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Tips for Recording an Acoustic Piano (Part I)

The Close-Miked Grand

In a world of sampled instruments and midi sequencing, recording an acoustic grand piano is not a task for the faint of heart. Most engineers can rely on an instrument package, like Garritan’s “Authorized Steinway” or “Ivory”, for nice sounds. However, when a piano needs to be the primary focus of a mix, or when you have a very serious player in the studio, you will need a well-maintained acoustic grand to make the best possible recording. Miking a grand can be a daunting task, but in this first of 3 articles, I hope I can ease your mind by explaining a few techniques and tricks that can help you record a great close-miked piano.

The Close-Miked Sound and When To Use It

The piano sound you will most often hear in pop music and in jazz is the close-miked sound. Not only does it help eliminate bleed if the piano is recorded in the live room with the rest of a band, but it also gives the mix engineer a wide range of choices to help what usually is the physically largest instrument fit into the mix. There is very little room in the sound, and the room that does exist is most likely faked with a hardware or software reverb. A variety of miking techniques can be used to achieve different sounds from percussive to balanced, from narrow to wide, and from bright to mellow. The closeness of mikes is what makes the sound both the easiest to achieve, and yet also makes choosing an appropriate technique very difficult. As this sound is the most commonly sought after in the studio, it makes a perfect starting place for us.

A Brief Anatomy of A Piano

Before we begin talking about sound and how to record the sound of a piano, we must first understand how that sound is produced and naturally amplified by the instrument.The diagram to the left illustrates a few of the most important parts on the inside of a piano.Diagram of the Anatomy of a Grand Piano

Depressing the keys of the piano starts a very complex lever in motion, resulting in the hammer striking the string, which in turn results in the sound we hear. Hammers are located below the dampers, as you can see in the diagram. They are covered in a semi-soft felt that provides a variety of tones depending on the speed at which the hammer hits the strings and also the age and use of the instrument. In general, the faster a hammer hits a string, the more its felt is depressed upon contact, creating a harder surface and a brighter and louder tone. That tone then resonates through a precisely crafted soundboard, the wooden bed that runs the entire length and width of the instrument. The bridge, as seen in the diagram, is not just a point at which strings are connected, but on many good instruments, the length of string beyond the bridge is capable of vibrating and can help produce extra overtones and in general a ‘bigger’ sound.

There are plenty of resources to learn about the whole mechanism inside the piano, but I think the above points are the most valid for starters. Now let’s dig into some more meaty information.

Close Miking Techniques And a Few Pros And Cons of Each

As there are quite a few techniques we will cover here, we will organize them by starting with the techniques that are used nearest to the hammers, moving toward the bridge and tail of the piano as we go. Keep in mind that all of these techniques use microphones ‘under the lid’ of the piano, very close to the strings themselves.

1) The Percussive Rock Piano
This technique highlights the percussive nature of the instrument by placing mikes nearly on top of the strings over where the hammers strike. It is useful for very busy rock mixes where the piano needs to be heard but doesn’t need much depth. You can place mikes in XY, ORTF, and AB spaced pair (allowing a variety of stereo widths), and you can also feel free to use pretty much any polar pattern, except figure-8. Always keep in mind that a true omni will accurately hear down to the lowest bass the instrument can produce, while many cardioids have some sort of roll-off. Also, true omnis will not exhibit the proximity effect, while cardioids will. The distance from the strings that the mikes are placed will determine how percussive the sound is: the closer, the more percussive; the further, the more balanced. By ‘close’ I mean as close as just a few inches from the strings, and moving further away from there.

2) The Wide Stereo, Balanced Piano
This technique can provide a warm yet detailed tone, but will always create a wide stereo image. Again using cardioid or omni mikes, place one mike over the upper treble section of the instrument and place one mike over the lower bass section of the instrument. The mike over the high strings will be closer to the keyboard, while the bass mike will be closer to the tail of the instrument. Again, distance can vary from just a few inches to sometimes as much as a foot from the strings. In this case, the closer the mike the more detailed the sound, while the further the mike the more accurately you can capture the entire range of the instrument.

3) The Mono, Or Small Stereo, Balanced Piano
Working just inside the crook of the piano, (the place where the curve of the frame makes the piano narrower at the tail than at the keyboard) an XY, M and S, or a simple mono mike can be used to get the most balanced representation of the instrument while maintaining a good sum to mono when necessary. In this case, you probably won’t want to get too close to the strings so that you can be sure to capture the entire instrument. I suggest using cardioids here to help eliminate unwanted room sound. Try and aim the mike or your array toward the place where the lid connects to the frame while staying at least a good foot or two away from the strings. The sound isn’t quite as detailed, but the stereo choices available during mix make this a good ‘go-to’ technique.

4) The Mellow Piano
The further you move toward the tail of the instrument, the warmer the tone you can capture off the soundboard. Feel free to experiment with distances and miking techniques; there isn’t one I’d necessarily recommend here. For an extremely warm sound, try miking the underside of the soundboard. You might need at least one mike on the upper side to capture enough detail to make the sound useable.

5) The Most Balanced And Natural Piano
If we move our mike arrays just outside of the frame of the piano we can still get a close sound and probably the best natural balance of the instrument. For this technique, I like to use an AB pair, spaced only 1 or 2 feet apart, near the crook of the piano but at least two or three feet away from the frame of the instrument. Be sure to get your array high enough that the microphones can ‘see’ all of the strings in the instrument. As this technique captures the most room, it might not fit a busy rock mix, but instead could be better for solo jazz or similar.

As the mikes are moved away from the hammers and toward the tail of the piano, the warmth of tone increases while the percussiveness decreases. Even in the 5th technique I describe, while the crook of the piano might provide the most balanced tone, you may want to move your array toward the keyboard or toward the tail depending on the type of sound you are going for. I almost always use omnis to record a piano due to their ability to accurately capture the entire range of the instrument, but don’t be afraid to try and skillfully use the proximity effect of cardioids for some interesting sounds. If you’re recording jazz, microphones like Schoeps, DPA, Earthworks, and Sennheiser MKHs are usually the best. They provide great frequency response and transparency, which is expected in the genre. With rock and pop material, feel free to use anything you can dream up to achieve the desired sound. Tube mikes, through a tube pre, and to tape can turn a banging pianist into the perfect fit for a track. Yet, transparent can also still be the way to go. Use your ears to help you determine what technique is best!

Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3 on this topic, featuring how to close mike an upright piano, and finally how to go about recording a piano for a classical type sound in a large room!

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Charles Szczepanek

Charles Szczepanek

Internationally awarded and recognized, Charles Szczepanek has enjoyed performing for diverse audiences as well as engineering and producing for many highly-respected artists across multiple genres. Hailed a ‘Whiz’ and ‘Genius’ by some, Charles has collaborated with Grammy Award winners. Additional personal achievements include: multiple international prizes for piano performance, recognition by Steinway for ‘Outstanding Piano Performance’, as well as awards in music composition, ensemble direction, and vocal performance.

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  • Really great post Charles! Recording piano can be extremely daunting – because the options are so limitless and the tracking is so permanent. You basically have to have exactly the sound you want going in or it never really gets there in the mix.

    I’m curious as to your experience using the Hi-Lo technique over the sounding holes. Usually the Hi is the lower super-treble hole, and the lo is the middle or lower treble hole. It’s pretty standard fair for an under-the-lid technique, but not mentioned in your article.

    PS – I’m in your neighborhood, making a visit. Apparently Clark Rigsby and I share a mutual friend.

    -Matt

  • Thanks for the comment, Matt!

    I’ve personally never had a great experience with the technique you mention, and therefore decided not to share it. I’ve seen it plenty of times, but it never really captured the instrument in the way I like… always felt like there wasn’t enough depth of sound. The bass strings also sound further away… makes the instrument feel a bit strange to someone who is used to hearing the sound from the bench. But if you like it and it works for you, then by all means, go for it!

    Yes, Clarke is a great guy, friend, and wonderful engineer. He and I just caught up a bit this past weekend. If you’re in town for longer, I’d love to grab a coffee or bite to eat if you’re free —

    –Charles

  • I agree – I seem to get the same results. It almost sounds like a synthesizer, but with realistic dynamics. Tons of tone – which is great – but little depth, which makes the instrument sound a bit artificial. However, I hear it done all the time, and I’ve done it myself a number of times as well.

    I’ve been working with a couple of really heavy world class piano cats recently, we’ve been going through some material and agreed that a lot of the tight under the lid stuff has been flying. We’re going for a sound with a more centered (less artificial) stereo image, with a more whollistic sound of the piano. Probably something like #5 that you mentioned.

  • Michal Jablonski

    Dear Sir,

    allow me to disagree to the whole concept of close miking from the sound wave physics, signal processing and recording instrumentation point of view.

    Piano is made to be listened to from the outside, not inside.

    What you do to the sound by placing microphones inside of the piano is unethical in terms of localization. You leave the poor listeners brain struggling to understand what is going on with that piano he is hearing inside his head afterwards. No processing tricks and post reverb will help to reconstruct a proper position of piano in the acoustics of the recording space. As somebody who has to endure listening to this kind of inventions way too often (even from renowned labels!) I encourage you to put your head inside of a piano during an 80min concert and let me know how it was afterwards. You can make a point that close miking helps to avoid poor interior acoustics from masking the instrument sound. I find recording from a very short range and putting away omnidirectionals to be enough in such cases. Miking from inside seems an extreme measure. Inside the piano you will be encountering strong reactive sound fields with overwhelming standing waves pressure (your microphones will work less linear creating more distortion) but also unpredictable vertex effects, all typical for near field of large vibrating objects. Bare in mind that the waves that make it out of the instruments are the outspoken carriers of the piano maker virtue, not the ones inside. I say, lets not waste the effort of both the musician, interior acoustic engineer and the piano maker altogether by placing the microphones inside the instrument. A recording engineer can not be blind to the areas lying just outside of his everyday experience, otherwise his ignorance can be heard loud and clear in the recording!

    I’m looking forward to see the developments in sound intensity measurements produce a scientific explanation of why it is wrong to do near field audio recordings, also because we will get a better understanding of the physics of sound waves created by different instruments.

    While the science still needs development, it is only a matter of good taste, proper monitoring and common sense at this stage.

    Talking of monitoring, music engineers seem to fall into the pitfall of trying to make their sound great on poor audio (I’ve been there and done that!) Close miking seems to help here a lot because micro-dynamically insensitive systems sound dull, boring or like the recording was made “in a toilet” when playing diffuse field sounds registered from a distance. Same goes to most of the tiny monitor speakers used in the studios. This way a good recording ends up being turned into trash because the person behind it can never hear what he recorded in the first place.(First sign of that is an unimaginable EQ boost below 100Hz, past which studio monitors drop in response). I listen with fear to a known label recording where acoustic guitar causes the windows in my apartment to tremble just because the speakers do -3dB at 35Hz… Also, I’ve been finding that with good monitoring there is hardly any post-processing one can do to improve an already decent recording, while there is plenty ways to destroy it.

    Kind regards

    Michal

    • Charles Szczepanek

      Dear Michal,

      Thank you for the feedback. Right from the get go, let me agree with you that there is no way to make a piano sound natural by placing mikes under the lid. I am a classical concert pianist (if you listen to both my releases as a performer and engineer you will hear that I never close mike in that genre), and also a pop arranger and keys player, so I’m intimately familiar with the sound from the bench, and I’ve spent considerable time with my head and ears quite close to the strings.

      A lengthy article could be written about the physics of the instrument, how sound is produced, naturally amplified, and then projected into a room. However, the choices made in recording a piano can be summed up by three basic questions: 1) What genre of music is being recorded, 2) What does the room the piano is in sound like and 3) If the piano will have to fit into a mix, how will it do so?

      I’ve recorded grand pianos in rooms from as small as 8×8 feet with no acoustic treatment (where there is literally no room outside of the piano) to rooms as large as a 3,000 seat concert hall designed by a professional. Purists may argue that a piano should never be recorded in a less than proper space because of the inherent acoustical issues with the instrument, however most real world situations have pianos in rooms that are less than ideal for them.

      If the instrument is placed in a room where the lowest fundamental tone (27Hz) has the natural ability to develop, the room is going to have to be extremely large. Beyond, placing microphones at that point in the room will not sound good either because the high frequencies and overtones will either be so dispersed the sound will be unfocused, or they will simply have ceased moving air at that distance and your sound will be very dull.

      If we are talking about a classical release (which is what I believe you are referring to most) then mikes should never be placed under the lid. Most classical recordings happen in at least decently designed rooms with hopefully properly maintained instruments. I prefer to combine the sounds of a ‘close’ array of mikes (about 4 or 5 feet) away from the crook of the piano, with sounds from distance ambient mikes that could be as far as 100 feet away. Like you, I’m disappointed when I hear a great classical pianist recorded in the wrong way. It doesn’t make sense, and in many ways, how the artist manipulates the space around the instrument is equally important to how the artist plays the instrument itself.

      BUT… I didn’t write this article for classical recording engineers. I wrote it for engineers working in relatively small studios (ie, not Capitol, Abbey Road, etc.) where the room you have is working against you, and also where the genres you record are everything but natural sounding. If you try to mix a piano that was recorded mid or far field for electronic music, it will simply never work unless you want the piano to sound like an effect. If you are mixing a piano that drives the rhythm section of a rock song and you miked it too far from the hammers, there will be no way to ‘fix it in the mix’ and make it sound like you didn’t make a mistake while tracking.

      I have found that, in general, if the room you are working in is poor, getting more than a few feet outside of the piano totally ruins the sound (cardioid mikes or not), making it indistinct, full of standing waves from the room, and impossible to clean up during the mix. Despite this being a more ‘correct’ technique from a purely physics point of view, it sounds far worse.

      There are far too many examples of times when the environment will dictate nothing less than close miking than can be explained here. However if you are recording solo classical piano, or a piano trio/quartet, or piano with orchestra, all in rooms of professional caliber, then I agree, you should absolutely never close mike any part of those ensembles. The goal there is to most realistically represent the sound of the ensemble and of the room.

    • Michal Jablonski

      Thank you for your reply Charles,

      I totally see your point with cases where the poor acoustics are working agains you, and yes you got me nailed with the classical music. I have some little experience only there as a sound-guy but my complaint was that of the listener, and I had all but classical music in mind. (eg. Jazz or Folk rather) I guess that my complaint comes from hearing people having the right equipment and good rooms to record and using close miking a lot of the time, creating overly blown up and dead, sterile instruments that have no (even fake) position in sound space but litterally sounding like you’r inside them. As if close miking was the only right way to record (and its never in case of classical music indeed, but I see it happen a lot in e.g. Jazz which is nothing like electronic music too, all about natural instrument sounds with maybe small added electronic effecrt these days). So there seems to be a problem with the perception of close miking (which for sure explaining to you is like bringing wood into the forest as we speak- but a lot of people seem to be confused about it). I visited this site to learn about piano recording, and close miking is what I found right-a-way, “no questions asked” so to speak. No mention that this is a solution for in case you want to achieve a specific effect and a compromise best helping in bad recording conditions. Or am I reading you wrong? This is my problem. I could become just another confused guy doing close miking like my life depended on it.

      It just seems to be very quickly picked up by people and ends up beeing used in cases where it is unnecessary too (Do you agree?).

      I also fail to believe that anybody serious, realeasing an offical CD with , plans to record it in a toilet and has to retreat to placing the mikes inside the instrument all the time. Perhaps people settle with close miking because it gives the same ,(I say poor, but) predictable effect regardless of conditions which spares them the need to “search for the sound ” in the given conditions and leaves more room for artificial manipulation. If they already have that super-muffled, professional recording room, why not use it to be able to record the instrument from the outside? (I’m talking here of anything outside, it doesnt have to be even 1m away)

      End least but not last even in a small room the room outside of a piano is a bigger room than inside of it. Same physical problem exists regardless of the genre of music. (yes I know, I’m beeing stubborn now)

      Kind regards

      Michal

    • Charles Szczepanek

      Michal,

      Once we leave the classical music realm, I think the ideas of mic positioning come down to a few points that don’t necessarily have much to do with the piano itself: 1) the idea of mixing the instrument against whatever else will be happening, 2) there are some great musicians out there who don’t have ‘rock-star’ budgets, or even close for that matter who simply can’t afford a good enough piano or room for their needs, and 3) especially in jazz, the good jazz trios and combo groups will always record live as a group, and usually in the same room together.

      When it comes to jazz and the bleed from other instruments in the recording environment, I always ask the artist(s) what type of sound they have in mind. If they have an ‘older’ sound in mind, like Coltrane, Getz, etc. then we can pursue some more distant miking techniques that capture the group and use spots to help clarity as necessary… however, I rarely have clients ask for that. They usually want something super clean yet warm, where the levels of solos can be re-balanced at a later time (or even overdubbed occasionally). As an engineer, its my job to give them the type of sound they are after.

      In all genres, its nearly impossible to argue with the artist’s and especially the producer’s wants. They have a vision for the final product, and many times it can be compared with something already out… and so they say… ‘we’d like it to sound like album ‘yyy’ by artist ‘zzz’. If that happens to be closed miked sounds (which it usually is) then that’s something I have to work around. And believe me, it’s far more difficult to get an in-phase and L/R balanced piano sound when the mics are under the lid. There are too many sounds bouncing around in far too many unnatural ways. And so finding a ‘good’ under the lid sound usually starts with one of the techniques above and then changes to try and fix the inherent physical problems with those techniques.

      I do agree that you can get very nice piano sounds, and quite clean, from just a foot or two outside the lid. But still, in a less than ideal room, a foot or two can begin to sound like the worst piano recording ever made. It doesn’t take very much, especially when using omnis, to get too far from the source where your sound will be clouded by the room.

      In a good, dry, recording room where miking away from the lid is a possibility, I hope that engineers will at least try it before ruling it out because of ‘what they’ve experienced’. It is much easier to get a balanced tone that is mono compatible when working away from the instrument. But there are still times when nothing can substitute for miking right on the strings.

      If you’re very interested in the subject, check out this article at SoundOnSound: http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/jan08/articles/pianorecording_0108.htm I think it’s great, and captures a ton about the topic, with audio examples!

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