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.
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.||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 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.
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 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.
Microphone Techniques – Recording Upright Piano
With an upright piano, the best results come from using close mic techniques.
One option is to open the top lid and to remove the front panel of the piano. Position 2 microphones from above (remembering to use 3-to-1 spacing), around 2-3 feet away. This should give your sound a direct and full-bodied quality.
A second option is to keep the front panel removed (but close the top lid), and to have a microphone either side of the pianist – one pointing towards the low-end strings, the other towards the high-end strings.
You could even remove the piano’s backboard and have two condenser mics pointing towards the piano, at a distance of around a foot. Large-diaphragm models are the best option here, but small-diaphragm mics still work really well.
When it comes to judging the space between your two microphones, remember that the overall goal is to produce a panoramic stereo spread of the piano. If the mics are too far apart, you’ll hear a ‘hole-in-the-middle’ – the left and right channels will sound like two separate signals instead of one ‘signal’ (the piano) spread across two channels.
But don’t put the mics too close together either – you’ll start to lose the stereo picture, which is the whole point of using two mics. And remember the 3-to-1 rule to help deal with any possible phase issues. If you do hear the effects of phase cancellation between the two mics (like losing the low-end, or mid-range filtering):
- Try moving the mics around slightly (listen for any ‘sweet spots’)
- Check that the spacing follows the 3-to-1 rule
- Reverse the phase on one of the mics
The frequency range of a piano is potentially very wide – the lowest note on a grand starts at 26 Hz, and it’s upper harmonics can go way over our own 20 kHz hearing limit. It’s one of the main reasons why condenser microphones, both large-diaphragm and small-diaphragm, are much better suited to recording piano than dynamic models (ribbon mics will also sound nice).
If you’re in a room that has nice acoustics, using the omnidirectional polar pattern can help you capture a nice low-end from the piano – omni mics generally have a better low-frequency response compared to cardioids, and they also don’t suffer from the proximity effect.
But it’s often better in smaller rooms and studios to record as much of the direct sound as possible, which favours the use of cardioids. Placing the mics closer to the piano will capture more of this direct sound, and reduce the effects of the off-axis spillage from the room’s environment.
You want to avoid putting the mics too close to the piano’s strings, though, as the mid-range frequencies may start to overwhelm the lows and the highs. It’s all about catching the right balance – putting the mics at a distance of 1-3 feet away from the piano usually does the trick, but you may need to experiment a bit.
Recording piano in a small room can often result in a slightly unnatural sound. A small room will mean plenty of reflections entering the microphones which could result in some phase issues, with standing waves and resonances also potentially causing problems.
But however big or small, it’s always best to position the piano somewhere near the middle of the room. Try to avoid playing up against walls or in corners – it can easily affect the balance of frequencies picked up by the mics.
Hanging absorbent materials (like duvets or sleeping bags) on the walls can also help reduce a lot of the reflections, especially in the higher frequencies.
Pianos can produce beautifully rich tones when they’re played well, and a well-recorded piano can add another dimension and a human quality to your music.
Just like any other instrument, recording piano is easiest and most effective when a few simple guidelines are followed. A piano is a notoriously difficult instrument to record, so sticking to the basics will help you capture great material to work with when it comes to mixing, processing, or adding effects.
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