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Keeley Aria Overdrive and Compressor

This aria isn't an operatic solo!

 

by Chris Loeffler

 

Robert Keeley made his name in the late 90’s with two things- his upgrade to the Ross Compressor circuit (the original Keeley Compressor) and his Tubescreamer mods. Whether it be SRV, Trey, or Cliff Burton (yes, that Cliff Burton) the marriage of a mids-pushing overdrive into a hot amp is a part of the foundation of electric guitar tone, and the inclusion of a compressor to eke out more sustain or round out the rough edges of distortion has been par for the course for over four decades.

 

The Keeley Aria is two pedals in one, (parts of) the Keeley Red Dirt Drive and the Keeley Compressor Plus. The Drive side features controls for Drive, Level, and Tone as well as a Low / High switch to select the amount of gain on tap and the Compressor side features controls for Level, Sustain, Blend, and Tone. The Keeley Aria runs on a standard 9v power supply and features true-bypass switching. 

 

What You Need to Know

 

Let’s start by breaking the pedal into two parts, as each can be activated independent of the other, effectively creating three different tones without ever touching a knob.

 

Harmony Central reviewed the Keeley Compressor Plus earlier this year, and I can attest the Compressor side of the Aria is identical, other than shifting the Single/Humbucker switch from the outside of the pedal to a DIP switch inside. If you know the Ross (or Keeley, heck, he’s earned it by now!) sound you know just what you’re in for… effected compression that goes from subtle tone tamer to wacky quack-and-pump funk snap with a significantly reduced noise floor.

 

The Drive side, on the other hand, isn’t quite a dead-on take of the Red Dirt Drive; it’s something in between the Red Dirt and his other 808-style mods. The structure and amount of gain vary based on whether you are in Low or High mode, with Low mode sharing the general drive range of a Tubescreamer but with a fuller frequency range and a reduced mids bump. I found the lowest gain settings in Low to be cleaner and less raspy than a standard TS9/TS808 variant at similar drive settings, and the gain has a less grainy texture to it as it is turned up. Dimed, the gain gets crunchy but never really saturates, making it ideal for classic rock rhythm tones.

 

The High mode significantly ups the gain while further pushing the mids without the nasal tone of a classic 808. It also sheds less of the lows and highs, creating a more solid support for the mid bump without stepping on the bass or becoming too busy. I found the High mode worked best into a clean amp, as its character and response can hold their own without help from a distorted preamp, but there was plenty to love running it hot into a cooking amp for focused leads that teeter on feedback.

 

The Tone control works the same as an 808-style pedal, with a noticeable shift in where and how it filters. Said differently, I found the full sweep of the knob to be more useful than Ibanez offerings and more musical without dramatically changing the character of the overdrive like an active EQ control would.

 

How these two sides play together is interesting, and answers one of the most common first questions asked in a forum by an effect neophyte- do I put my compressor before or after my overdrive. The Keeley Aria accomplishes this with an external switch that selects the effect order, so you can have it both ways without pulling cables. The short of it is that by placing compression before overdrive you increase the sustain of the core note but run the risk of adding a tad-more noise for the overdrive to latch onto with resting single coils. This is the most standard approach to ordering the two effects, and the most “raw” sounding.

 

Running compression after overdrive really reigns in the distortion to conform within the compression, creating a “cleaner” sound that retains the character and saturation dialed in with the drive, often slightly darkening the tone. Trey Anastasio is the most famous example of this tone. The Blend control on the compression opens up possibilities in this configuration by allowing some of the grit and dynamics to come through while keeping the focus that the compressor brings.

 

I found both configurations within the Aria to work well within their specific applications, and was pleasantly surprised to find significantly less white noise than I typically experience with this sort of stack, undoubtedly thanks to properly shielded and laid-out circuit boards and the omission of cables. Using TRS cables, you can even introduce other effects between the two, if that’s your thing.

 

Limitations

 

Tubescreamers were made for Fender amps, which tend to be a bit hollow in the midrange, and the High mode of the drive is no exception. In mid-heavy classic British amps things get a bit congested without some tone tweaking.

 

Conclusion

 

Two of the most iconic effects in rock music, together, without the need to physically swap them to determine the order makes a heck of a lot of sense to me, especially when priced in line with most stand-alone boutique overdrives today. Add to that a Drive section that essentially has two different voicings and I can see the Aria being a single-gain stop for the few-frills blues, rock, and country player. At the end of the day, the Aria combines refinements of two pedals most players will own at least some point in their lives, leaving little on the table for someone else to scoop up.- HC -

 

Resources

 

Robert Keeley Aria Compressor + Overdrive ($199.99)

 

____________________________________________ 

 

Chris Loeffler is a multi-instrumentalist and the Content Strategist of Harmony Central. In addition to his ten years experience as an online guitar merchandiser, marketing strategist, and community director he has worked as an international exporter, website consultant and brand manager. When he’s not working he can be found playing music, geeking out on guitar pedals and amps, and brewing tasty beer. 

 

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