[UPDATE] – It’s been YEARS since I wrote this blog. Click here for the updated version. Thanks for reading!
After four years of music ministry training in college and several years leading children, youth, or adults in worship at a variety of different churches, I have seen just about every worship keyboard out there. …and, in all honesty, I didn’t like any of them.
The commentaries were no help either. Beyond “do your research, itemize your needs, and use a well-known local music store,” most articles I read had little meaningful advice.
To my dismay, there were no good sources of information specifically geared towards worship leaders – so I had to learn the hard way. Thankfully, I am a bit of an electronics geek and I also understand the importance of “good stewardship,” so I decided to pass my shopping experiences on to you. I sincerely hope it helps you and your ministry.
While it’s true that you should select the keyboard that will do what you want it to – which creates a massive range of possibilities – it’s also true that most praise band keyboard players have similar needs. …and similar complaints. Here are a few of each –and, brace yourself, here are my recommendations. I pray you find them meaningful.
- Too Complicated: Everyone knows the “Big 3.” The Korg Triton, the Roland Fantom, and the Yamaha Motif are all very popular keyboards in churches around the World. Sadly, however, very few worship leaders or praise band keyboardists are able to take full advantage of these expensive instruments because they are so complicated to use. That is because they aren’t designed to be performance keyboards. They’re workstations. They are designed for in-depth sound manipulation and heavy-duty sequencing. These keyboards are excellent for professional players who are writing music, sequencing orchestral pieces, and designing their own accompaniment tracks from scratch. …but for a volunteer (or even many professional) musicians, these keyboards offer too many features. The result is an overwhelmed player, an underused keyboard and a waste of $3000-$4000.
- Doesn’t Sound Good: In an effort to save some money, many churches purchase very basic keyboards for worship (such as the Yamaha P or YDP series and almost anything by Casio). These keyboards are on the opposite side of the spectrum from the Phantom and the Motif. They just don’t sound very good. They have a variety of features, but few of the professional tones or hookups necessary for today’s worship needs. While it’s important to make sure that you’re not overspending (ie – buying keyboards with features that your worship team will never use or learn to understand), it’s just as important to make sure that you don’t purchase an instrument so basic that its poor sound and lack of versatility get in the way of The Message. Thus, these keyboards – though often less than $1200 – also represent an unsatisfactory choice for most churches.
- Not very portable: In today’s worship scene, praise teams are traveling more than ever. It may be an off-site youth function. It might be a special service at a sister church. The reasons abound. …but not many keyboards out there offer a lightweight chasse, onboard speakers, USB PC connectivity, adjustable stand, and a variety of ports to integrate with the local P.A. system. Thus, worship leaders find themselves doing pretty amazing things to make their keyboards work for them. (I watched one band use 3 different audio adapters, 2 headphones cables, and some electrical tape just to hook their Yamaha P60 into their PA system!) …but why bring all that extra equipment and stress into the equation? Make sure the keyboard you select can be moved and integrated into professional P.A. systems with ease.
- Automatic Rhythms and pre-recorded tracks: In smaller churches – and in bigger churches when the drummer is out ill – automatic rhythms are a tempting tool for worship. The problem with “automatic” rhythms is that they are just that: automatic. Whether you are ready to move to the second verse yet or not, they are going on. The same thing can be said for accompaniment tracks. There is no room for expression or the freedom to improvise should the minister say “Let’s sing that chorus again!” In their traditional form, automatic rhythms and pre-recorded tracks robotize the service. …and they severely restrict your ministry.
Considering these things, I think it’s safe to say most worship keyboard players aren’t really happy with their instrument (save the select few who are “tech savvy” or just really comfortable with their old keyboard).
So, to avoid these pitfalls, here are some things to look for in your worship keyboard:
- Top-grade grand piano sound. Customizability is the hallmark of good piano sound these days. Your congregation wants something that sounds warm and rich through the church sound system. “Crisp” or “tinny” sounding keyboards often sound very thin and unsatisfying through a P.A. Find a keyboard with a satisfying piano sound that can be adapted for each worship space.
- 88 Full-Sized Gravity Hammer Action Keys. “Weighted keys” are a thing of the past. It’s not enough that the keyboard has some resistance. It needs to have the right resistance. Look for a spring-less gravity hammer action. This is the most piano-like touch available and will last the longest with heavy use. Also, make sure the keys are full-sized. If you have a dollar bill, you can use it to measure the keys. Piano keys should run from one end of the dollar bill to the end of the ink on the other end.
- At least 5 of the standard “worship sounds.” You don’t need a trumpet or saxophone sound. You need a strong piano with strings mix, a Warm Pad, a good Nylon (acoustic) Guitar, a healthy variety of organ sounds, and a contemporary electric piano or Rhodes sound at the minimum. At some point, you can explore some vocal pads and a few other solo instruments depending on the music you’re playing and the instrumentation of your band. …but these 5 are a must.
- Easy Layout. Within reason, you should choose a keyboard with as few buttons as possible. You still want to be able to make rapid tone changes, record, and layer instruments easily, but you probably don’t need automatic rhythms, internet connectivity or a ton of “flashy” features.
- USB. Every worship keyboard today needs a USB interface. You’ll use this to mix music or to make recordings. Some keyboards even come with a USB flash drive port for audio and MIDI file play-a-long. These can be really handy.
- Portability. Your keyboard will have to be substantial enough to survive the “wings and dings” of travel …but it also has to be light enough to move from place to place easily. A few companies even make luggage-style travel bags with wheels. These can be very helpful.
- Adjustable Stand. You want your keyboard to be stable and “wobble free”. It also has to be at the proper height for your player (Some players prefer to stand. Others prefer to sit.). The right stand can make or break your keyboard player’s experience.
- Connectivity. Aside from the USB port, your keyboard player needs to have the following options: Switchable onboard speakers, ¼” stereo audio IN, ¼” stereo audio OUT, MIX IN (or iPod port) and options for damper and expression pedals. This way, it can hook into just about any system out there.
After you have considered all of these things (and whatever other needs your specific congregation may have), you are ready to begin sampling instruments. This absolutely cannot be done online. It is critical that you see and play the instrument you’re considering before you bring it into your church. Make sure it delivers the experience you are expecting.
…and if you can’t find a keyboard to match the above criteria, allow me to recommend my favorite: the Roland FP-90.
In addition to Roland’s cutting-edge PHA-50 Gravity Hammer Action with real hammers and ultra-authentic SuperNATURAL© Piano Modeling grand piano sound, the new Roland FP-90 has a couple of features that are totally unique to its genre. One of the most unique features of the FP-90 is its wireless integration with FREE Bluetooth apps from the Apple or Google Play Store, including Piano Partner 2 and Anytune. Enhance your piano’s capabilities with FREE Bluetooth apps – and, when the app gets an upgrade, so does your piano!
You can also take advantage of HUNDREDS of all-digital sounds and a ton of live performance “quick transition” features that help smooth out your worship service.
Add the On-Stage “Z Style” adjustable stand and the SKB KB88 keyboard luggage bag for a completely portable – and POWERFUL worship keyboard package.
Stop in and check it out today! I think you’ll be impressed. …especially when you discover our special Gist Piano Center House of Worship price.
God bless and I’ll see you soon!