TCM Mastering: Home Music Studio Tips and Information

Part 50 Mixing Piano

Over the last three weeks in the TCM Mastering Home Music Studio blog series, we covered Acoustic, Electric and Bass Guitars in the mix. This week we move onto the Piano.

The piano can be acoustic (grand or upright), electric or software based samples. In addition there are a number of synth keyboards on the market that contain piano presets and samples.

Always Ensure The Piano Is Properly Tuned Before Recording.

We discussed various techniques for recording the piano in this earlier blog. However, some important points worth remembering are…..make sure the instrument is properly tuned before recording, listen to how the musician plays the piano and how he/she wants it to sound whilst making sure any rattles or squeaks from pedals have been dealt with.

The sound of the piano in the mix depends on the type and make of instrument, the player, the room, the mic type and technique used and whether you recorded it in stereo or mono, close or distant? Solo concert grands can often benefit from mic placements a little distant (providing you have a decent room to record in). This allows the sound of the instrument to develop before being captured by the mics, giving a more natural stereo picture.

In A Band Scenario You Can Improve Separation By Turning The Open Piano Lid Away from The Other Instruments And Using Acoustic Panels.

Pianos in a band setup will tend to be more closely miked. To increase separation, turn the open piano lid away from the other instruments as much as possible and place acoustic screens or panels between them.

Bear in mind that even though some recording techniques employ a very close placement of mics, we rarely listen to a piano up close. So try to think about how you want the piano to sound in the mix, as you record it.

Kemble Upright, Steinway Grand & Yamaha Digital Piano.

All pianos have different tonal characteristics which means that some instruments will sound better than others for certain genres of music. It’s not a hard and fast rule. Obviously, you can use any instrument for any song type or musical piece, but some like the grand piano have come to be accepted as the instrument of choice for classical music because of its varied tone, huge pitch range and dynamic response…..the modern concert grand can span 8 octaves and go from piano (soft) to forte (loud), hence its full name – pianoforte.

Is your music mix more Jerry Lee Lewis than Chick Corea, more Diana Krall than Carole King or more Scott Joplin than Lang Lang? The choice of instrument (or sample) and playing style will go a long way to make the mix sound convincing if you’re aiming for a definitive sound. Are you emulating a certain established style e.g. honky tonk, or are you trying to create a completely new sound?

The role of a piano in a mix depends greatly on whether the instrument is the main focus of attention or if it’s merely a supportive instrument along with others to the lead vocal, for example. If you recorded the piano in stereo, how wide and where you pan the piano will depend upon what else is going on in the mix.

Panning The Piano Wide Across The Stereo Image, Can Result In A Distracting, Sometimes Gimmicky Effect.

In a classical setting, the solo piano is rarely given a very wide stereo pan. If the piano is a solo instrument or the only instrument in a rock song you could try panning it, say 11 to 1 or 10 to 2 o’ clock. Panning hard left and right could be very distracting to the listener.

Remember, imaging that sounds subtle over a pair of speaker monitors can become much more extreme over headphones. And many people listen to their music over headphones these days from laptops and iPods etc.

In budget consoles, different pan pots can often vary by up to 10 per cent in their accuracy when setting their positions visually. So, for example, a 10 to 2 o’ clock position visually could actually be more like a 10 to 3 o’ clock spread aurally. Therefore, it’s very important to position your instruments in the stereo picture using your ears and not your eyes.

12 Segment LED Metering – Always Mix With Your Ears And Not Your Eyes.

The same applies to level meters. With budget LED ladder metering you could be persuaded into thinking that two meters peaking to the same visual level are the same aurally…’re more than likely to be wrong. Each LED step or segment could account for several dB gain. So mix levels with your ears too and not your eyes.

If it’s a supportive instrument you could try panning slightly left and right (from say 11 to 1 o’ clock) either side of the lead instrument or vocal. Positioning it in the centre could pose a problem if there is a lead vocal. In this scenario it might sound less confusing if it’s positioned left or right in mono.

And always check for any phase problems if you use more than one mic on the instrument.

Listen to various panning options, compare how the piano is treated on some of your favourite songs and seek feedback from other musicians.

EQ On A Bosendorfer Featuring Piano, Choir & Strings.

When it comes to applying EQ to a piano sound, some instruments will be naturally brighter than others. So you have to use your ears and judgement to determine if the piano needs help in the upper frequencies or suppressing. This applies equally to acoustic, electric or samples.

For example, acoustic pianos vary greatly from one manufacturer to the next. The dampers, hammers and types of strings all contribute to the sound. Some instruments are bright whilst others could sound dull in comparison.

EQ On A Steinway In A Busy Rock Mix – The Severe Bass Cut Sounded A Bit Harsh In Isolation But Worked Well In The Mix.

The mood of your music is determined to a large extent by chord choice and lyric but can also be enhanced by subtle use of EQ and effects. If your music piece is dark and moody you may want to turn down the brightness of a piano by using a high-shelf EQ between 17-20 kHz. Conversely, if the piano sound is already dark or the song needs a brighter sheen, you can boost those same frequencies.

If the piano is part of a busy mix. you may want to apply a high-pass filter at around 200 Hz to suppress those low frequencies which could interfere with the kick and bass guitar.

Cutting around 3 kHz can help to reduce muddiness and interference with a guitar or vocal part. Boosting around 6 kHz by a few dB will add gloss or shine to the piano – useful for solos.

And remember if you’re recording an acoustic (upright or grand), try the piano in different positions in the room in order to find its optimum sound, before placing your mics and hitting record.

Left: Uncompressed Classical Piano. Right: Compressed PianoThe Waveform On The Right Shows A Piano With A 5:1 Compression Ratio, -20 dB Threshold, Attack & Release Times of 15 ms, Output Gain -6dB.

The piano can be very dynamic. So if it is one of many instruments in a song, you may need or want to even out the levels a bit in order for the instrument to sit comfortably in the mix. For solo classical recordings, little or no compression is normally used.

Listen carefully to the effect of a compressor. Start with gentle compression of around 2:1. Depending on the piece of music, you may want to keep the dynamics as much as possible, without individual notes jumping out. Set your attack and release so that there’s no audible pumping, but smooths out the levels to the point that you feel the compressor is achieving the right effect

For more information on the use of dynamic processing, click here.

Piano Before & After Compression.

This Digirack Compressor/Limiter Shows Input And Output Levels (In Green) As Well As Gain Reduction (In Orange).

For other songs you may want to squash the piano dynamics. Take a listen to the Beatles’ ‘Lady Madonna’. In this song the piano is quite heavily compressed, but it works for the song.

If you are working on a busy mix with lots of other instrumentation, there will be little room for a piano with long reverb. However, if your mix consists of solo piano, vocal and piano or a few instruments that typically do not sustain for very long, you may find that there is plenty of room to add verb and/or delay to the piano.

TL Space Pro Tools Reverb Plug-In.

If the piano is solo or heavily featured choose a reverb with lots of control over the various parameters and don’t forget to EQ the reverb to fit with the dry sound. Choose the size of the room and predelay that best matches the tempo of your song. A dance track with 100-120 bpm can’t support a long reverb decay. On the other hand, a slow ballad with sparse instrumentation might be able to support a decay of 1.5 seconds or longer.

And don’t forget, for each plug-in’s preset room size there are usually variable parameters. Small rooms have shorter decay times than large rooms. But you could try a small room with a long decay or a large room with short decay.

Revibe TDM Reverb Plug-In.

Predelay seems to work well with piano because of the instrument’s percussive characteristics. This parameter makes the reverb more pronounced by leaving a space before the reflections are heard. For a slow ballad type song start out with 120 ms of predelay. Shorten the predelay for faster songs.

In the studio, classical piano performances are not usually recorded with close mic techniques. This means that the acoustics of the room will get included in the recording, giving the instrument some natural reverb.

Sometimes natural reverb is lacking in samples or some digital piano sounds. So providing the song can take it, a little reverb or delay can help. Other effects have been used to produce memorable sounds with electric pianos over the years.

The Classic Fender Rhodes Defined Keyboard Sound For A Generation.

The classic Fender Rhodes piano has a fine history of being used with various effects. The Wah-wah pedal was used in many early jazz fusion recordings by Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. Whilst Billy Joel and Simon Garfunkel used a phase shifter to add body to their keyboard sound on ‘Just The Way You Are’ and ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’ respectively.

The Wah-wah effect used with the Hohner Clavinet by Stevie Wonder on his huge hit ‘Higher Ground’, was another classic example of a keyboard sound. And Jan Hammer who came to the public’s attention through the Mahavishnu Orchestra and later found fame with Miami Vice, introduced audiences to the ring modulator.

Incidentally, if you’re a Stevie Wonder fan I found this interesting article which looks at how Stevie’s hit ‘Superstition’ was put together using only 16 tracks, 8 of which were Clavinet. It includes mp3s of the various component tracks – drums, clavinet, horns and vocals – a fascinating look at what can be done with a few good instruments and players.

Stevie Wonder & Jan Hammer Made Use Of Classic Keyboards.

As a song or piece of music develops, you may find that EQ or effects settings that worked well at the beginning of the piece, don’t work as well as the track becomes more busy or powerful. Adjustments will need to be made. This can be done manually as and when required or by using the automation in your software programme to adjust panning, EQ or effects.

So play around with EQ settings, effects pedals and plug-ins that come with your software until you create a combination that works for you and your music.

Next, we’ll look at Horns in the mix.

TCM Music Group and TCM Mastering provide full recording, mixing, mastering and production services from their facilities in the UK and Nashville, USA. For more information, click here.

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