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. This was my first decent synthesizer. I am currently leading worship from my System-8 and it works very well.
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 MusiciansThis depends on your musicians and what you're using it for.
As an auxiliary keyboard, like for complex songs like Phil Wickham's "House of the Lord" or Elevation's "See A Victory," it's very useful. When I was playing this, I needed both the System-8 and System-1 in order to grab all the parts. The System-8 used a pad or organ patch while the System-1 used a lead patch.
While the System-8 may look complicated, using it isn't complicated. If your church buys one, contact me: I can design a patch set for the entire System-8, either out of factory patches or those from Roland Cloud if you have a subscription, that will provide almost everything you need.
The System-8 has a convenient LCD window that tells you what patch you are using. If you have someone like me load the first set of 8 patches in bank 1, and then label them, it shouldnít be difficult.
I've let musicians borrow my System-8 in church and it worked just fine for them. It's not difficult to use. 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.
However, recently I've had to use my System-8 as the primary instrument in church, while leading worship. In this capacity, I usually use only one patch for an entire worship set, so it's not complicated.
Know What Gap You Need To Fill Within the Sonic Landscape of Your Typical Sunday Worship ServiceI play lots of things at my current church: pads, bass, electric pianos, strings, organs, harps, and even cello parts. The System-8 does an excellent job filling that sonic landscape. When during COVID19, at my last church, I used the System-8 to play pads and strings simultaneously, with my left hand on my System-1 playing bass. But the System-8 can also handle many of the modern sounds of Elevation and Passion.
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 easy once you get the hang of 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. When it comes to Christmas music, synthesizers rule, as evidenced by Mannheim Steamroller.
Can it fill in as a piano? It can, but maybe 1% of our general population would be able, in a blindfold test, to distinguish between this synthesizer and an acoustic piano. To be honest, the System-8 has only one native patch that sounds like a piano, and the other piano-like patches for the Jupiter-8, Juno-106, and JX-3P Plug-Outs really don't come very close to a piano sound. But using a synthesizer for a piano is not recommended. I can do this when I'm leading worship from my System-8, sure, but it sounds more like Schroeder from Snoopy than a real piano.
But the point of the System-8 is to excel at things pianos cannot do, like shimmery reverb, vibrato, pads, and sequencing. For example, I use the System-8's sequencer for House of the Lord by Phil Wickham.
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 the Jupiter-8, Juno-106, and JX-3P Plug-Outs. For example, I found the string sound from Love Is War (Hillsong) while flipping through the Junoís presets. So instead of sampling things like Peter James, I play them with essentially the "real" thing.
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 Proficiency 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. Also, no one needs to
learn synthesis to use the System-8. I have taught teenagers
in the youth band how to play pads and use synthesizers.
Also, I have taught a 70+ year old musician how to use
synthesizers using a System-1. It's not hard to learn, but
it's not even required.
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.
The Roland System-8 can handle church just fine. It's easy to adapt, but not much adaptation is required. I'm a piano player by my life history, but I adapted and learned about synthesizers without training via just website and YouTube learning.
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 button.
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. I can also
make pads sound like they came out of nowhere and are suddenly
larger than life, then make them vanish again.
This is especially relevant for special music sessions like Christmas presentations and/or services. I can go from Hillsong-like pads ("What A Beautiful Name It Is") 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 80s synth pads (ala ďWaiting For A Girl Like YouĒ)? This is probably the #1 thing the System-8 can do: pads and layered voices.
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.
But don't let that seem daunting: you can easily load the patches you want to the System-8 for church if you hand-pick the ones you want. Or you can even contact me and I can do it for you in like 5 minutes.
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. He's right to a point, but only if you already own software synthesizers, which usually cost money. For the total cost of the right hardware and software and controllers to run pads at church, a System-1 or System-8 can be cheaper.
But mobile apps are still in their infancy, 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 do not support "MP3 pad drones" in church. I feel that their use might be 1) robbing someone of the opportunity to serve God and 2) too often used in ways that clash with the song being performed. Much less 3) they are usually not flexible, in the sense of filter sweeps and exotic chords. I am not judging them, just pointing out that I do not like them. Again, a System-1 is cheap, and it gives someone an opportunity to serve on your worship team. As well, you don't run into a clash when you, for example, use a G MP3 pad and the song has a D chord (the F#/G clash can be annoying).
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. I've seen the Albeton/Apple combo do this twice to a worship pastor in one year: like, I was there. The System-8 doesnít have this problem. I've never had the System-1 or System-8 refuse to work due to not being up to date. The System-8, especially, is the "desert island church" synthesizer, as it's very capable and powerful. Even in a worst case scenario, I could factory reset a System-1 and/or System-8 and be up and running for church in under 2 minutes. One could not do this with Linux, Apple, or Windows, in the sense of reloading the software and the VSTs and the patches.
Granted, Ableton can do things the System-8 cannot. But you can use the System-8 as a MIDI controller for Ableton, so there's also that.
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. The System-8 comes with tons of sounds, both for its native mode and the three Plug-Outs it includes, which you can view here.
The problem, however, is that most synthesizers are not going to be able to recreate the sound of an instrument with a lot of nuance, like an electric guitar through a guitar amplifier, or a grand piano. It's simply beyond their technical capabilities, though they often get close. I am currently using the System-8 to fill the piano role in worship while I lead from the keyboard, and there's only one patch that gets close to a genuine piano sound. I use this patch.
But one thing synthesizers can do that most lesser keyboards cannot is create new sounds in the moment. For example, one day 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. 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 sub-woofer 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 one minute. 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 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've seen more than one post on social media groups for worship leaders where someone broke into their church and stole their personal laptop, their Nord, etc.) What happens 3 years from now when Windows or Mac OS-X 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. I am not here to disrespect or dismiss the power of software synthesizers. My church uses Ableton + click tracks from Multitracks. They are great for certain things. But I feel far less shackled by my hardware synthesizers.
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. It will never have trouble keeping up. It will run for decades even without an update (but usually Roland updates to the firmware on the System-8 are to add features, rarely to fix bugs).
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 as written. 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. Roland makes a Boutique Juno and a Boutique Jupiter that would be great for this. If you absolutely need a portable synthesizer, one of the Roland Boutique lines will probably be better, as they can run on batteries.
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 huge bargain. No, if anything, it's a steal! 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. Let's just say I paid roughly $1,350 for mine.
But the next level of multi-voice keyboard, the RD-2200, costs roughly $2,220 when this was written, though it will give you sample-based (i.e. realistic) piano sounds and can layer other instruments. I've played them and they are great. However, it's that or a Nord starting at probably $3,000 or higher. The lowly $1,350 System-8 is more affordable and arguably more flexible if you need only 1-2 voices at a time. Much less it has a sequencer, something the RD-2000 doesn't have, so have fun manually playing the sequenced parts of House of the Lord.
It's worth saying here, but I know Jake Goslin and Church Front are claiming that you "need" Ableton and a Macbook Pro to run all these really complex sounds. Don't get me wrong, these are impressive, but I wanted to share what the cost, out of their own toolkit, will run you: $2,000.
I added the cost of the laptop stand from Musicians Friend as well as the cost of the cheapest refurbished Macbook Pro from Apple's website (because most churches, if they are going to spend this kind of money, want a warranty of some sort with it).
As you can see, once you add up the money, the software keys rig is more expensive. Can it do more, simultaneously, than a System-8? Very likely. But do you need all these things? It depends. Are you running tracks? You probably want the Macbook Pro solution above. But if you have Multitracks and you can learn the important keyboard parts, you can get a System-8 off of Reverb.com in excellent used condition for $1,149.
There's a joke among worship leaders, "Where the Nord is, the Lord is." Nord makes great keyboards, but add another $1,000 to any estimate you may have from the previous paragraph. In my opinion, Nord should only be for pros and/or people who have very specific needs. Nord products are great, don't get me wrong. Just know what you're buying.
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. It's cheaper than a software-based keyboard rig, and allows me more flexibility and creativity in the moment. I'd say, all in all, it's roughly equal in value to the Ableton + Macbook Pro rig, and cheaper than a performance keyboard like the Roland RD-2000. Obviously, it will depend on your needs.