By Aaron Curtis
Our church needs a new keyboard, but how do I know what to buy?
This question is probably one of the most recurring posts in church music forums on the web today, and for good reason. Keyboard manufacturers are now offering more highend sounds and features than ever before due to technological advances and customer demand. Engineers from many of the well-known keyboard brands have realized that one keyboard simply does not fit every situation. Instead of offering one expensive model with all the features, they now offer similar models with scalable, price-based options. A robust music marketplace is good for the consumer base at large, but it can be an overwhelming task for individual musicians to evaluate all their options. In fact, large music retailers’ showrooms can create more confusion than clarity for customers who don’t quite know what they need.
Below are some considerations to be made when buying a new keyboard for a church. To keep the scope of this writing focused, this advice is based on shopping for a ‘main’ piano-based keyboard with 88 weighted keys.
Determine the Features You Don’t Need
The church’s budget ultimately determines the buying decision, but simply knowing which features comprise the various keyboard categories will help you to make the most appropriate choice for your church. Overbuying, that is, buying a keyboard with unnecessary ‘bells and whistles’, takes dollars away from being able to purchase a better quality keyboard with useful features. Conversely, buying a subpar keyboard may equal short-term money savings but can ultimately lead to prematurely purchasing yet another keyboard.
Workstation keyboards typically feature an integrated MIDI sequencer and a sampler. Keyboard models in this category which are usually priced well over $3K include the Korg Kronos, Roland FA-08, and Yamaha Motif. MIDI sequencing and sampling are very useful music production tools that have largely migrated to computers. Keyboard workstations still have their place among composers/creators, but I have found very few church keyboardists who utilize these features.
The stage piano is an affordable category of professional keyboards that generally does not have a sampler or MIDI sequencer (though many stage pianos can interface with computer-based sequencers). Their sound libraries can include anywhere from a few piano sounds to hundreds of sounds of varying instruments.
I generally don’t recommend buying a keyboard that only includes piano sounds. Maybe you want to layer strings or pad on a slow worship song. Maybe there is a song that requires a vintage Rhodes. Maybe the bass player has to work on Wednesday nights. A stage piano with a detailed sound library will allow users to split the keyboard and have a bass sound for the left hand and a piano sound for the right. Some keyboards in this category include the Yamaha CP and S90 series, Roland RD800, and Nord pianos. Most stage pianos feature exceptional acoustic piano synthesis. Many manufacturers also include sounds from their workstation models.
Stage pianos that offer the very latest in acoustic piano synthesis can carry a premium price tag, but most remain cheaper than workstations. For instance, at the time of this writing, the Yamaha Motif XF8 workstation costs around $1,300 more than the Yamaha CP4 stage piano (the CP4 additionally features wooden keys).
There are a few keyboard models that exhibit the simplicity of stage pianos while maintaining workstation status. These hybrids offer an affordable alternative to a higher priced, higher quality stage piano. Examples include the Korg Krome and Yamaha’s MOXF8.
For those who have a comfortable keyboard but are ready for a sound upgrade, sound modules may be a viable option. Sound modules connect via MIDI ports to an existing keyboard and generate new sounds. For example, the Yamaha Motif XS sound module costs around $1,000 less than the CP4 stage piano and $2,300 less than the Yamaha
Motif XF8 workstation keyboard.
Properly cared for, the keyboard you choose should last for several years; this includes the key bed, wiring, and sound engine. Some keyboards have a better track record than others. Online customer reviews, keyboard repair centers, and simple word-of-mouth advertising reveal a lot about a company’s commitment to quality.
Your purchase should meet your expectations and stay within your church’s budget. Think practically, but don’t skimp. Think big, but don’t overbuy. Reach out to other church musicians to see what they prefer, and why. It is a good practice to verify your music dealer’s prices with those from nationally listed stores to ensure you’re paying fair market value. If you have a good local music dealer, reward them with your business. Reading, inquiring, and, most importantly, auditioning will ultimately result in the best purchase for your church.