ways that I hadn’t done before. I kept it open sounding with the ability to get just the lightest hits of breakup. I’ve got it to a sweet spot now.
The Luna II is a unique design for high overdrive/distortion that incorporates distortion ideas from op-amps, British active EQ’s, and JFET tube-simulations and as well as speaker-like filtering. It has evolved over time. The Luna II is fun and has many fans. I still find that I want to strip parts away from it and reduce it to the beauty of the initial design I had in 2008. Another engineer helped me build up that idea and it got bloated in the first release. Craighton and I just started tossing parts and it really opened up nicely when we reissued it in 2012. I love it when you cut a part out and it sounds mo’ betta!
The Seafoam Chorus comes next. I am very proud of the watery chorus effect and the ability to dial in a vibrato that is very musical.
The Holy Fuzz was a super fun limited edition effect. We made 86 of them with this super cool germanium Mitsubishi transistor. I went mad scientist on that design and solved some tone-bender things I didn’t like as well as coming up with a crazy gated, broken speaker sound using a switch-pot and some circuit bending. Mix up some Jack White and Black Sabbath and you have the Keeley Holy Fuzz. The Neutrino envelope filter is next with its dual optocoupler design. I have about 6 versions of the Mu-Tron III in my collection. Some licensed versions by other manufactures are pretty cool like the Univox. We explored them and found that the trick to making each one sound like gold was the proper resistance coupler and the proper biasing of it. We get a 25% “approved for use” rate on optocouplers and then those selected units are further fine-tuned with a method Craighton and I developed. The end result is something that would please a super picky Jerry Garcia fan such as myself. We got the design down to a small package and I think it’s one of the nicest builds we have done. I’m super happy with it. During the design phase we almost added an attack and decay set of controls. I talked with Dweezil about it and he’d like to see that feature as well so we will have a big box version with some of our designs added to it. In that next design we are working on a micro controller controlling digital pots instead of optocouplers. We will be able to control every possible parameter you can dream of. With a micro controller I can get really sweet sounding opening and closing of the variable state filter. Instead of typical RC-related decay rates, we could offer random pulse responses, logarithmic sinusoid responses, heck, maybe even radioactive decay rates.
The Fuzz Head is my first original fuzz design. It uses part treble booster, part differential amp to create fuzz. People like it because it’s not bass-oriented like a Fuzz Face. It cuts through the mix and is super dynamic with pick attack. I fall in love with it every NAMM show because I have to demo it and I forget how good sounding it is!
The Sfocato is a fuzz wah in one box— Italian wah design with a typical fuzz after it. I am addicted to that Zappa tone where he uses a fixed wah sound and some nasty distortion. Here ya go, one box, one crazy sound, one bad ass paint job. Pedal looks as awesome as it sounds, if you’re into that kinda thing. We limited the first one hundred to BC109 fuzz based units. The regular production unit will have a more modern, easy to work with distortion circuit that will sound great.
The Black Glass OC81D British Fuzz is a fuzz idea similar to the Holy Fuzz. No crazy gate control, just gobs of heavy fuzz that is a dream to control with our design. The tone control is sick-like. The fuzz is thick-like. Hotter than a dozen ovens. Crank the tone control wide open and it’s like sand-in-the eye, earache-in-my-eye type insanity.
We just redesigned the Time Machine Boost and Nova Wah. The Time Machine has my first original design in it, the same circuit I use in the Katana Boost, a dual JFET design with voltage doubling to create a fantastic sounding pre-amp. It also contains the treble booster circuit I use in the Java Boost. The Java Boost uses the Mullard CV7003, the TMB uses an AC187. The Nova Wah is a fixed filter design just a wah pedal but without moving foot treadle.
Our Phaser is a six stage phaser design. Although not as common, I think Moog builds a 6 stage phaser, it offers great, lush phasing. Ours has tap-tempo and a neat brake feature that lets you ramp up or ramp down between to phase rates. Ours has a tone control called Edge which is a resonance control. We have a new distortion pedal, code name: A Murder of Cows that I designed and we built in two hours. It’s completely hard rock and metal. I couldn’t be happier with it. Should be out end of July. I have an optocoupler based design that use your pick attack strength to add edge to the drive circuit. With your playing attack the pedal pushes gain, treble and volume if you want. That overdrive has the code name: A Quiver of Snakes. We have a reverb with our ES56033 chip code named: A Flutter of Butterflies. We have a delay code named: Leap of Leopards. We have the new Compressor Pro which is just dynamite. It uses the slick THAT Corp chips and is professional and perfect a compressor as I can make. Just a month or so away. I’m having a blast designing these days. The ideas flow easily.
TQR: We have often wondered how many different ways there are to create an overdrive, chorus, delay, etc. How much of the secret sauce is related to the design versus the components and values used?
The secret sauce is in the design. You have to play with things after you have the concept down to eke out something unique and musical. You have to daydream circuits and listen to circuits fail to know where to go. You have to dream about responses and the way players like to hear things. I like to sing the sounds we make. You have to use certain parts to keep noise down or get certain responses. Sometimes old parts give you an edge in one direction and other times brand new parts like DSP chips or microprocessors give you a new set of tone-brushes to paint with.
TQR: Is there any uncharted territory left for you to explore? What would you like to accomplish in the future?
I am ready to dive into the world of DSP. I’m going to finish my Master’s Degree at OU and work towards a Ph.D in computer science. Can’t stop learning or creating!
The Keeley Compressor that started it all still reigns as a true studio-quality compressor in pedal form that you will have a hard time turning off regardless of the style of music you play. It can be used to extend sustain and decay, enhance note separation and definition, and modulate attack through intuitive controls that are simple and effective. Keeley includes a suggested setting diagram in the manual that he calls the “always on” setting, and this compressor sounds so good, effectively expanding the 3-dimensional sound of your guitar with such astounding depth that you will indeed be tempted to always leave it on. As we have said before, if you haven’t discovered the sonic benefits of a great compressor in your rig, consider it essential and get yours now. $259
Black Glass OC81D Fuzz
Keeley’s limited edition fuzz designed with rare OC81D transistors is his custom-built take on the classic Sola Sound Tone Bender MkIII vintage fuzz, only this one is better— richer and quieter with a modern 9V power supply plus battery.
Seriously, the old Tone Benders are cool indeed, but they are also primitive and old… noisy, unruly, finicky, and like all ‘60s effects they varied wildly in sound because the actual component values were all over the place. If it worked, it shipped. We’ve come a long way since 1968. Keeley has captured the vibe and intensity of the original MkIII while dramatically enhancing the fidelity, bandwidth and overall musicality of the Tone Bender in the Black Glass fuzz. It sounds so good that describing it as a mere fuzz may be selling it short… The sound is simply huge, fat and richly satisfying with a mind-melting range of intensity and volume levels. The Tone control puts an edge to the fuzz effect that can cut steel if that’s your game… We preferred to set the tone at fat and screaming below 12 o’clock, but the burn is there if you want it. We have never heard a better sounding, pant-filling fuzz and neither have you. It may be hard to find, but entirely worth the patience and effort. This one is destined to become a classic. $299
White Sands Luxe Drive
The White Sands is designed to create the natural sound of your amplifier being pushed just to the edge of breaking up in the Clean mode and spilling over into a tougher saturated tube overdrive in the Sandy mode. Call it a ‘clean boost’ if you will, but with an adequate range of overdriven tones and intensity levels. With just three controls and the single Clean/Sandy toggle, you can set Drive and Level for the amount of boost and volume you need, and the Tone control is very useful for dialing in EQ for different guitars and pickups. The unaffected tone of your rig isn’t altered with the White Sands— it simply creates the sound of your amp turned up beyond the clean setting, from a hint of edginess to fat, natural tube distortion. A very cool and versatile tool, highly recommended. $199
Keeley accurately describes the Seafoam Chorus as both a rich chorus and pitch vibrato that can simulate a rotating speaker effect. In this regard it is far more versatile and spacey than your old Boss chorus from the ‘80s. Controls are simple and familiar— Rate controls the speed of pitch modulation and chorus effect; Depth manages pitch bending and perceived movement; Blend controls the mix of chorus and vibrato; Tone affects the high frequencies in the chorus effect— not the tone of your guitar. The pure tone, depth and fidelity of the Seafoam are exceptionally rich and real. You can acquire a subtle chorus effect with variable levels of movement, or a more intense slow to jittery pitch vibrato quickly and easily, and you’ll thoroughly digest the full capabilities of the Seafoam in minutes. Keeley’s chorus is not just for chorus anymore, and you’ll love the doubling and rotating speaker vibrato effects, all of which sound very, very good and very real… $229
Red Dirt Overdrive
What better name for an overdrive built in Oklahoma than the Red Dirt? This overdrive falls squarely in between the more subtle character of the White Sands and the mind-bending capabilities of the Black Glass fuzz. You can set the Red Dirt for an almost-clean boost, but the range of tube overdrive and distortion really covers a lot of ground— as much as most players will ever need short of death metal. Keeley describes the design of the Red Dirt as being similar to the gain and master volume controls of a classic guitar amplifier with the Drive control managing preamp gain and Level controlling output. A toggled Plus/Baked control acts as a Gain intensity control with a higher threshold in Baked mode. Keeley has also included a Tone control that can be used to sharpen or round off the overdrive effect to taste. If you need an aggressive overdrive with lots of room for shaping intensity, gain, distortion and sustain, the Red Dirt gets it done with Keeley’s talent for creating remarkably rich and musical distortion. $199
For those moments when you want to get your freak on, the Neutrino is a dynamic auto wah/envelope filter that dynamically responds to pick attack. Gain controls the amount of signal that is sent to the circuit. Peak controls the filter frequency. Three filter band selectors are available— LP (low pass) cuts high notes; BP (band pass) trims both low and high notes leaving mids intact; HP (hi pass) cuts lows and works on high frequencies. A toggled Lo/Hi further adjusts the operating range of the variable state filter. A Drive control is positioned on the side of the pedal that controls which direction the filtered sound moves, similar to a wah pedal. This effect is all about pick attack, so you can actually ‘play’ this pedal by the way you address the strings. Varied pickup selections combined with the filter, Peak and Drive controls produce a wide range of very colorful and wildly animated tones. Positively freaky! $209
Sfocato Fuzz Wah
Just as the name implies, the Sfocato is a very cool fuzzwah— a classic BC109 silicon fuzz combined with an Italian inductor based wah circuit. Again, controls are simple and familiar— Fuzz and Level control the fuzz effect as the Wah control alters the position of the Wah. The top-mounted toggle controls bass filtering, and a side-mounted switch enables you to bypass the wah completely. The quality of the fuzz effect is utterly classic Arbiter and the wah effect is equally good in the style of Vox/Cry Baby/Arbiter. You get the tone of a wah with the toe or heel down and a great fuzz all in a compact package. Most important, these are not ‘imitations’ of a wah and fuzz but the authentic circuits, optimized for tone and consistency by Keeley himself. We like. So will you. $199
Time Machine Boost
Redesigned for 2014, the Time Machine Boost features the Keeley Katana and Java Boost circuits in one package. Originally created in 2002, the Time Machine Boost is a 2-channel, 5-mode preamp designed to push your amplifier into overdrive and saturation. The Vintage side is inspired by the germanium Dallas Rangemaster, featuring Boost and Tone Controls, and a 3-way toggle for varied treble-boosting tones. The Modern side is a new +23 dB gain, dual J201 JFET signal amplifier.
Technical aspects aside, what you need to know is that the Time Machine Boost spans time indeed with gorgeously overdriven tones as well as a vintage treble boost effect when used with other boost and overdrive devices. Keeley makes it very clear in his description that the Time Machine “is not an overdrive or boost pedal. You need to use it with other OD pedals.” If this seems unusual, just understand that the vintage side is based on the concept of a treble boost. That said, we found the ‘78’ toggle setting on the vintage side to be quite fat and toneful used alone, as well as the up position on the toggle switch on the Modern side. Otherwise, best results are obtained by treating the Time Machine boost as a preamp in combination with other OD effects as Keeley advises. Just consider this pedal to be a tone enhancer when used with your favorite boost and distortion effects. It works, and we produced amazing tones in combination with our Z Vex SHO, Xotic Effects EP Booster, RC Booster, and the Keeley White Sands Overdrive. $229
Quest forth… TQ