The life of the jet-setting house DJ is the envy of every kid who ever block-rocked a beat, right? Miguel Migs is one of the world's most successful spanning-the-globe deep-house DJs. And his remixes for Britney Spears, Macy Gray, Ella Fitzgerald and even Lionel Richie have made him a household name. A typical year for the six-foot-three San Franciscan includes stops in New Zealand, the Philippine island of Boracay, Dubai, Iceland, Croatia and Thailand, as well as serious bangers in Europe and the U.S. As Migs' second artist album, Those Things, hits the shelves, the one-time reggae guitarist can perhaps take a breather and look to the future. But some gigs are just too crazy to forget.
“In 2003, I was playing on the beach in Bodrum, Turkey,” Migs recalls. “But they didn't have the proper permit. In the middle of my set, the army showed up pointing their machine guns at us. They told us to stop the music. Then the army got into some big situation with the promoter, and we just sneaked out. It is a little awkward when you are in a foreign country and someone is pointing a gun at you and you don't speak the language.”
Fully recovered from his military scare and at a more tranquil location, Miguel Migs speaks to Remix while reclining on the hot sands of Waimea beach (North O'ahu), Hawaii. If ever a DJ was known for his ability to bring the heat, it's Migs. Whether on his mix, remix or artist recordings (for labels as diverse as Naked, Yoshitoshi, Large Music, NRK, Astralwerks and his own Salted Music), Miguel Migs infuses penetrating warmth to deep-house tracks that earmark him as a singular artist, not simply another faceless DJ working the superstar circuit. You can find 20 people on the street who might not like house music but who will immediately gravitate to the saturated sounds, smoldering atmospheres and deep grooves created by Migs.
“I come at recording from more of a listening angle than thinking, ‘Is this gonna rock the dancefloor with pumping beats and songs about partying?''” the 34-year-old explains. “I like songs with more depth. Coming from a songwriting background [with his old Santa Cruz band, Zion Sounds], I will sometimes kick back with some chords and write a melody and put it together that way. Being a musician has helped me put songs together and be more open minded as to how I put them together.”
Following 2002's Colorful You (Astralwerks) and numerous mix CDs, Migs' Those Things stretches his musical ID even further. To hear Migs tell it, Colorful You was “more downtempo, atmospheric and R&B, while Those Things (Salted/Om, 2007) is more uptempo and funky. I was broke when I made Colorful You; I didn't have Salted Studios where I now have the luxury to tweak sounds. Now I have more time to really make songs represent what I am really into.”
Migs' Salted Studios are in the same San Francisco complex that houses Moulton Studios, a popular destination for many of the city's producers and DJs. Migs laid down the instrumental tracks for Those Things at Salted; recorded vocalists Lisa Shaw, Junior Reid, Sadat X and Tim Fuller at Moulton; then mixed the vocals on an SSL board and vintage tube EQs at San Francisco Soundworks. (He followed the same process when recording the album's live percussion, guitar and bass.) He then loaded the files into his external hard drive and dumped them to his G5/Logic/Pro Tools rig at Salted. But the old-world gear at SF Soundworks wasn't the final loop in Migs' chain.
“I mix in the virtual environment, and there is a certain warmth that you lose by being all virtual,” he says. “So I run all my synth sounds through a Millennia Origin preamp to give them some warmth and dynamics. It is great because you can switch between solid state and tube; that is what I love. I run all my outboard modules through the Millennia: the Motif, Triton, Fantom, SE-1, Proteus 2500, Nord Lead — all to add a little warmth. Even if I just run it flat, I get that warm quality. And I like to tweak the EQs depending on the sound; it might be heavy on the low end or brighter depending on the individual songs.”
In addition to the Origin hardware, Migs runs Waves Renaissance software over the entire mix process. “I run the L1 Ultramaximizer the whole time when I mix,” he says. “It gives a nice amount of compression to the overall mix with a good level to work with, too. But it depends how you set it. Some guys hit it too hard and everything sounds squashed. I like to let the element breathe enough to where I am not hitting it too hard but where the whole mix has enough compression and volume.”
Migs, who often spins CDs burned from files he has received via e-mail (Purple Music and Sulfuric Records are faves), is admittedly not a tech head. He likes to keep it simple, befitting the organic nature of his deep-house style.
“You can spend millions of dollars on gear, but I work better when I keep it really simple,” he says. “[But] I do like to run EQs on each track, as well as use the Renaissance plug-ins, Lexicon reverb plug-ins and Echo Farm delays. With the Waves plug-ins, I mess around with the MondoMods or the MetaFlangers; you can get some pretty cool textures just lightly throwing that on some percussion or guitar. You can always find a way to make it sound more unique or with added dimension or depth. The SoundToys PitchBlender plug-ins are really interesting; they have some trippy auto-filter type patches that I will throw on keys or percussion to tweak them a bit. I try to get experimental with some of the settings on the more interesting plug-ins.”
Like many producers in the electronic realm, Migs' tracks typically begin with the drums. And drums with an immense sense of warmth are his defining sound. Migs maintains a bank of thousands of kicks, hats and snares, most sampled from old vinyl sources. “I gravitate towards well-rounded kicks that aren't overly synthetic sounding,” he says. “A kick has to be thick and chunky enough to really push the beat along, but without overpowering the other elements. I have bass drums sampled from vinyl, [mostly late '80s hip-hop], or sounds I have traded with friends. I start with samples that sound really good rather than spend time trying to tweak them to sound a certain way. I might roll off a bit of superlow end, or maybe add punch in the mids, but generally I don't want to change or compress the kick sound. I use the ESX sampler to separate kicks and snares and hi-hats, so it is superspontaneous. I build up the beat, maybe add a clap from a synth or live percussion. I like to mix and match 'til I get something I can build on.”
Those Things has its share of four-to-the-floor pounders, plus rhythmically flexible tracks like “Let Me Be” and “Fire,” the latter featuring reggae icon Junior Reid on vocals.
“I have been a fan of Junior's forever,” Migs exclaims. “I recorded all his vocals and freestyling at Moulton, then over the next week I cut it all up and pieced it together in Logic. The dub echoes are the Waves plug-ins, and Echo Farm delays on the guitar skanks and the horns. That Moog sound might have been Fantom of the Triton. I like outboard synths; hands-on is a personal preference. Having the SE-1 or the Nord where you are, hands-on with the knobs and tweaking stuff and doing it right there rather than doing it all with the mouse, is essential in my opinion.”
“Let Me Be” is retro and funky, beginning with a waterfall-like swoosh and then flowing through Cameo-worthy synth doodles, jazz-saxophone scatting and brass stabs and an omnipresent superfunk bass riff. “If I am running through synth modules, I will always look for a trippy, washing sound pad or some type of effect that captures my attention. I will record and tweak it with some plug-ins. That builds some tension in the intro, then boom! The bass comes in. The horn sounds are a saw synth, a patch or simple chord stabs from the Motif or Fantom. The live saxophone is Charles McNeil, an amazing player from Oakland. The beat was originally straighter, but I wanted something funkier. I created the more broken-up beat underneath the music in Logic, added shaker and percussion, then the live bass, which is played by Josh Heath. That's a Nord Lead making the low whirring underneath; then it rises to make a Moog-ish oscillating tone later in the track. That funk synth is a Nord Lead patch or something I tweaked from the Proteus 2500. It has all the knobs, and you can tweak all the sounds and use the wheel to get that vibrato.”
CASTLES IN THE SAND
Migs gets up to leave the beach because he has to prepare for a club set later that night. His less immediate future includes rehearsing with a full band to tour tracks from Those Things (he will play guitar), as well as developing artists for his Salted Music label. Wherever his projects take him, you can be sure Migs' keep-it-simple, keep-it-funky approach will light his path.
“I am just not a big computer tech head,” Migs reconfirms. “My brain isn't gifted that way. I like the old-school approach, just writing musically in a simple way rather than getting too technical about it. I will have a few units at the touch of my hands to be able to flip through sounds and tweak manually. I like that. There is something about that that is appealing to me.”
DJ ERGONOMICS 101
Before and after I get to the club, I always double-check that the gear is how I want it to be. I am 6'3”, so I have to make sure the setup is four feet high or I will be bending over all night, and that is really hard on my back. That is a huge thing to me. So the setup has to be comfortable for me to do my thing. You have to make sure the equipment is placed properly. Sometimes the mixer will be where it shouldn't necessarily be, or maybe you want the CD player inside the turntables if you are playing more CDs. There are little things you can do to customize the DJ booth to suit your preferences. I hammer [the club contact] pretty hard before I get to the club to make sure everything I need technically is there so I don't need to bring anything. But if you are playing records, bring your own needles and maybe a small light, because clubs tend to be dark. Light is essential in the DJ booth.
Computers, DAWs, recording hardware
Apple Power Mac G5 2.7 GHz computer with Logic 6 software; MacBook Pro (for the road)
Digidesign Pro Tools|24 Mixplus, Pro Tools|HD systems
Access Virus A rack synth
Apple Logic EVP88 (Rhodes) and EVB3 (Hammond) soft synths
Clavia Nord Lead 2 synth
E-mu Proteus 2500 rack module
Korg Triton synth
Line 6 Echo Farm plug-in
Roland Fantom-X6 synth
SoundToys PitchBlender plug-in
Studio Electronics SE-1 synth
Waves Renaissance (L1 Ultramaximizer, MondoMod, MetaFlanger)
Yamaha Motif ES6 synth
Apple Logic EXS24MkII Software Sampler
Mic, preamp, compressor, EQ
Millennia Media Origin STT-1 preamp/compressor/EQ
Neumann U 87 mic
DJ mixer, turntables
Pioneer CDJ-1000 CD turntable, DJM-800 and DJM-1000 DJ mixers
Rane MP 2016a Rotary Mixer
(2) Technics SL-1200Mk2 (with Ortofon cartridges)
Mackie HR824 monitors
Sony MDR-V6 headphones
SF Soundworks vocal mixdown
Lexicon 960L effects processor
Neve 1073 preamp
Pultec EQP1 EQ
SSL 9056 J console