Posted tagged ‘Piano’


February 13, 2012

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.



May 30, 2011

TCM Mastering: Home Music Studio Tips and Information

Part 13 Recording Acoustic Stringed Instruments

Thanks to those of you who are following the Home Music Studio series, we at TCM Mastering and Music Group really appreciate your interest. Don’t forget, if you have any questions on the recording process please get in touch…click here for contact details.

Today’s blog will complete our look at the challenges of recording stringed instruments by considering the Harp and String Ensembles. These two instrument groups may be a rarity in the Home Studio setting, but one or both will crop up at some time during your recording career. And they do add a definite touch of class to a recording.

Harpo Marx – An Accomplished Harp Player.

Recording Harp

The Harp presents several problems when recording. First, it is notoriously difficult to tune and then keep in tune. If it is a Harp with pedals you will have the added problem of noise from the pedal movements. Plus there will be resonances in the lower strings which aren’t always pleasant and the smaller Celtic Harp poses challenges of its own.

So where do you place a mic or mics?

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.

Dynamic mics do not have a flat enough response and tend to be used close up (accentuating the bass-proximity effect). Which means specific strings will be favoured over others. So the recording would be coloured and unbalanced to say the least.

Single Mic On Harp In A Large Live Room.

Condensers or Ribbons are your best choice. Try placing a condenser a few feet from the striking point. Angle the mic slightly so that it’s not pointing directly at the hands to reduce the percussive sounds produced. The picture above shows one mic in this position. You can achieve a good stereo recording by placing another mic in the same position on the other side of the Harp.

Harp With Multiple Stereo Mic Setups.

The picture above shows several mics in different positions. If you have a good selection of mics, this is a great time saver. Set up different pairs, feed each mic to a separate track on your DAW or recorder and monitor each pair separately. This way you can quickly compare each pair’s sound to see which you like best for recording…..consider this same technique when recording any acoustic instrument.

A favoured method of recording a Harp is to use a Blumlein pair of mics. It’s like the X-Y technique (see Part 6 Mic Technique Blog) but with two figure-8 mics set at 90 degrees to each other in a column arrangement. See the diagram below, which also shows the two overlapping polarity patterns.

Place the two mics so that the capsules are at the same level as the hands about 2 feet from the Harp. This method really requires a quiet, good sounding room to produce the best results.

If you have to record the Harp alongside other instruments at the same time, try this method. Wrap a KM 84/184 or something similar in some foam rubber (except for the capsule part, obviously) and wedge it into the upper sound hole. Secure it in position with some surgical type tape. This will hopefully keep the mic fixed (preventing rattles and knocks) without damaging the instrument. The resultant sound might not be perfect but will give you good isolation from other instruments.

You could also try a stereo pair with one mic registering the lower end and another aimed toward the upper strings. Careful placement should result in a good balanced spectrum of sound.

And remember, always check for phasing problems whenever you use more than one mic.

If you need further ideas for recording the Harp, check out this article.

Recording a String Ensemble

For most Home Studio setups, it would be extremely difficult to record a String Ensemble at home. But the members of the Ensemble probably practice in a Hall, Church or School so you could always take your DAW and mics to them.

When having to deal with a ‘foreign’ recording location it’s always wise to arrive well before the musicians so that you can get set up and test mic cables, headphones and all the other sundry items that need checking.

Will you be providing a click track or backing track for the musicians to play along to? Will you provide music for them to read from? Have they had time to rehearse?

Royer SF-24 Stereo Ribbon Mic Placed Above Conductor, With All String Sections Spot Miked.

How do you group and position the various players? The same instruments should be grouped together, obviously. That is, all Double Basses in one group, Cellos in another group etc. You may need to set up a separate solo mic for a Violin.

You will also want to check out the room. If it’s long and thin, which way do you position the players? Use your ears to determine the best position and direction the players need to face. If there is time you can do a test, positioning the players one way and then another.

Sound Engineer James Stone, Recording String Quartet for UK band fiN

Using distant miking techniques means that you’re going to need to choose sensitive, quiet mics and quiet mic preamps. Either high output Condenser mics or Ribbons (eg. AEA R84) will work well. Both types have a good, wide frequency range and respond quickly to transients.

However, it’s probably wise to avoid capacitor mics as they tend to emphasise the presence peaks which can sound unpleasant on Violins especially. The smooth, resonance free top end of a Ribbon mic works very well.

The easiest and possibly best way of recording an Ensemble is to employ a stereo pair of mics placed between 10 and 20 feet away. Some engineers like to use omnidirectional and small diaphragm mics for strings.

X-Y or Coincident Pair Technique.

There are several stereo techniques. One which has been mentioned already is the X-Y or Coincident pair technique (see diagram above). This employs two identical directional mics angled apart with their capsules almost touching. The resultant stereo image can be narrow, but it provides good mono compatibility.

Spaced Pair Technique. 

The above diagram shows a Spaced pair setup (not to scale). This method uses two mics spaced apart and pointing straight ahead. Phase problems are inherent with this approach, but can be reduced to a minimum by using the 3:1 rule. Place the mics three times farther from each other than they are from the source. However, use your ears to determine the optimum mic positions. It’s also possible to introduce a third mic in the middle to help fill out the stereo spread.

Near-Coincident Pair Technique.

The Near-Coincident pair technique, above, uses two directional mics spaced and angled with their capsules apart horizontally. The greater the angle or spacing the bigger the stereo effect. Again this tends not to be very mono compatible, but play around with positions until you get the best possible compromise.

There are many stereo methods you could try. See Home Music Studio Part 6 Mic Techniques for more ideas.

Next week we will move onto the Horn section.

If you have any questions or comments you’d like to raise, get in touch with us through the TCM Music Group Contact Page.


April 25, 2011

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.