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The story of Custom Boards

In my early days as touring guitar tech, I was often facing situations where an amateurishly assembled pedalboard was more of a problem than a solution. Gigs started late, and some even had to be interrupted due to technical issues.

For some reason, some musicians are willing to put a lot of money and effort into their instruments and amplifiers, while neglecting the seamless integration of effects pedals into their rigs. There still was a clear need for the use of effects: For many players effects are a source of inspiration and a way of self-expression.

I wanted to help these musician solve their problems, which is why I started delving into the matter – partly because I was forced to do so.

IN 2010 I had already been working as a professional guitar tech for a number of years, working on the setups of bands such as The Rasmus, HIM and Amorphis.

Michael Monroe made a comeback as a solo artist in 2010 with a new band. The starting point proved to be a bit of a challenge. The band members lived in several different countries, which meant they often turned up in Finland with a bag of guitar effects and a few cables stuffed in there for good measure.

As the band’s new guitar tech I felt very uncomfortable at the thought of having to guess which cable or pedal would be failing in the middle of hard rocking show.

To make life easier for myself and the band, I made an agreement with their manager to build the musicians roadworthy pedalboards that would be easy to travel with and would get the job done with no hassles.

I could draw on what I had seen foreign top acts using on stage. At my workbench at Helsinki’s Backline Rental I used the best adhesive materials I knew, took my lead dress inspiration from the handmade guitar amps I had serviced, installed pro-quality power supplies, and as the finishing touch I prepared cable looms, which would take all the necessary cables from the boards to the backline in one, sturdy strand.

THE FIRST TOUR proved me right. The technicians at the venues we played were very happy with our meticulous and punctual methods. We got our equipment up and running in record time, and once the gig ended our teardown was fast as lightning. The band’s guitarists sounded better than ever, and what’s best, we had no technical problems. It was such a relief to know that every cable and plug in the signal chain had been selected and soldered by myself.

I used the same concept and techniques to make boards for Daniel Lioneye´s US tour, for the European tour of the Von Hertzen Brothers, and for the national comeback tour of Sielun Veljet in late 2011.

In light of these projects I realized that I had developed a new way of putting together a pedalboard. I was convinced that many more musicians could benefit from my knowhow because I was still seeing many bands turning up to a gig with plastic bags full of pedals and tangled, barely working cables.

CUSTOM SOUNDS had long been my favourite guitar shop in Helsinki, thanks to its different outlook and profile.

I was given the opportunity to work at Custom Sounds between tours and gigs. When the owner, Harri Koski – who is now running Mad Professor – saw my enthusiasm he offered me to buy the whole company.

I brought with me a wealth of knowledge about connectors, cables, and accessories. Custom Sounds had been distributing pedalboard frames, power supplies, and signal splitters and routers for some time already, which meant all the necessary ingredients for pedalboard DIY were now available in one place. The idea to move from the rock venues to a guitar shop in Helsinki seemed to make a lot of sense.

I ended my active touring work to become the co-owner of Custom Sounds together with my business partner Jani Marjoniemi, and even got an apartment on the same street. Now I was able to further develop my concepts, away from the pressures of touring life. I felt a professional guitar rig shouldn’t be the privilege of top professionals only. Roadworthy pedalboards could be an important asset for all musicians. Running a shop, while planning and making pedalboards at the same time proved to be harder that I anticipated, though.

I SOLDERED and assembled stuff on the floor of the shop and in a tiny back room during business hours. I went to help any of our customers, but whenever I could I rushed back to my hot soldering iron.

During the autumn of 2012 I made a few boards for musicians such as Euge Valovirta, Ben Varon and Varre Vartianen, but I still felt that my concept could be improved. The technical side was great, but I needed to standardize my delivery times and pricing in a way that would allow me to give exact answers to clients, when it came to when their board would be finished and what it would cost. Probably the hardest thing, though, was finding a way to tell people what exactly I was doing and why I was doing it.

But then I met a wonderful lady who was working right next door from our shop. She became my fiancé, as well as our company’s marketing consultant. With her help, I developed my concept, so that musicians would be able to fully grasp the advantages of my pedalboards, and what services I was offering. I carried on making boards, but also returned to guitar teching that summer, gathering new inspiration and fresh ideas. When I returned I was ready to make pedalboards in a more structured manner.

During the autumn of 2013 I started developing the idea for my Fillmore 1970 pedalboard. This board, based on Jimi Hendrix’ legendary pedal setup, would enable me to present my concept through a series of videos and articles. Even though this board was never meant to be sold, I could explain our price structure, and give potential clients an idea of what a pedalboard could include in its entirety.

WE GOT OFFERED a business space right next door to our shop in early 2014. I felt inspired, because the place had served as a studio in the 1970's for photographer Risto Vuorimies, who had developed there the first album covers for the legendary Finnish band The Hurriganes.

Patch cable work took a huge leap forward when US-maker Evidence Audio introduced its new SiS-plugs. Now patch cables could be made faster, and with much better quality than before.

Our future Custom Boards technician Eetu Lehtinen simply walked into our shop one day asking for a job. I immediately put him to work during a hectic week of educational workshops. He seemed extremely talented, so I took him under my wing to help me make pedalboards.

Finally all parts had fallen into place – Custom Boards was born.

WE PLANNED AND MADE dozens of boards in our new workshop during 2014 and 2015. Thanks to Eetu I also had the time to further improve our services. We went forward with many areas like cabling and attachments, and also created the first official webpage for Custom Boards.

I released several new series of videos about pedalboards, and wrote a ton of articles on their use in the Backstage-blog I had started. I developed a special planning form to speed up the design of new pedalboards, and we also streamlined our building process. Word started to spread. We were holding educational workshops on pedalboard design. During all this I started to notice a new problem with a positive undertone.

Custom Sounds´ renovated retail shop saw a steady flow of musicians who had read our posts and watched our videos. People would then show up in our shop with bags of pedals and wanted to leave the shop with a finished board.

Seemingly I hadn’t managed to get the point across that we were working on an appointment-only basis. Our shop assistants were left confused; could pedalboards be made on the spot or not?

AN IDEA for a new type of service started growing in my mind in 2016: We could offer help and advice for players on planning their own pedalboard, coupled with our suggestions on the right components needed. These consultations would be held by a technician specialized in board-making. You couldn’t make this concept happen in our shop, though, because it was impossible to take care of more than one customer at a time.

We discussed this idea with our staff, and I tried to come up with a concept that would help musicians in the best way possible.

Like anybody can tell you, working on something like this while running a business takes a lot of time. We were working on new boards all the while, writing new blog posts, filming new videos, and we also had to take care of all the stuff that working as an importer, distributor, and brick-and-mortar shop owners entails.

In the end I had to take some time off from day-to-day work in 2017 to remodel Custom Boards’ whole range of services. Right now it almost feels like I’ve also come up with a business model for instrument shops of the future, almost by accident.

I FEEL that there is a real demand for hands-on customer service on an appointment-only basis. Some complex decisions have to be made in a quiet environment, and a busy, buzzing shop isn’t the right place for this.

The biggest difference with Custom Boards compared to traditional retail stores is that you need to book an appointment. This change makes our work more effective, it improves our service, and it allows us to consult with the client in the privacy of our workshop. Custom Sounds will keep on working as it has always done, but everything that has to do with pedalboards will be transferred to Custom Boards starting in August 2017.

We help our clients find their own sound, solve any problems concerning their guitar rig, and design pedalboards from start to finish. If somebody wants to build their own board, we are be happy to give advice and offer a the full range of products to take home. Consultations can also be held using Skype, if our client lives outside of the Helsinki region.

Just like back when I worked as a touring tech, interacting with musicians is a highly rewarding occupation. Especially now that I can do it right here in my hometown.

1.8.2017 Kimmo Aroluoma
The author is the founder of Custom Boards.

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