Where in the world is Bonnie McIntosh? As the live keyboardist for such pop phenoms as Selena Gomez, Madilyn Bailey, and Malia Civetz, the talented Ms. McIntosh spends a lot of time globetrotting (just peep her Instagram for photo evidence.) When she’s not on the road playing tour dates and TV gigs, you’ll find this classical-pianist-turned-synth-nerd at home in L.A., rocking out on the all-Roland keyboard rig in her living room.
We caught up with Bonnie in-between shows for some serious gear talk. Check out our zZounds-exclusive video to hear her on the Roland FA-08 workstation synthesizer. Read on for a deep dive into Bonnie’s creative process for crafting arena-sized sounds, and see why she’s all about encouraging the next generation of young women to pick up and play instruments!
zZounds: What’s your live keyboard rig right now?
Bonnie McIntosh: Right now, my live rig is the FA-08 and the FA-06, both Roland boards. I use that as a double-tier, and then I also have a Jupiter-80, and I obviously have the AX-Synth keytar that I absolutely love!
I explored different keyboards…but the Roland workstations just feel like second nature when I’m programming. The first keyboard I had was a Roland Fantom G8…and that same kind of programming works within the FA series. The FA series is great, because I can basically make any sound within the board, so I don’t have to use MainStage, and I don’t have to use a computer – it’s all there.
zZ: We do see a lot of pop artists using a MIDI controller with MainStage on a laptop, these days. How did you choose to create all your sounds within the Roland workstations?
BM: I’m always terrified that computers are going to crash. I’ve seen it happen on stage for other people too many times. But more importantly, for me, it does not feel as authentic as it feels when you actually make a sound within a board. I feel like every board has its own personality… and if you’re going to use boards that do a specific thing, you should use that board for the thing that it does!
With the FA series, you can layer it 16 times, which means you can split it 16 times… I can have all the sounds I need right there, and I can just turn them on and mute them on the spot, so I don’t have to worry about going to a computer.
zZ: Can you explain how you use Live Sets on your Roland keyboards?
BM: A Live Set is a feature in the Roland Fantom and FA series boards. Basically, it shows every sound that you’re using, so you can see all 16 sounds and where they’re split and layered on the board. You can switch to a different Live Set, and it’s a whole new set of sounds.
For example, in the Selena show, I have a Live Set labeled “Same Old Love,” and it’ll have all the sounds I use in that song. I turn the dial, and it’s “Come And Get It,” with every single sound I use in that one. That makes it really easy for me on stage; I can just select a Live Set, and the whole thing is right there.
zZ: Tell us about your sound design process. What goes into making keyboard sounds for a Selena Gomez show?
BM: Taking a record and making it a live show – I actually love that process of programming. You get an MP3 of the song, and then you get all the different stems [individual audio tracks] with all the different sounds… When I hear a sound, I have enough knowledge about synthesis to be able to tell what sound wave it’s based on. If it’s a lead sound that’s hollow-sounding, I’m going to go through every square wave patch, layer a bunch of them, then go inside the sound bank and tweak it… One great thing about the FA series is that you can EQ, or throw reverb on there and change the room you’re using, just with the knobs that are right there.
I’ll adjust everything until it sounds nothing like the preset itself. Lately, I’ve been taking flute sounds and adjusting them and running them through different kinds of filters to make certain lead sounds… However, if I hear some big giant saw wave synthesizer, that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to use a big giant saw wave preset. I could use three trumpets, and go into the effects and mess with it…and when I hear the sound that I want, I know when it’s done. That’s something that’s really important – to know when you’re finished. ‘Cause when you think you have a good sound, and you know that you’re done, and you keep working on it, you’re going to end up with something you don’t like.
So, I’m taking each individual sound, making it as much like the record as I can, and then building it from there to make it really big. I really like to have that creative process of building a show from sounds within a board, instead of sampling the sounds directly – putting your creative process into it, instead of just replicating exactly every single sound you hear, ’cause then, you might as well just play the record and call it a day!
For every song in the show, I have a separate Live Set, with whatever I layered or put together for that one song. I use the FA-06 for all the lead synths, because it’s unweighted, and I just like having that unweighted feel to be able to do all the lead stuff. The bottom board, the FA-08, I use for mostly piano, organ, pad, or anything that’s a little bit more organic. I’m really picky with where everything’s split, because performing is also really important to me – I don’t like to just sit, I like to be animated on stage. So, I make sure I program my board so I can do that, without feeling constricted.
zZ: What’s the rehearsal process like for a Selena Gomez tour?
BM: The rehearsal process is long! We have a lot of really long days, perfecting the sound [of the show]. You know, when you do a live show, you do a lot of different versions of the song, and you don’t necessarily do it directly off the record…sometimes we’ll extend a song; sometimes we’ll shorten it; sometimes we’ll mash it up; sometimes it’ll be a remix… A lot of pop artists who play these kinds of shows are pretty sick of doing it the exact same way every time, so they want to change it up. So, in rehearsal, that’s our job: to make the show exciting, and to help the artist perform better. That’s why we’re there.
Rehearsal, for me, is more about getting the vibe right; getting the energy right…whatever we need to do to make the show better. Because at the end of the day, it’s about the artist – it’s not about us. I think that’s the most important part of the rehearsal process, to make sure everybody knows that…so the artist feels comfortable, like they can do whatever it is that they need to do, and their band is always going to have their back.
Hello friends. This is big red. My first board ever that I took apart in my @calstatela dorm and painted red while using a cinder block to hold down my pedals. Don't even know the brand. Because #punkrock. Never forget your roots kids… ☠️🎹 #keyboardist #boardsmashing #tb #boogieden #bpp #paradiso #beforeroland @roland_us #klavierspielen
zZ: Tell us about your musical background, and how you got to where you are now.
BM: I actually come from a classical background. According to my parents, when I was 5 years old, I just threw tantrums until they gave me piano lessons! So, I started out playing only classical music. When I went to college, I studied classical piano performance at Cal State Los Angeles. I was also on the soccer team there, so I was also a jock… In college, I started getting into the rock and punk scenes, playing all the underground warehouse parties, and Old Towne Pub in Pasadena, and The Airliner – any L.A. musician who’s gone through that phase of being in all those bands, totally knows all the venues that I’m talking about.
I did the very “artsy” thing – I lived in my crappy car for a year, with my crappy keyboard that I took apart in my dorm and painted red and thought it was punk rock… While I was figuring out what I was going to do with my life, I realized how much I loved performing, and I wanted to take it to the next level, so I applied to Musicians Institute. My parents thought I was insane. I got offered a scholarship, so then of course they were very supportive!
I went to MI, and what I got out of that school was auditioning. The first audition I ever did was for Katy Perry; a really big pop audition. I didn’t get the job, but I learned a lot about how that process works. I just did audition after audition, until I started landing gigs, and everything else continued from there!
zZounds: In all stages of music, there are people who are really good players, and there are people who are all about their image. How do you balance these things?
Bonnie McIntosh: They always tell you that being on tour is 30% chops and 70% hang. On the road, remember, you’re on stage for only two hours out of the 24 hours a day you’re on tour. You don’t have to be a virtuoso to get by doing a pop gig… and it can be a little more image-heavy. But as long as you want to improve all the time, that’s the most important thing about being in this business. Because if you’re just settling – if you’re like, “My chops are fine, and I don’t look like a Yeti, so I think I’ll be good,” then you’re not going to work very long, because you’re not really going to be improving your skill. And looks come and go.
I’m starting to see a lot more women getting involved in this at a younger age, which is great. It just needs to keep going in that direction. And then, eventually, gender and image can be more in the background, and skill level and stage presence can be at the forefront… where it doesn’t matter what we look like, and it doesn’t matter what gender we are, as long as we can play our instrument and vibe well with the band. Let’s focus on that!
zZ: Let’s take what NARAS president Neil Portnow said after the 2018 Grammy Awards about how “women need to step up,” and turn that around. How can women artists lift each other up?
BM: People have this idea that women are very catty – and the funny part is, most of my female friends are instrumentalists I’ve met at auditions where we’re literally battling for the same job. And we always end up becoming friends afterwards. In the music business, women are starting to stick together, because we’re realizing how few of us there are. Only 22% of artists are women, 12% of songwriters are women, and 2% of producers are women. Those are very small numbers.
With regards to what Neil Portnow said about women “stepping up” – women have been stepping up. Women have been stepping up since the beginning. Elvis Presley’s biggest hit was written by a black woman. A lot of that is behind the scenes…we just haven’t gotten the recognition for the stepping up that we’ve done.
I teach at School of Rock, and I see all these young girls who aren’t really exposed to female instrumentalists or producers. I really try to emphasize getting girls, especially young girls, to start picking up instruments. A lot of girls put their instruments down when they’re younger, because a lot of them don’t really have a female role model to look up to… I remember when Alicia Keys came out, I was like, “Oh, there’s a girl who kind of looks like me, and she plays piano – oh, maybe I can do something with it!”
But there are very few women that are working instrumentalists that young girls can look up to, and I think that’s something that can change… Women involved in the industry want to give back to the younger generation, and help them come up knowing they can do something like this. ‘Cause if I can do it – from being the nerdy classical kid, to the homeless artsy kid, to being able to play on Saturday Night Live and at Madison Square Garden – if I can do it, anybody else with the drive and the access to an instrument could do it too.
zZounds: What was it like to play on Saturday Night Live?
Bonnie McIntosh: Playing Saturday Night Live was a surreal moment for me. I’ve been watching SNL since I was 5 years old. That was my favorite show when I was a kid, so playing on it was definitely a career highlight. When you watch the same show for 20 years, and then you’re on it… It still blows my mind.
So this photo popped up in my “memories” feed and it made me happy because I’ve been fortunate enough to perform in this building five times now and it will never ever get old ever. Love you #NY. Night night #LA. ✌🏽🎹 . . . .#keyboardist #musician #nbc #snl #todayshow #tonightshow #fallon #rockefellercenter @roland_us @rolandcanada #selenagomez #madilynbailey #tv #tb #promo #newyork
zZounds: How would you describe the sound of pop in 2018?
Bonnie McIntosh: Well, I think EDM started getting really big in the past few years, and that’s when synth sounds started making their way towards the millennials. When dubstep was enormous, that started a trend toward all these heavier sounds in pop music. You listen to Skrillex and ZEDD – all those really heavy synth sounds are carrying over to the pop world. A lot of pop artists get all these remixes done, and sometimes a remix makes more money than the original song itself.
zZounds: What’s on your playlist right now?
Bonnie McIntosh: I’ve been listening to a lot of SZA and Childish Gambino. My favorite bands are The Dresden Dolls and Rage Against The Machine. I go through these phases where I’ll start listening to all the old music I used to listen to in high school, like Rage, and AFI, and a lot of harder rock bands. I listen to a lot of Banks. I really love CHVRCHES, I love Paramore – it’s really all over the place. And then I’ll listen to Beethoven to get my classical fix!