My Philosophy of Keys
After playing keys in church for about a
year, and learning synthesizers for about a year, I figured I
would explain my philosophy of playing keys in church.
Because I am coming from a Baptist tradition, sort of,
synthesizers in church are mostly considered "Keys 2" or "Pads",
as "Keys 1" is a often a piano. If it is not a real grand
piano or upright piano, often Keys 1 in Baptist churches is a
keyboard with weighted keys with a good piano sound (essentially
the closest thing you can come to a piano without it being a
real acoustic piano).
So I had to learn how to make synthesizers work in an environment that mostly did not understand them. Indeed, I didn't really understand them very well until I started, though I had used them in other places. I had watched YouTube videos from Gateway Worship on how to play keys for their various songs on the Living For You album, which uses a lot of pads.
This is basically a blog post, and I am not an expert on synthesizers or keyboards. I offer this only so that maybe someone benefits from my experience. I plan to be playing electric guitar and pads for the rest of my life, for the sheer fun of doing so.
There seems to be a prevailing philosophy in
some larger churches that you only need to go buy the sound you
want on the internet somewhere, the same sound (insert large
church that has worship albums out that everyone is borrowing
songs from) uses. I don't really agree with the "big
church" solution as taught by some on YouTube because I think it
depends on a larger music budget than some churches have.
It also seems to depend upon software-based keyboards. I
have nothing against these, and have used them on men's retreats
(for instance: FL Studio with Roland Concerto, which has a bunch
of amazing sounds, and you can get on Roland Cloud). But I
personally don't like this solution because you end up sounding
exactly like that other church rather than your own
church. I cannot say that this is wrong, just that it's
There also seems to be a prevailing philosophy of using MP3 pads in worship. I'm going to say it right now: playing a drone during the entire worship set will be both monotonous and boring. And there are very few songs in which you can play the same drone (even if only single notes) the entire song. It clashes. And I don't mean this to sound like pride, but if you don't hear the clash, your ears may not be trained enough. It's there and it can often sound ugly. This is not to say I like "straight laced" chords and eschew 7th and 6th chords: I love Synthwave and all those beautifully complex chords. I'm only saying I can hear the clash, and it's tacky.
What I like to do is either synthesize a sound from scratch, using my Roland System-1 or Roland System-8, or use a preset. And often, a preset sound that is close enough sounds better in my opinion. Do you like the harsh trance saw leads of some churches? Use a different patch. Do you like something another artist does but you want to do it slightly different or put your own style to it? Synthesize it, or use another patch as your starting point and adapt it. I look across the world God has made and I see variety, not uniformity.
I admit that I am human and sometimes I just want to find a preset that works well enough. That's ok. And I understand that worship musicians are often volunteers who aren't rich. There's no need to spend a lot of money. Just give God your best, but let it be yours and not someone else's. Again, this is a philosophy, not a rule.
There's a couple of things I'm trying to balance. I'm trying to balance my money with my time and who I am. If I just buy the patches other groups use, I may get a lot for little time, but it denies who I am as a musician. All I did was copy someone else. And this can lead to monotony or boredom: if every time we play this song for the congregation, I do the exact same thing, it might become boring. That's just human nature.
But likewise if I sit down for an hour and try to "dial in" an exact copy of the sound other people are using for their musical recordings, it might sound cool, but I am potentially wasting time. I will preserve who I am as a musician, but I may again risk boredom if I save this patch and then decide to use it every time we play the song in church.
So my own philosophy is to find patches that are similar or close to the song in question, then do my own thing from there. For example, the song Heart Like Heaven by Hillsong United (Empires album). It has a great synthesizer lead at the beginning. Their keyboard player, Peter James, said in one of his masterclasses that he likes to sample old synthesizers. To be honest, I respect that a lot. So I do something slightly similar to what he might be doing (I don't know what he's literally doing because I can't read his mind, and I don't work directly with him). Firing up my Roland System-1 with the Roland Cloud, which gives me all the PLUG-OUTs that are extremely close to the original vintage synthesizers, I find patches that work for me. Having already selected the 64 patches for each of these PLUG-OUTs that are most likely to be useful in church, I quickly scroll through and find some patches that work already, or close enough, for what I'm doing:
- Pro Mars: LD Fire Lead (reducing the filter attack, then possibly disabling portamento and/or legato modes if they annoy me)
- SH-2: LD Mix Lead (almost perfect right out of the box)
- SH-101: either SY 101 Pluck (increasing amp section sustain and release to make it more of a sustaining sound) or SY Oct Brass (by going up a couple of octaves)
- System-100: LD Soaring Lead (adjusting VCF #2 ADSR to bring the attack down). In fact, this would probably be my main choice among all four, because it has a nuanced, organic tone that I like.
So then based on my mood and/or which
PLUG-OUT I have loaded, I'd select one for church that
day. Then when that one bores me, I'll switch to a
different one. I mostly leave the Pro Mars PLUG-OUT on my
System-1 because it has a Timpani patch, but it's not a
necessity that I only use the Pro Mars.
My philosophy regarding lead patch selection might not agree with you, and that's fine. But in my mind, I want to maximize my own authenticity by being fully present, including my creativity, in worship. I understand that not every musician is creative or picky like me, so I am not in any way saying that musicians must do like I am doing. But this is the way I balance my small budget (and that of my church: most churches have a small budget) and my small amount of free time (I'm a college student) with my creativity and ability to be creative in the moment.
The side benefit this brings is that if I am not the worship leader, and the worship leader walks over and says that one of my patches is too "buzzy," too bright, too dark, has too much bass, etc, I can fix it right there in practice, thus also maximizing my ability to obey and follow my own worship leader. And if I am at a church where there is a sudden instrumental break that is extended by the worship leader because they feel the Holy Spirit telling them to say something, I can pan my filters to soften things, bring in new elements, etc. I have maximized how present I am in worship and how responsive I can be.
This is not to say that software synthesizer players cannot do the same. They can map controls and do amazing things. But this might bring up their complexity and their price point, whereas I can do this with my Roland System-1 and/or System-8 without any additional costs or mappings.
This is not to say that I will never use software synthesizers. My Roland System-1 and System-8 do not have an authentic sounding piano. This is because acoustic pianos are near impossible to synthesize: you must often resort to sampled instruments and keyboards to do this. I've done this by connecting my System-8 to Roland Concerto: now I sound like a piano (this requires my laptop). And if I'm all alone on keys, I can also map the Sugar VST and add Brownie Pads, placing both Concerto instruments on MIDI: Omni, and then I have both pads and piano. I did this at a men's retreat and it sounded incredible.
In psychology, this means you shouldn't
stick to only one theory. Other theories may be right or
have helpful insights.
In church music, I admit that I sometimes engage in schoolism. I tend to do things similar to Hillsong. I tend to use Roland and Boss products for everything. But other products are equally valid. There's more than one way to skin a cat.
So for example, if your Kurzweil keyboard breaks, go evaluate them all in a music store. Don't be afraid to use (for example) a Yamaha even if you had a previous bad experience.
About the only company I can honestly say I don't like is Behringer, as they are a company that constantly copies Roland and other manufacturers, coming as close to copyright and patent violation as they can without going over. As well, their build quality can sometimes be lacking. I care more about the heart of the matter than the law: even if the law hasn't fined Behringer, I don't like how they copy Roland, so I don't like Behringer. But I will not refuse to use something Behringer has manufactured.
But keep in mind that I also find the originals, like the Jupiter, Juno, and other vintage synthesizers, can be had via the System-1/8 PLUG-OUT technology as well as the Roland Cloud, so if I want the original, I can just get it straight from the original source: Roland.
Avoid Sound HoardingWhile having lots of sounds and things at your disposal as a musician can be good, there is a temptation to purchase many patches and instruments just so one has "all" the sounds (patches, voices), or close to it. I want to explain some of the potential pitfalls of this mentality.
In my opinion, this is not a helpful behavior pattern, as one cannot possibly own all the sounds that exist. This can become time consuming and/or financially expensive. And it can distract from what life is really about.
So I hold this one in balance. I love having patches for my synthesizers, and when Roland puts any patches out, or outside artists make them freely available for download, I acquire them. For example, there is one musician who has a bunch of fantastic Pro Mars patches. I don't currently have the money for them. So that's ok: when I do, I'll support them. Their sounds are fantastic.
But if I do nothing but amass a large collection, another pitfall is that I spend all my time buying sounds instead of making them and/or learning my instrument. So another reason to balance this temptation to hoard sounds is that it could detract from leaning my instrument. I look up to the synthesizer players of today and the past who could create almost any sound from their synthesizer. I want to become the master of my instrument and how to use it creatively, not the master of downloading other people's songs.
In my opinion, if you have a synthesizer, the best thing you can do for worship is learn how that synthesizer works. (A synthesizer is not the same as a keyboard: they usually have a lot more buttons so you can manually manipulate the sound parameters in real time.) That way you're not flipping through a large collection of sound patches: if you need to, you can synthesizer your own sounds, or modify other sound patches to make them more suitable for church.