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Hardware vs. Software for the Church Keys Player

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The synthesis and sampling technology of today has been making leaps and bounds more than ever before. In the context of musical worship, there is a great debate for the keys player.  This debate is the one of between the use of hardware or software.

As an avid keyboardist and sound designer, I have had the pleasure of working with numerous plug-ins, DAWs, synthesizers, and other noise makers.  In the context of the worship keyboardist, there are many pro’s and con’s of both, but also many advantages and disadvantages.  I would like to elaborate on a few of those.  Note: this article is not meant to favor or talk down any item or piece of software, but I hope it gives the reader insight on which could be better for their situation.

Software sound quality has been blowing the minds of a lot keyboard players. Piano samples in particular are becoming widely used over full size grand pianos. Native Instruments, Synthogy, Imperfect Samples, are just a few of the developers that are taking the reigns on developing and selling incredible piano samples that give so much more control than one has ever thought possible for a piano sound.

On the other hand, companies such as Korg, Nord, and Roland, big names in the hardware industry, are also putting up stage pianos and workstations that have some of the most beautiful piano patches on the market today. I the synthesis side of things, there are many decisions to be made.

The Korg Triton is a staple keyboard that everyone has heard of. It has famous patches used by a multitude of famous artists. The pad called Analog Velvet found in the Triton has been used in many Hillsong albums and live concerts.  In recent years, companies such as Nord with the Lead series has developed exceptional synthesizers full of amazing sounds and companies such as Moog still are top notch analog and hybrid synthesizers.

In the software realm, plug-ins are not only sounding better and better, but coming down considerably in price as we’ll. Spectrasonics Omnisphere has 1000s of patches that can cover every sonic idea you may have.  Other companies such as Propellerhead and Native Instruments have made massive headway in synthesis plug-ins that offer hands on control for those knob twisters with the ability to recall anything that you have ever made in an instant. Let’s not forget programs like Mainstage, that for 30 dollars offers great sounds for the person who wants to get into keyboard playing with the software side in mind.

So how do you pick what you need?  Always think in context. Do you have one keyboard player? Are you working with volunteers?  Do you need to build a library of sounds? Do you have multiple keys positions?

Hardware is able to be straightforward for those who just need to sit down and play. Some may have a dedicated “piano player” that may not need software next to the. The Korg SV1 or Nord Electro HP series could be a great option offering on board sounds with a “push and play” mentality.

Some may need to cover more sounds than just the bread and butter, but volunteers don’t have time to always program patches in their week before service.  As leaders, we can develop sounds for our teams into a program like Mainstage. and have it ready to go when the volunteer gets there. Great sounds, with very minimal operational learning curve. With the internet these days you can find tutorials everywhere to help further your knowledge on all these things, but remember to use context to justify what you need. Ask yourself, “what will be the purpose of this?”

If you have any questions, please feel free to leave them in the comment section!

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4 Responses to “Hardware vs. Software for the Church Keys Player”

  1. Hi Jeremy, thanks for writing! I am getting ready to purchase a keyboard and I’m wondering if you have am opinion on the Roland FA-08 that just came out. I am a piano player at heart but also need the ability to expand into the world of synth and programming. I would be using it to play with a pretty set core group of people, but always in a worship setting. My only reserve is that I want something that won’t go out of date quickly and it seems that the world is moving toward the midi controller coupled with software. However it seems like a workstation can work with software live and also be a good option for a pianist. Is that true? What are your thoughts?

  2. How do you feel about the reliability of the software side of things ?

    I know I can make most any keyboard sound good enough to make it through, but I love my software & the possibilities it brings … I just fear that the computer is going to crash in the middle of a song, and although that would be inconvenient, I would most hate to pull anybody away from their worshipful mind. I don’t mind handling my own system ( mac mini + Ivory + Omnisphere + Komplete … ) I’m just very much wanting to be sure I can rely on it.

    Thoughts ?

  3. Nancy I think the FA-08 is a very capable keyboard for general worship use. I’m not sure how satisfying it would be as a midi controller for a software-based rig but it will certainly work for basic midi control. As far as I can tell there is no software editor for patch creation. I think that part is important if you are performing in a band where “Covering” the songs is important (i.e. having patches that are very close to the album sounds) because it will be harder to tweak stock patches to get what you want from the front panel.

    The other question is how much actual piano you need to cover in your keyboard duties. Typically 61 keys will be plenty to cover even two parts in a worship song, and 88 keys becomes more of a player preference than a performance necessity (I’ve given up 88 keys in favor of 73, could do easily with 61). If you find that 61 keys would be OK then the FA-06 is an option.

  4. Jeff the reliability of software is definitely a valid concern. Overall I would say that software systems that are taken care of and prepped for performance are very reliable. I know of several people that are running mac-mini systems for performance similar to what you are describing. I think the most important part of a software rig are stress-testing it at home and being careful with it (holding off on updates until non-performance weeks, keeping backups, keeping background programs off, etc).

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