Looking for a Synthesizer?

bozvyncgkkgrhqyh-cgeuyslyskhblo8slugg_3Recently, someone contacted me about purchasing a synthesizer. My current knowledge of electronic keyboards is woefully outdated, so I passed the question on to Roger Hooper, who is the synth-player in my church and a long-time friend. He’s also a gifted composer and film scorer.

Here’s how Roger responded:

If the purpose of the keyboard is to do the non-piano stuff, you’ll save a lot of money going the non-weighted key bed route. I am primarily a pianist, but I’ve found that in either playing in the worship band (I also play out in the DC area), a non-weighted action is much better for playing organ parts, and the synth parts as well.

Korg, Yamaha, Kurzweil and Roland all have “radio ready” sounds in their synths. The Leslie FX in all four manufacturers is excellent.

Yamaha just released a Motif XF. The sounds are brilliant, the organ FX spot on. It’s in the $2400 range, though, and that’s for 61 non-weighted keys. They also have the MM8, which is 88 keys, weighted. It’s an older model, but still sounds great, and sells for $999

Korg has an M50 series in the low teens, a couple of sizes. They are based on their flagship M3, which is $1900 (61 keys). The M3 series has a 73 and an 88 weighted version. The main differences in the M50 series and the M3 series would be the workmanship (the M3 series being more solid), and the M3 series probably has better converters (analog to digital converters; the output sound quality). I’ve used Korgs for years; the organ sounds have always been full, and the Leslie FX (the rotary spinning sound) are always replicated well.

Not as familiar with the Roland stuff, although I played one of the Fantoms a few years back, and thought it sounded very warm and full. They also have a keyboard, the Juno G. There’s a YouTube video demo on this link. It’s $1400; a lot of features are included for that.

Kurzweil has a PC3 series. The PC361 with 61 keys is $1992. Kurzweil also has a PC3LE series that has half the DSP, so the units are less expensive. Half the DSP means the resources will be tapped out sooner. The PC3LE6 is $1495 (61 keys). The sound quality is the same, you just can’t use as many sounds in the built-in recorder. They also have an 88 key version, the PC3LE8.

Then there’s the PC3X, which is 88 keys, weighted, and a non-weighted version, the PC3, with 76 keys. These units are both the “flagships” of their line, and cost over $2000. I played the PC3X a few months ago and thought it sounded stellar. The first thing I noticed was the presets didn’t have a bunch of huge, swirly, ear candy presets other manufacturers sometimes overindulge themselves in. I used to like that stuff back in the 90s; used to give the sound man fits! The Kurzweil has a lot of bread and butter sounds that sit in the mix really well. I’ve always thought their OS was easy to get around on. I’ve owned 4 Kurzweil instruments along the way. The pianos sound real, the EPs sound like they came from the 60s/70s, the organs are great, and the keyboard has sliders that double as drawbars. I would say that playing B3 parts on Kurzweil instruments is probably the most satisfying. I used to play Hammond in the 70s, and owned one for a while in recent years. The strings sound orchestral, and the synth stuff sounds like “real” analog where appropriate.

A lot to read! If I were buying a new synth now, I would look at the new Motif XF, or the Kurzweil PC3. I’ve only heard the Motif XF online; I played the PC3. If you’re in the DC area, you can contact Ed Spence, at Washington Music Center. He is a believer, has been in the industry since the 90s, is very fair, and knows his stuff. The number of the store is 301-946-8808.

Any other thoughts?

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24 Responses to Looking for a Synthesizer?

  1. Eugene Shin September 28, 2010 at 4:50 PM #

    many of today’s worship artists for synth purposes without the piano sounds utilize Nord and Moog for that thick vintage synth sound… Nord (Electro and Stage) has great sounds and Moog, you can’t go wrong (the Little Phatty is a great instrument)

    I think the Nord is software based though… the Moogs are not…

    a thing to also note is if you have the money to spend… a modular synth is also another route to go depending on how much money one desires to spend…

    http://www.synthesizer.com is a great place for said modular synth…

    • Bob Kauflin September 28, 2010 at 5:02 PM #

      Roger uses a Nord on Sundays. Definitely has great sounds.

  2. Allan September 28, 2010 at 4:55 PM #

    Roger Hooper is the Sultan of Synth. He gave me advice a few years ago when I was looking for one for my daughter and we were very well served. Praise God for this man’s willingness to serve publicly AND privately with excellence and humility!

  3. Justin September 28, 2010 at 6:28 PM #

    I don’t think an mm8 compares at all to a motif xf or even the es. They use a soundest from the psr stuff. Very low quality going the MM route. Like someone mentioned, the Nord stuff is gaining a lot of attention these days. The electro is very affordable.

  4. rick September 28, 2010 at 7:43 PM #

    I feel like the Yamaha pianos cut through better than the Roland stuff. I just played an RD-700sx last month and I was not that jazzed about the pianos.

    The Yamaha also has the S90XS and S70XS, if you didn’t need all the workstation stuff on the Motif.

  5. Rich September 28, 2010 at 8:42 PM #

    After reading that, I praise the good Lord. That i’m a guitar player ;)

  6. Patrick Anderson September 28, 2010 at 10:00 PM #

    What about using a controller to run a soft synth like Spectrasonics Omnisphere?

  7. Roger Hooper September 29, 2010 at 7:27 AM #

    Eugene, your recommendation of the Nord Electro is excellent. As Bob mentioned, I use a Nord (an Electro 73). I think it sounds very analog. I used real Rhodes and Wurlitzer pianos in the 70s/early 80s, and the EPs on the Nords speak to me in that way. The Moog sounds as fat as it does because it has discrete components for its oscillators, filters, etc. Instruments like the Nord, Motifs, etc., are sample-based, and “everything” is on a printed circuit board. Synthesizers.com modulars are awesome; you can get into one for a little bit more than the price of a Little Phatty.

    Thanks, Allan!

    Justin, I agree about the MM8, although I’m not sure about the PSR connection. It may be more of a question of converter quality and sample rom size. Definitely will look into that! I mentioned the MM8 mainly as a price point thing; many folks might want the XF, but if the $$ aren’t there, the price of an MM8 offers the opportunity to own an instrument. Electros or Nord Stage Pianos (those are a bit expensive) are incredible bread and butter pianos to work with, and the lower weight for the back is good too!

    Rick, you’re right on: the Yamaha keyboards cut through anything. I think that is one reason (in addition to their stellar sounds) you see them on stage everywhere, on music specials on TV, etc.

    Rich, keyboard players don’t have an abundance of wood choices, pickups, string gauges, etc. “I want a curly maple controller” isn’t in our vocabulary! ;)

  8. Roger Hooper September 29, 2010 at 7:40 AM #

    Patrick, the controller and lap top idea is a great one! I take a Macbook Pro to CLC sometimes as well, and use either the church’s Axiom Pro, or will soon be bringing my M-Audio Oxygen 25 (25 keys, too short! May stick with the Axiom….) When I first started doing this, I loaded up my sample libraries on an external drive, brought a firewire interface, etc. Was a lot of little stuff to hook up. I now use the built-in audio instead of external interface (the Mac’s audio sounds great) have Omnisphere loaded on the system drive, as well as Native Instruments Absynth (very exotic and unusual synth), and use the synths in Mainstage (a performance program that incorporates all the instruments that are part of Logic Pro). It takes a little work to get the stuff set up, but once you do, you load your “concert” in, and you’re ready to go. The Virtual Instruments sound great, especially Omnisphere. I would describe that as a “swiss army knife” synth; beautiful, amazing patches. I still think it is easier to have a dedicated synthesizer; turn it on, hit the patch button, instant sounds. No loading, no fooling with a track pad. Although, if you work with your controller in advance, you can have a lot of parameters set for editing on the fly. If you already have a laptop (especially if it is not an older slower model), this could be a very affordable way to go. If you need to buy the laptop, it could be more expensive that buying a dedicated synth. Good to have choices!

  9. Andrew Gosden September 29, 2010 at 4:07 PM #

    Everyone in the Christian music scene in the UK seems to have gone Nord. I bought a Nord Stage 88EX recently and it really is absolutely fantastic for worship – wonderful piano and EP sounds, and the Hammonds are lovely. Incredibly flexible as well. Strongly recommend it. (I also used it to play keyboards for a party band – Abba, Stevie Wonder etc. and it was great for that too.)

  10. Roger Hooper September 30, 2010 at 12:33 PM #

    Andrew, do you use the Nord Lead portion of the the stage for the worship band? I think the Nord pianos are great; they sound different than Yamaha and Roland. In some ways, a little more natural. Trying not to use the word “organic:….oops!

    Have you played a Yamaha CP50 or CP5 at all? Just tried them; really excellent grand and EP sounds, plus a cool vintage look.

  11. Chris Smith October 1, 2010 at 9:17 AM #

    Great post – not as familiar with the Nord so that will be worth looking into.

    We use two Roland Fantom boards – a 66, non-weighted key version and their full 88-key weighted version. I was impressed with their piano sounds (some gorgeous grand pianos), the Rhodes, Leslie, pads, strings, etc. We’re not too sophisticated in our setup, but we do layer lots of sounds and it’s nice to have both boards going for maximum effect.

    Still trying to figure out how to do some effects – like the delay sound you hear at the end of “Glorious and Mighty” – can get it pretty close but not all the way.

  12. Andrew Gosden October 1, 2010 at 2:05 PM #

    I tried using the Clav for an introduction to “father God I wonder how I managed to exist” but not sure the world was ready for it. So really only use the synth portion of the Nord for strings/pads + at Christmas I programmed a glock sound for the top octave to use at key moments. Probably have only scratched the surface of possibilities.

  13. Aaron Mitchum October 7, 2010 at 4:00 PM #

    Hi Bob – I had the opportunity to catch you at the Crowder Church Music conference last weekend. Thank you for your perspective and passion. It was great to hear from you.

  14. rohan aiman October 12, 2010 at 3:26 PM #

    If you lay your hands on a Korg Z1… grab it and don’t let go of it. it’s a fab synth modelling keyboard

  15. Roger Hooper October 17, 2010 at 11:05 PM #

    Rohan, I own a Z1. It is indeed a fabulous modeling synth. Beautiful analog tones, lots of “other-worldy” sounds. It’s a shame that one didn’t take off, but it laid the groundwork for the MS2000 series and beyond, especially the Radias. Would love to own a Radias!

  16. Ben Drechsler October 22, 2010 at 6:14 AM #

    Anybody got an opinion on the best “weighted-key” instruments out there?

    I play various piano/synth/organ sounds for our contemporary services, but there are other classical pianists that would use the keyboard for our traditional services, and I think we’d put a lot of stock in a spot-on Grand Piano sound with realistic weighted action. Right now, we’re using an Elesis Fusion 8HD, which has pretty good piano and pad/synth sounds, but it’s slowly accumulating wear and weirdness…

    Any suggestions would be most welcome!

  17. Roger Hooper October 22, 2010 at 10:56 AM #

    Ben, Fatar makes a good controller, the Studio Logic VMK-188:
    http://www.studiologic.net/vmk-188.html

    They have other models on their site that are priced lower, as well. Any of those you could midi to the Alesis.

    For an all-in-on weighted keyboard instrument, the Yamaha S90XS is hard to beat, as is one of their 88 key Motifs.

    Andrew, I think clavinet is a great instrument to use! The other players, particularly the guitarists, need to make room for it to make it work, since it is primarily a rhythm instrument. And to get listeners to go beyond thinking of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” is another hurdle…

  18. James Galloway November 13, 2010 at 2:07 PM #

    Hey guys. I play keys and sing in a CCM worship band called Soulstice. Right now I use an old PC88 that a friend gave me, but I’m looking to upgrade. I’m torn between the Yamaha x90sx and the Nord Electro 3. I mostly use piano sounds but could use some good pad/organ/rhodes/b3 tones as well. HELP!

  19. Roger Hooper November 15, 2010 at 12:24 PM #

    James, I listened to Soulstice on Myspace; the band sounds really good!

    I think the Electro 3 probably has the most “analog” sounding Rhodes and B3 tones, and the piano sound is probably a toss-up between that and the Yamaha (the Electro 3’s piano is much better than piano in the Electro 2, in case you’ve had experience with that latter). But, the Electro 3’s action is semi-weighted (closer to a synth or organ), whereas the Yamaha has an 88 key hammer action, feeling more like a real piano (the Nord’s length is 73 keys). The pads in the Nord are geared towards the analog synth/Mellotron spectrum, plus you can import new samples from their site, or make them, if you have the means to do so. The Yamaha has lots of pads, synth-like as well as sounds more on the orchestral side of things. The Rhodes and Wurlitzer in the Yamaha are very good as well, although I still think the Nord’s EPs are more “real” sounding like the old analog instruments. The organ/Leslie sim in the Nord is better than the Yamaha’s, although again, the Yamaha is satisfactory in this area. It might not satisfy someone doing an organ trio gig, but for your application should be fine, especially since the piano sound is the main focus.

    Another couple of instruments to check out would be the Nord Stage (they have a couple of models), and the Nord Piano. The Stage has analog synth, B3, and EP sounds in addition to the grand piano. The Nord Piano is just pianos/EPs; just by looking at the YouTube videos, it seems like a great instrument, although it wouldn’t have the pads/organs.

    I’ve owned an Electro 2 for a couple of years, and while I still use it for organ and Rhodes, I eventually bought a weighted instrument to play piano on because the feel just wasn’t there for me for playing classical pieces and jazz (my primary focus performing). You should head to your local music store with a set of headphones and play both for a significant time. You’ll get a better idea of the sound to feel connection, and how it will inspire your music.

  20. Jason Chollar December 1, 2010 at 5:45 AM #

    I’ve heard great things about mainstage, which comes with Apple’s Logic.

  21. AndrewF October 6, 2012 at 12:33 PM #

    Hi.. I’m putting together a new music team – could you point me in the right direction to anything like a worship synths 101? As someone who plays basic piano, how would one start with some simple synths? Thanks!

    • Bob Kauflin October 7, 2012 at 9:14 PM #

      Andrew, thanks for asking. Roger Hooper did a seminar for synth players at WorshipGod11. You can find it on the Sovereign Grace store (sovereigngracestore.com), although when I checked they were doing maintenance on the site.

  22. jordancolburn April 29, 2014 at 4:22 PM #

    Great Article, I think it helps fill the lack of information on keys for worship as it is usually left to piano players to try to figure out how to make those synth sounds on their own. I find it interesting you didn’t mention the awesome synth in the photo for the article. It’s a vintage analog Roland Juno 106. I just picked one up, good for pads and some of the big 80s new wave sounds that have come back into style recently.

    Anything that will get you piano, electric piano, organ and pad sounds is enough to cover most of the modern worship sounds. At our church we have a 2 cheap MIDI controllers running mainstage on an old mac, a yamaha grand, an old hammond organ and I sometimes bring in my korg Triton LE or Juno (we often have both a piano player and a keys player). It’s fun for me to nerd out with all the keyboards b/c we have the space, but really it’s about finding the space in the song (frequency) and timbre to help accentuate the emotion of the song to help facilitate worship and that can be done tastefully with whatever instrument you have available.

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