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My Gear: Mike Pensini

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Based in Melbourne, Australia, Mike is an in-demand pianist, keyboardist, producer and Musical Director. Mike has lent his talents to many notable artists including James Morrison, David Campbell, Rhonda Burchmore, Bobby Rydell, Kylie Auldist, Sophie Monk, Peter Cupples, Brian McFadden and Deni Hines.

He also has extensive experience in the theatre industry, performing a combination of roles for a number of hit shows including the world premieres of Strictly Ballroom, Dirty Dancing and An Officer and a Gentleman, as well as Ghost to name a few. As a composer, Mike’s work has featured in a variety of television and cinema productions across the globe. Mike was kind enough to give us some detailed insight into his gear.

Mike Pensini- My GearWhat pieces of gear are essential to your sound? 

Anything that sounds lush and is inspiring and expressive to play! I enjoy producing keyboard-based synth-funk/fusion/electrofunk, let me break it down:

Synth Bass: Usually the Moog Sub37 or Roland SE-02. I love the beefy, round, liquid low-end of Moog-style bass and the squelch of a 24dB ladder filter – yum! If I’m going software, Native Instruments Monark – sounds and feels HUGE. If I play real-bass on a track it will either be a Fender Jazz or Precision

Synth Leads: ARP Odyssey because seriously it’s amazing, I have a 1974 original and the Korg reissue. Moog Sub37 for the more Moog vibes or the Roland System-8 if I’m going into 80s Roland-Land!

Synth Pads/Polysynths: Novation Summit – gorgeous combination of analog and digital tones with a tasty analog filter and lush reverbs. Roland System-8 for the more Roland-sounding poly-work. Oberheim Matrix-1000 nothing sounds like an Oberheim – incredible presence or Nord Stage 3 that has a surprisingly powerful synth engine capable of some really gorgeous and expressive sounds! Also on the software front, Spectrasonics Omnisphere 2 and SonicProjects OPX-Pro II, both hold up sonically and have the same presence as real hardware.

Arpeggiated, rhythmic goodness: The Korg Wavestate has been invaluable for adding amazingly complex and intricate rhythmic melodic textures to my productions of late – definitely adds some icing on the cake!

Piano/Rhodes/Wurly/Clav: Spectrasonics Keyscape makes its way onto most if not all of my productions, it’s just incredible quality. I’m also a fan of Native Instruments Scarbee’s EP-88s for the more old-school Herbie Suitcase Rhodes sound. Hardware-wise and for Hammond duties, my Nord Stage 3.

Drums: Native Instruments Maschine all the way. Currently using the Maschine Mikro Mk3 with a bunch of expansions, absolutely love it.

How does your live rig differ from what you use in the studio?

As a general rule, when playing live I want a rig that’s rock-solid reliability wise, efficient to set up and tear down, sounds great, is inspiring and expressive to play and translates through a wide variety of sound systems: from pristine stereo line arrays to mono, bar-room disasters! Also portability is a factor depending on the lug/touring requirements. For these reasons, at the moment I’m generally using Nord Stage 2 and Nord Stage 3 boards live – sometimes complimenting them with an analog mono synth.

Do you hoard gear, is there an emotional connection to some instruments/music technology or hardware?

Haha, I think I’ve run out of room to hoard, so maybe that answers your question? But no, I try to only keep gear that I’m going to use. If it’s not inspiring me or making its way onto tracks then it’s better off going to someone else to enjoy. I find there’s definitely a balance between gear amount and creativity/productivity. While having more great sonic options at your disposal can definitely get the creative juices flowing, having too many pieces can lead to “creative paralysis”. I feel you’re better off having a few high-quality pieces that you know how to get the most out of rather than tonnes of stuff that you can only know 10% and therefore don’t utilise to the best of their ability.

As far as an emotional connection, I have a Korg MicroPreset M500SP analog mono synth from 1977 that was the very first analog synth that I owned and although simple, really made me fall in love with the warmth, character and “aliveness” of true analog synths. It’s so simple but sounds absolutely gorgeous and downright quirky at times. It even comes with cardboard cutouts to fit over the knobs, showing you where to set them as an early form of sound presets! I absolutely love it and it will stay with me until the end!

How it came to be in my possession is also somewhat poignant. My Mum and Dad owned a musical instrument store in Cairns for many years. About 3 decades later, Dad was repairing a piano at someone’s house and noticed this old (but pristine) keyboard on top of their piano. Turns out they bought it from him new back in the day and wanted to sell it. Luckily he knew a massive keyboard nerd who may be interested and so it came full circle!

Other than that, my Yamaha U1 acoustic piano from the mid-80s is an absolute gem of an instrument and one of the nicest upright pianos I’ve ever played. Amazing tonal range, fantastic action and holds tune perfectly. Absolutely love it.

My Gear Mike PensiniIf you could create your ultimate instrument or piece of music gear, what would it be what would it do, how would it work? 

A piano that prints royalty cheques! If that’s not possible, there’s a couple of areas which I’d like to see developed. As far as stage pianos go, specifically, instruments that reproduce piano, Rhodes, Wurly, Clav etc – While some definitely sounds great, I still feel there’s quite a divide in sound quality in certain areas between hardware and the latest high-end software that reproduces those organic keys sounds. I’d love to see a hardware instrument with the raw sound quality of these multi-gigabyte software libraries, not just in the acoustic piano realm, but also with an upright piano, CP-80, and across the whole acoustic/electro-mechanical piano spectrum.

Another area of synthesis that I feel has been neglected somewhat is FM. There have been a few products that have dabbled with adding FM features to synths and of course it’s quite easy to do in software, but I would love to see a dedicated, full-blown professional FM hardware synth with an inviting user interface, high-quality action, a real analogue filter, high-quality DA converters and great effects. I absolutely love analogue-based synths, naturally, but it would be wicked to see a top-tier digital, FM-based synth to balance it all out!

Who would be one artist/producer you haven’t worked with that you’d love to work with?

Man, that’s a really tough one. There are so many great artists and producers out there at the moment, I feel picking just one would be a disservice! That being said, Herbie Hancock is my musical hero, so creating something in any capacity with him would be a dream come true.

What are you doing creatively to keep sane during these crazy COVID/lockdown times?

Lots of time in the home studio! I’ve been putting a lot of time into writing songs and producing video content for my YouTube channel – lots of synth goodness! Have also been digging into my two latest synth acquisitions, the Korg Wavestate and the Novation Summit – both very inspiring and creative synths in completely different respects.

I’m also very lucky to have many talented friends in Melbourne (and all over the world) and we’ve been creating some fantastic IsoJams – writing songs and recording/filming all the parts remotely in our individual spaces. Some seriously fantastic music has come out of this and we can’t wait to play some of it live once we’re out of COVID Jail!

Follow Mike Pensini

YouTube: www.youtube.com/mikepensini

Facebook: www.facebook.com/mikepensinimusic

Website:  www.mikepensini.com

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