Podcast Episode #17: Everything You Don't Need to Know to Play Keyboard

Some skills and gear are essential for effective keyboard playing, but with others, we don't need to bother.  Ryan's got the lowdown on what equipment, techniques, and software we really need to play keys.  

3 Great Questions From The Live Podcast

Brian Yaw asks: I know we’re talking about what one doesn’t need. But what equipment are must-haves?

Ryan: If you want to sound like the album, you’ve got to have a great keyboard controller.  Whether that’s a keyboard that has built-in sound, like here in the studio I use a Roland RD700SX because it has a great piano feel to it and it has some built-in sounds.  I always make sure that whatever keyboard I’m using at least has some basic sounds so that if your computer crashes on you, you can at least fill in the holes with a piano and a pad.  So, Nord; for the longest time I always thought people were buying it because it’s the red keyboard and I know a lot of people do buy it because it is the red keyboard!  But it’s easy to use, it’s got great pianos, great B3’s, great pads.  If your computer died on you, you could use that.  You need a great keyboard controller, and a great computer.  The stronger, the faster the computer, the better.  If you’ve got a slow computer, you’re just going to be frustrated because it’s not going to be able to handle the software that you’re running.  If you’ve got a 4-year old laptop that’s collecting dust and you think, “I’m just going to dust this thing off and use it,” don’t even go down that road. 

Jason: What about an iPad?

Ryan: Yes, there are some apps for the iPad.  Chord makes a sound module that I’ve used before and it’s decent.  I’ve usually used the iPad as a controller, so that’s what you see when I’m doing all the lessons.  It’s for OmniSphere, called Omni TR and it just controls OmniSphere.  There are some things you could download, but most of the time, you just have to think of it in terms of processing power.  A lot of these things just require a lot of processing power.  So, the faster the computer, the better.  After your computer it’s going to be your software, whatever you’re going to run.  If you’re running Apple, then I would say MainStage.  It’s just $30 and it does so much and is so easy to use.  After that, you can add whatever you want; OmniSphere and Native Instruments, whatever extra stuff that you want to.  There are a lot of sites out there where you can download patches for MainStage that people have created, and you can actually purchase the legit stuff if you want to, and it’s not that expensive, versus spending $3000 for a keyboard.  So I would say, the keyboard, the computer, and the software are the big three, then after that, it comes to whatever interface that you want to have to output.  If you don’t want to just come out of the headphone jack or computer, you want to have a better quality, that’s going to be your audio interface.  Those are the big must-haves if you’re going to sound like the album today. 

Jason: What does a decent controller run?

Ryan: The more keys you put on it, the more you’re going to spend.  $200-$800 depending on the brand and the bells and whistles on it.   MAudio has some great ones, as far as the pricepoint. Native Instruments has some really cool controllers that integrate with their software now.  I’ve got one of them and I really love it.  Controllers typically don’t have built-in sound.  They’re just a controller, so they’re going to have the keys, faders, knobs, which you can use live to customize your sound as you go along. 

Joey Colson asks: Three piece band - drums, bass and a keyboard player. Best to stick with straight piano sounds or how would you approach it to create the best "full" sound?

Ryan: If you’re not playing with any extra tracks, the first place to start would be piano and pad.  Any time I’m playing anything, usually I’ve always got that piano dialed up and there’s a pad that’s blended in with it, just to provide that extra glue.  Because keyboard players are called upon to fill in the gaps when a song is over, transitioning to another song, or somebody’s talking.  I’ve always got a pad dialed up and I control the volume of it.  That’s where I would start.  But if you want it to sound full, you can add some of these synth parts to help fill it out from a rhythmic standpoint.  If you don’t have that rhythm electric player, that lead player, if you’ve got OmniSphere and MainStage, you can fill in those parts to make it sound a lot more full, but my starting point will always be that piano sound and some kind of pad and work from there. 

Joey: Does that pad detract if you’re playing more rhythmic or melodic lines?

Ryan: I don’t think it gets in the way.  You have to be careful of certain pads, the way that they’re set up, if you’re playing a lot of rhythmic stuff, the pad could sound choppy if the pad isn’t set up right.  So you might need to adjust it to give longer sustains so that it sustains through you playing those kind of rhythmic patterns.  That’s what’s great about MainStage and OmniSphere, is that you can customize those pads.  If I have to play a lot of melodic stuff and I feel like the pad is going to get in the way, I might limit the pad to the middle of the keyboard down.  A lot of times you’re doing some long holds in your left hand while playing melodic, rhythmic stuff in your right  hand.  That way, I’ll fade it down and you can still hear the pad sounding because I’m doing these holds in my left hand, but I’m able still to do more rhythmic stuff with my right hand.  It doesn’t detract, it just depends on how it’s set up. 

Brian Yaw asks: I’m a guitarist but I’m also the person who buys equipment for the church.  Who do I work with to get this set up right for my keyboard player? 

Ryan: First, you’ve got to work with the people who are in charge of the money.  As far as getting it set up right, we’ve got some tutorials on Worship Artistry that take you through the keyboard, cables, laptop, software.  You can purchase some of this from different websites that sell the patches. You can always email me and I’d be more than glad to walk you through it.   It’s all about asking the right questions.  “What’s it used for?”


Ryan is currently the Worship Director at The Church at Wills Creek in North Alabama. He has been the keyboardist for many Christian artists and has served with several churches including Christ Fellowship and Church of the Highlands. Ryan is the keyboard instructor for WorshipArtistry.com and also works as a producer, music educator, and studio musician. Ryan has two children, Josiah and Vivy, and they love spending time on their 100 acre farm.

Podcast Episode #17: Everything You Don't Need to Know to Play Keyboard

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Using stems

Hi Ryan, love your posts. Great stuff.

Wondering if you use stems in worship. If so, could you post some tips?

I'm particularly interested in 1) what hardware/software is needed, and b) how to ease my band into it.

For a church of only about 250 people, we have some really talented and dedicated musicians. Without any stems or backing tracks, we manage to make a really thick sound. We've come a long way in my three years here. But we want to get to that next level, and I feel that stems could give us the extra kick we need. Also, because of our small size, I'm occasionally left shorthanded. Stems could really help there. However, none of our players has ever used stems, clicks or anything else. I've done it in the studio, but not live. What's the key to getting everyone to buy in? And how can I ease them into this so they're not overwhelmed?

Anyway, thanks much. LOVE this website!