Made in Topeka Spotlight: Pedal Pad

By Melissa Brunner
Photos by David Vincent

PedalPad1If necessity is the mother of all invention, then Michael Stratton is an ideal father: nurturing his idea through infancy; allowing it to spread its wings in adolescence; and helping it find its way into adulthood. The musician and entrepreneur founded MKS Professional Stage Products, which makes and distributes a product called Pedal Pad to some of the top musicians worldwide.

“I’ve always had a strong desire to work for myself, and I’ve always been fascinated with production and the process of developing something unique and taking it to market,” Stratton said.

Infancy
Stratton’s love for music ultimately led him down the manufacturing path. Stratton played electric guitar and, like many electric guitarists, had various effects pedals to produce different sounds, each with its own controls, cords and connectors.

“I’d get off work on a Friday and I’d have to pull all these things out of a duffel bag and started plugging them in, and it would take forever,” Stratton said.

The idea for the Pedal Pad was born. It’s essentially a box that keeps pedals and corresponding gear organized and connected.

“It was the necessity side of it,” Stratton said. “As I started to develop it and use it, I’d make refinements. It’s all about picturing it in your head and mulling it over, so when it gets to the point you finally build, it’s pretty well worked out.”

Stratton says he came up with the design and worked with bandmate Les Goering to refine ideas for the fixtures that allow for a seamless manufacturing process. Stratton’s south Topeka shop is outfitted with tools and templates. Saws are dedicated to specific steps of the process, so settings never have to change. The same goes for router bits and other tools used in the process. Guides tell him exactly how to cut the vinyl for the box covering so there’s no guessing and no waste. Every step is done by hand—no mass production. Stratton also uses local goods and services as much as possible. He says he’s changed from importing metal work from China to having it done through North Topeka Fabrications. Custom Cabinet and Racks does the powder coating on the panels.

Adolescence
With the idea and the process ready to go, Stratton set about marketing his product to fellow musicians in 2001. Two things helped him along that path. First, Stratton secured a patent on a design feature for a two-tier pedal box for musicians who want to include a pedal too long for a single tier.

Then, not long after he started production, Guitar Player magazine profiled four companies making these types of boxes. His product rated five guitar picks out of five, the first time the magazine ever gave a product a perfect rating.

Word spread. Kerry Livgren and Rich Williams of the band, Kansas, started using the product. So did David Gilmour of Pink Floyd. John Fogerty had one, too, along with others about whom Stratton would hear from shop owners.

“They (the artists) don’t actually call me,” he said. “I did have an interesting conversation with Dweezil Zappa on the phone one time, though.”

As demand picked up, Stratton also was branching into distributing music-related electronic components for a company out of Hong Kong. That’s when he entered into a partnership with the Kansas Juvenile Correctional Complex. As part of an educational component at the facility, the young people in detention became subcontractors, of sorts, for Stratton’s company, producing and packaging his Pedal Pads.

Stratton said it was a perfect pairing, allowing him to devote time to both aspects of his business, and giving the young people experience in a trade to which they could relate.

“They always really liked the fact that they were building rock and roll gear, and they did a great job,” he said.

Adulthood
But, as it does, life happens. Two years ago funding for the KJCC program was cut. Around the same time, the electronics company with whom Stratton worked lost a trademark dispute. So, it was back to Pedal Pads full time—in an industry that had changed.

“There’s a lot more competition now,” Stratton said.

Stratton’s patent continues to give him a leg up on the competition. Plus, he’s revisited the aesthetics of the product, allowing customers to customize their exterior look and various inputs. Ed Hemberger, the teacher who worked with the young people at KJCC, has retired and now volunteers to help Stratton at his shop. Stratton also enlisted the help of Gary Piland to redesign his website (www.pedalpad.com).

“I’ve always looked at it as a manufacturing opportunity,” Stratton said. “Manufacturing is my job and, hopefully, someday sales will be a bigger part than just me working on it.”

He’s already seeing signs of a new generation of customers. He says John Mayer’s rhythm guitar player uses a Pedal Pad and, when Justin Timberlake performed on Saturday Night Live recently, he saw his logo on the boxes at the feet of both the guitar and bass players.

“It is a thrill,” Stratton said.

Stratton calls this a “rebirth period” for his business. He says he’ll spend about 40 hours a week in the shop, often with Hemberger’s help, making a big pile of sawdust to construct the boxes before moving on to fabric, hardware and finishing work. They can turn out about six boxes a day, if pushed. Stratton says he does email and web work at home, usually corresponding with guitar players to answer their questions. All the while, the gears in his head are turning about how to keep his product ahead of the rest.

“I’ll probably always make changes,” he said, “unless I get a real job!”

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