The Mu-Tron III
by Daniel Brooks
It may be that the 1970s were destined to be funky. James Brown had been getting into the roots of some powerfully rhythmic soul for most of the previous decade, and by the end of the 60s, bands like Funkadelic, Sly & the Family Stone, Tower of Power, the Meters, the Ohio Players, and others had begun to dig deep into the inspiration found in its hypnotic groove and passionate lyrical themes. Though it was well on its way by 1972, funk got funkier with the debut of a completely new kind of stand-alone effects pedal.
The Musitronics Mu-Tron III created a whole new category of effects, and most musicians believe the standard it set for all of the envelope filters and auto wah effects to follow has yet to be matched. Like its cousin, the wah pedal, the envelope filter creates a quick, sweeping, dramatic tone shift in the signal of any guitar, bass or keyboard plugged into it. It differs from the wah in that it is not controlled by the sweep of a foot pedal, but by the volume of the incoming signal. The response is much faster and more precise to each note than any foot pedal, so it creates an effect that is unique, impossible to achieve with a wah pedal, immediately responsive to the player’s picking technique, and funky as anything.
The Mu-Tron III was the result of a salvage effort to redeem a failed synthesizer project. Engineer Mike Beigel had developed a synthesizer for the ill-fated Guild Guitars President Alfred Dronge. When the project was sidelined in 1970 by Dronge’s untimely death in a plane crash, Beigel began a collaboration with Guild’s ex-chief engineer Aaron Newman that grew into the Musitronics Corporation in 1972. Their first release, the Mu-Tron III, was an immediate success. Musicians as diverse as Stevie Wonder, Larry Coryell, Bootsy Collins and Jerry Garcia put it to good use creating signature songs that helped define the era.
Imitations followed, many of them worthy of their own following, but none quite matched the unique response, tone, and versatility of the Mu-Tron III. The Mu-Tron III ran on two 9v batteries for an 18 volt operation that created a clearer, wider range of effect with much greater headroom. Patented circuits used, then-novel, opto-isolators to control the filter, and the effect could be adapted to a creative assortment of effects and voices due to its high-pass, low-pass and band-pass filter responses that could sweep from low to high, or high to low.
Beigel sold the Musitronics Corporation to ARP in 1979. Within the year, ARP had gone out of business and the Mu-Tron III went out of production. Its remarkably high build quality and inimitable sound has turned those units created in its brief, seven-year run into highly sought after collector’s items. Some unauthorized “reissues” have appeared, and in 1995 Beigel lent his genius to Electro Harmonix to create a newer version of the Mu-Tron III, The Electro Harmonix Q-Tron, with its own variations The Mini Q-Tron, the Micro Q-Tron and the Q-Tron+. Do they stand up to their legendary predecessor?