Just interested to hear your thoughts about how you set up the sound mix for a worship band.
I'll explain our default setup and would be interested to hear what happens in your church.
In our church, the typical band is piano, guitar, bass, drums, worship leader (lead vocals), backing vocalist(s). The normal mix seems to have piano as the strongest instrument, with guitar at a slightly lower level. Bass normally cuts through as it is in a completely different range to the other instruments. Drums are clearly heard but probably not quite as loud as the piano (we use synth drums so the overall volume is not earshattering). Normally, lead vocals are less loud than the piano, and the backing vocals are normally mixed slightly below than the lead. This has the effect that you hear the vocals clearly in rehearsal but they tend to mix into the congregation in the church service.
What do you do? How do you balance vocals against instruments? Do you want the worship leader (and backing singers) to be heard over the congregation or not? (and why or why not?) How do you balance instruments against each other?
Almost identical setup and mix to us, except we usually have a violin and clarinet in addition. Pretty much the same issues regarding mix too. Exactly the same problem with vocals - they usually disappear entirely when the congregation is singing loudly.
We do have people to mix the service, but they tend to babysit the desk rather than do much actual mixing of songs with it. If the lead vocal is lacking from the front, or the WL (that term again!) does not give a strong lead regarding repeats/outros etc, then as happened last week, the congregation can get a bit lost (as does the guy working the powerpoint - he cannot hear the WL vocal either so can get lost too). Think there's a need for mixing desk training here. There's a PA forum on here somewhere which may help further.Is yours an electronic piano, or acoustic? Does the same person play each week and does he/she lead from the piano? What's the keyboard playing style like? (i.e. playing all the notes as written in the music copy, or improvised fills and decorations?). As a WL/guitarist I often feel like I am battling the keys, both in terms of musical style and foldback volume.
I'm not running the desk or on the PA team. Just observing what my band sounds like on the rare occasions when I'm not playing with them (e.g. last Sunday when I was a bit jetlagged after a trip to the US), as well as what our other bands sound like. So, it's not like I'm looking to tell our PA guys what to do. It's more like, this is what we do (for better or worse), how do others do it, and why?
All instruments are electric/electronic including keys. We have three different bands, but the PA setup seems to be reasonably consistent in approach. Different pianists approach the music in different ways, the one in my band often plays large parts of the melody as well as accompaniment and fills. Sometimes as guitarist, I have to work quite hard to find parts that fit in a different range to the keyboard so we aren't just stomping the same ground and creating a wall of sound in the mid-range. As for leading, that normally comes from a lead vocalist for my band, but intros and the musical lead often go to the piano, although the guitar is often called upon for some of the faster, or more rhythmic songs (e.g. try leading "Let everything that has breath" on piano alone!).
So leading is done by a singer? Is the piano the instrument (or the pianist the person) they look to for cues, intros and the like? If so, it makes sense to have it a bit higher in the mix, leaving aside the not infrequent problem of pianists not always appreciating that they are part of a larger group (a consequence of the fact that the piano can cover all the bases and a lot of piano tuition is based on the individual performer model).
Typically I would want the lead vocal and lead instrument (whether from the same person or not) to be clearly audible to all. I then want each instrument and voice to have its place, recognising that mixing is an active skill and different parts will need to come up and down during the performance.
The particular distinctive with sound for a church worship setting is that I also want to be able to hear the congregation. A typical pattern for a song that the congregation knows well would be to start with the band relatively loud for the intro (boosting whichever instrument is leading in) and the beginning of the song but then actually fading the whole group down a bit so the congregation is also part of the overall sound. I might then boost the volume of the group a bit towards the end of the song if it is appropriate to encourage people to sing up more but not too much. When I'm flying the sound desk instead of playing in the band, my task is still to support and encourage the congregation in their worship.
Your last point is something I'd been thinking about when writing the original question.
I have been in a church where I felt that the band, although excellent, were usually mixed so loud you could hardly hear the congregation sing. I felt this was a bit pointless unless you want a concert. Since church is a congregational activity, it seems that if are going to sing, then the congregational aspect is important and levels should be appropriate to that.
At the same time, I am now in another church where it is sometimes difficult to hear the worship leader, and therefore difficult to follow, or to learn a less familiar song.
I'm interested by the point that the sound man should be actively mixing so that the singer cuts through a bit more in parts, but blends in at other parts. In principle this sounds good - encouraging a congregational aspect, whilst still allowing the leader to lead.
There may be some practical challenges in this - our sound desk is on a balcony and does not get quite the same sound as at ground level, and the sound desk guys would have to be quite confident about mixing live and not just leaving it at sound check levels. How we work that out, I'm not sure.
In one sense, I'd like to spend some time doing sound for the bands to understand all this better, but I'm usually quite busy with playing and the rest of life, and we usually have a shortage of guitarists, so that I'm usually needed when my band is on.
Tastes vary but I've been to a few large worship events where the volume was so loud I couldn't even hear myself singing, which meant I was rather hoarse the next day. Not my cup of tea!
What you need is a sound system with enough power that a single voice or instrument can be boosted to be audible above the congregation singing a rousing, well-known song, combined with a set up for the band where they can hear themselves (and each other) clearly enough to lock together without coming across as too loud in the congregation.
The power aspect (the ceiling) is relatively easy to deal with. It just requires suitable gear and falls under control from the sound desk. I think the bigger challenge is the stage volume from the band (the floor) - if it is too high the person on the sound desk is stuck. Assuming you can overcome the latter challenge (a mixture of working on the mindset of the musicians and also finding suitable positioning) the interactive mixing idea should be relatively easy although the person doing sound has got to be able to hear what it sounds like for the congregation - perhaps you need an analog mix conditioner (ie. someone standing down in the crowd who can signal what needs to go up or down ;-) ).
I would tend to bring up whichever instrument is appropriate for a song if mixing 'live'. A piano lead will be inappropriate on some songs, just like guitar lead will be on others. I would tend to use the lead vocal for the congregation to take their cues, rather than an instrument.
As much as possible I'll try to EQ so that different instruments each have their own sonic space. A lot depends on the players too, and the more instruments you have, the less, generally speaking, each should play. Acoustic guitar should be biased toward high frequencies and kept down in the mix unless it's doing a finger-picked part (otherwise it's just another rhythm instrument). Piano and Electric guitar often occupy similar space, and you need to make an individual judgement according to player and song over EQ. Lead vocals I'd tend to push the upper mids to cut through, backing vocals following behind at lower volume. Bass, as you say, occupies it's own space and drums likewise, but need reigning in to not swamp a typical (low volume) church mix.
I think the lead singer should be distinguishable over the congregation, but just a little. Where there are just a few (say 20-50) it's often helpful to turn the lead vocal (and the band) up a bit to encourage the people to sing a bit louder. Where the people sing willingly and strongly then you can reign in the band a bit. It also depends on whether worship is more like a gig or a family sing along.