TCM MASTERING: HOME MUSIC STUDIO – PART 8 MIKING INSTRUMENTS: PIANO

TCM Mastering: Home Music Studio Tips and Information

Part 8 Miking Instruments: Piano

Over the last several weeks we’ve received lots of questions here at TCM from readers on recording and mastering. Keep them coming. We’ve still got lots of topics to cover, but if you can’t wait and have questions on a topic which we haven’t covered yet, contact us here.

Last week in the Home Music Studio blog we covered miking the voice. Over the next few weeks we will discuss miking various instruments…..pianos, guitars, strings, horns, drums and percussion.

For classical music, the goal of recording any musical instrument is to get as accurate a sonic picture of the instrument as possible. In the rock or ‘pop’ arena that goal may get distorted slightly, but it is still good to know how to get the instrument’s natural sound, before deciding to affect it in some way.

 

Cool, futuristic piano 

If the human voice is one of the hardest of instruments to record, then the acoustic piano is not far behind. There are many different ways to mic pianos and depending on who you speak to, one person may favour using omni mics whilst another may prefer cardioids. Close miking or distant miking – both have their pros and cons. What piano style are you recording? Classical, rock, jazz, blues – each have their own sound quality.

Apart from the many different mic techniques you can apply to recording a piano…..the instrument itself should be considered. If you have access to different makes then you may favour a Steinway or Bosendorfer for classical recordings. Whilst for rock and ‘pop’ styles, Kawai and Yamaha are popular.

Before you place any mics, get a piano technician to tune the piano and get rid of any rattles. It will save a lot of frustration and make your recording sessions go a lot smoother.

Today’s modern grands are eight-octave instruments which produce a huge spectrum of frequencies and harmonics. They also produce large SPLs (sound pressure levels). Therefore, think carefully which microphone will be best suited for the job.

Pianos both upright and grand, tend to benefit from a large, good sounding room. The position in the room plays an important part of the overall sound. Try various positions in the room, different mics and different mic placements. Altering the mic positions by just an inch or the angle of the mic to the instrument can change the recorded sound dramatically.

Experiment until you get the result you’re happy with. It’s very easy to record a piano and get an unnatural coloured sound if care and attention is not used. Once you have your mics set up, do a test run. On playback you will hear all the problems that need to be addressed eg. pedal and hammer noise, bench creaks, room noises and issues with the piano sound itself.

Three different mic pair positions for a grand piano

A) Close mics B) Coincident X-Y pair C) Spaced pair

If the room your recording in doesn’t sound great then you may have to use close mic techniques. Try placing two matched dynamic cardioid mics about 9 inches from the hammers (Shure SM-57 or 58, Sennheiser 421 or 441, Electro-voice RE-20) . One above the higher end and the other at the lower. Any cardioids will tend to ‘spotlight’ certain frequencies they are pointing at. So bias towards some frequencies is almost certain. They will minimise the effect of the room and give a good rock or ragtime feel. They will also give you better separation from other instruments if you’re recording a few players at the same time. Despite a few drawbacks, renowned recording engineer, Goeff Emerick used to like miking the piano in the Beatles’ sessions with a pair of AKG D19 dynamics.

The pictures below of the grand and the upright show several different positions for miking pianos. It’s useful if you have the mics, to set up several pair positions simultaneously. That way you can compare the different positions easily by monitoring one pair of mics at a time, to see which give the best results.

 Always remember to check for phasing problems whenever you use more than one mic.

 

Multiple mic positions around a grand piano

If you have a good-sized room, try using a pair of omnidirectional mics. They will produce a more open, larger sound with a flatter frequency response. They will also pick up more of the room acoustics, so you will need to judge whether omnis or cardioids are the better choice for the sound you want. You could try placing the omnis about 2 to 6 feet from the instrument, one at the lower end and the other at the higher end, both above the keys and pointing in towards each other. But as you can see from the picture above there are many positions you could try placing your mics.

Mic position underneath grand piano

Either large or small diaphragm condenser mics are great choices for recording a piano (AKG 414, 451, Neumann U-87, Shure SM-81) . Choose a pair with a wide, even frequency and good transient response, low noise and good sensitivity.

 

Boundary Mic –

between the four sound holes 

Another technique to try is to use boundary mics. These are omnis which attach to the instrument. You can mount them on the underside of the open piano lid, the body of the piano or underneath the instrument (eg. Beyerdynamic Opus 51).

Many of the mics mentioned have multiple polarity patterns. So before choosing your mics, decide what style you’re recording, consider leakage of one instrument to another and phase issues. Don’t be afraid to mix things up and try using a condenser with a dynamic. There’s no right or wrong.

 

Multiple mics around an upright piano

If you only have access to an upright piano, ambient mic placement isn’t going to be much good, because the upright does not radiate its sound as much as the grand. The easiest way to record an upright is to open the top and place the mics pointing in at the top and lower registers. By placing them inside you will achieve greater separation from other instruments, but this will also artificially colour the recorded sound.

If you can remove the back soundboard, you could try placing a couple of mics at the back of the upright, high and low registers pointing towards the strings. Make sure the back is facing into the room and not against a wall. Alternatively, you could try removing the kick board at the front, under the keys and placing a couple of mics at the high and low register positions.

Incidentally, for those of you who are still living at home…these ‘modifications’ should only be done with the piano owner’s permission. I don’t want to get angry letters from readers saying that I recommended taking apart the family piano:)

 

If all else fails, you could always choose your favourite piano sample on an electronic keyboard and record that instead. There’s nothing wrong with using a synth or keyboard for your piano sound, in fact there are several advantages. Not least the fact that most modern keyboards utilise MIDI. We will cover MIDI in detail in a later blog. But basically MIDI allows you to play a performance then alter that performance in your DAW without having to play it again. You can alter pitch, length of notes, volume and even change the sample you used. For example, you might have played the original performance using a Yamaha piano sample, but then play it back using a Fender Rhodes electric piano sample. MIDI does not concern itself with the audio but the performance data.

Ultimately, you must decide which way you want to go. But a real piano sound when recorded well, does sound great. However, it’s quite clear that there is no one way to record the piano and get a great sound. The piano is a complex instrument which requires plenty of time to experiment with different setups to get the sound you want.

All of us at TCM Mastering love music. We’ve all spent most of our lives in this business. So, if you have any questions regarding the blog, mastering or recording in general please drop us a line or contact us here.

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4 Comments on “TCM MASTERING: HOME MUSIC STUDIO – PART 8 MIKING INSTRUMENTS: PIANO”


  1. […] Whatever stringed instrument you have to record…..eg. Sitar, Mandolin, Dobro, Dulcimer, Harp or Violin, there will be certain basic similarities in the miking techniques despite this family of instruments having a huge variation in appearance and sound quality…..the piano (a stringed instrument) has already been discussed in an earlier blog post. […]


  2. […] In some respects, you can treat the Harp like a Grand Piano on its end. It has the same basic string shape to a Grand, so you could try using some of the techniques mentioned for Piano in this earlier blog. […]


  3. […] Vocals & Instruments, Recording Piano, Recording Electric & Bass Guitar, Recording Acoustic Stringed Instruments, Recording Horns, […]


  4. […] Vocals & Instruments, Recording Piano, Recording Electric & Bass Guitar, Recording Acoustic Stringed Instruments, Recording Horns, […]


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