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Yesterday, we here at Pro Audio Land brought you guys an introduction to the little known instrument referred to simply as the piano. We began by giving our readers a brief history lesson on its origin as an offshoot of the other popular keyed instruments at the time and its subsequent evolution into what it is today. Not only that, we discussed some of the principles that one should keep in mind when recording a piano such as things that affect tone, certain setups for a live performance as well how the positioning of the piano lid can alter its sound. Make sure to check it out right here in case you haven’t done so. Alright, so now let’s get going with part two!
Past articles in this series:
Common Problems To Look Out For
Much like a drum kit, a piano is probably one of the toughest instruments to record in music. Right off the bat, you have to make sure that sucker is tuned correctly and if you’ve ever seen this job done in person, you already know how long and tedious of a process that can be. Throw into the mix some non-instrument variables such as the kind of mics you have to work with, the acoustic treatment of your environment and even something so often looked over such as humidity of the room and it only further complicates the whole process. The reason I bring up all of these problems is because even despite someone’s best efforts at a perfect track, if any one of these variables become too prominent you might never reach an acceptable sound. Of everything that was mentioned so far in this article and including yesterday’s, bad tuning and bad room acoustics are the most troublesome so just keep that in mind.But even with that said – it’s not impossible.
Now that we have the negative stuff out of the way, we can talk about how crucial experimentation is in recording. I’m not talking mad scientist stuff here – more like trial and error. As I go and suggest different techniques and mic positions just always keep in the back of your mind that what works for me might not be exactly what works for you, especially when it comes to something as varied in tone from instrument to instrument as the piano. If you’re familiar with microphones then you already know the make, model, design and even age of a mic will yield different results. You might even find that your $200 mic actually sounds better with a piano than your top of the line one. In other words, take full advantage of what you have to work with and never be afraid to try out some new ideas.
Little side note: The following techniques are for recording a grand or baby grand piano.
The One, Two and Three Mic Techniques
Having a home studio can be pricey, that we all know, but even if you don’t have a mic locker with a nice assortment of units you can still get yourself a good quality recording as long as the problems mentioned above are addressed. Let’s start with one microphone. Yes, you probably already know that having only one mic to record a piano isn’t exactly the most ideal situation but if you happen to find yourself in that predicament, here’s what you should do; place your single microphone over the strings about two to three feet above middle C. And in case you’re wondering what kind of mic I’m suggesting you use – be it dynamic, condenser, etc – it’s kind of a moot point since this technique is for those that have one mic only. Your aim is for a balanced overall sound with just enough highs and lows. Move it around a bit until you get something you’re satisfied with.
Alright, now let’s say have two microphones. Ideally, you’re going to want to use a pair of identical condenser microphones but if you really don’t have any other option, any two will do, you’re just going to have a bit more trouble getting an even sounding mix. Anyways, position one of your microphones about a foot above the strings facing slightly inward at about the second G string to the left of middle C. You’re going to do essentially the same but on the opposite side for your next mic – a foot above the second G to the right of middle C facing slightly inward. Now that you have that done, pan the corresponding microphone hard left and hard right. Again, we’re aiming for a balanced sound here.
Now, if you happen to have three microphones on you, even better! This is actually one of the techniques I like to use most simply because it’s not at all difficult to set up and the results can come out great – outstanding even! Ideally, you’re going to need an identical pair on condensers like the ones mentioned in the two mic technique and also, a solid dynamic microphone with great low end such as those used for kick drums. If you don’t have this third mic, I would HIGHLY suggest you grab yourself something like the Shure Beta 91A. It’s a fantastic mic at a very affordable price, much like many other very popular Shure microphones. Place the dynamic mic inside of the piano and have your identical pair of condensers on the outside – one on each side of the piano. As far as exact placement goes, it’s really up to what sound you’re looking for.
With the one and two mic techniques, you pretty much had to position them in that certain way but if you wanted a balanced sound but with three mics, you have many more options. The dynamic mic placed inside will be used to capture the body of the instrument while the pair of condensers on the outside will be used to capture the ambient sound of the piano; if you don’t like the sound that a certain mic is capturing, fine tune by experiment with slightly different positions.
Another popular technique used with those identical pair of condenser mics is using the XY pattern as shown in the image to the left. By using this pattern, you can record a good amount of the entire sound of the piano as well as capturing a good balance of both the highs and lows but make sure to have the business end of the mics meet above the middle C. You can use this pattern with both the two mic and three mic techniques in case the original positioning didn’t cut it. Remember - Experiment!
I know what you’re thinking… what about recording an upright piano? Well, that is a whole other article in and of itself and will unfortunately have to wait until tomorrow when we will be able to give it our full attention. But in the meantime, why not check out some of our excellent microphones or even catch up with some of our past articles, just don't forget to check back here tomorrow with plenty more tips and techniques!