|The Stomping Ground: Musitronics, Mu-Tron, and the Gizmotron
by Chris Gill
Reprinted from Vintage Guitar Magazine
September 1997, Volume 11 Number 12
| Effects pedals would probably still be
considered novelties instead of serious tools for professional musicians had it
not been for the ambitious efforts of the Musitronics company in the '70s.
Their impressive line of Mu-Tron stomp boxes boasted extremely sturdy
construction, attractive and functional design, and, most importantly,
outstanding sound quality. Mu-Tron effects were used by many top musicians
during the '70s, including Stevie Wonder, Larry Coryell, George Duke, George
Benson, Lee Ritenour, Frank Zappa, Bootsy Collins, Jerry Garcia, Andy Summers,
and many others. The companys' products have recently regained hip status
amongst today's new breed of musicians, being used by bands like Bush and Korn
and appearing on the covers of records by the Pizzicato Five and Pink Noise
The seeds for the Musitronics company were planted in 1970 when Guild president
A1 Dronge bought the rights to a music synthesizer designed by electronic
engineer Mike Beigel and a few of his MIT schoolmates. "It was like a
Moog, but a little different," recalls Beigel. "Among other things,
it had an unusual hand-held controller, voltage controlled filters, digital
controlled oscillators, which was uncommon at that time, and a ring modulator.
Without knowing it, I laid the groundwork for a lot of work I would be doing in
While working on this project, Beigel became acquainted with Aaron Newman,
chief engineer at Guild and the designer of many of the company's amplifiers.
Unfortunately, Dronge was killed in an airplane accident in 1972, and the
synthesizer project was dropped before the first unit was ever produced. Newman
and Beigel decided to start their own company when they detected resistance to
the synthesizer project from the new president of Guild.
"I went to work somewhere else, but Beigel and I kept talking about what
kind of synthesizer-related accessories we could make," says Newman.
"He thought that we could make an automatic wah-wah pedal. We made the
first prototype of what became the Mu-Tron III envelope follower in the summer
of 1972, and I left my job to start Musitronics."
The housing for the Mu-Tron III was created with help
from an automotive designer who once was in charge of the design team that
designed the Fifties Studebaker. "We designed them so you could drop them
off tall buildings and they'd still work," says Beigel. "The way the
company started out was the seeds of how it ended too. We made the products as
good as we possibly could and didn't worry enough about staying in business.
What we tried to put together, and I think we succeeded, was something that was
both a novel product and a work of art."
Newman and Beigel developed a prototype of the Mu-Tron III, which Newman showed
to major retailers like Manny's, Sam Ash, and E.U. Wurlitzer to check their
reaction to the product. The response was overwhelmingly positive, so Beigel
and Newman joined forces with Derf Nolbe, an East Coast music store owner who
put up most of the funds for starting the company, and Danny Lamb, who handled
marketing and sales. Musitronics set up its first plant in a converted chicken
coop in Rosemont, New Jersey, and in a short amount of time it became that
town's biggest employer, with a work force of 35 employees.
Soon Musitronics was granted a patent for both the circuitry and the physical
design of the Mu-Tron III. An envelope follower connected to a voltage
controlled filter, the Mu-Tron III uses photo mods to control the filter.
"We also used a dual supply instead of a single supply so we could have a
wide dynamic range," says Beigel. "That way you could really smash on
the guitar and not distort the whole effect. We used a state-variable filter
because that way we could get three different kinds of filter response out of
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