Choosing and Using the Right Keyboard By Mike Overlin
What is the right keyboard for my church? What features do we need? Do we need to replace our existing keyboard? Do we need an electronic keyboard at all?! What daunting questions! There are literally dozens of electronic keyboards available to the worship musician, some with an often confusing list of features and capabilities. Sorting them all out can be a chore for the most seasoned electronic keyboardist. Placed before a beginning or relatively inexperienced player, the choices can be overwhelming.
Perhaps the best place to start is to address the need for such an instrument. I know there are those who question the validity of these instruments in worship. We really don’t have to go back that far to re-live the first encroachment of “those whackos” with the guitars and the drums and their worldly mannerisms and… oh my… where did the ties go?! I do not go down this road to make light of those who would uphold the traditions of the past, nor those who would usher in the new. I only point out that we have been down this road before and will most certainly go down it again. Perhaps it’s not a road at all, rather a circular track. The worshiper will tend to find ways to worship God that are relevant to themselves and their congregations. In most cases, these worship styles are very much tied to and shaped by the music and culture in which the worshiper lives. The use of digital keyboards in worship is as appropriate and commonplace in contemporary and blended worship today as grand pianos and pipe organs have been for centuries. The truth is, at one time even these venerable instruments were unwelcome in the house of God. In some circles, instrumental music of any kind was taboo and vulgar and an unworthy vehicle with which to offer up worship. I often wonder what that transition was like… from the a cappella to the accompanied. When that pioneering worship musician hundreds of years ago solicited and received the approval from his “senior pastor - and board - and finance committee,” – he probably couldn’t wait to ride (a horse) down to his local pipe organ store to buy their first Munich-Master 5000. He sought to secure an instrument that would provide new voice to worship and herald in a new era of worship freedom through instrumental accompaniment. Even then the goal was to obtain an instrument that was as flexible and expressive as possible.
Now I know this makes light of keyboard history, but this last statement still holds true today. When looking for that ideal keyboard for your church or ministry, you need to consider all the things that you will require of it and how it will add to your ability to lead God’s people into His presence. Flexibility and expressiveness are essential.
Types of Keyboards
As mentioned above, there are dozens of keyboards to choose from, and they fall into some pretty broad categories. Digital Pianos, Performance keyboards, Workstation keyboards or Synths, Arranger Workstations and Portable keyboards, to name a few. On top of that, you can choose your instrument complete with keys (thus a Keyboard) or in the form of a tone module – basically the brains of the keyboard without the keys. What we can begin to do is define these instruments and provide some guidance in determining exactly which keyboard will best suit your needs and the needs of your ministry. Price is certainly a factor in making this decision, but again, flexibility and expressiveness should be your primary considerations.
If your primary goal is to provide the pianist with an alternative to a purely acoustic instrument, then you can start by considering the digital piano. In my own church, we use a beautiful seven-foot grand and it is fantastic. This remains one of the most majestic and awesome instruments available. However, there are situations where a grand piano may not be the optimum choice. If you are required to move your piano often, or are faced with space limitations on the chancel platform, a digital piano may be a better option. When considering an electronic keyboard, Digital pianos usually offer the best piano sound and feel, and although not always lightweight, they are highly portable. The fact that you can move them easily without their ever going out of tune, is a huge benefit. They are not subject to the ravages of temperature or humidity shifts, and you can even stand them on end without too much consequence. Try that with your grand! (Better still, save your back and take my word for it.)
Sound quality is another aspect that will affect this decision. You may be in a situation where a grand piano is simply too loud for your worship space or you may have problems miking the piano properly. Digital pianos can easily be set to provide ideal sound levels for your venue without having to struggle with miking, feedback or monitor bleed issues. As compelling as all these features are, though, the ability to paint with more than one tonal color is probably the greatest benefit of the digital piano. These keyboards come with a variety of piano sounds as well as hundreds of additional instruments that can be played, layered or split. Layering, or stacking sounds such as a piano and a string section allows you to create the lush musical textures that we often hear in contemporary recordings. Layers can be as simple as two sounds, or as complex as four or more sounds. Splits allow the keyboard to be divided into two or more distinct sections. This allows the keyboardist to play multiple instruments at one time such as a bass in the left hand and an electronic piano in the right. The division between the two splits on the keyboard is called the split point. The concept of zones goes even further, allowing for the definition of any number of splits on the keyboard.
All of these features greatly increase the timbre possibilities available to your worship team. Again, expressiveness and flexibility is the measuring stick.
Maybe you are looking to add a second keyboardist or to provide your primary player with an even larger tonal palette from which to minister. Performance keyboards are instruments capable of incredible flexibility and musical expression. At the push of a button, these instruments can jump from piano to organ to string section to blazing lead guitar ... or any combination of sounds that you may imagine. These “controller keyboards” often have controls and capabilities allowing for the integration of additional keyboards or tone modules into your rig, providing even more musical capability. I mentioned the tone module earlier, and this would be a good time to develop this concept. A keyboard player will need at least one keyboard on which to perform. If he or she is a pianist, they will probably pay particular attention to its “feel.” A keyboard with a synth action will have a response similar to an organ. A pianist will want to consider a keyboard feel or “action” that is weighted. This is intended to approximate the way the keys play on a real piano. An additional piano action quality to look for that goes beyond weighted, is graded. This feature reproduces the feel of a piano as you go from the lower octaves to the higher and is found on many better digital pianos. On a real piano, the bottom of the instrument will play heavier than the top. With a graded action, the touch of the keyboard gets lighter as you go up in pitch.
All this is to say, once you have that one main controller keyboard, you may not want, or need additional keyboards to obtain additional capabilities. This is where the tone module enters in. These devices will have the sounds and capabilities of their keyed counterparts, and will allow you to operate them from your controller keyboard utilizing a simple MIDI cable. Plugging the MIDI output from your controller keyboard into the MIDI input of the tone module will give you the ability to play both the sounds of your keyboard and the sounds of the tone module together. Complex keyboard rigs can easily be made up of several different keyboards and tone modules. Of course all the power and flexibility of the performance keyboard comes with a price, and the learning curve will be steeper than with the digital pianos mentioned above. But when it comes to pure music performance capability, the return is well worth the investment of time and money.
If your needs extend beyond performance to the actual creation of music, you may want to consider a workstation keyboard or workstation synthesizer. These instruments combine the flexibility of the performance keyboard with musical creation capabilities such as on-board sequencing and sampling. Sequencing allows you to craft music “from the ground up” by recording your performance via MIDI. Sequencers do not record the audio of a piece of music, but rather the performance of a piece of music – similar in concept to the way a player piano stored its performances on a paper roll. This brings the ability to digitally manipulate, in every way, each individual note or nuance of a song! Sampling allows you to record musical sounds (or not so musical sounds) into the keyboard, and then play them back from the keyboard or a sequencer. Most of the realistic instrument sounds in all of these keyboards are sample based, meaning they are recordings of actual instruments. Sampling allows the musician to record their custom instruments, sound effects or sound bytes and manipulate them from the keyboard. These workstations can also be used in the creation and performance of “loop” based music, which is increasingly popular in contemporary music and worship songs. Like performance keyboards, these instruments come in a variety of sizes. 61, 76 and 88-key versions are common, with the 88-key versions usually featuring a weighted action, providing the “piano like” feel mentioned above.
Finally, some of today’s most sophisticated technology is incorporated within the arranger workstations. These are among the most versatile and powerful songwriting and performance tools available to the worship musician. In addition to providing many of the capabilities mentioned above, these keyboards can actually interpret the chords that you play – as you are playing them and automatically provide all of the additional instruments in real time. Drums, bass, guitars, strings, horns… the works! Even non-keyboardists can create complex musical arrangements by playing simple one finger chords. (One finger chord… sounds like an oxymoron.) The benefits of an arranger workstation to the worship musician are many. If faced with leading worship by yourself, they provide a realistic, interactive full ensemble sound that can easily be guided to follow the flow of worship. They usually have some sort of storage device, such as a disk drive or smart media card allowing you to use them as MIDI file playback devices. A church’s musical director or worship leader can quickly put together a recording of a new song or arrangement for the members of the music team without having to sequence the tracks from square one. Finally, worship leaders who may not be keyboard players can easily play these instruments with a very rudimentary knowledge of keyboard chord structure. Even if the chords are played in the simplest inversions, the resulting accompaniment is correctly voiced and stylistically appealing.
The details of the technology incorporated by all the different keyboards mentioned here are a subject for further individual investigation. My hope is to have shed light on the variety of keyboard tools available to the worship musician, and to help guide in the decisions you will have to make before purchasing. The bottom line is to surround yourself with the tools that allow you to more freely worship God, and to lead people into His presence with the marvelous invitation of music.
Mike Overlin is Manager of Worship Resources for Yamaha Corporation of America, and a worship leader and consultant with the Free Methodist Church in Southern California. A professional musician all his life, he served two tours of duty with the United States Air Force Band and fronted a small group at Disneyland for many years… not entirely dissimilar experiences. More info available at: www.yamaha.com. Or Google on “musical keyboards”.
© 2004 Christian Sound & Song. All rights reserved. Churches are encouraged to reproduce for use in their ministries. For any other use, permission must be obtained from the publisher.