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MARCUS MILLER: Camel Island Jazz Legend

Interview | Producer/Composer By Paul Tingen
Published July 1999

MARCUS MILLER: Camel Island Jazz Legend

Few people can truly be said to be multi‑talented, but jazz and soul legend Marcus Miller is undoubtedly one of them. Paul Tingen talks to him about his approach to making and recording music, and looks inside his Camel Island studio.

Marcus Miller has been dubbed the 'Superman of Soul' and declared one of the 10 most influential bass players of the '90s by Bass Player magazine. He's penned hit songs for the likes of Luther Vandross and David Sanborn, and his production credits include Vandross, Miles Davis, David Sanborn, Bob James, Patches Stewart and Wayne Shorter. On top of this, he has played bass with a list of musicians that reads like a Who's Who of the American music industry, including Miles, Donald Fagen, Luther Vandross, Wayne Shorter, Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, Frank Sinatra, Mariah Carey, Paul Simon, The Brecker Brothers, Joe Sample and George Benson. His web site ( lists contributions to 385 albums by 195 artists! Miller also plays clarinet, bass clarinet, sax, keyboards, guitar, sitar, and is a good singer — so it's perhaps unsurprising that he's sometimes seen as a jack of all trades.

Miller is certainly versatile. He says that his roots are in funk and R&B, but he plays rock, jazz, bebop, reggae, soul, blues, free jazz, New Wave, pop, and many other genres with equal ease. In fact, he's a master of many of these styles, whatever the label 'jack of all trades' might imply. He's often credited (or charged, depending on your point of view) with having invented 'smooth jazz', through tracks such as 'Maputo', which he wrote for Bob James and David Sanborn in 1986. Even though the smooth jazz genre found its origins in the soft side of players like Sanborn, Washington, Sample and James, and 'Maputo' is used as the theme song for LA's smooth‑jazz radio station (The Wave), at the time of making the music Miller and his collaborators felt like "renegades. We were doing something new, and we were criticised for it. We were told: 'how dare you use drum machines in instrumental music, let alone in jazz music?'"

Mention of drum machines brings us to another aspect of Miller's career, namely his pioneering use of music technology. And this is the main reason why I find myself in the top floor of Miller's huge house, set against a hill not far from Sunset Boulevard, where he lives with his wife and four children. Miller's airy studio is filled with daylight, not to mention his many (bass) guitars, tapes, CDs, and of course, music recording gear (see pages 40 and 42 for a full inventory and Miller's comments on the gear).

No Tech Guy

Miller's main effects and processing rack: from top, Lexicon PCM70 reverb, Ensoniq DP4 multi‑effects, Yamaha REV7 reverb, TC Electronic 2990 digital delay, Eventide H3000DSX Ultra‑harmonizer, TC Electronic TC128 programmable 28‑band EQ, Lexicon PCM41 digital delay, Dbx 160X compressor/limiter, Drawmer DS201 dual gate, patchbay, GML transformerless mic preamp, GML 8200 parametric EQ, Drawmer 1960 tube compressor, BSS dynamics processors.Miller's main effects and processing rack: from top, Lexicon PCM70 reverb, Ensoniq DP4 multi‑effects, Yamaha REV7 reverb, TC Electronic 2990 digital delay, Eventide H3000DSX Ultra‑harmonizer, TC Electronic TC128 programmable 28‑band EQ, Lexicon PCM41 digital delay, Dbx 160X compressor/limiter, Drawmer DS201 dual gate, patchbay, GML transformerless mic preamp, GML 8200 parametric EQ, Drawmer 1960 tube compressor, BSS dynamics processors.

Although he looks totally at home in the middle of all his gear, Miller protests at one stage that: "I'm not a tech guy. Most of the time I try to ignore this stuff as much as I can. I don't get affectionate with this gear, I don't even remember the numbers of them — I, S, Q, 5, 31, whatever — it doesn't mean much to me. My bass guitars mean a lot to me, but these things are just tools. The only thing I'm attached to is my Akai MPC3000 sequencer. I'd have a hard time working without it."

Despite his reservations, he's also adamant that using music technology is for him as natural as breathing: "When you are a product of my environment, music and technology are one and the same. Since 1981 synthsizers and drum machines have become an integral part of R&B. You cannot make R&B without them, unless you want to sound real retro. Some people in R&B only use drum machines, and the rest of the instruments are live, others computerise everything. But at any level there is technology involved. I've been using drum machines and sequencers since the early '80s. I had one of the first LinnDrums, and as soon as sequencers came out, I had one of them too. So since '83‑'84 my writing process has been essentially the same. I get ideas in my head, work them out in my sequencer and use different synthesizers to approximate the different sounds of the instruments. I keep layering until it sounds close to the way I hear it. After that I go into the studio and I replace the synthesized sounds with real instruments. All my music starts like this, here in this studio, unless I'm on the road with my band and we jam during soundchecks or rehearsals. Often things will come out of that, and I will try to develop that into songs too. That is a more organic way."

An example of the latter way of working is the cover of Gershwin's 'Summertime' which appears on Miller's last solo album, Live & More (1997), and came out of an impromptu 'unplugged' improvisation that the band did on a Japanese radio show. Miller's '90s solo albums, The Sun Don't Lie (1992), Tales (1995) and Live & More are proof that Miller's personal taste in music is at almost the opposite end of the spectrum to smooth jazz: all three albums contain rough‑edged funk, featuring Miller's inimitable high‑energy bass playing. Tales, especially, is a tour de force, mixing spoken‑word recordings from many of Miller's heroes (Miles, Zawinul, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Duke Ellington) with some weird experimentation, carried along by melodies played on his bass guitar.


One of the Camel Island keyboard racks, including a Roland JV1080 sound module, Roland JP8000 synth, and Ensoniq TSR10 sampling keyboard. To the right is Miller's trusty Akai MPC3000 sequencer and his Mac‑based Ensoniq PARIS multitrack recording system.One of the Camel Island keyboard racks, including a Roland JV1080 sound module, Roland JP8000 synth, and Ensoniq TSR10 sampling keyboard. To the right is Miller's trusty Akai MPC3000 sequencer and his Mac‑based Ensoniq PARIS multitrack recording system.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1959, Miller started his music career as a bit of a child prodigy. His father was an organ player, and the legendary jazz pianist Wynton Kelly was his cousin. This musical environment stimulated Miller to start playing clarinet at age 10, and soon after that sax, bass and piano. His first professional gig was at age 15, and he studied briefly at the prestigious New York High School Of Music And Art (on which the movie Fame was based), before dropping out to develop his unique bass style. Influenced by the likes of Jaco Pastorius, Stanley Clarke and Larry Graham, Miller became a pioneer of the thumb‑driven, slap bass techniques that are now commonplace. He soon found himself in demand as a rising star in the New York session world.

It was at this point that Miles Davis hired him for his comeback band. Miller remembers his time with Davis with great affection, crediting Davis with having helped him find his own voice on the bass guitar, and quoting him as his favourite musician. When Miller left, in 1983, his career went into overdrive, and he has been prolific as a songwriter, producer, bass player, and even a film composer.

So does he ever have problems switching between the many different (metaphorical) hats he's wearing? Miller shakes his head: "It's not that difficult. It's all music. For me there's not a great separation between playing bass and producing. Today was a typical day. I woke up and compiled the DAT for An American Love Story. Then I did some work for the Patches Stewart album I'm producing. Later on I'll do some work on a movie soundtrack, and tonight I'll spend some time on my new solo album. And if someone wants me to play on their album and has sent me an ADAT, late at night I'll put the ADAT tape on and throw some bass on it. The thing that takes most time in my life is producing, because it's not only writing and arranging, but a lot of time is goes into scheduling and dealing with the record company and management and studios and so on. You spend a lot of time on the 'phone. As a producer, I'm like the director of a movie. I try to get the artist to sound the best that they can sound. And I'll do whtever it takes, whether it's me writing everything and playing all the instruments, or getting a band together and helping them do it."

Miller's hands‑on approach to producing has at times led to the accusation that the albums he produces are really Marcus Miller solo albums featuring the artist. It was a criticism levelled most strongly at Miles Davis's Tutu and Amandla, but also at some David Sanborn albums. On Sanborn's latest, the brand‑new Inside, Miller again wrote five of the 10 tracks, and played almost half the instruments. The counter‑argument, for those who care to listen, is that Miller's solo albums sound very different to the albums he produces. He sighs with relief at this observation, because the point is clearly a thorn in his side: "Just because I write most of the music and play most of the instruments on an album doesn't mean it's my album. I get irritated by comments like that, because it takes away from the artist. Miles played the horn, that's what made Tutu. I created a setting for him, and he took over. Nobody else could have pulled Tutu off. There is nobody else who could have given that kind of depth to the album that he did. Similarly, David Sanborn makes his albums his own. What I do is create backdrops for the artists. When I write or play for an artist I put myself in their environment. I always play what is appropriate for the situation. I am supporting whoever the artist is, and whatever the artist wants. When I produced Luther Vandross in 1991 there were times when he told me: 'I want a commercial record — Marcus, write me a hit song'. So I took half an hour and put together 'The Power Of Love', and it went to number three in the charts. I had fun, and it wasn't like I was selling my soul. I don't define myself by that song, and anybody who is paying enough attention won't define me by it either."

Commerce Versus Integrity

Some of Miller's many sound modules: from top; Roland JD990 and JV1080 synths, Roland S760 sampler, Voce organ and electric piano modules, Akai S3000 sampler, Ensoniq ASR10 sampler.Some of Miller's many sound modules: from top; Roland JD990 and JV1080 synths, Roland S760 sampler, Voce organ and electric piano modules, Akai S3000 sampler, Ensoniq ASR10 sampler.

What is true, however, is that much of Marcus Miller's musical life is lived on the fine line between 'commercial' music and music of integrity and meaning. He comments: "All the people that I grew up listening to lived on that fence. Stevie Wonder was one of the greatest artists of all time, and he operated in a commercial environment. What he did artistically appealed to people. Herbie Hancock is one of the greatest pianists on the planet, and with Head Hunters he impressed me as a teenager. Those are people fortunate enough to be able to express what other people feel, and so you can be commercially successful at the same time. The issue is: if you have to choose between sacrificing what you feel and sacrificing your sales, what do you choose? With my own albums I was going for what I felt. I wasn't looking for sales. And you can tell. But I operate in a commercial realm, and many of the elements of commercial music appeal to me. So it's not so bad for me."

However, Miller is the first to admit that choices in the music industry are more and more made in favour of commercial success, and that this is bad for music, to the degree that the music industry as a whole is now in decline. And this, in his view, is because "there is too much money to be made now. In the '60s there wasn't so much money to be made, and so big corporations didn't get involved in making musical decisions. But because of all the money involved, big corporations are now making the decisions, and they are making business decisions, like trying to repeat what worked last year. If Prince had been signed in 1993, he would have been dropped after a couple of albums. All great artists need time to develop, and there is no time being given today, because there is too much money involved. Radio is big business as well, and so the playlists are really tight, and controlled by what the stations think has the widest appeal, but ends up being the lowest common denominator. Whereas in the past, you had DJs playing whatever turned them on, and that was one way in which music was developed. During the last 10 years money has taken over. But this decline in music has nothing to do with music technology, or with the introduction of computers. It's musicians that make bad music."

This is the only moment during our conversation when Miller really gets fired up. Despite his self‑confessed indifference to technology, he immediately springs to its defence at the slightest suggestion that technology might have anything to do with the world's current musical malaise. "Basically, technology makes the stuff surrounding the creation of music a little easier," he insists. "It doesn't make writing a song any easier. It doesn't make coming up with good melodies or good bass lines any easier. But it does help you when you have to edit your seven‑minute song into a four‑minute single, or when you have to assemble your 10 songs for the mastering house. It's a lot easier with computers than in the days when you were trying to cut stuff up and had tapes all over the floor. But what's odd is that it now takes a lot longer to make a record. When you had only four tracks you recorded your song and that was it. It took a couple of hours. But when you have 24 tracks, you take extra days to overdub and mix everything. When you have 48 tracks, you have two versions of the same song on tape, and spend a day deciding which take is the best. So the fact that modern technology gives us more choices means we take more time. Whatever option you have available, you will try out.

"Throughout the '20s, '30s, '40s, '50s and '60s musicians have been so constrained by time and the limitations of technology, that when those constraints fell away, it was natural for us to try to perfect things. And then we realised that it's not perfection that makes things. We realised that it's not being perfectly in tune that makes a vocal great. But we had to find that out. And the thing is that some people who have gone overboard on perfectionism still made great records. Like Donald Fagen: his music was everything people complain about with regards to the '80s, tight, contained, vocals perfectly in tune, and so on. But he made great albums. People like Thomas Dolby and Prince used every technological device available and made some great music. A lot of people blame the technology, but it's not the technology's fault. There are many ways to make bad music. If someone plays guitar badly, nobody blames the guitar, so why blame technology? When there was no technology there was lot of bad, stiff and unfeeling music made by bad musicians; then in the '80s there was bad music made by bad musicians and the tools they used were computers; and in 20 or 30 years there will be different technology to make bad music with. It's nothing to do with the technology."

A lot of people blame the technology, but it's not the technology's fault.

Miller makes the point that recent innovations in music technology haven't changed the basic concept of recording, which is still about "overdubbing, putting on effects and mixing". The real revolution, for him, happened in the late '60s and early '70s, with the introduction of "sel‑sync, which was the original term for overdub recording using a multitrack machine, and which made it possible to not have to play the whole track at the same time. To me that's much more revolutionary than all this computer stuff."

The technological revolution has, however, given many more people the opportunity to make music, a development which Miller views with mixed feelings: "There is a lot more dross out there today, because it is much easier to get in the game right now. So there are many more impostors. And because you have account heads running the music industry, they are more likely to give the impostors the opportunity to try to repeat yesterday's hit formula. On the other hand — and this is a big plus of technology — some inherently talented people who never got a chance to learn to play an instrument have created music that would otherwise never have happened. Some of these hip‑hop cats made some unbelievable music. The keys clash and no self‑respecting musician would have borrowed a bass line from somebody else's record, yet some great stuff came out of that.

"I obviously don't use technology as much as they do. I sometimes use sequencing to write songs, but more often than not I'll simply play it all myself. I'll use the MPC3000 as a drum machine, and I'll play the rest. I'm trying out an Ensoniq PARIS hard disk recorder for a few weeks, and that's ideal for recording performances on. In the mid '80s I was more into sequenced stuff, because it was exciting, but since Tutu I've settled into playing most things, and sometimes not even having the drums sequenced. On the title track of Tutu I manually played the snare along with the main pattern. And on Amandla we replaced most of the machine drums. Today, Tutu still doesn't sound plastic to me. At the time I was aware that was a danger. And because I got it right, that album feels like a nice representation of the times: a combination of technology and humanity. It was a good blend. At other times I got it wrong, because the music was too stiff, or too loose. Or it was uninspired even though there was no technology involved. As a musician you're like a baseball player. You keep swinging, and getting it right one time out of three is not so bad."

Live Data

MARCUS MILLER: Camel Island Jazz Legend

Finally, Miller comes out with some interesting responses when I query him about comments made by several people, like producer Rupert Hine, who claim that the ergonomics of the mouse, qwerty keyboard and monitor interface pulls them into analytical 'left brain' mode, and out of creative, stream‑of‑consciousness, 'right brain' mode, thus hampering their creative expression. Even though he himself is trying out the 16‑fader Ensoniq Control 16 board for the PARIS, Miller reckons that considerations like Hine's will soon be confined to the dustbin of history: "I also can find it hard to get used to mouse‑and‑monitor interfaces. But I talked to a guy who had worked with Lauryn Hill, and he reckoned that these hardware interfaces are just for transitional people, for people who have been working in a traditional way for years, and who still need the feel of faders. According to him, in 20 years nobody will use these old interfaces anymore. You'll just stand in front of a computer screen like everyone else. For me feeling the fader go up and down is a completely different thing than moving it on a screen with a mouse. But he said: 'for us that's not it. We'll find our tactile sensations somewhere else'. Our generation indeed has to switch between left brain and right brain. But a lot of kids that have grown up with computers won't have to switch brain halves anymore, they'll be using both halves all the time."

But isn't the amount of technical information modern musicians need to know in danger of becoming overwhelming? Not according to Miller: "When people tell me that today's musician has to deal with so much more data, I protest. To me it's a trade‑off between all these musicians spending time in their rooms learning all about their equipment, whereas we used to amass even more technical data being out there on the road, playing in clubs and jamming! We learnt how to compensate when the drummer rushes, or how to respond when the saxophone player changes key. We were amassing live performance information, which is in a certain way more dense and difficult to figure out. Because, how can you tell when music feels good? How do you know without quantising or looking at a grid whether it is in time? We had to figure that out.

"My thing is that I love the combination of people who can play, and then take time to figure this computer stuff out, and create something great. This is what makes people like Herbie Hancock and Stevie Wonder great. But they have also gone out and they have also had to win crowds over. I've been there. I've walked on a stage and people were booing us because we were not the headline act. And so we had to play our asses off! That is some vital technical data that people sitting in their rooms with computers are not amassing."

Camel Island Gear List


  • Akai MX1000 master keyboard.
  • Akai S3000 sampler.
  • Ensoniq ASR10 sampling workstation.
  • Ensoniq EPS16 sampling workstation.
  • Ensoniq TS10 sampling workstation.
  • Minimoog.
  • Roland JP8000 synth.
  • Roland S770 digital sampler with Atari monitor for editor.
  • Roland Super JD990 synth.
  • Roland Super JV1080 with four expansion cards.
  • Roland S770 digital sampler.
  • Voce Organ module and Electric Piano module.


  • Akai DD1000 optical recorder.
  • Akai MPC3000 sequencer.
  • 3x Alesis ADAT digital multitracks plus BRC remote.
  • Ensoniq PARIS 32‑track hard disk system, in Mac with two 4Gb drives, and 9Gb Glyph drive, plus Glyph DAT drive for backup.
  • Ensoniq Control 16 fader control surface for PARIS.
  • MCI 24‑track analogue multitrack.
  • MOTU MIDI Timepiece.
  • Sound Workshop Series 32 desk.
  • Yamaha NS10 monitors.


  • BSS EQ and dynamics processors.
  • DBX 160X compressor/limiter.
  • Drawmer DS201 dual gate.
  • Drawmer 1960 vacuum tube compressor/amplifier.
  • Ensoniq DP4 parallel effects procesor.
  • Eventide H3000DSX ultra‑harmonizer.
  • GML transformerless mic preamp.
  • GML Model 8200 parametric EQ.
  • Lexicon PCM41 digital delay.
  • Lexicon PCM70 reverb unit.
  • TC Electronic 2290 delay and effects.
  • TC128 programmable 28‑band graphic EQ.
  • Yamaha Rev 7 reverb unit.

Marcus Miller Tech Talk

"The centre of my system is the Akai MPC3000 and the Ensoniq TS10. I write most things on those two instruments, with the Akai MX1000 as my master keyboard, because I prefer the weighted keys of the Akai to the plasticky feel of the TS10. Until recently I recorded either onto ADAT or on the MCI 24‑track, but often settled for synth bass because all the synchronisation was frustrating. In the old days it could definitely kill your creativity when you had to do things like stripe the tape and set up synchronisation, and so on. I love the PARIS, which makes it much easier to run my bass guitar with the MPC3000. The PARIS system also runs well with the ADATs.

"I am thinking of getting a sequencer program like Cubase or Vision, because the librarian function, which puts all the synths' sounds in place, is extremely handy. The MPC can't do that. A computer sequencer would also be easier for lining up music to picture. But I like my MPC3000 a lot, and at the moment I feel a sequencer program would complicate things here.

"I normally start a track using the basic drum sounds in the MPC3000 and synth sounds from the TS10. Only when they start to get in the way will I spend time to find more appropriate sounds, whether synth sounds or samples from the S3000 or S770. My samples can be either from sample CDs or my own samples. I don't use that many synths, although I have quite a few sound sources here: the Roland JV1080 and JD990, Voce keyboard modules and so on. The JP8000 is a recent acquisition. It has nice analogue‑like sounds. I often use synths for low support of the bass guitar, so it can play into other areas. But they're complementary parts — I don't double up synth and bass any more, that makes it sound like 1983! The Minimoog is good for bass stuff as well as lead lines.

"I used to be an endorser for Ensoniq some years back, and still have a lot of gear from those days. I still have a good relationship with Ensoniq, which is why I have the PARIS system at the moment. I'm checking it out now to see if it's really worth it to spend six times as much on Pro Tools, or if PARIS will suit my needs.

"What I love about the computer technology is that it gives you the capacity to edit performances without killing them. You can get things in tune now without having to get the vocalist to sing it dozens of times. Moreover, you can plug things in and call a track up in 10 seconds, instead of having to change tapes and effects and desk settings. It's great because I work on so many different things. When a movie producer arrives at short notice, I used to have to talk to him for 20 minutes whilst my engineer set everything up. Now it's all there in seconds. This is also what attracts me to the idea of effects plug‑ins. For the same reasons I've just bought a Euphonix desk, which I will soon have installed.

"My main bass is a 1977 Fender Jazz, with inbuilt TCT Bartolini preamp. It gives me extended high and low end. I also have several Sadowsky basses, amongst them a 5‑string and a fretless. I usually record the bass via a Tube Direct DI box straight into a DBX160X compressor. I have a whole bunch of cool '60s and '70s guitar and bass pedals, like Danelectro and EBS and I love using them. My live rack consists of a Juice Goose Power Conditioner, Lexicon MPX1, Distressor EL8 compressor, Aguilar Tube preamp, Retrospec D1, and some custom‑made rack units, made by Custom Audio in Japan. My amplifier and speakers are SWR."