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September 2014
more... Builder ProfileGearEffectsOctober 2013

Builder Profile: The Mu-tron Story

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The first version of the Bi-Phase was called the Phase II.

How did the Phasor II come about?
We decided to make a single phaser. We used six stages while most people used four, so it sounded different. During development, we decide it was too clean. The photo-mods didn't induce any distortion, and the phase effect was kind of boring. We didn't know what to do, so we called up Bob Moog. He came down and we did a whole day of experiments to find out why it was too good to sound interesting. That was the genesis of the feedback knob. Without introducing distortion to make it interesting, we put feedback around the loop, emphasizing the peaks and making the effect more pronounced, but still undistorted. That was a big deal for me. I've used feedback on all kinds of things since then. The Phasor II became our biggest-selling product—I think it outsold all our other products combined. At the time [optical-sensor manufacturer] Hamamatsu could make us a photo-mod with six cells in it, so we didn't have to spend a bloody fortune on 12 photo-mods per Bi-Phase. Then we could start work on an actual flanger. We realized we didn't have any low-priced units, and we were missing out on a lot of business. At some point, when we discontinued the first phaser, we had a lot of the CA3080 transconductance amps left over, so I asked my friend who shared an office with me to make a filter using that thing. He made the Mu-tron Micro V. But we sold a lot fewer of those than the regular Mu-trons, so it was not really a step forward.

What was your role in the Dan Armstrong effects?
We made a deal to distribute the Dan Armstrong products. Dan was very creative. He had an engineer named George Merriman who designed all the products except the Orange Squeezer, which I had a bit of a hand in—though he did most of it. But they weren’t big sellers either, mainly because the odd-shaped box didn't really work with Fender Strats.

You mean because they wouldn't plug into the recessed input jack?
Right. We made an extender plug, as well as a way to re-wire it to plug into the amp, but neither was a satisfactory solution. You either had this thing sticking out of your Strat that you could knock off accidentally, or you had this thing attached to your amp that you had to run back to turn on. That package hurt those products, which were not bad. They all did something that people liked. Anyway, Dan wanted to make an octave divider that would also have a Green Ringer [ring modulator]. I think the Mu-tron Octave Divider was the first product that we made with two footswitches so you could turn on different parts of the effect. It was very popular, and today they get as much money as Mu-tron IIIs on the vintage market. Our next project was disastrous, though.

One day a friend of mine was walking around Tech Square in an altered state, and he walked in on some people actually building a yellow submarine. He spoke with the project financier, and the next thing you know, we had formed a think tank of sorts.

The Gizmotron—which was kind of a polyphonic EBow-type effect, right?
Yes. It's been written about, and someone’s doing a documentary on it. Kevin Godley and Lol Creme [of 10cc] showed up with the thing that had little wheels on it, and it bowed the guitar string. Everybody, including me, fell in love with it. I recall a quote from a management book that says if there’s anything your entire board of directors agrees on, don't do it! This proved to be more than true with the Gizmotron. It was entirely mechanical, except for the motor that drove the wheels. Motors make a lot of noise, but I found a way to deal with that. However, we needed a mechanical engineer, and mechanical engineers have their own way of “improving” things. To my utter horror, after waiting six weeks for the guy to deliver the prototype, he came up with something that sounded like the strings were being played with a buzz saw. I had the bad fortune of having to take it to England to show Godley and Creme. They were very nice people and I quite enjoyed their company, but they were also rich, spoiled rock stars—so when they saw this thing, they practically killed me.

I was sent back with explicit instructions to make one the way they had. So we found another mechanical engineer … who found another way to “improve” it. Kevin and Lol showed up in America, saw that horror, and were ready to sue us. The guy who made the second version wouldn't stop working on it, but the English guys had their engineer—who had made the first prototype—working on his version in parallel. That turned out to be the version that was actually made.

What happened then?
I pronounced the Gizmotron dead. Everybody wanted to buy one, but we couldn't sell them because they didn't work. But Mu-trons were so well made they could work for 40 years. I became convinced we had to get into digital audio signal processing, and I proposed a huge R&D effort. There were nine people on the board of directors. I made the digital proposal, but my voice was not strong enough to win. So the Gizmotron was voted in, the digital electronics was voted out, and I sent my letter of resignation somewhere along the line.

Musitronics was sold to ARP in 1978. We never even got our first royalty check. By the time it came due, they said they didn't have the money yet, and then they went bankrupt. We essentially gave it away. The tragic end was the loss of Musitronics, the loss of a million bucks, and the loss of my career for quite a while.

What year was that?
I quit in 1978. ARP went broke in ’81. Gizmo became its own company and went until about '80.


Guild never released the guitar synthesizer Mike Beigel designed with Izzy Straus, but its circuitry spawned the Mu-tron III, Musitronics’ best-known effect.

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