Techniques to help when only the real thing is good enough
We’ve discussed before on this blog how musicians, producers and studio techs have things so easy nowadays. Any instrument you can think of is just a few clicks away thanks to the phenomenal advances in studio technology. These days anyone with a laptop and a basic DAW can access decent approximations of pretty much any instrument. But, as you may have experienced yourself, all this choice sometimes leaves us wanting the real deal. Sure, we can use samples, plug-ins and soft-synths to get us in the right ball park of an instrument, but there are times when only the real thing will do.
One such example here is the piano. As one of the biggest instruments you’re likely to use, it’s not what you’d call portable. A proper grand piano is not something you’d use on a whim. But that’s not to say there isn’t call to record them. Software equivalents are good, but they’re not truly authentic.
As far as musical experiences go, the sound of someone playing a good quality, full size grand in person is something to behold. The extended frequency range covers the majority of what a human ear can hear, and in person this is a real treat. It’s also what makes it one of the most difficult instruments to record properly. Let’s have a look at some basic tips to help anyone wondering how to record a piano.
There are two main types of acoustic piano; grand and upright. Both offer different playing and listening experiences, and both have slightly different requirements when it comes to recording. For uprights, you’ll likely benefit from using closer mic placement (more on this later) whereas with grand pianos there is often joy to be found in capturing at least some of the wider, ambient sounds. As with any recording discipline, the room the instrument is situated in will also have a huge bearing on the recorded sound.
As a basic rule of thumb, bigger rooms are better for recording acoustic piano because of the sheer amount of sound waves produced by the instrument. In a small, boxy room these waves will bounce off surfaces continually and will create a muddied recorded sound as a result. In a larger room you have more room to manoeuvre, both physically and with the placement of your microphones.
We recently covered microphone placement in slightly more detail, so check out that post for more information on the different types of microphone and their relative pros and cons. With regards acoustic pianos, the ideal choices are quite different to other instruments.
For starters, it’s best to avoid dynamic microphones outright. Those mics are built for ruggedness, and are more often found in front of a driven guitar amplifier. The sound we’re trying to capture from an acoustic piano is far more nuanced and textural, so it’s better to stick with condenser or ribbon microphones here. The more delicate diaphragms in these mics are much better suited to picking up the small details, whether it’s from the instrument itself or from the room it’s being played in.
Again, the techniques for grand and upright pianos will vary slightly. For upright pianos, try removing the top lid and front panel to expose the strings. You can then experiment with two condenser microphones, placed slightly above the player at either end of the instrument. This ensures a good balance of frequency pickup, while also providing a stereo output.
The process is slightly more open to interpretation for grand pianos, on account of the extra variables at play. For starters, grand pianos have a lid which can be opened or closed to achieve certain sounds. A fully open lid will reverberate enormously and fill a room, but can lack definition. Closing the lid fully, on the other hand, means the soundwaves have nowhere to go and will result in a muddled sound. Experiment here with different lid heights until you find the sound you’re after.
Grand pianos also offer the opportunity to introduce ambiance into your recordings. You might want to try placing one condenser mic close to the strings to pick up the attack, while placing another further back to fill out the sound. Again, experiment here because with such a large instrument, you may find certain parts of the room sound better than others. Trust your ears.
Use the 3:1 rule of microphone placement
Whichever technique you use, it’s important to remember the ‘3 to 1’ rule when using multiple microphones. Essentially, you want to make sure there is three times the distance between the farthest and closest mic and the sound source, in order to negate any phase cancellation issues. There’s plenty of information on the web if you want to read more on that but it basically means: If the first mic is 1 foot from the sound source (piano or amp) the second mic should be placed 3 foot from the first mic. Of course you may like the sound of mics out of phase, so experiment.
Finally, it’s important to get certain things in order before you even start setting up microphones. Tiny things which may not seem important can have huge (negative!) effects on your recording. As with any instrument, you must make sure it is completely in tune before you record. Also check things like the seat and floor around the piano for unwanted creaks or noises as these are nigh on impossible to remove afterwards.
In summary when recording an upright piano you need to:
- Use a big room (the bigger the better)
- Use a condenser or ribbon mic
- remove the top panel to expose the strings
- place two condenser mics slightly above the player at either end of the piano
In summary when recording a Grand piano you need to:
- Use a bigger room as this will provide a fuller sound
- Use a mic with a delicate diaphragm such as a ribbon or condenser microphone
- Open the lid to provide a fuller, clearer sound
- Place one microphone close to the strings to pick up the attack and one farther away to pick up the ambiance
- Use the 3:1 rule of microphone placement
View a complete selection of microphones over at the Dawsons website.
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