That good ole Mu-Tron magic

Posted by Andrew Backover on

There are certain products and designs that are so radical, innovative and revolutionary -- providing a step change in performance and quality -- that it becomes clear to the consumer and the world at large that they are witnessing something special and unique. An idea so futuristic that it is easy to imagine it leaving the past behind and standing the test of time.

Maybe people had that reaction when they saw the first Airstream trailer, or Mercedes Gullwing, or the first laptop computer. I’m only guessing but I am betting that might have been the case with the first Strat, Tele or Les Paul. Would the first iPhone serve as a good recent example? I was still stuck with a Blackberry at the time.

 

Mu-Tron Magic

Perhaps I am overstating and romanticizing in hindsight, but I wonder if those feelings of awe and inspiration were evoked by the first “Mu-Trons,” as the pedals and effects designed and sold by Musitronics Corp. throughout the 1970s were known. A Google search on “Mu-Tron” or “Mutron” will come up with a slew of articles, historical accounts, reviews and demos of these amazing, sound-shaping works of art.

Murderers row....of tone

Here is a link to an overview site maintained by Mike Beigel, one of the founders and inventors behind Musitronics, http://www.musitronics.net/ . It was formed in Rosemont, N.J. in 1972 and seems to have essentially fizzled out -- at least in its original form -- sometime after 1978. Its pedals have been imitated countless times over the years. Most recently, Beigel himself started the the Mu-FX company to release a number of Mu-Tron-esque pedals that replicated the best of the originals and added some new and improved features. Here's a cool interview and demo from a few years ago, featuring Beigel:

 

New Kids on the Block....Mu-Tron: The next generation

I have a Mu-Tron Microtron III, which is a small-case version of the original Mu-Tron III envelope filter, with a few improved features, and I would say it is every bit as good as the original. I also just got an Octavider, which is a small-case reissue of the famous Mu-Tron Octave Divider. I haven't had time to play it yet so the jury is still out. (It looks like the reissues are now being branded as "Mu-Tron" pedals again, so I assume that they were able to resolve any naming or branding rights issues that existed.)

Mt. Rushmore of pedals

Clearly, in the pantheon of pedal-dom, the name Mu-Tron would have to be etched into the Mt. Rushmore of guitar effects. In fact, it has become the stuff of legends. Today, they are increasingly rare, collectible, expensive and, importantly, still awesome. You can still find them if you are diligent and persistent in your search but they are not cheap. The cheapest models seem to be the Phasor I ($200 to $300) and the most expensive are the Bi-Phase behemoth and hard-to-find Flanger (both of which can approach $2,000). The Octave Divider and Mu-Tron III are somewhere in the $450 to $700 range typically. Still, if you can spare the cash, they deliver incredible sonic value (in my opinion).

The Mu-Tron lineup – whether we are talking about the legendary Mu-Tron III Envelope Filter, the Mu-Tron Octave Divider, the C-200 Volume/Wah pedal or any of the three phasers – continues to perform impressively against top analog pedal technology and modern designs of today. I have played Strymon pedals and came away with a similar impression. I am sure there are other great modern pedal companies that you could tell me about, and I hope you will.

Lush, warm, organic tones

The best way to describe the varying, wide-ranging sounds of the Mu-Tron pedals is by using words such as “warm,” “organic,” “lush,” "deep," “multi-dimensional,” and “round.” Those words are thrown around a lot when describing analog pedals, vintage guitars or tube amps. But, in this case, there really are no better words to describe the sound.

Mu-Trons are also built like tanks and, in spite of having many switches, dials and moving parts, they tend to stand up to lots of years and use. Because, if you have a Mu-Tron, you will want to play it. And you should.

Jerry Garcia, Stevie Wonder and Bootsy Collins can't be wrong

 

And old Mu-Tron ad featuring....Stevie Wonder

If you look closely, you can see Jerry's Mu-Tron pedals racked behind him

My first Mu-Tron was a Mu-Tron III envelope filter. Sometimes known as an auto-wah, this is the pedal that Jerry Garcia used to achieve his magical wah sound effect on songs such as “Fire on the Mountain,” “Estimated Profit” and “Shakedown Street,” among other Dead standards. It is pretty much one of the key sounds that first drew me to the Dead.

Other famous artists who have played the Mu-Tron III include bassist Bootsy Collins and the incomparable Stevie Wonder.

What's really cool about this pedal is that it can produce a round, broad and deep vowel-sounding wah effect. Kind of a “wow” versus a “wah.” You can listen here:

Mu-Tron C-200 Volume/Wah combo...yes, please!

My Mu-Tron III was an eBay find about 15 years ago. Since then, I have added the Phasor II, which sounds like a symphony of oscillating rubber bands -- with sound waves rising, falling and intertwining. I recently picked up a vintage Mu-Tron Octave Divider, another Jerry Garcia pedal, which is still considered one of the best, if not the best, octave effects in the world. I really like how thick and rubbery it makes guitar notes sound. I also have a C-200 Volume/Wah pedal, which is equally impressive, and I tend to use it in combination with a distortion pedal when trying to channel (unsuccessfully) the great Jimmy Page on Led Zeppelin's "How Many More Times."

I can’t overstate how amazing these pedals are and how fun it is to play them. I would love to hear about your Mu-Tron pedals or opinion of them in general, or any of your other favorites for Mt. Rushmore.

 


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