Is the Roland System-8 Suitable for Church?
IntroductionI wrote this to advocate for using the Roland System-8 in church. I admit I am a fan-boy and that this was my first decent synthesizer.
My focus is churches and musicians who need a powerful synthesizer. Some of my sources on how to tell if a keyboard is suitable for your church come from the writings of Craig Adams and Keith Duell. I strongly recommend reading their articles before you read this, as I am only going to take the very basics from their articles and tell you how the Roland System-8 does or doesn't match their recommendations.
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Donít Purchase/Use an Instrument That Is Too Complicated For Your MusiciansDepending on your musicians, the System-8 might be too complicated, with its multiple variations of filters, and numerous knobs and sliders. Visually, it can be a lot to take in.
But at the same time, it has a convenient LCD window that tells you what patch you are using. In theory, if you have someone program the first set of 8 patches in bank 1, and then label them, it shouldnít be difficult.
I have yet to test whether the System-8 is too much for the typical church keyboard player, so I canít tell you scientifically if it will work. But I personally think it will, with education. If you would like to get my help learning how to use the System-8 in your church, or help setting one up, please contact me.
Know What Gap You Need To Fill Within the Sonic Landscape of Your Typical Sunday Worship ServiceMostly, I play strings pads at my church. The System-8 does an excellent job filling that sonic landscape.
One especially cool feature is the ability to split the keyboard and use two patches at once. This has given me capabilities like playing leads and pads at the same time, or playing harp arpeggios (Nockels: A Mighty Fortress) over a pad background. Itís not super easy, but itís easy once you learn how to do it. In addition, Iíve used the split keyboard to play strings and bells at the same time, or strings and harp at the same time, which is very useful for Christmas and Easter music sets.
Can it fill in as a piano? Absolutely, even though itís not going to sound super realistic (but to my ears, no keyboard does). But can your piano play piano and pads simultaneously? The System-8 can.
The System-8 can also do things pianos cannot do, like take a piano-sounding patch and add beautiful shimmery reverb.
The System-8 excels not only at pads, but sequencing, something increasingly being incorporated into worship sets.
In addition, as some of the bigger churches (like Peter James has said about Hillsong) like to sample (record/use) vintage synthesizers, the System-8 is becoming increasingly relevant in worship, as it comes with a Jupiter-8 and Juno-106 Plug-Out already installed. For example, I found the string sound from Love Is War (Hillsong) while flipping through the Junoís presets. Presets that came installed on the System-8 for free. This makes the System-8 extremely relevant for modern music. As well, the sound of vintage synthesizers can be so beautiful! The Jupiter-8 is famous for its string sounds, and the Juno-106 for its pads.
Take It for a Test DriveThis may be increasingly difficult to do, as the closest keyboard shop to me is an hourís drive (and I live in a pretty large community). The closest Roland dealership is two hoursí drive. But this is becoming more and more common as the large music stores with many instruments on hand are becoming rarer.
Be Sure To Know the Technical Proficiencies and Stylistic
Strengths/Weaknesses of Your Keyboardists
This shouldnít prove to be that
difficult. Your keyboard player may not want to learn
synthesis, but itís easy to learn. I have taught teenagers
in the youth band how to play pads and use synthesizers.
But again, with as many presets as the System-8 has (roughly 626 available for selection if you count all the Plug-Outs, and 256 at your fingertips in the System-8), you may never need to learn anything. All you should need to know is how to find presets to use.
Look For Specific Synth and/or String Reduction Charts When Purchasing Charts for Your Band/Rhythm SectionHere, I agree with Craig Adams, but my caveat is that your keyboard player needs to learn to be able to improvise or adapt based on what you have. Not every church can afford expensive multi-instrument packages of chord and music sheets. You may be stuck using only Song Select chord charts. Not to insult Song Select: I love it. But I am saying that some people learn to play only via sight reading. There's nothing wrong with this, and it should be easy for them to then learn how to read chord charts. But it's worth pointing out. The prevalence of sight-reading-only piano and keyboard players may be declining, and the number of players who read only chord charts may be increasing, but that's just my opinion.
Conversely, you might need your keyboard player to learn to read music if they only know chord charts. Both are valuable skills. While playing pads, I mostly play chords in lead sheets in my current church. When I play orchestral harp runs that are included in choral pieces, however, I have to read the conductor's score, sight reading that specific part.
The Roland System-8 can handle church just fine if your keyboard player can adapt.
Take Advantage of the Synthesizerís Ability to Diversify the
Genres/Environments within Your Worship Services.
This is where synthesizers really shine: their
flexibility. I can go from Timpani and Harp to heavy bass
lines and futuristic sounding pads at a touch of the dial.
And I can record all of these into the System-8ís Performance list
of 64 presets of split keyboards, even naming them after the song
for ease of recall. This thing is amazing.
This is especially relevant for special music sessions like Christmas presentations and/or services. I can go from Hillsong-like pads to Christmas-like strings and bells at the push of a button. Did your favorite Christian song writer just put out something that sounds like Daft Punk? The System-8 has got you covered. Want to lay down some Foreigner-like 80s synth pads (ala ďI Donít Want To Live Without YouĒ)? The System-8 can do that.
Create an ďAt A GlanceĒ Cheat Sheet List Of Patch Names And Corresponding NumbersThis is going to be at least one piece of paper, as the System-8 has tons of available presets. In reality, though, you can only load 64 on any of its voices (i.e. System-8, Jupiter-8, Juno-106, JX-3P) at a time, so thatís a list of 256 presets. You can tailor this using the associated librarians in your DAW, so that you always have the 64 most useful presets you want. Iíve done this exact thing for my System-1. So far I donít feel the need to do it for the System-8, but I can if necessary.
Consider Buying a Good ďControllerĒ And Using Mobile Apps In Order To Save MoneyThis point by Craig Adams might work if you have the right hardware. And he's right to a point: this might be $300 versus $1,500 for the System-8.
One caveat is mobile apps are still infantile, at least for Android. For about $400 I can buy a used System-1 or $300 for a used SH-01A that will do more and better. The price of a new System-1 is currently around $500. It's up to you.
I would also say here that I do not support cheap "pad MP3s" in church. Not only are you robbing someone of the opportunity to serve God, you're sacrificing flexibility and variety. I wish those companies no harm, but if I might give my own opinion, I prefer hardware, knobs, and people, not MP3s. As well, you canít just leave drone pads going in the majority of songs youíre going to play.
Not to judge software synthesizers, but itís not uncommon to see worship leaders on social media complain that their Apple / Windows / Ableton needed to do an update right before service. The System-8 doesnít have this problem. And even if I had to restore the entire System-8 settings (say I did a Synthwave gig at a coffee shop the night before and had to load back all my church patches), the System-8 can accomplish this faster than any software or operating system can.
Give Your Guitarist/Pianist a Break From Underscoring Once In A WhileCraig Adams here is talking about using the synthesizer for background stuff. I agree, and synthesizers with pads are probably the very best instrument for this purpose. A simple twist of the LPF CUTOFF knob on my System-8 and I can do lots of very beautiful ambient stuff. Not every church uses their keyboards for this, so your mileage may vary. The System-8 is very well suited for this.
Remember the Role Of The Synthesizer In A Band Is Almost Always SupportiveThis is true to a point, but recent albums from Hillsong like Zion and Glorious Ruins may make Craig Adams' words here sound slightly outdated.
I would agree that synthesizers are often supportive, and that this depends on the church. But some (Hillsong-like) churches like a lot of synthesizer. But often the transition from supportive to lead can be as simple as adjusting the LPF CUTOFF knob on my System-8. Or, if I've mapped the filter to the mod lever, a slight bump. So, it depends.
Your mileage may vary.
If You Are Using Standard Sounds Like Piano, Electric Piano, or Organ Most of the Time, Then A Keyboard with Those Sounds Built In Might Serve You BestI agree, and the System-8 comes with all of these sounds. It comes with 9 piano sounds, at least 3 electric piano, and 9 organ sounds. And that's only a text search: plenty more are on the System-8 that are not named "Piano", etc. I have written about the Plug-Outs separately here.
What Type Of Gear (If Any) Do I Already Own?I think this point by Keith Duell is not very true, because he claims that if you already have a laptop, software synthesizers should be cheaper. This might seem to be true at first glance. But are you willing to bring your personal laptop to church? What if you drop it? Does your church already own one and all the software that requires? How old is your laptop? Do you have around $1,000 to spend on a dedicated system? What if you accidentally leave your laptop at church? What if someone messes with or steals your laptop? (I saw a post on a Worship Leader group on Facebook where someone did exactly that.) And what happens 3 years from now when Windows needs an update, a new version of Ableton comes out, and/or your laptop canít keep up and needs replacement? The hidden costs of software synthesis can actually become quite dramatic when you consider software upgrades and hardware replacement.
In contrast, Rolandís products (and other manufacturers) have the reputation of lasting for decades. That money you spend on a System-8 is probably going to last a very long time.
How many keys? 49, 61, or 88?In my experience, 49 keys is plenty for church. The System-8 has 49 keys. I guess if you absolutely ďneedĒ more, you can plug a MIDI controller into it. Or simply press the Octave Up button.
Iíd like to provide a story that demonstrates why four octaves can be enough. This Christmas music service, I was using the System-8 for strings, and finding that I had to go up an octave (which meant I couldnít play some of the lower register string condensation) to hit some of the very high string drones for a couple more ďorchestralĒ songs we had on our set list. Notes with many ledger lines, mind you: far above the treble clef. My music minister made the decision to have me take these drones down an octave because he felt they were too high. So ultimately, I ended up playing everything within four octaves. I only say this for your benefit: you might not need more than four octaves in practice.
Will You Be Traveling?Roland has made a backpack-type case for the System-8. And given the System-8ís easy 13 pounds of weight, travel is very possible. But the System-8 will not run on batteries, unfortunately, so those who want ultra-convenient traveling on batteries may be better served using one of the Roland Boutique lines, which are smaller and battery-powered.
Staying Within Your Budget And SavingThe Roland System-8 costs roughly $1,500 right now. But for what you get, in terms of presets and Plug-Outs of vintage synthesizers, it's a bargain. And if you know what stores to call on the phone, you might be able to get it for less than this $1,500 list price. I bought mine brand new for less than list price.
Does It Feel Right?The keyboard on the System-8 is pretty good. I really canít complain. Itís not weighted like a piano, but it feels very good nonetheless.
Our piano player recently borrowed my System-8 and didnít have a problem with how it feels.
SummarySo in my opinion, the Roland System-8 is a good synthesizer for church that should serve you well. It may not work for everyone, but it works very well for me.