One of the most exciting (yet sometimes the hardest) parts about building your own keyboard rig is choosing the right keyboard. You all know what I’m talking about… browsing online through endless pages of new keyboards/pianos, scouring craigslist or ebay to find that perfect deal on used gear, or spending hours in your local music store trying out different keyboards.
Sometimes deciding on one and making that purchase is difficult. What if I make the wrong choice? What if in a month it turns out I hate my keyboard? Is this really what I need?
I totally get it! I’ve been there before and know that it can be overwhelming, especially if this is your first time buying a keyboard. While it is important to do your best research and testing, choosing a new keyboard should also be fun and stress free! So here are my top 5 tips for choosing the right keyboard for worship.
Keyboards/Synths vs. Midi Controllers
What kind of rig will I be using this keyboard with?
This is probably the first thing I would ask before doing a lot of research on your new keyboard. The next two questions to ask yourself are:
Software or Hardware?
Keyboards are generally split into two categories: standalone keyboards/synths that have built in sounds/presets, and midi controllers that are used with virtual instruments hosted on a computer. Which direction you choose depends on your needs and role on your worship team.
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 best.
Keyboards with built in sounds are great for quick setups/tear-downs because they are basically plug-and-play. No additional software or gear is necessary to make them work. They plug directly into your interface or church soundboard and work great from day one. If this is all you need from a keyboard then this would be the optimal setup.
However, if you need a keyboard with a larger variety of sounds (synths, pads, steppers, leads, pianos, etc.) then you will need either a keyboard will a full range of built-in sounds, a digital workstation, or a software based setup where you use a computer with your keyboard. This is where you will have to evaluate your needs as a keyboard player.
Dedicated synths and keyboards with built-in sounds can be very convenient yet they can also get quite pricey when finding quality sounds and samples.
Instead, if you choose to go with a software based keyboard rig or if you enjoy building your own sounds, then you will need a midi controller.
Midi controllers are different from regular keyboards in that they do not have any built in sounds. They are simply empty keyboards that “control” the sounds on your computer.
Midi controllers are great because they can be fairly inexpensive and provide a lot of functionality with computer based instrument software. This connects to your computer via USB or MIDI. Additionally many keyboards today have both built-in sounds and USB/MIDI connections. That is something to keep in mind if you want the best of both worlds.
What type of gear (if any) do I already own?
The other thing to consider is what gear you already own.
If you already own a laptop (primarily Mac but also PC) then you may want to consider a software based keyboard rig. Software such as MainStage 3 or Ableton Live Lite are under $20 and will provide an easy and affordable entrance into software based keyboards.
If you already own a laptop that is compatible, then half the work is already done. If you don’t already own a laptop for use with your keyboard, then evaluating the cost of a new computer vs. a full feature keyboard will be your best option.
How many keys? 49, 61, or 88?
Now that you’ve decided on the type of keyboard you need, what size should you get?
This will depend entirely on your play style. If you’re focusing more on synths, lead lines, and base lines, then the shorter 49 and 61 key keyboards will be great. If you tend to play a lot of piano using the full range of the keyboard, or if you want extra room to split layers, then a full size 88 key keyboard may be what you need.
Many of these models also have varying features depending on the size you get. So evaluating your playing style is really the only way to make this decision. Personally I prefer the 61 key for synth work, and the 88 key for times when I play piano patches.
Will you be traveling?
If you are constantly traveling to and from your church, or if you regularly setup and tear-down your rig, the weight of the keyboard can be a huge factor.
Keyboards with built-in sounds can become quite heavy (over 60lbs sometimes). Midi controllers on the other hand can be extremely light-weight since there is minimal hardware inside them. These are great for travel and make loading your gear into vehicles so much easier!
It’s also very common to have a main keyboard and a travel keyboard. So if you need both then that’s ok! Choose one to invest in now and continue to save for the second keyboard later.
Staying within your budget and saving
Now probably the least exciting part of buying a keyboard… budgeting.
After you’ve decided on exactly the type and size of keyboard you need, it’s time to set your price range. There are 100’s of keyboards across all price ranges that can fulfill your needs as a worship keyboardist. Decide what you can spend and stick to it. If you find that the perfect keyboard for you is out of your price range then you have a couple options:
The most common option is to just wait. Giving yourself some additional time to save up and buy that perfect keyboard is a great option! Sometimes waiting can be hard, but this is a long term investment and the sacrifice is worth making.
The second option is to buy something that will work for now, resell it later and then purchase the keyboard you originally wanted.
This is a great solution if you need a keyboard immediately and can’t afford to wait and save up for a more expensive option. Keep in mind though that over time keyboards will drop in value. So something that you bought for $1000 might only be worth $500 after a couple years.
Does it feel right?
Once you’ve finally put in all the legwork and hours or research and budgeting…. We get to the most important and quite frankly my favorite part. Does it feel right?
We can talk endlessly about keyboards, features and software, but at the end of the day you will need to try it for yourself.
Nothing will compare to spending time at a music store playing on different keyboards.
Every keyboard feels and responds differently. And every keyboardist performs and plays differently. So there really isn’t a “best” keyboard. You may find the perfect keyboard with all the features in the world, but if you don’t like the feel of the keyboard, or don’t enjoy playing it, you will end up hating your purchase.
The biggest factor in the feel of a piano is the action. This is the way the keys feel and respond as you press down on them, and release them. The four common types of actions are:
Synth action: lightweight plastic keys with a spring for resistance.
Semi-weighted: lightweight plastic keys with moderate resistance. Not as light as a synth action but not as natural as a weighted key.
Weighted: A heavier key with stronger resistance emulating an acoustic piano. The keys feel natural.
Hammer action: The keybed mimics the hammer actions found in acoustic pianos. This is the closest digital pianos can get to achieving a natural, organic acoustic piano feel.
Your playing style and experience will determine which of these types of actions are best for you.
There is no “right” or “wrong” choice here. They simply fulfill different roles and the best way to choose is just spend time playing them. Making the final decision on which keyboard to get is most often solidified by the way the keyboard feels as you play it.
Choosing a keyboard for worship is big investment and worth taking the extra time to find exactly what you need! If you’re curious about what keyboard gear and software we use here at Worship Online, find out here!