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Recording Piano - Discover How
With This Simple Guide

Here’s a straightforward guide to recording piano in your home studio

Recording piano can be one of the trickier things to get right in the studio. Different microphone positions and techniques can produce wildly different results, and the recording environment can have a large effect on the sound as well.


So my goal is always to keep things as simple as possible when it comes to recording a piano. Sticking to a few core techniques can help you capture solid recordings and record the take you want.




The Piano


One of the reasons for the difficulty in recording piano is due to the sound being produced by the whole body of the instrument. Sound waves emerge from all over a piano, and different parts of the instrument's wooden body resonate at different frequencies. It makes the positioning of your microphones very important to get right.


There are two main types of acoustic piano:


  • Grand pianos are usually recorded in large live rooms in commercial studios. The size of the instrument means that there's a lot going on acoustically - different parts of the instrument will resonate with different frequencies, so your microphone placement can have a big impact on the sound of the recording.
A grand piano

 

  • Upright pianos are similar to grand pianos in that the whole of the instrument's body emits sound when the piano is played. But uprights weren't really designed with recording in mind (they were mainly built to be played for entertainment in the home), so capturing a nice tone can be just as difficult.
An upright piano
A grand piano
  • Grand pianos are usually recorded in large live rooms in commercial studios. The size of the instrument means that there's a lot going on acoustically - different parts of the instrument will resonate with different frequencies, so your microphone placement can have a big impact on the sound of the recording.


An upright piano


  • Upright pianos are similar to grand pianos in that the whole of the instrument's body emits sound when the piano is played. But uprights weren't really designed with recording in mind (they were mainly built for use in the home), so capturing a nice tone can be just as difficult.


A piano will go out of tune at some point, and the only way around it is to get a professional piano tuner to re-tune it. It goes without saying that if you want a quality recording, the piano has to be in tune.


Before recording begins, it's worth checking that the pianist's seat doesn't squeak or make any unwanted noises as it will be easily picked up by the microphones. Noise from the piano's pedals can also be an issue - WD-40 can usually sort this out though.


If you're unable to use a real piano in your own studio (and I'd predict that most home studio owners are in this position), or if your room acoustics cause too many issues, there are a couple of alternatives:


Digital piano

A digital piano


A high-quality ROMpler, such as Akoustik Piano from Native Instruments

Akoustik Piano from Native Instruments
A digital piano


  • Digital piano


Akoustik Piano from Native Instruments


  • A high-quality ROMpler, such as Akoustik Piano from Native Instruments


 



Recording Piano Mic Placement


As with any instrument, the microphones you use and where you place them can have a big impact on the recorded sound. A few things to keep in mind when you recording piano are:


  • Direct vs ambient sound
  • Frequency content (bright vs dull)
  • Stereo width


Recording in mono with one mic or in stereo with two mics are both good options for recording piano. Recording in mono is definitely the easiest choice, but the sound can be narrow and a bit flat - it won't reflect the real way that we hear the instrument (in stereo), with the lower frequencies panned to one side and the higher frequencies panned to the other side.


The AB stereo mic technique will give you a nice stereo picture of the piano


Recording piano in stereo mirrors our real-world experience of listening to a piano, as it allows you to pan one mic to the left and one to the right - the amount of pan you use will control how wide the stereo image is. The mic used for the lower notes is usually panned to the left and the mic for higher notes panned to the right, reflecting how a pianist would hear the instrument when playing.


Home studios are usually restricted in the space available, which makes a piano perfect for close micing. It cuts down on unwanted ambience from the room, and you can then add reverb during mixing to help blend the piano with the other instruments in your production.




Microphone Techniques - Grand Piano


There are lots of different ways to record piano, and each technique will produce its own kind of tone. It's pretty unlikely that you'll have a grand piano as a home studio owner (uprights and digital pianos will be more common), which is why I'm going to keep it simple.


  • Basic stereo mic techniques, like AB or XY, can easily be used. It's always worth trying a few different positions out before committing to your choice - grand pianos are big instruments, so it's natural that there may be different 'sweet spots' around the piano that will give you a nicer tone.
The XY stereo microphone technique can also be used on the piano
  • The XY technique can be seen above, with the AB technique below.
A common way of recording piano, covering the treble and bass strings for a true stereo picture of the instrument
The XY stereo microphone technique can also be used on the piano
  • Basic stereo mic techniques, like AB or XY, can easily be used. It's always worth trying a few different positions out before committing to your choice - grand pianos are big instruments, so it's natural that there may be different 'sweet spots' around the piano that will give you a nicer tone.


A common way of recording piano, covering the treble and bass strings for a true stereo picture of the instrument
  • The XY technique can be seen on the left, with the AB technique above.

You can also use the M/S technique to great effect if you're recording piano at home. Raising the level of the side microphone will widen the stereo image, giving you great control of the stereo width during the mixing stage.


You could even use automation to have a slightly narrower piano during the verses and then a wider piano during the choruses - a little production tip that can help to give a chorus more impact.



 

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