Bill Murphy of Premier Guitar magazine once honored the Mu- Tron III used by Bootsy Collins as one of the “Ten Stompboxes That Changed the World,” saying that Bootsy “took to the Mu-Tron like it had been custom-designed for him.”
The Mu-Tron III was invented by Mike Beigel, a pioneer in the design of effects who has a new company intended to go even further with some of his concepts. “I was a pretty good musician in high school and had a choice of going to music school or engineering school,” says Mike. “I was interested in both, but I ended up going to MIT.” He earned a dual degree, becoming the school’s first electronic music graduate.
While still in college, Mike worked with classmate Izzy Strauss on music synthesis, and they sold a synthesizer-system design to Guild Musical Instruments in 1970. After the tragic death of Alfred Dronge, Guild’s founding president, in a plane crash, the company’s new management backed away from its electronic projects. Mike then partnered with a former Guild executive, Aaron Newman, to form Musitronics Corporation. Their first product was the Mu- Tron III, an envelope-controlled filter derived from Beigel’s MIT synthesizer project. It had a distinctive “auto-wah” sound, and it worked with bass, guitar, keyboards, wind instruments, and even percussion.
The prototype was well received, and Musitronics began production in a converted chicken coop in Rosemont, New Jersey. The Mu-Tron III hit the market in 1972 and was immediately endorsed by guitarist Larry Coryell. Sales took off after Stevie Wonder ran his clavinet through a Mu-Tron on “Higher Ground” and Jerry Garcia began to use the device regularly with the Grateful Dead. And Bootsy got his hands on one.
More Musitronics products followed, including the Mu-Tron Bi-Phase, Octave Divider, and Flanger. They were a hit with musicians, but the company struggled financially. “Musitronics did not ever make much money,” says Mike. “I think we showed a profit one year.” After a failed attempt to produce an electromechanical device called the Gizmotron, designed by Lol Creme and Kevin Godley from the English band 10cc, Musitronics sold the Mu-Tron line to the synthesizer company ARP—which promptly went bankrupt.
After that, Mike focused on consulting and research, developing electronic products for a number of companies, including radio-frequency ID chips used to track animals. “I’ve always had the ability to invent things,” he says. “It has to do with seeing something that’s not there and bringing it into practical physical form.”
Mike never lost his interest in musical electronics, and in 2013 he launched Mu-FX, with the goal of “recreating the products from the original Mu-Tron product line in a smaller size, with improved sound quality and reliability.” The first Mu-FX product was an updated version of the Mu-Tron III called the Tru- Tron 3X. It was followed by the Octave Divider and Boostron 3, with more to come. Mike is constantly improving his products, which has caused some production gaps, but he remains focused on advancing the devices he originally developed for Musitronics (some of which are still selling for premium prices on eBay). And he remains attuned to what really works for musicians. “There’s an interesting question about how much responsiveness a musician wants from an effect,” he says. “Most musical effects are devices that don’t intrinsically change their characteristics when you play into them. An envelope-controlled filter is an exception, because it does change how it responds depending on how you play.”
Mu-FX products are made in the USA and sold directly through the company website, which has information on availability and upcoming releases. They have premium prices, but Mike says he plans to introduce another line that will be “accessible to more musicians, while we continue the high-end line that we presently sell. That, I hope, will stabilize the company enough for us to do a lot more R&D.” And that’s a good thing, because Mike Beigel is an innovator who combines deep knowledge of musical electronics with a knack for designing products that enhance musical expression. As Bootsy once said, “He can give you more of what you’re funkin’ for.”
For more about Mu-FX, go to mu-fx.com.
Jim Roberts was the founding editor of Bass Player and also served as the magazine’s publisher and group publisher. He is the author of How the Fender Bass Changed the World and American Basses: An Illustrated History & Player’s Guide (both published by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard).