[interview] JMK Pedals: Jacob Kokura

Here's FXDB's interview with Jacob Kokura of JMK Pedals.

JMK Pedals is run by Jacob Kokura. The company is located in Saskatchewan, Canada.

How did JMK Pedals start?

Like many small time pedal builders, I began with simple modifications to my own guitar pedals, and moved on to modding friends gear. I also did my own repair and setup work on my guitars and some work on my amps as well. There came a point when I decided to try and build my own pedal from a kit, and I was hooked. It wasn't long before I was ordering lots of parts to build lots of pedals - but then I had the problem of having too many pedals! I couldn't use all that I was building, so I began to trade and sell them off for things I could use, or to make room.

Then came the day when I was commissioned to build my first pedal. That's really how I got started, doing custom jobs and one-off pedals. I still primarily see myself as a custom shop sort of place. The lineup really developed out of that. I found customers who liked some stock types of pedals, and I developed my own take on many of the classic effect types - my own dual op amp overdrive, my own take on the PT2399 delay, my own take on transistor bias trem and optical vibrato. Things have sort of snowballed to a certain extent, and we're growing the line up now.

We received help from several people. I have participated heavily in the DIY forums as I got into building. It started with needing assistance with non-working builds. Guys like Mark Hammer and R.G. Keen, who are long time builders and tinkerers, forefathers of the DIY scene certainly, really stepped out in helping myself and others online.

In turn, I have worked hard at being heavily involved, on a daily basis, with other online forums. Largely, I've been involved with the scene at Madbean Pedals, as a moderator, specifically specializing in encouraging community development of the online forum and in troubleshooting and tech help. The online community is vital because the of the niche nature of this kind of hobby and pursuit.

I believe firmly in encouraging and supporting the DIY community, which is also why I've recently launched my own line of DIY PCBs. That end of the company is only in the beginning stages, but JMK PCBs will be a space for me to release new takes on classic circuits, as well as utility circuits that will enable builders to create tools for practicing their guitar, developing new ideas for pedals, and trouble shooting their own builds. I also plan to release some reading material and tutorial material that will enable newcomers to the DIY circuit to learn and develop beyond the paint by numbers nature of building.

JMK PedalsWhere do the name and logo come from?

It's pretty simple actually - JMK is my initials. I realized early on that it's good to have a consistent brand that sets it apart, but I wanted my brand to be associated with me personally. I believe in signing my name on my work, not to take credit, but to take responsibility. I realize that pedals fail at times, but I stand behind my work and am always willing to work to make something that has my name on it work for the people who need it to.

It's sort of funny actually. I'm not very good with graphic design, part of the reason that my graphics are so simple actually. I walked into a local printing house, and spent about 10 minutes chatting with the lady who ran the shop. We talked about a logo, and she recommended we hash out an idea. In about 5 minutes we had something working, and it's pretty much stuck! I've since updated the look a small amount, and we've added a Custom Shop logo which is essentially a modified version of our original logo. I like it - it's simple and straight forward, and it's easily identifiable.

What sets JMK Pedals apart from other builders?

Our motto is "Quality - Durability - Dependability". In essence, what we're saying with these words is that we believe our effects will both sound and perform well, will stand up to the rigors of use, and will be easily repaired in the case of failure.

My own experience with pedals is that our era is one of amazing steps in pedal technology. New companies are creating amazing products in smaller boxes. Computers that are 10 times more powerful than the computers I used as a teenager are now found inside the tiny boxes we all step on each time we pick up our guitars.

While this is wonderful because of the power of creativity it releases, the downside is that our products are vulnerable to failure, and disposable by nature. With this in mind, our products are designed to be both fixable AND sound good. We don't goop, we don't hide or sand anything, and our circuits can be easily serviced by anyone who has a clue about circuits. We do this on purpose.JMK Repeater

Perhaps one day we'll get to the point that some companies are already at, developing powerful and wonderful multi effect units, but for now we're building one analog based effect at a time, keeping quality, durability and dependability as our focus.

How do you start on a new pedal?

I usually start with an idea, or perhaps another popular effect. Often these are effects that I like to use regularly, or have a small interest in at the least. We conceptualize the circuit in schematic form on a computer first. From there, we may assemble the circuit on a breadboard which can often be an experience in itself, which allows me to play through the circuit without creating anything permanent. Then we adjust the circuit if need be, trying new values for components, or adjusting elements of the circuits, or perhaps adding an element. Once that's done, we move on to developing a PCB layout and having a prototype delivered to be assembled.

It can take hours from concept to approved design, or months. We often spend months in the development phase. For each of our lineup, I would guess that an average of 20 hours per pedal has been spent just in the circuit and PCB development.

How do you name your pedals?

Not really. I like simple names, and I don't really want to release multiple versions of the same effect. So when we release a tremolo pedal, it's really easy and simple to call it the "Tremolo".

But when we get to custom effects, I'm not afraid to allow my client's to be as creative as they'd like to be. I'm open to many ideas, though I try hard to stay away from overly controversial or offensive topics and graphics.

Can you tell us something about the production process?

We build all pedals in site, and right now I'm doing all the work as a side to my full time profession. Up until this point, we've been able to make that work. I often steal off to my 'man cave' after the kids have gone to bed, and build until I need to head to bed. It's been great to have something to do that doesn't involve the television.

We design our own PCBs from our own schematics, generally using discrete, analog, through hole parts. We develop our circuits through trial and error on a breadboard, though we sometimes start from a known type of circuit and then begin to modify the circuit from there. Each PCB is designed by me, but manufactured off site. Each PCB is hand stuffed and soldered, by me, and assembled one at a time. We take pride in how cleanly we are able to wire our pedals up. Right now we're not using SMT parts, largely because we don't need to.

We use powder coated enclosures, and have our own unique method for applying graphics. Our finishes are unique, each one done by hand, which lends it an air of individuality. Most of our graphics are done in house, and we generally use white and black as our color because they stand out on the single color enclosures we use.

JMK Pedals VibratoHow important is the look of your pedals?

I would say that look comes secondary to function. Obviously, we try to make each pedal look great, but if a pedal sounds good and functions well in a player's guitar rig, that's when we're really happy. One player told me they were surprised when my "fairly boring pedals" sounded "so freaking fantastic!"

Is parts selection important?

We focus on quality parts at the best price. When I was early in my DIY pedal building I thought that the NOS and 'mojo' part thing was for real, but then I got some real world experience and developed that perspective. The truth is, it's almost impossible to tell a Muff that's built with Poly caps or Ceramic caps apart, especially when used with other pedals in a full band situation.

That said, we do use quality parts. We don't go for 'cheap' parts in places when good parts are necessary. Because of that, we use Metal Film Resistors which reduces the noise found in our pedals. We use Film caps wherever possible because of their long life span and availability. But we're not going to spend extra dollars on a certain brand name or 'NOS' part because it lends mojo when we can keep our prices down and achieve the same sonic results using more readily available, less expensive, but equally good parts.

The one case where we have tried to pick parts carefully is when we're dealing with ICs and Transistors. Using different ICs and Transistors can be important. In the Phaser we're developing, we've noticed that using matched Transistors can make a drastic difference.

JMK Pedals TremoloWhich of your pedals makes you most proud?

I'm proud of all of my pedals, but the new delays we are releasing this year are perhaps the biggest projects that we've developed. Both of them have been through multiple prototypes, and they're both getting to the final stages of release. I'm proud of them because they've stretched me as a builder the most, requiring both the most effort and the most research in order to get them working properly. I don't have a broad background in electronics like some, but I've learned enough along the way to really feel like those pedals are truly mine.

Perhaps my favorite pedal however is the Tremolo. I spent a lot of time tweaking that design to really reflect the tube bias trem found in my '76 Vibro Champ, and I really feel like I nailed that one.

Which of your pedals was your toughest build?

I did a custom job called the "modulation station" in the fall of 2011 that was perhaps the toughest. The pedal featured 3 separate large circuits in one large enclosure, and I misjudged how deep of an enclosure I'd need. Because of that, I had to work carefully and slowly to make sure all three circuits saw the right voltage, got enough mA of power, and also fit inside the enclosure with the 10 pots, 3 toggle switches, 3 stomp switches, 3 LEDs, and 3 Jacks.

JMK Pedals Custom DriveWhich of your pedals is the most popular?

Our Custom Drive, which is a Klon really, is by far our best seller. There's a mystique about that circuit that is justified in many ways. Because it runs on a voltage swing of nearly 27 volts as opposed to the typical 9V, it allows the user to create a unique sound. Also, because originals are so expensive and a new production version hasn't been released yet, it makes a lot of sense to get a cloned version now.

Who uses your pedals and for which genres?

Really, we're focusing on people who want reliable, easy to work on, dependable pedals. Our pedals would fit well on any gigging musician's board. We don't really think that our stuff wouldn't fit in any genre, but typically our users are country/pop/rock/P&W players. We've done some custom work for Metal Heads, and some definite P&W type work as well.

We're always looking for new artists who are willing to confess they're using JMK Pedals in their rig. Perhaps the only ones of any note are a small band called "Calling Jonah," with whom we've developed a relationship with in developing some Custom pedals. If you're an artist already using some of our pedals, or may be interested in that kind of relationship, please get in contact with us!

What does the future of JMK Pedals look like?

Right now, we're focused on a couple of things. We're looking for retailers that will carry our pedals. We have some in development, and there a few shops that are carrying our pedals on a local level. We'd love to see a retailer in every major city in Canada, and then launch into the US. Right now, our primary online retailer is our own website.

Are you working on any new products?

Right now, we're developing a few things. First up, we're going to be releasing a classic style compressor using the 3080 IC, which is my personal favourite type of Comp. We're also developing a Reverb pedal, which will feature a Level, Tone and Dwell control set, and will be available in long, medium and short reverb times. We also have a Phaser that's in development, based around a classic 2-stage phaser but with a blend function built in. In the long term, we'd like to expand our 'gain' lineup with a preamp based boost pedal, and perhaps a higher gain overdrive pedal as well.

The Classic Comp is almost ready to go and could be released this fall. The Reverb should also be available this fall. For the Phaser we're likely looking at late fall or perhaps early winter. Anything else has no timeline at this point.

Of note, we also do short runs of pedals, and the 2012/2013 short run will likely be an analog delay we're entitling the 'R2Dlay,' which will feature a square enclosure that measures 4.7" per side, and will provide approximately 600ms of analog delay in the vein of the classic DM-2/Aqua Puss. This will be an extremely limited release, with approximately 3-5 pedals available.

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