Keeley Rising - Visit The Keeley Electronics Factory
Things are just warming up ...
by Blake Wright - Gearphoria
Robert Keeley is on fire. Today, that's a good thing. On a cold January afternoon in 2009, it was anything but. The facility Keeley Electronics occupied caught fire, which destroyed most everything inside—equipment, inventory… you name it. Given the economic recession of the time, the outlook of a full recovery was not guaranteed, but six-plus years later the company is in the best shape of its decade and a half in existence... and it would appear things are just warming up.
ON THE THURSDAY we visited Keeley Electronics in Edmond, Oklahoma, a challenge had been thrown down: Build X amount of pedals by noon and everyone can go home. Keeley had every confidence his team would meet the goal. He was already in his swim trunks. Edmond is a suburb of Oklahoma City. Situated just north of the capital city, it was voted #1 in a poll of perfect suburbs by CNBC back in 2011, highlighting its school system and level of education of those living there. Keeley not only had to overcome the 2009 fire, but he also battled personal demons that lead to both personal and business-related debts.
Today, the operation is a well-oiled machine with a clearer vision on what it means to be an electronics manufacturer and an eye on expansion. “We could probably put out three things today if we wanted to,” explains Keeley. “Really. Not even joking. We’re having to force ourselves to hold back. We’ve dropped a few things this week too. Not everything is valid after you’ve put together certain packages. Some things aren’t as profitable either. I priced them low enough where it’s like, darn… too bad we had to price them like that at the time. One day we released our Caverns pedal, which is a delay/reverb. Smokin’ hot pedal. Worth every last penny of $249. The same day that MXR releases the Carbon Copy Bright for $149. We got no interest. And we had lots of money in development. There are two microprocessors in ours. It was an expensive thing. After a few months or so I dropped the price down to $199, where there is really no money in it then. Almost a loss leader… and it eats up resources. So that one we decided to put to bed this week. Then it became popular. $199 for all of this processing power?”
(HISTORY IN HAND: Keeley inspects an early build in for repairs... a pedal originally shipped in 2002.)
The big news for Keeley in 2016 hasn’t been the $99 pedals, rather his $300 workstations. He unveiled a handful of new models at Winter NAMM this year and has since put together more ‘artist-specific’ tone stations, like the Hendrix-inspired Monterey and the Pink Floyd-esque Dark Side. “One of the things we’ve learned this year is that more expensive pedals do better for us,” confesses Keeley. “They sell like hotcakes. That seems counter-intuitive, but we’re able to provide much more at $299 than we are at a hundred bucks. At $100, you’ll get a one-trick pony. At $299, you’ll get three, 12, 16 different things — so we’re beyond successful with our Workstations. Total game changer.”
It was a message from famous guitar tech Rene Martinez that really got the Workstation train rolling. Martinez told Keeley that John Mayer had been using an old Keeley Tone Workstation from 2007 and was looking for another one. Fortuitously, a Keeley customer in Dallas was looking to unload one after a divorce. Keeley bought the pedal for $600 and shipped it out to Mayer. However, before he let it go his circuit board designer Craighton Hale took a look, and the pair soon became curious about the potential for that setup with some of the company’s newer pedals. “So the Oxblood, the ’62… with a DSP package, then our modulation effects, and our delay/reverb effects,” says Keeley, “all of the sudden there are the four Workstations we showed off at NAMM last January. Then, all the pieces essentially came together to have the Monterey, which has been more successful than all of the Workstations, which is outrageous. We’re around 2,000 (units) now. It is just a spin-off of a Workstation. It is actually simpler than a Workstation, and it does its job very well.”
Keeley built his first compressor in April 2001. A clone of the fantastic Ross unit, he sold his first one that September. He dropped it in the mailbox the morning of September 11th, then shuffled off to his teaching job at Vatterott College. By the time he reached the school, the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon had turned the world upside-down. By that Christmas, he was two months backordered on compressors. He had to cut off orders in October to ensure Christmas delivery. By May 2002, he quit his teaching job and had several full-time employees. The growth was off the charts.
To date, Keeley had shipped 45,000 of his four-knob compressor. His Katana boost has shipped just over 10,000 units. “Now that’s great, but it’s still nothing compared to Mike Fuller,” says Keeley. “I saw a post where that Fulldrive 2 was at 120,000 units. How early you were in makes a huge difference in how much of the market share you got to conquer. He didn’t have a compressor out, Thank God. I’d pray to God everyday going… ‘and thank Mike Fuller for not coming out with a compressor!’”
(RISE OF THE ROBOTS: Keeley uses this small CNC to drill out enclosures.)
Much of what is happening inside Keeley right now is based around platform development — doing multiple things on a similar circuit board. Today, it’s the Workstation template. Thinking far enough in advance to allow for alternate versions, modifications or special features is key. The team works towards the stated goal, but then takes it a step further and questions what else could any given design become. “The digital part of this allows us to reprogram the left side of the pedal into a variety of forms,” says Keeley. “One version may have octaves and wahs, and the other might have flangers, chorus and reverb. The right side of the pedal gets the drive circuit — tube screamer, Muff-style, whathave you. That changes. It’s not new, what we’ve packaged here. If you remember around 10 years ago, DigiTech had an Eric Clapton pedal, and a Brian May pedal that had several different things in it. So the concept is not new… it might be new to the smaller, boutique market. It is our take on those theme pedals. I like theme pedals because it allows us to be a lot more creative. We have quite a few reverbs out. There are some that specialize is small room reverb like from the 50s and 60s, then there is plate like from Abbey Road. Then there are vibe/trem/phaser-type reverbs that haven’t been put together in a package.
"It goes on and on… almost like plug-ins. The El Monte, which is still on the runway, since it’s a Tube Screamer-based pedal, it could be a Trey Anastasio from Phish package or a SRV package. It just depends on how we piece together the different things… and the graphics.”
(AT EVERY TURN: Keeley's HQ has a labyrinth feel to it. Around every corner you could run into a graphics printer, a pedal pile or just folks doing work.)
It’s ironic that Keeley headquarters is dominated by doorways. Every room is mostly dominated by circuit boards — in a box on the floor, stacked on a desk, piled in front of a person diligently working to get their task done and passed down the line. Still, almost every turn greets you with a choice of path. Keeley’s current path is to bring all operations of pedal building in-house. When things were bad, he didn’t have much choice. “When all of my creditors had cut me off… everybody that was doing stuff on the outside was tired of not getting paid,” says Keeley. “My business was totally down in the dumps. No one was interested buying stuff that had been on the market for 10 years. Bringing all of that inside allowed me to keep on going first, then to start solving problems and coming up with new stuff. Bringing everything back in-house was my solution. I always see folks moving the other way.” Now the move makes more sense from the a production timeline standpoint.
He recently acquired the neighboring sections of the office park building the company occupies and had already begun to spread the operations out as well as add new perks, like an audio/video studio for shooting demos. “We now have a full time guitar player and a full time video guy,” reveals Keeley. “That was a big step for us. Especially for my peace of mind. It’s easy to hire someone for production. I can count the money they’re making. Their input is tangible. It is a little different to hire a guy to learn to play songs and make this video. We know this stuff resonants with people, but we don’t know how it translates to sales.”
Some of Keeley’s pedals are populated by Liberate Electronic Design in Kansas City. Other vendors do work for Keeley as well, but he says it's only a matter of time before he purchases his own pick-and-place — a roughly $60,000 investment, not including the solder equipment and reflow oven needed. “We don’t powder coat here either, but we’re trying to change that,” says Keeley. “Powder coating is kind of ugly, dirty and hot. There is nothing fun about it, but we spend $5k to $7.5k per month on it. The guy we’ve got doing it right now is used to doing oilfield equipment, so he doesn’t really care if there are specks in it. We can’t convince him that we actually sell these little boxes and they have to look good. I’m sure I can do it cheaper and get the quality up.”
(AROUND THE SHOP: The new studio [shown above] is just one of the improvements planned by Keeley over the course of the next several months.)
Walking around the shop you meet folks like Josh, who holds the in-house record for most pedals built in a day — an impressive 150; Aaron, who is the DSP guru as well as head of repairs; Christina, who listens to every single pedal before it leaves the shop— which in 2015 was estimated to be about 25,000; Atlee, who is responsible for a lot, including dealer relations and the newest design direction of Keeley’s pedals. Towards the rear of the main hall a door opens up in to the current CNC mill. Compressor Pros were on the menu while we were visiting. This is the smaller of two machines. The one next door is a new delivery — and four times bigger. Keeley called the CNC ‘another stepping stone’ in the redirection of the company. The small machine does 24 larger enclosures at a time and it takes about an hour to drill them out. The larger machine will do about 100… or closer to 250 of the smaller enclosures.
(BRINGING IT HOME: After taking over additional space in his building, more of the manufacturing process is expected to move in-house.)
Later, we run into Keeley’s wife Lisa, who he says was the key to getting him straight back when his personal demons got the best of him. “She is the one that helped me get off all of the pills and all of that,” says Keeley. “She gave me a reason to get straight and get back on track. It was a long road. She’d see me walking in one morning with a McDonalds bag and an hour later I’d be so bombed that I would just have to go home… or I wouldn’t be here for weeks at a time. It was pretty bad in those days. Not anymore.”
As we entered what would become the new administrative offices, a call came out from the bull pen that the pedal build goal had been met and verified. The crew managed to build 600 pedals by noon and was now looking for its half-day reward. After a brief meeting and a few words from the boss, the Keeley team of roughly 23 was sent on their way. “We’re on the verge of another growth phase… and now we have the space,” says Keeley. -HC-
Blake and Holly Wright are Gearphoria. They travel full-time in their 25 foot Airstream while writing about cool guitars and guitar accessories. Gearphoria is a bi-monthly free-to-read online publication. You can visit their website by going to www.gearphoria.com and while you are there, sign up for their free e-zine.