The sheer number of instrument choices, coupled with an often confusing list of features, can make the purchase of a digital keyboard for your worship service a daunting task. There are dozens of keyboards to choose from, and they fall into some very broad categories. Digital Pianos, performance keyboards, workstation keyboards or synths, arranger workstations and portable keyboards to name a few. Hopefully we can begin to define these instruments and provide you with some guidance in determining exactly what keyboard will best suit your needs. Price is certainly a factor in making this decision, but flexibility and expressiveness should be your ultimate considerations.
If your primary purpose is to provide the pianist with an alternative to an acoustic instrument, then you can start by considering the digital piano. Space limitations on the platform and the necessity to relocate the instrument are certainly things to consider here, but the ability to paint with more than one tonal color is probably the greatest benefit. These keyboards often come with a variety of piano sounds as well as hundreds of additional instruments that can be played, layered or split. This greatly increases the timbral possibilities available to your team. In addition, these pianos are easy to move, never go out of tune and the sound is always consistent. Big bonus!
Maybe you are looking to add a second keyboardist or to provide your primary keyboardist with an even larger tonal pallet from which to minister. Performance keyboards provide a platform that is capable of providing incredible flexibility and musical expression. At the push of a button, these instruments can go from piano to organ to string section to blazing lead guitar… or any combination of sounds that you can imagine. These “controller keyboards” often have controls and capabilities allowing for the integration of additional keyboards or modules into your rig, providing even more musical expression. Of course all this power comes with a price, and the learning curve will be steeper than with the digital pianos mentioned above. However, when it comes to pure music making capability, the return is well worth the investment of time and money.
If your needs extend beyond performance to the actual creation of music, you may want to consider a workstation keyboard or workstation synthesizer. These instruments combine the flexibility of the performance keyboard with musical creation capabilities such as sequencing and sampling. They can also be used in the creation and performance of “loop” based music. Like performance keyboards, these instruments come in a variety of sizes. 61, 76 and 88 key versions are common, with the 88 key versions usually featuring a weighted action, providing a “piano like” feel.
Finally, some of today’s most sophisticated technology is incorporated within the arranger workstations. These are some of the most versatile and powerful songwriting and performance tools available to the worship musician. In addition to providing many of the capabilities of the keyboards above, these keyboards can actually interpret the chords that you are playing and automatically provide all of the additional instruments in real time. Drums, bass, guitars, strings, horns: the works! Even non-keyboardists can create complex musical arrangements by playing simple one finger chords. (One finger chord, now there’s a concept)
The details of all this technology are truly outside the context of this column. My hope is to have shed some light on the variety of keyboards available to the worship musician, and to help guide you in the decisions you will have to make before purchasing. The bottom line is to surround yourself with the tools that allow you to more freely worship God, and to lead His people into His presence.