Profile: riotonthebay of Keycult

As a long-time community member, custom keyboard enthusiast, bona fide artisan collector, and now the hottest keyboard designer in the space, Zach ‘riotonthebay’ Allaun of Keycult has been the talk of the town lately. His custom keyboard kits have seen critical acclaim from the most discerning of collectors and tremendous appreciation in the aftermarket.

With all this Keycult hype, it would be dumb of me not to capitalize on it in some way. So, as he’s gearing up to release the hotly anticipated Keycult No. 2, I secured an interview with him to talk about his journey as a collector, the TypeMachina backlash, going independent, and what’s in store for the future.


The interview was edited for length and clarity.

Early Collecting

Brian

Talk about how you got into the hobby, because I know you’re a collector of artisans and high-end customs.

Riotonthebay

I started off as a computer programmer and there were people with mechanical keyboards floating around. I thought, you know, I spend all day on a mechanical keyboard, so I thought it would be nice to get a nicer keyboard than my Macbook Pro chiclet keyboard.

I, like many other people, was introduced first through r/mechanicalkeyboards, and I was one of the people who made the turn to go down the geekhack path. Once I knew more, (I found that) more discussion was happening there.

Brian

Like looking for something deeper?

Riotonthebay

Yeah, looking for something deeper. It’s harder to have long-term conversations (on reddit) because everything was gone the next day.

Brian

And when was this?

Riotonthebay

I think the end of 2013. I got a Quickfire Rapid, and I made some ergo clears and put them in it. It was a horrible soldering job, and I probably did it unsafely in my tiny little studio in Brooklyn at the time, but it was good!

At the time, I was pretty firmly on the Topre train, and I used mostly an HHKB, and I had a Realforce 87u. I guess I was a friendly enough guy, so I sorta become friends with BunnyLake and BroCaps, and I got really into collecting artisans.

Then sometime in 2017, for whatever reason, I saw a lot of people making fairly uninspired keyboard cases, and I thought, surely I could do this. It wasn’t really that I had this amazing idea and that I wanted to see this made, but it was more like, it would be cool to make a keyboard. And so I did it.

I remember going to a coffee shop with a notebook and just sketching out various ideas for a case design based on things I knew and liked, writing out some stuff about how I wanted the mounting the system to work. I decided this seems like an interesting challenge, and I went in search of what I can do that’s different or better than what’s already out there.

That’s probably also why it took me so long to design the No. 2. I didn’t want to just do the exact thing with the No. 1 but with a different aesthetic, but I wanted to do something that pushed things forward a little bit.

Brian

Which I appreciate! I really see the thought you put into the case designs and you’re really pushing the boundaries of what keyboard design could be.

Riotonthebay

I appreciate that. But this isn’t me trying to put myself on a pedestal and say that other designers are not doing new things. There are a bunch of different motivations to make cases. One of them is that many people missed out on simple cases early on. For a long time, it wasn’t the case that KBDFans had simple cases in-stock. If you wanted a simple, 2-part, top-mount, you sort of had to wait for the next simple, 2-part top-mount group buy to come along.

Brian

Did you have any experience with CAD before keyboards?

Riotonthebay

Not at all. I learned CAD in order to design keyboards.

Brian

Which I think it’s cool because you can pick up CAD from Youtube or tutorials and stuff, and start contributing to the community just like that.

Riotonthebay

A background as a computer programmer helped, because it taught me to think systematically and pay attention to details, so I got up to speed more quickly. I still, to this day, don’t think I’m an excellent CAD designer necessarily, but as I’ve been trying to turn Keycult into something more, I’ve been putting time every single day into doing design, even if it’s not keyboards.


Keycult No. 1 and TypeMachina

Brian

So let’s move on to your first keyboard, the No. 1. So, why call it the No. 1?

Riotonthebay

First thing, I’m honestly not great at naming things.

*laughs*

Also, with the name Keycult, I thought the idea of naming things No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 and so on meshed well with the idea of a cult where you had to know what those were. If you’ve followed it from the beginning, you know what each of those designs are, and are a part of that.

I decided that No. 1 would represent an overarching design, and No. 2 would be a design, and so on. The simple numerical system that feeds into the idea of the cult could be a bit of post-rationalization.

Brian

I mean, post-rationalization is great! Many designers do it.

Riotonthebay

*laughs*

With the name Keycult, I thought the idea of naming things No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 and so on meshed well with the idea of a cult where you had to know what those were. If you’ve followed it from the beginning, you know what each of those designs are, and are a part of that.

xbzoibf
Credit: riotonthebay

Brian

Now about the tech. The highlight feature of the No. 1 was the midpiece/weight. So what made you want to experiment past the weight being just a shape or a rectangle?

Riotonthebay

Are you familiar with the (Lin3x) Whale?

Brian

Yeah!

Riotonthebay

So the Whale has this angled back that is sort of an inverse angle. I really liked the aesthetic of the inverse backside. And I really like the idea of doing a sandwich mount because I was using a Dolphin V2, which to this day, I think is one of the best feeling keyboards.

Brian

Yeah! I was gonna say, I can see the throughline between all the Lin3x boards, and what you’re doing, but it’s not a copy by any means.

Riotonthebay

Sure. I thought those were good ideas. The Dolphin has the plate that was visible from the outside. So I just started sketching ideas, like what the side profile might look like, what the bottom might look like. The weight design was meant to be reflective of the overarching design, where it is both squared and curved. Almost sort of a yin yang thing.

I didn’t initially have the idea that the band around the side was going to be the same part of the weight. At some point, it just became obvious that it was what I should do. It was just wasteful (as separate parts).

Brian

You’re adding another piece that needs to be CNC-ed and anodized and all that.

Riotonthebay

You’re adding more complexity. The band feels a little tacked-on in the same way sandwich diffusers are tacked-on. They’re completely optional, and it feels less integral to the design. That then morphed from just a midpiece to a 2-part case bottom. It just became obvious that it would be cooler to make it all one piece.

Brian

So the first run was just with the people you were close to in the community, and the second run was with TypeMachina. How did that collaboration come about? Was it Sherry hitting you up or…

Riotonthebay

It was Sherry (owner of Originative Co. and partner of TypeMachina) hitting me up. The first run was a private, invite-only group buy. And it was that way not because I was trying to be exclusive or secretive, but because I was just so afraid of running group buys. To this day, I’m still afraid of running group buys!

I invited Sherry to join it, and Sherry just said ‘I would be interested in just stocking this’. So he had all the boards produced.

My hunch is that WASD was not used to QC-ing CNC’ed aluminum boards.

Brian

Which makes sense.

Riotonthebay

Which makes sense. If you’re used to getting injection molded parts, you check a few of them and they’re all gonna be the same. Whereas (in CNC boards) there’s so much variation from case to case because each one is done by hand. Then they just started getting shipped out from the WASD facility. People got them and realized there were a lot of QC issues. There anodizing issues, there were color mismatch issues.

Some of them were good, and I know that there are a lot people are happy with it. But it was definitely a little bit of a, um, disaster.

*laughs*

Brian

So how was dealing with the backlash like. Like, it wasn’t you who was involved in production or the packaging fiasco, but it’s still your name on the board.

Riotonthebay

Thankfully, most people understood what my involvement was and I didn’t feel too much backlash. If anything, it maybe helped me. It amplified people’s desire to get a good Keycult board. There were rumors for 6-8 months that the Keycult was going to be released. Then it got released, and it was a huge letdown. That made people excited again to get a good Keycult board.

Brian

Yeah! Personally, after people got their TM boards, I looked for ones from the old run.

Riotonthebay

Yeah and I see people on mechmarket looking for them occasionally as well. So all of this influenced my decision to not tell anyone about the No. 1/60 and No. 1/65 until they were ready.

Brian

Which is how a proper vendor would do it.

Riotonthebay

Right. Unless you really controlled the means of production, you can’t (tell anyone). I was afraid that if we started talking about it, and it took longer for whatever reason, it would become this meme that Keycult stuff just never releases.

*laughs*

If you were buying something from me directly, be confident that the QC is going to be very good, and if there were issues they would be disclosed.

However, if it went perfectly, I likely wouldn’t be selling boards myself. I don’t know if I would have designed another board. So it definitely made me think that we could do this better.

There were rumors for 6-8 months that the Keycult was going to be released. Then it got released, and it was a huge letdown. That made people excited again to get a good Keycult board.


No. 1/60 and No. 1/65

Brian

Now onto the No. 1/60 and No. 1/65, tech-wise, you really went all-in with the gasket. You made it thicker, it was actually engineered to dampen instead of just to seal the sandwich mount. What are your thoughts on adding rubber to a keyboard?

Riotonthebay

I think a lot of experimentation still needs to be done. Basically, I thought it would be cool to isolate the plate/PCB assembly from the case. That was based on a discussion I had with Wilba, where we started theorizing about what contributes to ping, resonance, vibrations and other unpleasant typing experiences. We started talking about different case constructions, and we came to the conclusion that having something isolated is beneficial.

Then I started researching materials. The material I used is Poron, which is made specifically for vibration dampening. I think that certain rubbers could sort of create a trampoline effect. Like, you don’t want to fall on concrete, and you don’t really want to fall on a trampoline. You want to fall onto something that slows and stops.

Brian

Like a mattress.

Riotonthebay

Exactly. I definitely think it changes the feeling and sound, it quiet things down a bit, it leads to less ping. It’s possible that it’s not optimal for tactile switches. There are harder types of Poron that could be better for tactile switches to get that pop back up. Like a HHKB and its plastic plate that gives you a fun, thocky experience where your fingers are just bouncing on the keyboard. Maybe that would be possible to replicate with.

Before, the USB was a design constraint. Having a daughterboard means I have another thing to differentiate my board.

no.160_al_usb_connector_1_of_1_1296x.jpg
Credit: riotonthebay, Keycult

Brian

About Wilba. You worked with him for the PCBs for the No. 1/60 and No. 1/65. How was it like working with him?

Riotonthebay

He’s a super smart guy. Some of my best keyboard tech-related discussions have been with him. Working with him is like having a design partnership instead of a contractor-client relationship. It wasn’t my idea to use a daughterboard. I knew that he designed good PCBs. He said that he was doing some daughterboard stuff with RAMA. That gives you a lot of flexibility. The daughterboard is able to be seated closer to the desk. It can also be made parallel to the desk, so it comes out of the keyboard nicer.

Before, the USB was a design constraint. Having a daughterboard means I have another thing to differentiate my board.

Brian

So, now onto the reaction to the No. 1/60 and No. 1/65. The hype surrounding the boards were ridiculous. A few weeks after the sale, people were trying to buy the board for a thousand dollars on mechmarket. Do you feel any pressure to produce more units?

Riotonthebay

I mean, it’s exciting to see the reaction. It’s exciting to see people interested in the thing you’re making. I didn’t anticipate this many people wanting one. Maybe I should have, but part of the reason is that I didn’t talk to anyone about it before the release. At this point, it is clear that there is a lot of unmet demand for the No. 1/60 and No. 1/65. It’s going to be a little while before we go back to that form factor. Maybe something towards the end of the year.

I don’t think you should buy keyboards because they’re exclusive, so I don’t feel like I should make more boards for them to be valued at $1000 per board. That’s not what motivates me. On a selfish note, I’m not seeing those thousand dollars.

*laughs*

On the other hand, because the boards are numbered units, I don’t want to take something that people got that was special, and go everyone gets one, unlimited, RAMA-style, and everyone and their dog gets a No. 1/60 and No. 1/65.

On a selfish note, I’m not seeing those thousand dollars.

DSC_3140.jpg
Credit: riotonthebay

Brian

Also, you don’t want to oversaturate the market. It’s good to maintain the energy surrounding the brand. Long term, it’s better for your brand if there’s always an undersupply.

Riotonthebay

I think you’re right. For a brand, having a healthy aftermarket creates excitement and hype for new releases. And that’s given us more information on the volume we should release in the future, and also made us start thinking more about doing a limited pre-order. Like, pre-sell a certain amount of boards, and make a little more for the store.

I’m very excited about the demand, but I feel bad that there are a lot of people who I like who can’t get these keyboards. One of the reasons I do this is to make cool things for people that I like. When they submit a raffle, there’s a very small chance (they get to buy the board). Like entering a NightCaps raffle, except that NightCaps gets to do one raffle every day, and we get to do one every 3 months so it feels even worse. The next opportunity might not be for a while.


Keycult No. 2 and the Future

Brian

Now moving on to the No. 2, which is the main reason I wanted to talk to you. You really one-upped yourself with the design on this. No external screws, no side seams, and still with a gasket dampener sandwich mount. It’s ridiculous.

Riotonthebay

*laughs*

Yeah I’m pretty happy with the design.

gai_03_l.jpg
HHKB Pro HG, the inspiration behind the Keycult No. 2. Source: PFU

Brian

So I know it’s inspired by the HHKB Pro HG and all of that, but how did the design come about?

Riotonthebay

I was just looking at the HHKB Pro HG at one point, and I thought it would be really cool to have one but it would never happen. It was never sold in public.

Brian

Yeah! And you go to Yahoo Auctions and look for old bids, and it’s like, 500,000 Yen. Good luck.

Riotonthebay

Yeah. I was like, I’m never going to get one of these. I love the expanse of the polished stainless steel on the bottom. I felt like it would be going a little too far to do the adjustable back feet.

Brian

Like the red legs?

Riotonthebay

Yeah. That would be stepping a little too far into the uncool zone. Instead of taking inspiration, it would be straight up copying it.

Once I knew the aesthetic I wanted, I basically wrote down a bunch of constraints. I don’t want the stainless steel interrupted by screws, I think that’s a big part of the aesthetic for me. This giant mirror bottom.

I didn’t want to compromise the isolated sandwich gasket mount. I felt like it would be a cop-out to do a top mount, because it’s become a Keycult thing to do something with the mounting that isn’t totally standard.

I also wanted to not compromise the proportions of the keyboard. The mounting block screws that pull up the base plate have to be pretty far into the case (Editor’s Note: more towards the middle of the case, rather than the edge of the case where mounting screws usually go). They have to be there because otherwise there’s not enough material in the mounting block to thread into.

Brian

As it is, it’s already pretty thin.

Riotonthebay

Yeah. The keyboard is as thin as it can be while being structurally stable. So from there, I just kept problem solving until I had a solution for each problem. What I had was a janky case with a solution for each problem. I tend to have two files for each design. One to get to the end result that I like visually and solutions to each problem, and another one to recreate this.

It’s usually just a marathon session of recreating it in a principled fashion so that the design is much cleaner, making sure that I get all the dimensions and tolerances right. That’s how I got to this iteration of design; I just took all of those solutions into account and created a fairly cohesive case.

I don’t want the stainless steel interrupted by screws, I think that’s a big part of the aesthetic for me. This giant mirror bottom.

No. 2 teaser stainless 4-3.jpg
Credit: riotonthebay

Brian

You talked about how the isolated sandwich gasket mount is a signature Keycult feature. Is basing your design off of something that already exists, like how the No. 1 is based off Lin3x boards and how the No. 2 is based off the HHKB Pro HG, but then enhancing it to the next level, is that also a signature feature?

Riotonthebay

I’m not really sure. I’ve had a few false starts on a No. 3. where I had an aesthetic in mind, and then not been able to refine it to a point where it deserves a spot in the lineage. Some of those are not based on anything, really. Like I have an aesthetic in mind that a whole case could flourish around, but I couldn’t make it work.

Brian

So now onto the cost. The No. 2 is going to be one of the most expensive boards ever at retail. The aluminum version costs more than the Jane V2, and the stainless steel version costs more than the brass version of the E6-V2. Talk a little bit about why it’s so expensive.

Riotonthebay

It’s expensive because a seamless case is expensive. A seamless case is more expensive because the top case has to be milled out of a larger block of aluminum. Also, because of how the case is constructed, the top part has pretty thin walls so you can’t just power through all of that aluminum. You have to mill that slowly and that increases the milling time.

The mounting block is also complicated. There are a lot of different angles to it in order to get that look. There’s not a lot of room (in the case) to simplify the machining. You gotta have a complex setup with multiple fixtures to get it at the right angle for milling.

For the stainless steel version, the stainless steel piece is ludicrously expensive. The material is expensive, and milling is expensive. Stainless steel is just very hard to machine.

And then there’s a lot of hand finishing that goes into the outside of the top case, and into making sure the bottom piece has a mirror finish on the stainless steel and an even finish on the aluminum.

I had two prototypes made at two different factories, and both of them quoted similar prices, so I don’t think I’m being taken for a ride at the factory we used. It’s just expensive to machine.

There’s not a lot of room (in the case) to simplify the machining. You gotta have a complex setup with multiple fixtures to get it at the right angle for milling.

Keycult No.2 Base Plate, Mounting Plate and Switch Plate
Credit: riotonthebay

Brian

So the No. 2 is going to be in-stock. Maybe talk a bit about in-stock vs group buys, and the Keycult Quality Disclosure.

Riotonthebay

I think group buys are risky for the participant, and equally risky for the designer/runner. I think they’re risky from a financial perspective for both the participant and the runner, and I think they’re risky from a reputation perspective for the designer/runner.

This is a pretty unforgiving community, and it’s one whose standards increase by noticeable measure every year.

In order to do a group buy responsibly, you need enough money to cover the group buy and be extremely confident in your supply chain. I am fairly confident in my factory, but one of their problems is having extremely reliable QC. You can see from the No. 1/60 and No. 1/65 that we sold 10 or 11 B-stock boards in the end. If you actually look at those B-stocks, they’re better quality than the boards you’d expect to get from a group buy. The difference is that we want people to be extremely confident that if they’re buying an A-stock unit, that they know the full extent of what could be wrong with it.

The only way you can combat this is in a group buy scenario is by dramatically limiting the number of configurations and to buy a significant number of extra units to cover defects. There is just going to be a defect rate.

Selling stuff in-stock is sending a message that we are trying to operate as close to a legitimate business as possible, where you can have high expectations of us. Hopefully in the long run, it would put us closer to making Keycult a sustainable thing. For people who are willing to accept a little bit more markup for something you can immediately buy.

Brian

And it’s worth it for people who want a perfect board. You’re paying maybe 50 dollars or 100 dollars more. But in a group buy, you save the 50 bucks and you’re stuck in this limbo period of 3 to 6 months where I’m asking: Am I going to even get my board? Or if I do get my board, what’s the quality going to be like?

Riotonthebay

Part of the in-stock thing was to set the tone of what Keycult is going to be. It’s possible to do a pre-order or group buy, like a RAMA-style, but we don’t have any plans right now to do an open group buy with an arbitrary number of units, because I’d be nervous about sending my factory an order for 300 boards. I just don’t have the experience to run a group buy at that scale. Doing in-stock means we can scale up in a responsible, incremental fashion.

I want to grow Keycult into a sustainable business. I don’t know if that means going the RAMA direction and scaling up the number of boards we do. It might be that another way we scale is to be more boutique and offer more premium stuff.

A metaphor that Anthony (from 001Keyboards) brought up was that people like to think that keyboards are a premium hobby, but you know this from clothes and watches that keyboards are not a premium hobby compared to others. There’s a lot less engineering that goes into keyboards. But, it’s still a very new market that has space to grow in unexpected directions.

One thing we considered was what would it take to machine keyboard ourselves.

Brian

Like completely in-house?

Riotonthebay

Yeah. There is a guy named John Grimsmo who runs Grimsmo Knives, I think his model is really cool.

Brian

He owns a CNC machine, a whole shop that does everything in-house.

Riotonthebay

Yeah. He has a very fluid production line. Instead of doing batches of a 100 and sell everything, it’s this constant production line of knives in small group and he controls everything. Each knife has mini variants, and when you control the entire means of production, you can charge a much higher premium and you can create a lot more variety.

Brian

It’s also easier for you to implement improvements. With Grimsmo, there are a lot of small, incremental changes, and every new knife is better than the last.

Riotonthebay

I think it would be really cool to have something like that for mechanical keyboards. We’re not ready to do that with our desktop CNC.

*laughs*

Maybe making companion wrist rests that meet the aesthetic of a board to go along with it. (The desktop CNC) is just a way for us to learn about making things in-house and making things to a high standard.

This is a community that really appreciates behind the scenes stuff and seeing how the sausage gets made, and I think they would respond really well to a Grimsmo Knives style businesss.

It would be cool to make this into a thing that could be a real profession for some people, and a part of that is growing the community.

Brian

This is interesting because like you talked about earlier, this community is really small compared to clothes and watches, but this could be a way to really push it forward. To go to something bigger that could actually support more depth and nuance like the other hobbies do. It’s cool that you as a designer are thinking about these things.

Riotonthebay

I think right now, only RAMA can really call himself a professional keyboard designer. There are very few people who have turned the hobby into a profession. You have people like Zeal and Novelkeys who have made this into a profession, but everyone has their day jobs. It would be cool to make this into a thing that could be a real profession for some people, and a part of that is growing the community.


For more on Keycult, check out their website and Instagram page. The Keycult No. 2 releases in two batches — first come first serve on April 21st 3pm PST and raffle ending April 22nd 3pm PST.

 

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