Roland Users Group
Alongside Paul Shaffer, Paul Mirkovich was the most visible keyboardist on the planet in 2005. As musical director and keyboard player for the RockStar INXS house band, Paul was seen no less than three nights a week on primetime TV by millions of viewers. And he made it look like cake, as he and his ace bandmates sprinboarded from genre to genre with the greatest of ease. But, as you might expect, the gig was anything but smooth behind the scenes.
Roland met up with Paul at CBS Studios in Hollywood, where he and the band were preparing to film the Week-8 performance episode before a live audience. We were anxious to learn more about Paul, including how he landed the RockStar gig, and how he was using his Roland V-Synth, VK-8, and Fantom-X8 onstage.
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This must be an incredibly challenging gig.
It’s intense. I can honestly say that it’s the most challenging gig I’ve ever done. I figure since June  when we started this show, we’ve learned over 120 songs. It’s a lot of material, and we learn it very quickly. We have to change keys on the fly through some very difficult material, and, since we have limited time on air, we often have to take a five-minute song, reduce it to two minutes, and somehow have it all make sense. There’s a lot that’s involved in this gig, and it’s very intense.
How did you get hired?
I got a call to audition for the show. In all there were 12 musical directors that put together bands for the audition, which amounted to about 75-80 musicians in all. So I got the gig as musical director, and well as two of the other guys who auditioned with me in my band: Rafael and Sasha. Nate and Jim were brought over from other bands. It’s a great group of guys who are also exceptional musicians.
In addition to being a skilled player and singer, what other chops did you possess that gave you the edge in getting this gig as MD?
One thing is that I’m a very meticulous person — very meticulous about knowing not only what I play, but what everybody else is playing. It makes me feel more secure about what I’m playing if I know what everybody else is supposed to play as well. Another thing is the diversity in my background. It has enabled me to handle anything that’s thrown at me on this gig.
Tell us about the trio of Roland keyboards you’re using on the show.
I’ve always owned a lot of Roland gear over the years. The second synthesizer I ever owned was a Jupiter-8. In my rack at home I still have my MKS-70, MKS-80, a couple of D-550s, a JD-990 ... Roland gear has always been a big part of my sound, past and present.
For the RockStar INXS gig, I needed something that was going to be quick, and that would handle a lot of different styles. For starters I need a main workstation that would give me the meat — the piano, the Rhodes, the Clav — and also great pads and stuff that would be immediate. And that’s what the Fantom-X8 does for me. It’s the main piano that I use, and it’s the main Rhodes and Clavinet. I recently added the [SRX-11] Complete Piano card and the [SRX-5] Supreme Dance card.
As great as the Fantom-X’s operating system is, it wouldn’t matter unless the sounds were great, and I can honestly see myself using all three of these keyboards [Fantom-X, V-Synth, and VK-8] on the stage and in the studio all the time.
Regarding the VK-8, I needed something that would give me a great organ sound, so I got the VK, which I actually have hooked up to two Leslies. It sounds awesome. I love how you can dial the dirt in, and I love that there’s three different types of overdrive that are distinctly different. Just having that band of EQ on the overdrive makes a difference too. The sound of it, in general, is pretty great.
And then there’s the V-Synth. That thing is awesome. On today’s show, for example, we’re doing two original songs, and both contestants came to me and said, “I want something different up in the high end for the choruses.” So I found this sound in the Version 2 patch-bank called “COSM1WidthMe.” It’s a pad with a rhythmic element under it, and the D Beam controls the strength of the loop. It adds a totally unique texture to the sound.
I’ve always loved sounds that have motion in them. Back in the day I’d throw sounds through gates, and I’d program filter and LFO modulation to add motion to the sound. But with the V-Synth, motion is often a key ingredient in the sound. And using the D Beam and Time-Trip Pad to control it is way cool. I use them both all the time to modulate stuff.
We did a couple of songs by The Killers in the show — a rock band that uses some very cool, electronic sounds. I used some of the [virtual analog] saw-waveform sounds in the V-Synth, which are classic, analog-type synth sounds. But with the V-Synth you can add these animated elements inside of the sound, and in sync with the tempo of the track, which is brilliant.
The V-Synth has some elements that sound similar to Roland synths dating back to the JP-8000 [the SuperSaw oscillator waveform, in particular]. The V-Synth definitely has that Roland quality. I think it’s a great synth. I love it — it’s a brilliant box.
Software instruments have become popular in the studio and onstage as well. So what is it about a hardware instrument like the V-Synth that makes you gravitate toward it?
I’m very into virtual synths, and I have a lot of them in my computer. There are some very good ones, but sometimes you turn on a piece of hardware and you realize that there’s something sonically about a dedicated hardware synth that software can’t quite match. It doesn’t quite have the same impact. Something like the V-Synth — when you turn it on and hear it for the first time, it’s like, “Wow, that’s a new thing.” It makes you excited to work with it, to create music.
Despite the intensity of the RockStar INXS schedule, is the gig as cool as it seems to TV viewers?
Definitely. One thing I love about this experience is ... this is probably the first time in many years that a rock and roll show has appeared on a national network before 1:00 or 2:00 AM. When was the last time any network put on a rock show on during prime time? It’s probably been 20 years. So to have the opportunity to play in this band and play this music in front of millions of people on a weekly basis is an unheard of opportunity. It’s an amazing gig.
Tell us about your musical upbringing.
I grew up in Studio City , California — I lived in the Valley, in same neighborhood as Steve Lukather and the Porcaros [of Toto fame]. I started playing piano when I was four, and studied classical until I was about 16 or so. I played rock and roll throughout high school, and after that got into bebop and jazz. I went to the Dick Grove School of Music, and I also studied with Terry Trotter, a great piano teacher and great player.
When I got out of Dick Grove, I immediately got gigs playing in musicals in Orange County and Los Angeles. Around that time, a friend of mine who was working for Jeffery Osbourne, the R&B singer, told me that they were holding auditions. I think I was 21 at the time. I went in, played the stuff, and got the gig. I looked like I was about 12, I’d never been out on the road before, and there I was with a bunch of veteran funk players. What an experience! It was a great tour.
I toured with Jeffery for a couple of years, and then I heard that Cher was auditioning. So I went down to that one and got the gig. I was with her off and on from 1989 through 2005.
In addition to Jeffery Osbourne and Cher, you played in several other high-profile groups as well.
I was a pop star for about 15 minutes with the band Nelson in the early ’90s — we sold five or six million records. Then grunge happened, and that went away. After that I went out with Whitesnake for a couple of years. So, I went from playing jazz gigs five nights a week to R&B with Jeffery to pop with Cher to metal with Whitesnake. I also put together Janet Jackson’s 2001 tour, and I performed a similar function for Anastasia right after that.
During that time I was also able to record with Sean Colvin, Peter Gabriel — lots of records with lots of different people. And I did quite a bit of film work, TV work, and orchestrated some movies for John Carpenter.
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For more on Paul and his RockStar bandmates, visit http://rockstar.msn.com/show/houseband.