Since overdrive pedals are a constant source of discussion & consternation among guitar players, I thought I’d share my thoughts after trying out the Keeley Tone Workstation on a few gigs.
I guess it’s worth mentioning my standard “gig rig,” which is my main basis for comparison. I’m going to do a separate post soon with a full “rig rundown,” so I’ll just give the short version here. I actually have 3 different overdrive pedals, a Fulltone OCD (which is acting as a mostly-clean boost), an SMS Earth Drive (for some added crunch), and a Tube Screamer with the 808 mod done by Analogman (for full saturation). And I have an Analogman compressor just after the TS in my chain, so I can crank the gain on the TS and then squash it down with the compressor, and if conditions are right, it gives me endless sustain. By running all of these in various combinations, I can basically get just about any kind of OD I want. This has been my main rig for at least about 3 years now, and honestly my rig hasn’t changed much in the better part of a decade.
One thing that I really love about this setup is that I can switch between these OD’s fairly seamlessly within a solo. I believe this is what people refer to as the “transparency” of a pedal—it doesn’t really alter your core sound that much. I can start a solo clean (and for this, I would usually kick on the OCD, which is still mostly clean), then add the Earth Drive when I want to take it up a notch, and the basic tone still sounds more or less the same. If I add the TS and the comp, it changes the tone a bit more, but it’s still not too far off from where I started.
Streamlining with the Tone Workstation
More recently I decided to try the Keeley Tone Workstation, which is basically two different overdrives plus a compressor. I was thinking it would be great to streamline my pedal board, as this one single pedal could basically replace three others. It’s a great idea for a pedal, really. Two different OD sections, each with a choice of two different OD’s in each section, plus a compressor. Here’s a product description, to save me the trouble of fully describing it myself: https://robertkeeley.com/product/tone-workstation
And here’s my personal take. The 1962/Katana section gives you a clean boost (Katana) or a classic bluesy overdrive (1962). The Katana setting is OK, but I do not like it as much as the OCD that I am currently using for a clean(ish) boost. Doesn’t have quite enough bite for my taste, although some players might like its warm sound. The 1962 setting sounds very good, IMO, for a moderate, bluesy breakup. I found myself kicking this OD on often when I used this pedal onstage, and I had fun using it. It has a great, nasty growl to it. However, all in all, I found that it changed my tone too much (it’s not transparent). It sounds too different from my basic clean sound, almost like I switched guitars. But again, some players might really dig it.
Over in the other OD section of the Workstation, you basically have two different variations of the Red Dirt, a Keeley pedal that is basically designed to mimic the TS9. Again, I found this one to sound pretty damned good. It’s a nice, smooth, saturated overdrive. However, again, I felt like it didn’t have quite enough bite. Maybe a bit too smooth. So as it turns out, I’m not enamored with it enough to replace my TS.
The tones in the Tone Workstation are very good, without a doubt. Not as transparent as I would like, and a couple settings didn’t have quite enough bite for my taste, so it is not going to do what I was hoping it might (replace 3 of my pedals).
There are, however, a couple of other drawbacks to the pedal that are looking like dealbreakers for me. First, the size of the pedal. It’s small. This might be a plus to some people, but I am 6’2” and wear a size 14 shoe. It is difficult for me to hit one button at a time on it, especially the middle button of the three (the 1962/Katana button, which happens to be my favorite of the bunch). So it’s a little rough for me to use it on a gig with a dark stage, in the “heat of battle.”
Another drawback of the Workstation is the order of the effects. The compressor is first, followed by the 1962/Katana, then the Red Dirt. While this is fairly standard and would be fine for most players, I prefer to have the compressor AFTER the overdrive (as I described earlier). The Workstation does not give you this option.
The Tone Workstation would make a great pedal if you wanted to keep your budget under $300 ($299 new, used ones in good condition on Reverb.com for about $225-250) and have a choice of several different OD’s plus a compressor, while only taking up the space of about 1.5 pedals on your board. The OD’s sound very good, and of course the Keeley compression is as good as any. For me personally, the pedal is physically a bit too small to be practical onstage, and the OD that I think sounds the best is not quite as transparent as I would like. So I’ll give it a B+, but these days I need an “A+” for a pedal to get the invitation to occupy a spot on my pedal board.