Affordable worship keyboard setup that sounds amazing

Selecting the right keyboard rig for your worship band can be a daunting task. In this article, I’m going to walk you through the setup we use at our church plant. Rather than spending thousands of dollars on a Nord, Roland, or Yamaha keyboard, we are able to produce amazing sounds with an inexpensive MIDI keyboard and Mainstage running on a MacBook Air. Keep reading to the end and you’ll know exactly what to buy and how to set this up at your church.

The question of the day: What keyboard rig do you use at your church? I love learning from you guys so let me know below in the comments.

I’m going to walk you through the keyboard setup we use at the small church plant where I lead worship. I am not a professional keyboardist. I’m a worship leader and guitarist. But as the worship leader, it’s my responsibility to make sure my volunteers who play keyboard have the best tools to produce the best sounds possible.

I wanted to build a rig that can reproduce the sounds we hear today on most modern worship albums. That means the rig must have piano, pad, synth, organ, and bass patches to play the wide variety of sounds that are popular today.

There are two pieces to any keyboard rig. The first piece is the hardware which is the physical keyboard itself. The second piece is the software which produces the sounds. There are a couple of options for how you can go about combining hardware and software for a keyboard rig.

First, you could buy a keyboard that combines the hardware and software into one. While this setup is portable and convenient, there are a couple of issues. To have a keyboard with high quality sounds built it, you need to spend a lot of money on a high-end Nord, Roland, or Yamaha. Most churches cannot afford that. Instead, they buy a cheap keyboard for a few hundred dollars which ends up not sounding good and cannot produce the pad and synth sounds required in modern worship bands.

The second way to build a worship keyboard rig is to purchase the hardware and software separately. That’s what I did to set up the keyboard rig for my worship band. There are several advantages to this. First, you can buy an inexpensive MIDI keyboard controller from M-Audio or Akai. In our setup, we use the M-Audio Hammer 88. It has 88 weighted keys and feels great for only being $400. Remember, MIDI keyboard controllers do not produce actual sound. You will plug the keyboard into a laptop with USB cable, and the laptop will be creating the sound.

We have a MacBook Air with Mainstage installed on it to run our keyboard sounds, also known as patches. Mainstage is available for $30 in the Mac app store. Sorry PC user, Mainstage is not available on Windows. You do not need a super powerful Mac to run Mainstage. The MacBook Air we have is a 2014 model with 8GB of RAM. We have never had performance issues.

Once you have MainStage installed on your computer, you can start using the piano and pad sounds built into the software. That is what we did for a few months at our church plant. Recently, I purchased Sunday Keys. Sunday Keys is a template of premade Mainstage patches that are designed specifically for worship. Here's a link to a video where the creator of these patches demos all the sounds. The template costs only $50 which is an incredible value. Once you purchase and download the bundle, you open up the MainStage concert file and bam; you have amazing worship keyboard patches ready to go.

Let’s talk about cost. Assuming you already have a Mac computer available, it only costs $30 for Mainstage, $50 for Sunday Keys, and let’s say you purchase a MIDI Keyboard like the one we use at my church for $400. For less than $500, your church has a phenomenal worship keyboard rig. If you went and spent $500 on a typical keyboard with sounds built in, you’d have a very mediocre rig. To me, it’s a no-brainer. Even if you need to buy an additional laptop to run Mainstage, you can find a used MacBook Air for less than $1000. In the end, this setup is still a fraction of the price for a flagship Nord, Roland, or Yamaha keyboard.

But I’m not done showing you how cool this setup is. At my church, we use Ableton Live to run a click, tracks and automate lighting and lyrics in worship. If you’ve been following my blog for any amount of time, you probably know I’m a huge Ableton Live geek. Ableton Live can also control different features within Mainstage. It can cue up the right Mainstage patches at the right time, so my keyboardist doesn’t have to worry about selecting the right sound. Ableton can also tell Mainstage what tempo a song is in so that delays and arpeggiators align with the tempo of the song.

Want to master Ableton Live for your worship ministry? Click here to enroll in my free video training.

The final thing I want to touch on is how to get audio from your Mac to your sound system. You will need a 3.5mm to dual ¼” cable, a stereo DI Box, and two XLR cables to plug into your stage snake or sound console. With this setup, you will have a left and right channel from your computer. Stereo is not totally necessary, but it can be nice if you have patches with panning features in them.

I hope you now see that a phenomenal keyboard sound is achievable with a simple MIDI controller, Mainstage, and Sunday Keys. As a worship leader who wants to quickly implement the latest and greatest in worship tools for my team, this one was a no-brainer from the second I heard David demo these patches on his channel.

Thanks for reading. If you want to learn the #1 worship leading software, enroll in my free training, Lead Worship with Ableton linked below. You can also download my Worship Ministry toolkit which contains links to everything covered in this video. If you found this article helpful, hit the heart button and share it with your friends. Leave your love, opinions, and details of your keyboard rig below in the comments.