Time for an update !
The last few months have been really busy. I’ve been on social media a lot less this year so I just want to explain what’s been happening behind the scenes, the longer than usual lead times and what the plan is for the rest of the year.
After releasing the Kilter and Canny Fettle Boost last November, most of my time has had to be focussed on building. I’ve been inundated with orders. I only opened a few Kilter preorder slots in December because lead times were getting long and I wanted to get caught up so I could take a small break. In December we announced a bunch of preorder slots for all of our pedals in January. However, before they went up, all three of our dealers hit us up for pedals too. As I’d already published the preorder dates, I didn’t want to go back on that promise, but it meant that suddenly we had well over 100 orders to fulfil, and lead times were at around 2 months.
Then in early January I messed my back up. It is totally fine now, and I really appreciate all the kind messages and comments a bunch of you sent, but I was sleeping on the floor for several weeks, and I wasn’t able to get much done. I tried to “Northern grit” my way through and keep working but sitting down was just too painful and it became clear that I needed proper bed rest. Obviously that had a knock on effect too, so I decided to not open any preorder slots in February.
Whilst I was out of action I did get organised however. I worked out a new system for my workflow that focussed almost entirely on building a poopload of pedals. You may have noticed that I’ve not been on instagram as much and that sometimes I’ve been a little slow at replying to emails. I don’t feel good sitting on people’s money and keeping people waiting for orders, so that’s been my priority, and I’m catching up.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve reached the point where I need to expand operations. I can only build between 10 and 20 pedals a week, depending on the pedal and what else is going on.
All of January’s preorders and all the dealer orders have now shipped. But I’m also feeling a little bit fried. You know that feeling when you’re running as fast as you can and you start to feel your legs go from out under you? That’s where I was last week. So, I’m trying to be smart. This week I’m taking it easy. Or rather I’m not building any more pedals, so I can get on with all the things I’ve been putting off for almost three months. It’s still work, it’s just more of the fun things, and some stuff that will help everything run more smoothly in the future! A change is as good as a break right?
So, what are all these fun things that I’ll be doing this week?
Well, let’s start with the most important. At the end of last year/ start of this year I was working on converting the Woozy, Skitter and Kilter to partial SMD PCBs to help speed up builds. Until now everything I’ve been building has been 100% through hole, and totally hand populated and soldered by myself. It’s pretty labour intensive and has left me with very little time to do anything else and is starting to affect my health.
If you’re not familiar with SMD (surface mount devices) AKA SMT (surface mount technology), they are those tiny modern components, and when I say modern, I just mean relative to through hole parts. Most household electronics have been using surface mount parts for decades.
I’ll get onto the economy of scale and reasoning for SMT as a business decision and why I should have done it ages ago in just a second.
But firstly I just want to dispel a myth, cos I’ve seen some corksniffers on the interweb and Youtube “geniuses” slagging off pedals made with SMD parts, which is tosh. People get so stuck on certain ideas, they can get very gate keepy and they want to show how much they know. As musicians our ears are super important. If it sounds good to you, or you can’t hear a difference, then is it really important? Not really. Trust your own ears, not the world’s preachiest losers trying to sound informed on the internet.
Just to be very clear, surface mount components are NOT worse quality than through hole counterparts. Most of our colleagues in the small guitar pedal company realm already do everything in SMD.
We’ll continue to use top quality components from reputable brands like TDK, that’s not going to change.
SMD components are generally done with pick and place robots from the future, but they can equally be done by futuristic humans with a super delicate touch. I’m pretty sure Darko, that legend over at Polar Bear Effects does his SMD stuff by hand.
It is widely acknowledged amongst pedal builders that SMT – from the perspective of sound quality – can often better than through hole parts, because they can result in quieter circuits. I also just want to be clear that there’s nothing wrong with through hole parts. It’s often not a case of better or worse parts, so much as better or worse PCB layout and circuit design.
The plan for Champion Leccy is to convert all resistors and most capacitors to SMT, so that when I get the semi-populated PCBs in it saves me a lot of time building. At present I have decided to keep most other parts as through hole.
Why not go the whole hog and get the whole board manufactured?
The main reason for just shifting the resistors and most caps to SMT is to save myself time. Populating and soldering hundred of resistors and caps every batch accounts for about 1/3 of the total build time. At the scale that I produce at, I won’t really be saving any money by doing these quantities, but the time I can reclaim is precious. I might even be able to have a weekend again!
Another reason for not wanting to swap all components over to surface mount is simply about repairability. It is easier for me to desolder and replace through hole parts. I am planning to keep all electrolytic caps through hole, because of all the components those are the ones that have a limited lifespan (it’s a usually a few decades, so don’t worry), but as a long term plan, I want all Champion Leccy pedals to be easy to fix and maintain. The other thing I do, and have always done is socket the ICs. ICs are more likely to fail than resistors or capacitors, and if they do go, pulling one out of the socket and replacing it with a new one is super easy.
This may be something that changes in the future as some through hole components are becoming obsolete.
Why didn’t you do this sooner?
I’m kicking myself for not already having this sorted to be honest. In part being late to the party is because I’m very cautious about business decisions. I’ve never taken out any loans for Champion Leccy. I’ve always just done as much as I could afford to do. If I’m honest, there have been several points over the last few years where I was very close to having to throw in the towel, and I just sold that one pedal that meant I could get through the next month, or afford to buy enough stock for the next batch of pedals. The unknown can be scary, but taking the leap is well overdue. It’s time to invest in that next step forward.
It has also been quite a big mental hurdle. SMD felt like something the big boys do, something that was beyond my ken. I felt the same way about PCBs until I took up the challenge, downloaded KiCAD and just worked it out. It ended up being a lot simpler than I thought, and now it’s one of my favourite parts of making pedals. Before that I used to spend hours and hours mapping out every connection from a schematic and folding component legs through perfboard, tying them together and solering them in place. It was a great learning experience, but it would have been very difficult to sustain a business doing that.
As a side note – for me at least – it is cheaper and easier to prototype new designs with an unpopulated PCB designed for through hole components. you can snip bits out, replace bits, put sockets in for the components you want to experiment with. Those through hole prototype PCBs would then need converting to SMD.
As there are minimum quantities and quantity breaks, getting SMD prototype boards is way more expensive. Like way, way more expensive. But that’s always the thing with running a small business. It’s money versus time. When you have no money, you have to put the time in. I’m extremely grateful to be in a position where now the trade off works the other way, I can put more money in to get my time back.
I totally understand that some people prefer the idea of a pedal that is entirely hand made, but for a small business like Champion Leccy, I have to make a choice about what the brand is and how I best serve that. I’ve hit my limit as far as how much I can build. So I either have to start charging more or I have to consider a manufacturing route. I don’t feel comfortable trying to sell myself as an exclusive brand and raising prices. I want a fair price for my customers and a liveable income for myself.
So as I write this, this is where I am, about to go over the partially populated SMD prototype PCBs for the Kilter, Woozy and Skitter. If they sound right, then I’ll get on and order a bunch. It’s a big step for me, and a big financial decision too, but once it’s done, I’ll be able to get some of that lovely spare time back so I can do music again, fulfil orders more quickly and work on all those other pedal ideas that I’m so far behind with. Which brings us to…
The Swan Hunter
I know I’ve been teasing the Swan Hunter for a looooooong time, but it’s just not been where I want it to be yet, and I haven’t had a chunk of time to really dive into it. I’m hoping to address that this week too (though honestly it may take longer than that). That’d be another big thing I’d love to have sorted.
I am hoping – fingers crossed – to be able to release two pedals this year, but I’m very far behind schedule. The Swan Hunter is the first in line.
In case this is the first time you’ve heard mention of the Swan Hunter. It is a lofi echo/ reverb that I’ve had in the works for over a year. It should have been released at the tail end of 2020.
If and when things progress I’ll be writing a separate article about what it is, what’s been happening with it and its release.
Tees and stickers
I’ve been meaning to do another run of tees for more than a year. I’m hoping to get time to do a new design soon. I’m also playing with the idea of doing a small merch pack with stickers and perhaps some other goodies in there as well.
As above, but for other art I do. I have a separate instagram account for art and music stuff under the name Social Boar/ Team Porridge. The Social Boar is a name I’ve been using for music stuff for a while now and Team Porridge is the name I’ve been planning on using for tees, hoodies, stickers, etc. that will include some of my other artwork.
The plan is to sell these bits and bobs on the side and have a significant part of every sale go to charity.
Anyway, that’s about where I am with Champion Leccy. If you’ve read this far thank you very much. I really, really do appreciate all the support. If you have any ideas or feedback please let me know. I’ll get back to you as soon as I can!
All the very best,