How To Accentuate Your Pad Parts

Music Theory and Pad Theory for Church Pads

Introduction

    This article is for those who would like to understand the music theory of pads in church.  Some of the technique is mainly structured around the Roland System-1, but should apply to all other synthesizers.  I am assuming you have only four note polyphony.
    The synthesizer is mainly a supporting instrument in church.  This is not to say that it cannot be a lead instrument (cf. Hillsong), but it is mostly supporting.  Its strength is that it is versatile and can do many things.  Even if not used for a while song, it can be used (for example) to play harp accents and bells.  How you use it determines what it is.

How to Play Pads

    Typically, the pads are used for their more sustaining sound.  This pads like (Roland System-1) PD Dark Pad are best.  Key features of a good church pad are usually a slightly soft attack, lots of sustain, and a bit of reverb.  On a synthesizer with a filter (ADSR), this would typically mean all sliders in the middle of their range.  The attack time can be reduced (that slider lowered) if this is too slow.
    How you play pads depends mostly on the song, but typically pads are played in a very legato fashion, holding down the keys as long as possible, and only moving when necessary.
    Here's an example: the verses of Hear Our Praises:

Fingers (high to low)
C
Csus
G/B
Am
F
Gsus
1
C
C
B
A
F
G
2
G
G
G
E
C
D
3
E
F
D
C
A
C
4
C
C
B
A
F
G

    As you can see, you probably won't want to leave many fingers down on the keys.  Using a sustain pedal should help a bit.  Listening to the song, the musicians seem to be emphasizing this sort of melody line that the top note (#1) sort of creates.

Set Up Drones

    Drones are usually notes that are held down during an entire song.  Not all songs lend themselves to this concept, but some do.
    First, find all the notes that your song uses and study them.  Here's an example: the song Build My Life:

Chord Factor
G
C
C2
Am7
Em7
Dsus
1
G
C
C
A
E
D
2
B
E
D
C
G
G
3
D
G
E
E
B
A
4


G
G
D

    Looking at this table, we see that a very common note for every chord is the G note.  Therefore, if we want a drone, we could (using KEY HOLD or a sustain pedal held down) play octave G notes (probably above middle C).  We can do this only because this D chord is suspended (to the 4th factor, G).  The verses don't contain an unsuspended D chord, so if the D chord in the chorus was not suspended, we would need to shut off the drone on the choruses to prevent a minor 2nd clash (F# and G).
    I usually only do a two-note G-G drone like this when I must also play electric or acoustic guitar.  KEY HOLD on the System-1 can be a very useful feature.
    As a side note, this is why I do not endorse using iPad MP3 pads in church if the operator never switches chords.   Whether everyone hears the clash or not, it's there, and it's less than ideal.  I would instead recommend something that Peter James does: set up a sampler and record pad chords, so you can change pad chords with the song's chords.
    This doesn't mean the pad player must use a drone.  But if you would like to play more than two notes, you can use other notes.  But my preference would be to have at least one "G" note in each chord, and possibly two.  So I could instead play the notes like this, on the chorus:

Fingers (high to low)
C2
Am7
G/D
Em7
1
G
G
G
G
2
E
E
D
E
3
D
C
B
D
4
C
A
D
E or B

    That way, people can sort of hear the drone in the upper register, because that's always a G note.

Know The Function of Minor 7 Chords

    You may have noticed that some songs use minor chords with the minor 7 while some do not.  The function of a minor chord with a minor 7 is to sort of "soften" how minor a chord sounds.  It's more "gentle."
    As a pad player, you don't technically have to play the minor 7s with the minor chords.  I would recommend playing them whenever the song tells you to, but sometimes chords move too fast for this, or you are still growing and learning as a keyboard player.  That's fine.

Know How to Playing Strings

    It's important that, as a keyboard player, you learn to read string parts.  Some songs that some churches buy contain a string condensation for the synthesizer player.  When playing strings, I would recommend trying to read off of this sheet as much as is possible.
    If you cannot, maybe a lead sheet (with chords) will work better for you.  I would recommend you keep learning how to read music so that you can eventually read the string condensation music.

Know Where You Fit in the Band

    As a pad player, your job is mainly supportive.  So if your church has a string player already, and you want to be the second keyboard player, you might be taking a back seat role.  My advice would be that if you have a solid keyboard player playing strings on another keyboard, get the conductor's score and find something else to contribute.  For instance, I tend to switch to harp and bells on songs that don't have synth pads.  Know where you fit in the band, and don't duplicate someone else's role if you can help it.

Have a Servant Mentality

    Because pads are often supportive, it's beneficial to be in a servant mentality. Think about and ask how you can support the worship and the songs.  If you come into it with a mindset of heavy Vangelis-like patches, that probably won't contribute to the song.  Don't get me wrong: I would love to attend a church whose style of music is like something out of a Tron movie.  But most churches simply don't do that.
    Listen to the sonic landscape as you play and find a place to anchor yourself.  Listen to the recordings and how the small accentuating elements contribute to the song.  For example, say you're playing Every Praise and you already have a piano player and a keyboard string player.  You can still contribute, like playing the bell accents every 8 measures.

Know When Not To Play

    Constantly playing pads can become monotonous pretty quickly.  My advice is to know when to play and when not to play.  Mostly, the music should tell you when to do either thing.  Make sure you also watch the leader to know when to stop.
    Sometimes it's helpful, in terms of providing contrast, for the music to stop, or for only one instrument to continue playing, such as the acoustic guitar.  Maybe once in a while everyone but the pads will stop playing.  Learn to sense the music, watch the leader, and sense the Holy Spirit's moving.

Learn Your Instrument

    This is more of a performance note, but say my church is playing the song Greater Things by Phil Wickham, for example.  If I set up my System-1 correctly, I can switch back and forth between leads and pads, assuming there's no electric guitar to play the leads.  Usually, with my synth, this involves switching to the appropriate pad patch, then dropping the LPF CUTOFF knob to zero.  Raising it to 50% usually results in a good pad sound.  To play lead, I can bump the LPF CUTOFF to about 75%.  That means I can switch quickly between the two.  I can also use presets to do this.
    Sometimes songs get complex.  The point here is that learning your instrument's capabilities and limitations, and practicing switching over, etc, are very helpful.  You don't want to accidentally make mistakes that interrupt the flow of worship or are distracting.