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TRACKING ACOUSTIC PIANOS

 

1974 Yamaha Baby Grand Piano (thanks for the inspiration, Elton).

1974 Yamaha Baby Grand Piano (thanks for the inspiration, Elton).

IS IT IN TUNE?

This is the first thing to worry about!  Is it in tune enough for you to work with it?

Assuming you are a recording songwriter capturing their own performance, you may be able to get away with tuning the piano as little as once a year, although ideally more regularly if it is played a lot.

Keep it away from radiators, heaters, forced air vents, hot sunshine, etc.  A stable steady room temperature, not too cold, not too hot, is good.  Sudden temperature changes are very bad.  Don’t be too close to a wall if you can possibly help it with a grand or baby grand.  Uprights benefit from getting a foot away from a wall in some respects, but may prove way too boomy – your room acoustics have a big influence here when you get away from the walls, and equally when you get next to the walls.

A rug on the floor under the piano may help if it is boomy-sounding, also cutting down pedal noise somewhat, but a hardwood floor under a grand or baby grand is a rich, resonant sound most of the time.  It all depends on what you want to hear.  The piano has so many possible sounds and uses, and is a rich, harmonically complex instrument with a huge frequency range and huge amplitude range available to be exploited by great players.  Tuning properly will stack those vibrating harmonics up in a beautiful way and allow you to record other instruments alongside without tuning concerns.

RECORDING ROOM TONE AND A REFERENCE TUNING NOTE

By the way, you can also record a reference tuning note from the piano at the head of each song in the key of the song, together with a separate recording of a little room tone (microphone in place, switched on and recording, but with nobody in the room so the sound of the room’s air gently moving is captured, the so-called room tone).

Room tone is helpful in mastering sessions, to go between tracks of an album so that there is not a perceived “fade-to-audio-black” since that is unnaturally silent and absence of room tone can break the spell of the album’s flow as a whole when one song ends and another is about to start.  Room tone and tuning references are handy and you’re going to be set up for them anyway.  You need it to be the room of the recorded sound, in the position you use, but devoid of people for that thirty seconds of recording to a spare track.  Simply make that track inactive to free up resources, and save the audio file and the track as they are for mastering purposes after your mix is done.

If you get paying clients, you need to keep your piano in tune so that people can come over, sit down and play, and be impressed with the sound, and feel comfortable to book you as engineer for their next piano recording.

Acoustic pianos come in a few different varieties, but the hardest to tune are, of course, the cheapest to buy.  These are the upright pianos, and they are harder to get in tune reliably due to their design and the construction methods used.

using the hip of the piano to get in there with the mic

using the hip of the piano to get in there over the high strings

 

No matter which type of acoustic piano you are trying to record, if it is not sufficiently in tune for your purposes you will be forced to resort to either a sampled piano virtual instrument via MIDI, a hardware electric piano or a synthesized piano from a VI plug-in or a hardware keyboard workstation or synthesizer or module.  Alternatively, you could try polyphonic tuning software, but I can’t recommend that route unless you are a diehard masochist with insane amounts of time on your hands.

It can be expensive to get a piano tuner in, admittedly, and it may take a few attempts to get it really right if the instrument has a history of being unloved.  Repairs and/or replacement parts may be required to bring it into good shape.  Certain keys may be sticky in use, and need adjustments.   An experienced, qualified tuner is important to find.  He or she is worth their weight in gold.  All colleges and universities with music departments will have a piano tuner to maintain their collection of instruments, and you might start by asking there, or googling local piano tuners and checking their experience level.

adding boom and sustain by miking the piano harp (the metal plate with big round holes in it near the high strings)

Adding boom and sustain by miking the larger holes in the piano harp (that’s the metal plate with big round holes in it on the high strings side of the piano)

 

A “bird-cage” frame upright piano is notoriously hard to tune, for example, and it may well be impossible to get properly in tune on many such uprights.  A skilled tuner will do the best job on these.  The sound of the slight arguments in relative tuning across the range of the keyboard makes for an interesting chorus-like effect, with frequency and amplitude modulation going on naturally, and is a great emotional card to play in a song.  The slightly out of tune upright is a classic production element, suggesting emotions from barrel-house saloon atmospheres to vintage silent film accompaniments to British pub sing-a-longs to quirky horror-style accompaniment for disturbing lyrics.

Only a real acoustic piano can actually sound like a real acoustic piano filling the air around it with sound produced from it’s mechanical method of striking the strings, and so you can’t really fake it, even today.  In a busy mix, it is not too hard to fool the ear, but for solo piano or jazz, recording a real piano is pretty much the only way to go.  The same is true for sensitive ballads with minimal or light instrumentation.  There is emotional complexity in the real piano that is hard to define, but is missed when it’s absent.

INFLUENCES UPON THE PIANO’S SOUND

In most home settings, an upright of some sort or a 5-foot baby grand is likely to be the piano available.  In some cases, there may be an upright and a baby grand, if it’s a piano-loving household.  A few fortunate folks may even have a 9-foot grand piano and an ornate pair of Liberace candelabras to boot.

Other than the obvious change of trying out some different mics and mic preamps, there are several influential factors to consider.

It may seem obvious, but I should mention that uprights have a sounding-board and strings vertically mounted, parallel to the walls.  Grand pianos have the horizontal arrangement for the strings and sounding board instead.  This obviously influences miking positions.

Each piano is unique, another thing to remember.  Get to know yours by experimenting with different recording techniques for it.

Pianos are extremely complicated instruments, and there have all kinds of moving parts.  There will be squeaks and moans from the pedals, and keys, and hammers, and moving parts can fail, groan, scrape or stick.

Since the piano is essentially a large resonating chamber, which amplifies the sound of the strings and allows overtones to build up in a complex web, you will find the noises coming from all over the piano are part and parcel of the emotional experience of hearing a piano.

We tend to ignore the pedal squeaks of a live performance easily enough, but on a recording they haunt us by never going away and always happening at the same points in the music.  It is good to do your best to minimize the rattles and groans from the instrument before recording begins, without hurting the instrument of course.   The piano tuner is a great person to tackle such a task, but get a quote for the repairs before they proceed, as expenses can mount up with older pianos in need of TLC.

Placing condensers set to cardioid pattern or hypercardioid pattern and thoughtfully aiming them so that they reject unwanted sound from their rear (such as off-lid or off-wall reflections nearby) and collect wanted sound from their capsule (from the piano strings or sounding board) is always a good idea, but can be very hard to do in practice because of the location of the wanted and unwanted sounds.  Bear it in mind though, as it can help out.

The resonating chamber of the piano body can also resonate with the sounds of nearby instruments that set up sympathetic vibrations in the piano strings that match the frequencies being played nearby.  A drummer or upright bass too near a piano can set off such sympathetic resonance, so placement of musicians is a consideration.  Also, maintaining good sight lines for the pianist to the other musicians will be an issue in simultaneous performance recordings.

Wrap the piano in quilts if you are recording other people at the same time in the same room in earshot of the mics.  So-called piano bags can be obtained commercially, but it’s quite an investment and they’re not so common. Baffling off a piano is a great idea for a contained sound, and opening it’s lid so it’s not facing any other musical instruments is a good idea.  Sound gets in as well as out of the lid.  Try not to have the lid open such that the piano sound will bounce straight off an adjacent wall and back into the microphones, as an echo of each note played.  This is not good, unless you want a hollow, weird slap-back echo piano effect you can’t change later.

So, summing up, the overall sound a piano on a recording is usually a mixture of the following factors:  a) it’s contruction and design, b) it’s state of tuning at that moment, and c) the room it is in and how that responds to the sound waves sent out from the piano.

The older the music genre, the further away the mics are, in a glib summing up.

The influence of room sound is normally quite significant unless you close-mic the strings of the piano, and even then it is a subtle factor via the underside of the piano and through lid reflections.

PERFORMANCE EXPECTATIONS

Regardless of genre and piano type, it is probably unrealistic to expect complete “one-shot” takes from players.  Often, drop-ins are necessary, or multiple takes which are then “comped” together in the DAW later to produce a perfect master take, bar by bar.

piano harp along the "high notes" side of the instrument

piano harp along the “high notes” side of the instrument

 

Let the player take a break regularly if they need to.  It can be tiring to concentrate for long stretches to the degree required for a good piano take.  it’s not just a matter of hitting the right notes and chords, there are all the myriad subtleties of a great performance that we want to hear.

Too-common errors include unintentional note durations, overhanging sustains, too-loud or too-soft dynamic range of notes played, the sound of clumping pedals in soft passages when they are operated just a bit too noisily, and so on.   Listening carefully is warranted during mic placement for these types of unwanted sounds that we usually ignore in live performance but must remove for recording as much as possible.

CLASSICAL, JAZZ OR CONTEMPORARY?

Genre is the major factor in establishing the optimum placement of your mics.  In virtually all cases, the condenser is the mic of choice for it’s bright and quick character, capable of handling fast midrange attack transients, deep bass notes and singing, clear highs with equal aplomb.

As ever, condensers will require 48v phantom power, or a battery for the mic in some cases, in order to be used.

In a nutshell, classical piano sounds best on a grand, or at a pinch a baby grand, where the whole instrument is captured at a distance of several feet, with the lid fully open, and a suitable degree of subtle, low-level room sound is always included because of this, provided the room sounds nice and sympathetic to the required result.

Setting the best distance to the mics is a matter of balancing direct sound against the amount of room sound, listening to the results after a few test recordings.  Play for a minute at each mic position, and compare at equal loudness listening levels.  Pick a winner – you’ll know it when you hear it.

Wooden rooms are great for pianos, since wood has a nice soft diffuse feel relative to stone or tiles.  If you have a harder floor or wall, and the sound is too bright and hard for you, try rugs and duvets and blankets and so on can be used to damp reflections down.

Moving the mics a few feet nearer to the piano, maybe just inside the baby grand’s half-open or full-open lid, gives you a warmer, more direct jazzier sound.  This is a more intimate sound, since you can hear the action of the piano mechanisms more clearly, and there are more harmonic overtones relative to the lowered room sound.

one option for jazzy, open miking with some room sound, but not much

one option for pop-leaning  jazzy, open miking with some room sound, but not much – note the parallel capsules for best phase coherence when collapsed to mono

 

Jazz players tend to like a dark, rich, complex sound, where the highs are muffled and the tone is clean but warm.  They like a lot less room sound and a lot more intimacy than classical cats, and thus often benefit from the piano mics being a little nearer to where the hammers strike the strings than in classical settings (where you don’t want to reveal any hammer noise at all, typically).

For pop  and rock music, the piano tends to be close-miked nearer to the hammers, and you will get a fair bit of clicking and thunping from this.  However, the pop and rock genres tend to use numerous, dense layers of production elements, so the focus on the piano itself is nowhere near as prominent or exposed as in jazz or classical settings.  There is a lot of dynamics processing applied to most pop or rock pianos, evening out the dynamic range of the instrument noticeably and pulling it functionally into a smaller space in the headroom of the final mix, yet more prominently heard throughout the track.

MONO OR STEREO PIANO?

Good question!  Mono is fine and dandy, clearly leaving a lot more room in the stereo spread for other things like organ, strings or synths, but…

Unless there are track count limitations, I like to record the piano in stereo at all times.  It’s simple enough to collapse a stereo track into a summed mono version anyway, using  DAW menu commands or a mono “bounce to disk” pass of the piano tracks.    It’s hard to find a single mic position to capture the large sound of the piano properly, so using two microphones helps a lot with balancing the piano later, and finding the tone you really want to emphasize in the mix.

I will say that, due to mono recordings being the norm for many years in the last century, the mono piano is a classic sound.

Today, it is now a useful means of including the instrument in a busy mix without taking up much space in the final stereo image.  The mono piano acts as a “point source” sound, coming from a single point in the stereo image, and has the benefit of only requiring a single track.

It’s efficient, but it is not very realistic or engaging, since the motion is missing of the hands traveling from side to side of the keyboard, hitting hammers to strings in those locations spread across a real 3D space.  The room is also three-dimensional, and this is also missing in mono representations.

Another less significant downside is that the various notes that sound together when the piano is playing at any particular moment are forced to share the same point in the image, making for a certain density in the sound.  It’s also a bit odd to hear the piano stacked in one spot, since in the real world it is a large instrument that covers several feet across and the low strings sound from a different direction than the uppermost strings.

WHICH MIC TYPE, AND WHERE TO PUT THE MICS

As I mentioned earlier, the condenser is the best type in most cases.  For jazz and classical, ribbons can give excellent results too although the highs are not so extended.

For pop and rock, the hammers are part of the sound, and getting nearer to them adds drama and punch, although getting too near is a problem with thumping and excessive action noise.

You may well need to use a pad on the microphone itself if you are very close to the action inside of the piano.  Capsule distortion is not a pleasant ingredient in most piano sounds.  Wavefronts may not develop fully leaving the strings when you are very close to the strings, so allowing for a little distance allows the resonating chamber of the piano to build up the harmonic overtones in the note, so it can bloom and  blossom, as it were.

In rhythm parts, the piano hammers are normally essential to capture, being percussive and dynamic elements of the piano sound.  Stay a few inches from the hammers, above and behind them when viewed from the keyboard side.

A Yamaha baby grand from 1974 meets a U87 and a KM184 from Neumann

A Yamaha baby grand from 1974 meets a U87 and a KM184 from Neumann (U87 is the big mic on the lows)

 

Get as high above as you can without touching the lid, and try to leave an inch or two between the capsule and the lid itself to avoid unwanted reflections from the lid.  Keep the mics at least a couple of feet apart so you don’t get phase issues, and try to keep both mic capsules in parallel alignment with each other for the same reason.

Usually, a pair of condenser pencil mics are used for pop recordings, and they may well be a matched pair with similar frequency response, such as a matched pair of Neumann KM184 or at lower cost a pair of Rode NT3 condensers.

For classical and jazz, a large-diaphragm condenser (LDC) will be a better choice than the small condensers.   In jazz situations, I often use an LDC on the low end strings, with a small-diaphragm condenser (SDC) on the mid/high strings.

The nearer you get to the strings, the more likely you are to have to use small diaphragm mics due to the wavelengths involved.

I recommend that you do record a guide piano track during any live bed tracks by working with an electric piano so that you can record the acoustic piano separately later, for best technical recording results, and replace the guide, but with jazz and classical that simply won’t do.  Classical piano requires real piano, and jazz players need to hear what they are improvising to and with, as it really will be.

If you need more rich sustaining qualities in the sound of a grand or baby grand, move away from the hammers, and place your low-end strings mic more towards the larger holes at the end of the piano harp, maybe the fourth or fifth hole, whilst leaving the high-end strings mic where it is.

For overdubs, you won’t need the quilts and blankets and gobos around the piano.  If it’s a grand, open the lid to it’s fullest extent.  They sound great with the lid completely removed, as there is much less bouncing around inside the piano of sound waves, but not everyone is comfortable with taking pins out of the piano to do this just to get a slightly cleaner sounding pop piano.

Keep the mics at least a foot above and to the rear of the hammers for a more spacious sound with less clacking of hammers.  This suits ballads and less rhythm-oriented music.  For classical, move the mics out into the room and away from the piano, using trial and error recordings to establish where you will get a good sound from the mics.  Use large-diaphragm mics here.

You may like the sound of room mics (using ribbons or LDCs) at a distance of fifteen or more feet, when mixed in with your close-mics inside the piano.  This can raise phase issues when they are combined, but it’s usually not a problem if they are far enough from the instrument, since the delay between them is sufficiently large to separate the two sounds somewhat, acting as a roughly 15ms pre-delay in the case of fifteen feet distance.   Thirty feet is ideal for reverberant ambience to add in, but that’s a big room!

You can use omnidirectional polar patterns on your mics, if available, and that will give a nice blend of room and instrument to a classical recording.  Keep four or five feet from the instrument for best results.  If the room sound is too much, you can either move a bit nearer (increasing hammer and pedal noises slightly) or you can switch to a bidirectional (Figure 8) pattern or to a cardioid type pattern, and ensure the capsule is facing the piano.  This will introduce the typical “proximity effect” level boost to the low end of your recording, which does not happen in omni patterns, so bear in mind the positioning relative to the lower strings so as not to encourage undue boominess in the sound.

UPRIGHTS

Ideally, you should remove the front panels above and below the keyboard, so that the sound will be relatively open and airy and bright.  This is pretty easy to do on most uprights.

If you have another musician playing at the same time in the same space, this may be impossible, or perhaps there are obstacles to removing the piano panels that you can’t overcome.  In these cases, you will have to go in through the lid on the roof of the piano.  You may only have six inches to work with here, so instead you will have to use short, stubby pencil microphones rather than any of the larger ones.

seeing a C6 chord at the hammer position

seeing a C chord at the hammer position (actually C6 in first position, but it’s hard to see the A note)

Space will be tight.  You’ll need boom-arm microphone stands for this job.  Raise the micstands to their full height and lower the boom arms into the lid opening.  Don’t let the mics go too far to the far ends of the piano width, since the stereo will be very exaggerated in the image you get.  Aim more for two-thirds of the width between the two mics, so they are at least one octave each away from the sides of the instrument.

Put a pair of mics just in front of the piano, beside the pianist, one near the highs and one near the lows.  Keep them about a foot above the keyboard, and 6 to 8 inches from the strings.  Aim the mics down towards the hammers.  For a daintier sound, try small diaphragm condensers rather than large.

You can also use get a bigger sound by bringing the mics back a few feet, to maybe five or six feet behind the pianist.   Set them apart about the width of the upright, aiming them very slightly inwards towards the player, to get a decent stereo image where the pianist’s hands seem to travel about the image with higher or lower notes.  This will be the most open sound you are likely to get from an upright piano.

 

The Neumann KM184 gives great results, as does the larger condenser Neumann U87, and their TLM102 and TLM103 can also deliver great results, but those are all pretty expensive options.

Try a pair of AKG C1000’s on a budget for a bright and sassy stereo upright, or for a better quality sound with finer, airier qualities, a pair of Rode NT3 mics will work very well for not much money.

There are lots of cheaper pencil condensers that will work well enough, especially in denser or more rhythmic mixes.  You will have to be careful about boominess in a recording of an upright, due to the restricted resonating chamber of the piano.

PREPARED PIANOS

If you are able to muck about with the piano without upsetting anybody, you could try various methods of preparing the piano for specific recording takes in unusual ways, such as inserting bits of paper between the strings, or hanging paperclips from each string, or placing thumbtacks in the hammers.  Experiemental musicians call this, not surprisingly, a prepared piano.

Be cautious – you will forever change the sound of the instrument with some preparation methods, such as thumbtacks.  Thumbtack piano is a honky-tonk piano sound, and a cheap upright is ideal for this.  Don’t do it to the main squeeze, however.  Keep that baby ready for normal high-end piano duties, and pick up a bargain upright from an estate sale or music store.  Make sure it is capable of getting acceptably close to concert tuning, and don’t damage your best piano.

You get an ominous foreboding from the paperclipped piano strings when the player plays.

Break open a bottle of your finest Scotch whiskey and you will also have a prepared pianist.

You can also run objects along the length of specific individual strings from inside the opened piano lid, including while another person plays the instrument sounding different strings.  Now that is weird to hear on a playback.

You can easily and safely slip pieces of paper between some of the strings to dampen them to produce a more clumsy, clacking and plinking sort of sound with very little sustain.

Of the three, thumbtacks will impact the hammers, due to the hole caused by the tack, but the two other methods should leave no lasting mark if you are careful, and are benign ways to treat the instrument.

The experimentation can continue at your place!  Let me know in the comments below if you come up with an interesting twist on the prepared piano genre.  I’d love to hear your ideas.

Tomorrow’s post is going to be about recording acoustic guitars well.  See you then!

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