Specification of a Basic Piano for Use in Worship

In this article, I specify what I believe to be essential characteristics and capabilities of what I call a “Basic Piano” for use by a church worship team. I think that it is important that a church seriously consider buying a more capable Stage Piano rather than what I call a Basic Piano. That said, there are a fair number of smaller churches that cannot afford a proper Stage Piano.

So what is the difference? A Stage Piano is a digital piano that has been designed for professional use by gigging musicians. As such, they tend to be more rugged, designed to fit into a case for travel. They also tend to focus more on quality of piano and accompaniment sounds rather than “bells and whistles” such as players and other auto accompaniment such as arrangers that you may find in home oriented models. Stage Pianos also typically lack builtin speakers and stands, relying on stage monitors, front of house sound system and stands intended for professional use. A Basic Piano is usually a home model type of digital piano that is being adapted to church worship as part of a cost reduction strategy. They typically cost less, and lack many of the important features associated with a Stage Piano.

For a true Stage Piano, I consider as a minimum requirement, that it be able to support layering of up to at least four parts / sounds in sufficiently flexible manner as to support accompaniment in worship. It should be able to layer at least two piano parts with at least two other parts such as a soft pad, organ, symphonic strings or brass (as needed). It should also offer MIDI flexibility to support integration as part of hardware and/or software setups. The sounds should include high quality piano sounds, a high quality synth library and should include a good tone wheel organ emulation. Finally, it should support connection of an expression pedal with the ability to selectively assign which layers expression can affect and which layers are not affected by it.

Examples of good stage pianos:

  1. Roland RD-700NX, RD-800 or RD-2000
  2. Nord Stage 2 EX, Stage 3 or Stage 4

I have a Roland RD-800 and use a Nord Stage 2 EX at my church, so I know that these satisfy this spec. These are actually older models from Roland and Nord. There are also quality Stage Pianos from other vendors that could be mentioned. I am just not familiar with them to cite them as examples. I may write an article to cover more on Stage Pianos, but this article is intended to cover the case where what a church can afford, falls short of this.

So why should we be concerned? First, we want to ensure that we accompany our worship with good quality sounds. We don’t want a buzzy sounding toy piano sound coming out through the church speakers. We don’t want it to sound like a 1980’s era computer / video game. Second, a pianist needs a digital piano to feel like a real piano. The keyboard hammer action must feel right, or you plain may not be able to find a pianist willing to play the instrument. Your pastor won’t be willing to preach a sermon while wearing a dunce hat, so why would you expect a pianist to play something that sounds like a toy? Finally, some home model pianos cannot be connected to sound systems (they may only support builtin speakers and/or headphones) and they may not be able to be connected to a computer or other instruments (may lack USB / MIDI ports).

So here are the minimum requirements of a Basic Piano to make it suitable for church worship team use.

  1. It must be solidly built. Church digital pianos receive heavy duty use. They are used by various pianists. Kids sometimes get at them. In some cases they are stored when not in use. In other cases, they stay setup all the time and are available for other uses of the venue. Once a digital piano breaks, it is unusable until expensive repairs are completed.
  2. It must have a full 88 key hammer action velocity sensitive keybed. Anything less than that and your pool of pianists willing to play it will shrink.
  3. It must have a jack supporting a sustain pedal. The sustain pedal also needs to be provided. A digital piano without a sustain function is an instrument without any players. (There may be exception by some synth / organists if the sounds are good – but this article is about a digital piano being used as a piano).
  4. It should support at least 64 voice polyphony, preferably 128 voice polyphony especially if some patches use more than one voice per note played.
  5. It must have two 1/4″ TS “phone” jacks for audio output to DI box(es) to feed into the front of house system. A headphone out jack is insufficient for this. Lack of audio outputs is usually indicative that it would also fail to meet other specs. (It is likely a mass produced “cheap” consumer product).
  6. If equipped with internal speakers, it should provide a way to be able to disable the builtin speakers. You want to use the stage monitor system, not the builtin speakers. This may be of the form of a switch on the back of the unit, a menu setting, or it may be a volume dial that turns it down without affecting the level that goes out the audio out jacks. In some cases, the builtin speakers are disabled by connecting a plug into the headphones jack.
  7. It must have a good library of acoustic piano, electric piano, organs and synthesizer sounds. You need at least a good solid grand piano and a soft pad synth sound that can be layered with it as absolute minimum.
  8. It must be able to layer at least two sounds per note. A common sound used during worship is an acoustic piano layered with a soft pad synth sound. There also needs to be ability to adjust the level balance between the layered parts.
  9. There should also be at least a second foot control jack capable of accepting an expression pedal. Most home model pianos do not offer much flexibility in terms of what parts to control using such a pedal. The minimum requirement is that the expression pedal be supported by the MIDI implementation. This is important to a musician who uses the piano as a MIDI controller with software such as MainStage.
  10. There must be a USB MIDI device jack capable of supporting class compliant USB functionality as a MIDI controller. This is what would be used by a musician who brings their own sound library in software running on a laptop (for example MainStage running on a MacBook). Such a musician uses the Basic Piano as a controller, but have all the sounds be generated from their computer. This is quite common in worship context. Class compliant USB MIDI is important in terms of what happens when the vendor stops updating their proprietary USB drivers for compatibility with newer versions of Windows and MacOS.
  11. There must be a MIDI Out DIN connector capable of sending MIDI to another musical instrument. This is what would be used by a musician who brings their own sound library on rack hardware and/or a second keyboard synth (to stack the two keyboards). In both the computer case and this case, the venue provided Basic Piano provides simple high quality keyboard MIDI controller functions and/or piano sounds to be integrated with the extra gear. This means that the musician has less gear to haul in and out each time that they play.

When I play at a venue, I usually find out what they have to offer as a venue keyboard. I have one configuration that I can use with any compliant Basic Piano. I have a better configuration that I can use with a properly configured Stage Piano. Both configurations provide the same functionality, but the configuration for use with Stage Pianos has higher quality supplementary synth sounds that I cannot use with the Basic Piano because my synth is also providing the up to 3 parts for the Basic Piano that a Stage Piano is able to do itself. (Yeah, I make life a bit complicated for myself for the sake of packing less gear).

An example is one venue that all they could afford to setup is a Roland FP-7f. The Roland FP-7f is a fairly older model digital piano. It is a home model piano rather than a Stage Piano, but it satisfies my minimum Basic Piano spec. It also satisfies one nice-to-have feature below (ability to mix in my synth audio with the piano’s builtin audio).

Nive-to-have features:

  1. AC power supply builtin rather than using an adapter (line wart or wall wart). Builtin power supply usually indicates a better built product versus a mass produced commodity product. Manufactures use power adapters with very low cost products because they can spec such an adapter per market that they sell it in. Each market has its own electrical standards and certifications. Apart from indicator of a low cost commodity, the other problem with a power adapter is what to do when it disappears, or is broken. In my view, a Stage Piano must have built in power supply. For Basic Piano, it is a nice to have feature.
  2. Stereo audio input jack that can receive external audio input, blend that with the builtin generated audio and output the combined mix out through the output audio jacks. Sometime this is a pair of 1/4″ TS “phone” jacks. More common these days, it is a 3mm mini-plug designed to connect an audio player or a phone. (The earlier mentioned Roland FP-7f has a pair of jacks. The Roland RD-800 has a 3mm jack. A Nord Stage 2 EX has a mini-jack, but it doesn’t feed it out to the mains. The Nord Stage 3 and later support mixing it out to the mains).
  3. If you are purchasing a newer model of digital piano, consider one that support both class compliant USB audio and class compliant USB MIDI. This means that if a musician connects a laptop to implement sounds using software, they need not bring the audio interface. An important consideration here is that it must be possible to turn off the piano’s generated audio while still allowing the USB audio to go out to the mains. It is useless if it turns off the computer audio that is supposed to be replacing the builtin sounds. This may involve going into a menu and activating a “local off” function. But it is better if you can balance the local audio and USB audio use separate level controls. Class compliant USB audio is important in terms of what happens when the vendor stops updating their proprietary USB drivers for compatibility with newer versions of Windows and MacOS.
  4. Extra controls such as pitch bend and modulation are nice to have, especially when using a computer based setup. (These are must haves for Stage Pianos).

Like at the beginning, I strongly suggest that you consider getting a real Stage Piano. A Stage Piano such as Roland RD-2000 also has the advantage of XLR audio outputs, essentially having builtin DIs.

If you cannot afford such, Roland also have a recent lower cost model, RD-88. It is like an RD-800 or RD-2000, having latest sound libraries, except it is limited to 3 layers (rather than 4 or 8 layers). It uses an AC adapter rather than builtin power supply, but it does support audio inputs and USB audio and has pitch bend and modulation wheel controllers. Although they advertise it as a Stage Piano, I would really consider it to be a good quality Basic Piano with some Stage Piano like features.

If you have a good budget, although I have primarily been biased towards Roland products and how they architect their keyboards, I am really beginning to like the Nord Stage pianos. My top recommendations would thus be to consider a Roland RD-2000 or a Nord Stage 4. The Nord will cost a lot more (plus you need to add DI boxes to the cost consideration). The Nord Stage 4 lacks the USB audio support, but the Nord Stage 4 has a powerful and updatable sound library architecture that you wouldn’t likely ever need to use computer generated audio with it. Yamaha also make good products, but I am not familiar enough with them to provide useful comments on them. Some of them feature XLR outputs and USB audio support.

In my personal setups, I have the following:

  • At home (and for when I need to pack all my own gear for a special event) I use my Roland RD-800 with my Roland XP-30 synthesizer stacked on top of it.
  • At church, I use the church provided Nord Stage 2 EX with my Roland XP-30 synthesizer stacked on top of it.
  • At a Saturday night service I minister at monthly, I use the venue provided Roland FP-7f with my Roland XP-30 synthesizer stacked on top of it.

I also have used MainStage and GigPerformer, each with Komplete and Omnisphere as part of software (DAW) based setups at the Saturday night service, but I found that packing a properly programmed synthesizer was more robust and quicker to setup and tear down than a computer based setup. I essentially have programmed my synthesizer to do what I did previously using some MainStage programs. Plus it plain looks cooler, especially with a red Nord.

I hope that this spec proves useful to someone needing to acquire a digital piano for their church. In most cases, you will have a pianist who will want a quality acoustic piano sound, likely layered with a synth soft pad to add ambience. Occasionally, you will run into a die hard keyboardist who will want to replace or supplement this sound with their own bag of tricks. The key is to properly support your worship pianists, while having room for growth.