Dan Cooper owner of Rodel Sound is back with another excellent article, this time on recording an acoustic upright piano.
I am going to cover the steps I take when recording an upright acoustic piano. I was never taught or shown how to do this. I am sharing with you what I have learnt by experimenting with the piano over the years and what I believe works for me. If anyone finds that I have missed anything or feels they have other methods then please share your thoughts.
Before You Set Up Microphones
Approach piano recording as though you would be recording a guitar or drum kit. Ensure that the piano is in tune to concert pitch. Obvious I know… but if ignored you can get yourself into all sorts of trouble as soon as you start to overdub extra instruments only to find that you have no common pitch to tune to.
Tuning a piano cost roughly between £50 - £60 and takes a skilled tuner 30 - 60 minutes to complete. It is well worth the investment, even if you are using someone else’s piano.
Remove the panels
Open the lid on the top, remove the front panel between the lid and keyboard lid, pull out the keyboard lid and the larger panel placed under the keys. This will let the harp within resonate more naturally, much like a grand piano does when its wing is raised.
Listen to the piano mechanics
Play the piano over a range of high and low registers at varying dynamics. Listen closely for rattles and squeaks. Try and locate any unnatural sounds and dampen them within the piano. It is really important that the sustain pedal does not squeak. You may have to instruct the performer, depending on the style of song, to press softer on the sustain pedal. In some cases I get the performer to remove their shoes as some players really kick the pedal hard and the sound can be clunky and unwanted.
Setting Up The Microphones
An acoustic piano is a full range instrument with complex overtones and dynamics that you have to capture as naturally as possible. The piano is a stereo instrument and lends itself very well to a stereo pair of condenser microphones. I like to use a matched pair of large diaphragm AKG C414 XLii both set to a cardioid polar pattern.
Microphone above the keyboard
You need to think about what kind of sound you want. Placing a stereo pair above the keyboard facing towards the hammers may give a thin and slightly bodiless tone with a noticeable sound of the hammers striking the strings and the keys being hit and released by the performer. I am not saying for one minute that is a bad thing but you need to be sure that this is the sound you want.
I believe such songs as Abba’s ‘Money Money Money’ and Queen’s ‘Killer Queen’ where captured this way as you can clearly hear the honky top end of the harp and the hammer movement.
One other thing to consider when recording piano with the microphones above the keyboard is to make sure whoever is playing has removed any rings or wrist jewellery as I have found in the past the sound of rings and bangles hitting the keys will come through the microphones.
Microphone under the keyboard
This is my go to standard setup for recording my upright piano. It never fails to deliver. For setting the microphone distance to the harp I like to use the edge of the keyboard as my starting. This also enables me to be sure the two microphones are at the same distance from the harp so that I shouldn’t have too many phase issues.
As I mentioned earlier, you will have to make sure the sustain pedal is not being pressed in by a performer wearing wooden clogs or that it is squeaking like a hamster would if you repeatedly stood on it.
Below is what I believe the benefits are to placing the microphones under the piano keyboard
- The sound of the hammers striking the harp is greatly reduced
- The sound of the keys being hit and released is all but gone
- The tone and full integrity of the piano is captured
Recording Piano In Sections
Always instruct this method to an inexperienced recording pianist. If you find yourself recording the piano in sections always get the pianist to sustain their last note or chord into the next section. If this is not done you may hear on playback unnatural gaps in the piano performance which are hard to fix in the mix. Ensuring the piano’s last note/chord of a section sustains into the next section makes it easier for you to trim back the stereo audio clip and place a small fade at the end where the next section comes in. I like to think of it as tailoring a pedal release. Digitally stretching sustained piano waveforms never really works sonically in my opinion
Creative Uses For An Acoustic Piano
Reverse the Piano Audio
If you find yourself needing a certain lift in your mix or a section that begs for a bit of flair then why not try reversing a chord, note, sequence or section of your piano performance. It gives a backwards lift that can be useful in introducing a moment in your song.
In Pro Tools Highlight the stereo audio clip in the edit window, go to Audio Suite/Other/Reverse.
Using the harp as a “reverb”
Try this if you have an acoustic piano, it is lots of fun even if you never use it in a recording. With all the panels off and the sustain pedal down sing closely towards the harp. Listen as the harp gets all excited and resonates a wealth of notes back at you. I attended a session in a studio years ago that had the guts of an old grand piano harp stuck on the wall with a drum kit setup in front and it sounded massive.
Automate the volume
Again this is useful if you would like to build creatively into another section. Imagine a long sustained chord for two bars that leads into a chorus. Instead of the chord naturally decaying away why not try automating a volume increase for the last two beats.
If you have a tape machine
I have never tried this and probably never will but I love the idea and the sound of it. Listen to ‘In My Life’ by The Beatles (Rubber Soul 1965). The piano solo was recorded to a tape machine running at half speed. When the tape was played back at normal speed the piano solo went up an octave in pitch and the performance speed was doubled. The sound and character of the piano had changed dramatically and uniquely.
Compress the life out of it
All I can say is listen to ‘She’s A Rainbow’ by The Rolling Stones.
Record sections as though it was a duet
You may be recording one pianist but why not make it sound like you are recording two? Listen to Elton John’s ‘Song For Guy’ 1978. In most of the sections Elton has recorded the same piano performance in different registers. Personally this is one of my favorite tracks ever because of the piano sound and duet playing. It’s a simple idea but really effective.
Atmosphere sound effect
Hold down the sustain pedal and gently glide a finger over the strings. This will give the piano a harp like sound that if done right will provide an atmospheric haunting sound.