Pros and Cons of Synthesizer Types in Church

Introduction

    This is an article where I explore pads and synthesizers in church.  I wrote it mostly as a response to Jake Gosselin's article How To Use Pads In Worship.  In that article he seemed to imply that the only way to use pads in church is via a laptop loaded with software and a MIDI controller keyboard hooked up to it (i.e. "software" synth).
    This topic is long and complex, so please don't be surprised at how much information there is.  Also, keep in mind that I am not the expert that Jake Gosselin is.  I've been playing in church for a long time, and I'm college educated, but I am mainly an electric guitarist.  I'm new to synthesizers and keyboards.
    Gosselin's teachings are a completely valid way to use pads in worship, and a lot of churches (sometimes this means "with big music budgets") do it.  But when I researched how much his recommended configuration could cost someone, I had some misgivings about his advice.  Thus, I set out on my own journey to understand.  Here's what I came up with in terms of the pros and cons of synthesizers in church and the types.  For the purposes of this article, "keyboard" refers to a fixed keyboard that makes its own sound with few opportunities to modify that sound, "hard synth" is a hardware synthesizer like the Roland System-1 or System-8, and "soft synth" is a software synthesizer, i.e. a laptop or computer with synthesizer software (usually including a digital audio workstation program, or DAW) that uses a MIDI controller. See this article for the difference between a digital piano, keyboard, and synthesizer.
    After I detail my own journey, I will go into the pros and cons of the synthesizer types in church.  I am a little new, so I interviewed others and read a lot.  Here's one article on the pros and cons of soft and hard synths, as well as a video on the topic.

My Own Journey

    I got bitten by the pads / aux keyboard thing when my family bought me an Akai Mini Play for Christmas.  This miniature MIDI controller keyboard has internal sounds.  It worked fine for church pads, but I quickly outgrew it.  I just plugged it directly into a direct box and into the sound system.  Really, if a church just wants pads, that is a cheap and easy solution, although it is not very flexible.  So if you're reading this article to find a cheaper way to bring pads to your church, you can stop reading right here and get an Akai Mini Play.  But try one first, because you may (like me) grow to hate the tiny, stiff keyboard.  And to be fair, some of the more advanced stuff that I needed to be doing, like filter sweeping based on what part of a song I was coming in on, isn't very easy with this keyboard.
    So I found the cheapest two-octave machine for church, a Roland System-1 synthesizer.  It works great, and I am completely happy with it.
    As a side note, I haven't needed more than two octaves in church.  We have a bass player.  If I was the only keyboard/piano/synthesizer player and there is no bass player, sure, you might need a full size MIDI keyboard.

Pros and Cons: Cost

    I was not familiar with Ableton, so I investigated on Facebook by asking other worship leaders about their experiences with it.  They told me that they could not use just Ableton Live 10 Lite, but they had to upgrade to Standard ($450).  They also told me they ended up buying the Sunday Keys plugin ($45).  This means they had to spend in the ballpark of $500.  One can get a Roland System-1 used for around $400.  So for now, it appears hardware synthesizers are cheaper.  But take into consideration that I use my System-1 as an aux keyboard, as we have a piano player and a bass player.  If I was to need a larger keyboard than 2 octaves, that might increase my costs by about $200.  The other caveat to the System-1 is that you would need to go download my (free) patches to make it work for you.
    But note that the cost of the hardware and software Gosselin mentions in this YouTube video he made can easily exceed $1,000, and that's a refurbished Macbook Air (his suggestion) with Ableton Live, Omnisphere and the cheapest MIDI controller.  Not to mention having to buy a new laptop whenever yours breaks (about every 3 years for PC, 6 for Mac), upgrades to Ableton or whatever your DAW is that break your plugins, etc.
    Peter James of Hillsong does not recommend that people just go out and spend a lot of money on all this equipment.  He points out that it took him years to perfect his talents using soft synths.  So I am not the only person who (respectfully) disagrees with some of the things Jake Gosselin says.  Gosselin doesn't suggest that everything will just magically happen for you, but it's worth noting.
    Another point is that with soft synths, you may need to upgrade the software from time to time, and/or the operating system (example: Windows 11 comes out, etc).  This is another possible hidden cost.  And a source of nuisance if you don't like having to upgrade stuff all the time.
    Not all of your congregation is going to know the (musical) differences.  I am not in any way insulting people without a musical memory.  I only point out sometimes the differences in sound are only experienced by people with musical talent.  All kinds of people, musical are not, are needed in the body of Christ.

Sound Quality

    Soft synth sound quality depends upon the laptop's hardware and software.  A cheap laptop may not be very fun to use if the onboard sound card is noisy.  A slower laptop (without enough CPU speed) will introduce noise into the signal

    Hard synths usually don't have these problems.  And it's worth noting that Peter James of Hillsong (master class 1 and 2) said he is constantly sampling vintage synthesizers and using those clips with his soft synth.  The question, however, is why bother doing that when you can just get a hard synth that does this, like Roland Boutique or Roland Plug-Outs?

    Note that there is also the topic of analog.  If one goes to YouTube and listens to the many videos of the analog Moog synthesizers, for example, the sound of the analog Moogs are amazing.  Note that some of the synthesizers are digital, some analog, and some emulate analog.  It's also noteworthy that some of the newer synthesizers, like the System-1 and System-8, are digital but emulate analog, and so well that some famous musicians who reviewed some of their digital PLUG-OUTs right beside their 80s analog brothers (example: the System-1 SH-101 PLUG-OUT versus a real SH-101 from the 80s) could not tell a difference, even on an oscilloscope.  So if you are obsessed with sound quality, analog and good digital synthesizers are what you probably want.  But this is not a dichotomy: back to our example, one could use the SH-101 VST in software and sound like an 80s SH-101 as well.

    But most audiophiles praise the sound of analog, not just synthesists but guitarists and bassists as well.  It may not be scientifically possible to prove that analog sounds better, but I mention it because it is a noteworthy phenomenon.  So in this regard, I'm going to tentatively give a slight advantage to physical synthesizers over software synthesizers.  Peter James may sample vintage synthesizers, and if he does so, he does so in digital.  But it's noteworthy that, philosophically speaking, he's starting with "more" sonic data by using an old analog synthesizer and then recording it.

Cons of Computers

    One potentially hidden cost of soft synths is your instrument includes your computer.  This could mean the annoyances of Windows, or the higher cost of an Apple Macbook, etc.  The soft synth player might be tempted, every 5 years or so when he needs to replace his personal laptop, to get a more expensive laptop that can handle more cool effects.  Or the church would be paying for the laptop upgrade cycle, etc.  So I tentatively suggest that soft synths may come with "hidden" costs.
    A pro of hard synths is that you can get away from the computer.  In this digital age, we already spend too much time with computers.  I do not suggest that soft synths are somehow bad because they require a computer, but I suggest that it might be refreshing to get away from the laptop.
    Soft synths might be able to perfectly copy the sounds megachurches use: you can just download and/or pay for the sound they were using.  But is this what churches should be doing?  Do we really need to sound identical to them?  I do not suggest this as a con of soft synths, I am merely asking this question to generate thought.
    Because they are computers, soft synths have a certain number of potential cons.  One is that, because they run on an operating system, are susceptible to viruses and hacking.  It may not be likely, but it's worth pointing out.
    There are other things to consider about soft synths: should you use your personal laptop for your soft synth?  Do you have sensitive documents (like tax returns) on your laptop?  Would thieves be more likely to steal your laptop than a hard synth?  What if the laptop you use for a soft synth crashes?

Portability

    Here, both the soft synth and the hard synth are portable (if the soft synth player uses a laptop), so portability is roughly equal.  However, the hard synth is easier to transport only because all you need is a stand, power, and an amp (if you don't plug into the sound system).  The laptop has more pieces to transport: laptop power supply, laptop, and laptop stand are additional pieces to transport.  And a final note: most hard synths are built like tanks, while not all laptops are built that tough.  Hard synths might have an easier time on road trips and tours.

Responsiveness

    Hard synths tend to be more responsive in the moment because they are usually laid out with lots of knobs.  You can just grab a knob and move it at any time and you get a response.  Soft synths can do this, but this might mean you must get a more expensive MIDI controller with more knobs that you then assign in the software.  More responsiveness may also require a laptop with a more powerful CPU.  I would recommend that those with a 4 year old Windows laptop not think to themselves that such a computer can do everything they need: that old laptop might be too slow.

Live Music

    The majority of articles I have read (like this one) suggest that hard synths are better for live performance.  I don't know if I can fully support this, but I know why they're saying it.  Their thought is that hard synths, with tons of knobs, are better because you can manipulate the sound quickly in a live music context.  I can't say soft synths cannot do this, for (again) if you get a MIDI controller with lots of knobs, you could map all of these and theoretically have all of this at your fingertips.  But I like my hard synth because if I want to do filter sweeps, or add or take away from a patch I'm using, I can do it in real time.

Making New Sounds

    Articles also suggest that hard synths are better for making new sounds.  In my experience, I have found hard synths are definitely good at this.  I can't say soft synths aren't good at this: in theory, someone could download a VST for their DAW that simulates a hard synth, with all the knobs mapped.  It appears to me, watching music leader social media, that many people depend upon factory presets.  Maybe a hard synth's ability to generate sounds on the fly might not be needed at your church.  Maybe you have a musician who wants this ability and has spent the time to learn.  It may come down to the hard synth player listening to a recording and emulating the synthesizers they hear versus the soft synth player figuring out what plugin the church musician was using and paying for it and/or downloading it.  I can't say this is going to be an advantage for either synth type.  But there are articles online that suggest that hard synths are better at new sounds.

    For example, yesterday at church worship team practice, my worship leader called upon me to play bass, since (due to COVID19) we had only 5 people on the worship team.  I tried to use a few of the included bass sounds (both System-8 and the various PLUG-OUTs) that I had included in my patch line-up.  (Note that the System-1 is very similar to the System-8 in terms of creating patches, so I offer this story as an example that could have gone the same way on my System-1.)  The worship leader didn't like them as much, so he asked me to synthesize one in the moment.  So I did, and he was able to tell me (since he is standing on the other side of the platform) what it sounds like to him.  He is listening to the bass subwoofer and house speakers.  Between the two of us, we found a sound that sounds great and also sounds good through our house mix.  Ironically, he wanted more ultra-low-end thump and presence.  It worked, and I saved it all to my System-8.  It took only five minutes.  To do that with some other keyboards or synthesizers, you would need to either go online and download it, fiddle with your mouse and laptop (software synthesizers), or plug in your keyboard and download a patch, if possible.  I did all of this in less time without the internet.  Does this mean the System-8 is better than all other keyboards and synthesizers?  Of course not.  The Roland Concerto software synthesizers are very good, and maybe one of those would have sufficed.  And most the more expensive newer keyboards that are designed for live performance have a lot of bass patches that sound great.  But are we going to go buy a $5,000 keyboard in the moment?  Probably not.  Thus, I am very grateful that learning synthesis, even if I am still only mediocre, saved the day on my System-8.  With a synthesizer, you don't just play sounds (like on a keyboard): you can shape sounds.

MIDI

    Hard synths often have MIDI capabilities, but soft synths depend upon MIDI.  So here, this could be a pro or a con.  If you're concerned that a hard synth your church wants to buy can't be expanded later with MIDI, rest assured that most hard synths have MIDI, so this isn't an issue.
    In fact, this might be a "best of both worlds" situation for the hard synth: it can play music on its own and it can also be used for MIDI.  I noted that Peter James of Hillsong was doing exactly this: he was using a very good hard synth as a MIDI controller that went into his laptop.  Maybe the thought here is that if the laptop isn't working out, for whatever reason, the backup plan is to just plug the synth directly into the sound board and keep going.
    I like that my hard synth has MIDI, but that I don't absolutely need to use it.  I like how it sounds by itself, though, so I haven't needed to get software for my laptop to use it as a soft synth.

Thinking Creatively

    Some websites say that creative thinking is the advantage of hard synths: learning to make your hard synth do what you want it to do.  Maybe that is true to a point.  I cannot say that soft synths discourage creativity.  Maybe it is the experience of creativity (the immediacy of knobs) that encourages creativity.  With my hard synth, I don't have to scroll through menus.  I just move knobs to my liking.  (This required that I learn how to synthesizers work, so this might include a learning curve.)

Versatility

    Most websites give the advantage of versatility to soft synths.  I can understand that, because there's a lot of software for them, both free and at a price.  Want a sound?  Just go pay for it and/or download it.
    However, my opinion is that churches don't tend to be an environment where tons of versatility is needed.  In my experience, one bank of 8 presets handles everything I need for church.  To be fair, I am not downloading the exact same patches that Hillsong or Elevation use, etc.  Usually I only need one sound per song in the worship service.  In rare cases, two sounds (like Every Praise, switching from strings to bells).
    So it depends.  I think church isn't an environment where a ton of versatility is needed, so this advantage of soft synths might be less of an advantage to you.

Quick Switching

    A website on the topic of hard vs soft synths said that quick switching is easier with soft synths.  I would think that for this to be true, the soft synth player needs a MIDI keyboard that has lots of knobs for making switching faster.
    Switching is very fast on my hard synth.  In the example I previously gave (Every Praise) I merely press a button to play bells, then press a button again to switch to strings.  However, to be fair, I'm fairly certain Ableton, Main Stage, or Omnisphere, etc, can be programmed to automatically switch if they are given MIDI tempo from the drum kit.

Save and Recall

    A hard synth usually has the ability to save and recall patches, so I cannot say that a hard synth or a soft synth has the advantage here.  I can only point out that with my hard synth, I can modify and save patches while I'm playing.  The internet claims that saving and recalling patches is easier on soft synths.  I can't really disagree with them because I have not experienced both.

Manageability

    Finally, soft synths can give you more control over the sound.  Many VST plugins have the ability to modify signal flow.  With a hard synth, you may not have this capability.  I don't have this capability with my hard synth.  But I also question if this is such an important need in a church environment.  Maybe it is.  I'll concede this point, as this seems to be what the internet is saying.

Summary and Chart

Feature / Dimension
Hard Synths
Soft Synths
Learning curve
Can be steep
Can be steep
Can make music right out of the box
More likely
Less likely
Works without external power (batteries)
Some
Some (if laptop)
Works without a computer
All
None
Price
Can be cheap
Can be cheap
Live Flexibility
King of Live Music
Flexible
Getting more sounds
Depends on manufacturer and/or community support
Very easy
Tactile experience
King of tactile
Can be, but might cost more
Number of presets instantly available
Depends on model, typically 64+
Your hard drive's the limit
Signal pathway flexibility
Most are not
Near infinite options
Make your own sounds
Yes
Yes
Immediately copy Hillsong
If they used a classic synth / if you program it
Pay for the plugin / program it / possibly cloud services
Program complete songs
On more expensive models
Very easily
Cost to own
Usually straightforward
Can have hidden costs
Sound Quality
Usually very good. Some (more expensive) have analog appeal.
Usually very good.  Does not have analog appeal.

Side Topic: Pads on iPods

    I've noticed lately the emergence of "pads on iPods", i.e. paying for software subscriptions for apps to play pads in church.  I have never tried it, but having read their websites, I have a few concerns about how some appear to be marketing to inexperienced musicians.  I am not insulting anyone, nor do I wish to sabotage anyone's business.  But I feel some of what they are saying in marketing needs to be addressed.
    First, they claim that they come in keys and can be played basically the entire church service.  My first problem with this is the objection raised by Bob Kauflin: our synthesizer pads are not the Holy Spirit.  Overuse of synthesizers and pads could result in unrealistic expectations.  The Bible says God is omnipresent, so thoughts and statements that imply God "shows up" at church if we "worship well" borderline on the heretical.  Really, God's already present: what changes is our perception of God.  I love pads, but they're not the Holy Spirit.
    Second, they recommend to play the pads continuously during songs.  These pads come in keys, so to a point this might be possible.  However, musically speaking, if your pad is in "G", I have a couple of suspicions.  Regardless of whether the musical notes in those pads are a full chord (example: G B D), partial chord 5th (example: G D G) or just a single note (example: G), if you leave them running the whole song or even the whole service, at some point they will clash with the song(s) you are singing.  It's possible no congregant will point this out, but it's more likely someone will point it out eventually as sounding "off."  If they don't clash, they aren't really including enough of the chord to really be able to be called being "in a key."  Or you have them at such a low volume (or you don't have good enough an ear) that you simply don't notice them clashing.  Or our ears tolerate the clash because the tonic of the chord feels like "home" to our ears.  Again, I'm not trying to insult anyone, but it's worth noting that not everyone can hear the clashing, because not everyone's ears are the same.  I'm all for leaving a drone going on some songs, but only if it's a note that won't clash with any of the chords.
    Third, I think the bigger problem is psychological.  I fear it could result in small churches pretending to be big churches. I'm not saying this is wrong, but that it cause (again) a skewed expectation.  If I walk into a small church plant with lots of pads and laptop-driven instruments / worship TraxTM, but only 30 people in attendance, my thought won't be "this feels like a large church."  It will be "someone paid a lot of money on their musical equipment."  You can't trick people into thinking they're at a big church with a large music budget or simply "more" musical inputs like MP3 pads.
    Fourth, these can have a place in worship if you have them mapped to another MIDI controller.  If you watch Hillsong's keys masterclass, Peter James points out that he essentially did this same thing by recording his own pads in various keys without the third of the chord for backing himself in various circumstances.  But note that he says his is set up so he can change which one is playing based on the chords he's playing.  This is important to note: he is changing which one he's using based on the chord.  So this only reinforces my second point.  But also note that he recorded his own pads.  Sure, MP3 pads might be cheaper, if time is money, but being able to trigger them at the right time and/or switch is going to require some hardware, so what might seem like a cheap investment may quickly turn into a more expensive one.
    I think this expectation to be like large churches can be detrimental, in that it's almost like someone who's unhappy with their appearance and goes to get plastic surgery, but is never happy with the results and always plans more.  Don't get me wrong, I love the music produced by large churches.  I've long been outspoken in my love for Hillsong's music.  We should be content with such things that we have.  So if your music budget exceeds your outreach budget, you might have a problem.  The priorities of the church, rightly realized, are evangelism first, music second (or third, etc).  Don't get me wrong, I love good music.  I've spent a lot of money on my own instruments.  I've served in some musical capacity in every church I've been to for 30+ years.  But I would rather attend a small church with proper priorities that does what it can with what it has, than a small church with improper priorities, spending lots of money on music in hopes to pull in more people. Good music has a limit, but you can't argue with (for example) people getting saved and joining your church, etc.
    But finally, I am not here to disrespect or downplay anyone's business.  I'm not against the pads-on-iPad concept.  If you can use them without running into any of the possible psychological or theological challenges, more power to you.  I wish well upon all Christian businesses and churches.  I only question our motives and some of the things I've heard people say about them in marketing and on social media.  And I also question the music sense, or lack thereof.  I believe more like the late Robert Moog, that music (and worship) were intended to be corporate and social.  We should have our own private worship time, but ultimately worship, at the end of the age, in Heaven, will be very corporate and very social.  We should be getting ready for what eternity will be like.  (This isn't to say we'll only be sitting around all day playing harps, but that we will experience worship like nothing ever before.)