Is the Roland System-1 Suitable for Church?
IntroductionI wrote this to advocate for using the Roland System-1 in church. I admit I am a fan-boy and that this was my first decent synthesizer.
My focus is churches and musicians on a budget. Plenty of people will tell you that you “need” expensive software and computers or expensive synthesizers at church. I disagree. Most churches are not rich: that money you may want to spend on a complete software synthesizer setup might be as much as you pay your worship leader in one month! Not all churches have lots of money.
Thus, I recommend the Roland System-1 for your church. 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-1 does or doesn't match their recommendations.
If you just want to download my patches for church, please see the donate page.
Don’t purchase/use an instrument that is too complicated for your musiciansThe Roland System-1 is fairly simple and straightforward. You don't have to learn synthesizers, necessarily, to start using it. As such, I have included this as a sort of setup guide.
The easy way is to go online and grab the free Roland Librarian. It has 279 patches. If you don't have a DAW for your computer, you can get one for free, which is usually just enough to use the Roland Librarian. I use FL Studio free edition for everything I do with the Librarian. Then simply download my patches and send all 64 of them to your System-1. Now you’re ready.
The longer way is to listen to all the Roland patches, and mine also, and select those you think will work for your church. I recommend sending the sets of 64 into your System-1 one at a time, listening to them through your headphones or amp, and then selecting which ones you like. Or listen to my examples. Then maybe also consider using some of the patches I have made available on my own System-1 page. I have made patches for piano, electric piano, harp, bass, and other things freely available.
Then, if using the longer way, put all the patches you want into your own bank. Then back them up if you wish. From here, you can then play the System-1 and never learn to use a synthesizer or make your own sounds, if that's what you want.
Know what gap you need to fill within the sonic landscape of your typical Sunday worship serviceIf your church already has a piano player, a bass player, etc, then the Roland System-1 will be just fine for you. This keyboard is best suited, in church at least, for pads and various other scattered elements (like harps, etc). My experience is the System-1 is excellent at strings and pads. I used mine for about a year in church, and it worked great.
The biggest detractor is its 2 octave keyboard. Some might consider this too great a limitation, or a deal breaker. Again, in my experience, if you have a bass player in your church, you don't need more than 2 octaves just to use pads. And your System-1 can play bass in case you need to use it to substitute for your bass player. If your church uses Multitracks, it will be even easier for you.
But if this bothers you, consider that you can plug a cheap MIDI keyboard into the System-1 and gain more octaves. You could even buy another two octave MIDI controller and plug it in, shifting the octave setting on it to the bass regions of (say) C2-C4, and you now have four octaves.
For what you get, such as organs, bells, strings, brass, harps, the System-1 excels. In fact, it would be very ideal for a “bells and other random things” controller, cheaper than a dedicated “bells only” machine.
The Roland System-1 has the ability to fill many sonic landscapes. Learning to do this properly is on the player, and comes with the territory (whether to large or small extent) regardless of what keyboard you buy.
Synthesizers aren’t usually made for ultra-realistic instrument sounds. Some can get very close, true. This territory, however, is currently best left to dedicated (usually expensive) software synthesizers and (usually expensive) sample-based keyboards. My general opinion is that churches need to evangelize more instrumentalists rather than substituting software for them, but I also admit that this is not always possible: that's a topic for another article.
Take it for a test driveThis point made by Craig Adams is very valid: you should try out any keyboard before you buy it. But sometimes you can't do this because your church doesn't live close enough to a larger music store that has many available keyboards. I live in a rather large area and yet the nearest keyboard shop was an hour away. The nearest Roland-qualified dealer is two hours drive away. To me, the System-1 was low cost, and thus low threat, so I safely ignored this premise for both my System-1 and System-8.
So I have done everything I can to chronicle my experiences with it for you. It's not as good as mailing it to you so you can play around with it, but it's as good as I can do for you.
But note that test drive aren't perfect. You often don't have the manual in front of you. So if keyboard A would be great for you but you can't figure it out easily, because you don't have the manual, you might pass up a great deal. It all depends.
A synthesizer might not fare so well on a test drive because the large amount of knobs and sliders might be overwhelming. The System-1’s stock 8 patches don’t do it justice. As well, the manual doesn’t spell out what patches contain what sounds, so some might be put off by it. Honestly, this is sad, because the System-1 is very capable.
In a test drive, what you would notice about the System-1 is that the keyboard is more like a controller and less like a traditional keyboard or piano. The keys are full size, but have a shallow travel. There is no velocity or aftertouch (though if you plug in a MIDI controller with velocity the System-1 recognizes it). If you focus on what the System-1 does well, this isn’t really necessary.
Be sure to know the technical proficiencies and stylistic strengths/weaknesses of your keyboardistsI agree with Craig Adams here, but this might involve training your keyboard player. If they are teachable, then this should be easy. Playing pads with the System-1, if you know how to play pads on any keyboard, is roughly the same, and very easy to understand.
In this digital age, there are plenty of YouTube videos on how to play pads in church. So the learning curve might be getting less steep.
If your church keyboardist is stubborn and unteachable, the Roland System-1 may not work for you. In that case, take them to that far away large music store and buy them what they want. I don't say this to judge, but just to recognize the reality of my experience, and many others who lead worship: sometimes you get that keyboard player that doesn't want to learn synthesizers. Or doesn't have time to learn synthesizers.
But at the same time, I am not saying a worship leader should tolerate an unteachable keyboard player forever, and I am opposed to the philosophy of keeping musicians who don't deserve to lead worship on the worship leading team simply because they're all you've got. Being on the worship team is a leadership position, and is a privilege, not a right.
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-1 can handle church just fine if your keyboard player can adapt.
Take advantage of the synthesizer’s ability to diversify the genres/environments within your worship services.I completely agree with Craig Adams. I love the ability to add spice and diversity to songs. For example, in the choral song Thou O Lord, I use my System-1 for harp runs. When we have someone playing strings, I play pads. When we don’t have someone playing strings, I play strings using my System-1. The System-1’s Pro Mars Plug-Out has a very good Timpani patch as well, which some might find handy. The Roland System-1 has a lot to add to your church's worship set.
But if your church doesn't appreciate these things, the Roland System-1 isn't going to work for you. You need something else.
Create an “At a Glance” cheat sheet list of patch names and corresponding numbersI did this for my System-1 and taped it to the right hand "finger rest" area to the right of the keyboard. This is a great thing to do. It works very well.
In practice, the first bank of 8 presets is all I need. The sounds that get used the most are Noise Pad, Deep Pad, Strings 1, Glass Pad, B3 Organ, and Harp (not in order of frequency).
I know there are probably some keyboard players out there who want tons of presets. My opinion on this matter is that this is irrelevant in church because even if you have 3 different variations of a specific sound (3 pads, 3 strings, etc), you won’t fill up the System-1’s 64 presets. So I doubt the “need” to have more patches. But even if that was the case, and your keyboard player likes to have tiny variations in the sound of patches, a synthesizer would actually be more ideal than a traditional keyboard because they can make their own changes in the moment.
Consider buying a good “controller” 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 $3,000 in a full size and expensive keyboard.
One caveat is mobile apps are still infantile, at least for Android. For about $300 I can buy a used System-1 or SH01A that will do more and better. The price of a new System-1 is currently around $500, but I can get one of these used for $400. I can get a used Roland SH-01A for $300 that can do half of what the System-1 can do for church, but can still do everything church needs. 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 praise God in worship, 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 can’t just leave drone pads going in the majority of songs you’re going to play.
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-1 and I can do lots of very beautiful ambient stuff. But not every church uses their keyboards for this, so your mileage may vary. But the System-1 is very well suited for this, and much better than pads on MP3.
Remember the role of the synthesizer in a band is almost always supportiveThis is true to a point, but recent albums from Hillsong may make Craig Adams' words here sound slightly outdated. There are already many more songs (Hillsong Glorious Ruins album, Elevation and Bethel's recent songs) out there now that use synthesizers in more prominent roles. Indeed, there are now even songs that, instead of electric guitar lead hooks, use synthesizer leads as their unifying element.
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-1. It depends.
So 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 bestThis point by Keith Duell is very true, but it just depends. If your church is buying a synthesizer but needs a piano, you should be buying a piano. Synthesizers like the System-8 have very realistic piano patches, but they’re not completely perfect. The synthesizer is best suited for flexibility.
However, the Roland System-1 can totally handle electric piano (see my patch) and organ (see the built-in SY ORGANIC for a pipe organ, and BS ORGAN BASS for a pretty close B3 simulation). Save yourself some money over a larger keyboard.
Note that Keith Duell says "if you like building your own sounds", you should get a MIDI controller and software, etc. That's not completely true. Often the best experience in building your own patches with a hardware synthesizer like the System-1. Honestly, I find the experience of adjusting virtual knobs in software with my mouse completely unsatisfying. Actual knobs I can adjust with my fingers feel much better. So I think Keith accidentally left out hardware synthesizers.
However, the problem with some (lesser) keyboards is that they lack the ability to create new sounds in the moment. 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, and it only took about 30 seconds. 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.
What type of gear (if any) do I already own?I think this point by Keith Duell is very untrue, 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? 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 can’t 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, Roland’s products (and other manufacturers) have the reputation of lasting for decades. So I disagree. The Roland System-1 is cheaper than the software synthesizer route both initially and in the long-run. Keith Duell is pointing to the cheapest versions of Ableton and Omnisphere. I would wager this will quickly disappoint you, because now you can't do what the pros do unless you buy the more expensive versions. Or you will need to go and buy plugins for Ableton/Omnisphere that may nickel and dime you.
As well, I have seen plenty of posts on worship leader groups on Facebook from someone who bought the “Lite” version of any of the above software, only to find it too limiting.
My System-1 does everything I need and I don't need to buy anything else for it. But then subscribing to the Roland Cloud for $20/month only increased my capabilities by granting me access to Plug-Outs. A subscription to Roland Cloud is not necessary: the VSTs work as Librarians, and FL Studio has a free version. But I like to have access to all the cool bells and whistles like the D-50.
How many keys? 49, 61, or 88?This point by Keith Duell is very valid. As I said previously, the 25 keys on my Roland System-1 are enough for church. However, if I want to buy a bigger keyboard later, I can do that for relatively cheap (MIDI controller). If you play ambient pads and "afterglow" chord sequences with numbers, just copy the sheet and hand it to your bass player. Then signal him or her with a number at the appropriate time. It's not difficult to get around not having bass keys on the System-1. (Though the System-1 can be used as a bass if necessary....) Besides, pads in bass regions can quickly sound muddy because of how much reverb they typically use.
Will you be traveling?This point by Keith Duell, ironically, points to the Roland System-1 being superior. Here's why.
He mentions the weight of the keyboard. The System-1 is very lightweight. As well, it fits in my Novation 25 key backpack case.
But with a MIDI keyboard, I need a laptop. The System-1 doesn't need a laptop, so it's the lightest option.
If you want lightweight, portable and battery-powered, you can instead get the Roland SH-01A boutique with the K-25 keyboard.
Staying within your budget and savingThe Roland System-1 is great at being on a budget because it's pretty cheap and doesn't require anything special.
Does it feel right?To me, the System-1, with its synth action, feels right. But keep in mind the keyboard feels more like a computer controller than a piano. To get a more piano-like experience, you might need to pay (a lot) more money. But this is true for both synthesizers and software/MIDI solutions, so it’s not worth worrying about, in my opinion. I played piano in college for 3.5 years and completed my junior piano recital. I can tell you the System-1 feels different, but it's not so different that I don't like playing it. It's very good.
SummarySo in my opinion, the Roland System-1 is a cheap hardware synthesizer that checks all the boxes for a church keyboard. It may not work for you. But for me, it's excellent, and I'm very glad I bought this one rather than something else. I think it would work great for you, too.