How do you record a grand piano? What mics work well and where do you place them for that jaw dropping ECM piano sound?
I recently finished a piano recording at the Jacqueline Du Pre music building, Oxford and I'm going to share with you some of my preferred techniques in this tutorial.
Recording a grand piano is a challenging job! The instrument, in its concert form, is a formidable 7ft long and sometimes as much as 9ft, with a wider range than any other instrument in the orchestra, spanning from A0 with an earth shaking frequency of 27.5Hz up to C8 with a fundamental frequency of 4186Hz. The harmonics and overtones reach way beyond this and to capture the piano in all of its magnificence you'll want to employ mics with a good balanced frequency response and an extended range if using anything other than a condenser design.
The grand piano has a lid, which is designed to be much more than a simple cover for the strings and internal mechanisms; the lid is used to modify the volume and timbre and to impart an important directionality to the projection of the instrument. As such the player sits perpendicular to the audience with the lid of the piano opened towards the audience. When two pianos are used together in concert it's often the case that the lids are fully removed, allowing the instruments to be fitted together like jigsaw pieces.
Recording the piano often requires working underneath the lid, especially if the piano is being recorded as part of a band arrangement or a high degree of separation is required. However, it's entirely possible to record the instrument without placing mics directly underneath the lid and this technique is often employed when the piano is playing as part of a classical ensemble.
I'm going to focus now on recording the piano with the mics placed underneath the lid.
Generally the first mics that I set up are directly above the hammers of the piano. The resultant recording should be nice and bright with plenty of attack, which is very helpful for cutting through a busy mix. It's important to choose the right mic for the job and I favour using a matched pair of small diaphragm condensers with omni directional capsules. In this situation, using an omni pattern is beneficial, as the lid of the piano creates many off axis reflections. The complex sonic environment underneath the piano lid requires a well behaved mic with good handling of off axis sources. As well as coping with the off axis reflections the omni pattern capsule also exhibits a flatter frequency response when working at close distances, being immune to the bass proximity effect exhibited by directional patterns.
With the lid still on the piano but opened fully the mics should be placed as a spaced pair pointing towards the lower strings on the players left side and the upper strings on the players right hand side and at a working distance of between 6" to 1'. As with all recording it's wise to make a series of tests, adjusting the mic placement methodically and comparing the resultant recordings. A smart phone camera is a useful tool for documenting the mic positions.
Note: When using a spaced pair use the 3 to 1 rule; the mics should be 3 times wider apart than they are close to the instrument. So at a 1' working distance the mics should be 3' apart, guaranteeing good stereo correlation and thusly good mono compatibility.
This setup should create a nice stereo recording with a clear and well defined movement between left and right hand passages.
Now that the mics are placed well over the hammers it's time to fill out the bass end a little. Moving to the opposite end of the instrument you can find a series of useful mic positions over the bass strings and even over and around the sound holes that run along the curved edge of the piano harp. I tend to use a single large diaphragm condenser in omni configuration to mic the bass strings at about the same working distance as the spaced pair over the hammers. This mic helps to round out the timbre and balance the recording.
With these three mics in place the core piano setup is ready for the ambient mics to be added. But before moving on to the room mics I'm going to show you another great technique for making a stereo recording of the piano using two bi-directional (figure 8) ribbon mics. For this setup I'm using my SE Electronics R1 ribbon mics, mounted on a wide stereo bar. The mic capsules are placed at 90 degrees to one another forming a Blumlein Pair (if you're not familiar with the term Blumlein Pair just follow the link to buff up your knowledge). The mics are then placed above the hammers on a long boomed mic stand with a counter weight to balance the arm. The ribbon mics, whilst not having the full range of a condenser, do have a good extended frequency range and are famous for sounding smooth and silky, especially at the top end where other mics can sound harsh or brittle. With the Blumlein pair in this position the stereo image is very natural, if a little less focused than the spaced pair, but with a wonderful balance of the close string and hammer sound and a little room ambience.
ROOM AND AMBIENT MICS
The next mic I like to set up is a 'player's perspective' mic. Essentially this room mic captures the sound of the piano as heard from the players perspective and is really useful for getting the recording to sound natural. Place a mic behind the player slightly to the right or left with a clean line of sight between the mic and instrument. A directional mic can help to pinpoint the source more easily whilst remaining focused and not too ambient. I would suggest a working distance of between 3' - 6'.
If you're working in a good sounding room or hall you'll want to capture all of the natural resonance and reverberation. The Jacqueline Du Pre music building has a nice sounding concert hall that holds around 200 people. The celling is pyramidal an reaches upward of 10 metres and there is a gallery running around three edges of the building 3 or so metres above the main seating area.
For the ambient recording I start with a matched pair of small diaphragm cardioid condensers in a ORFT configuration where the two mics are mounted on a stereo bar with the capsules pointing away from one another at an angle of 110 degrees or so. The mic capsules should be around 15cm apart. I would recommend making a series of test recordings moving the mics progressively further and further away from the piano.
Note: Using white gaffer tape to mark the mic stand positions on the floor is really helpful as you'll be moving the stand quite a distance and recreating the mic position can be hard without marking off as you go.
I ended up settling for placing the ORFT array in the gallery facing directly at the soundstage.
TIME TO LISTEN
Now that everything's set up lets have a listen to each mic or stereo pair to compare and contrast the different sounds of each position.
Note: In the following examples there is no post production, dynamic processing or eq. The SE Electronics R1 Ribbon mics are running through two TLA tube mic pres, whilst the remaining mics are running through my MOTU 896HD audio interface pres.
I hope that this tutorial has been useful. If you've enjoyed it please hit the share button and post to your favourite social media and feel free to leave comments or question below. Thanks for reading.
Next time in this producer series of blogs I'll be looking at recording the electric guitar. Stay tuned...