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 Test.

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 the future."

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 it."

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