Recording piano can be tricky. It’s a physically huge instrument with over 7000 moving parts, a fundamental frequency range from 27.5 Hz to 4186.009 Hz, plus harmonics that resonate well beyond this range.
Starting your piano recording with a clear idea of how the piano should balance in the mix will go a long way in determining your recording setup. This article will cover five popular recording techniques for piano:
Small capsule condensers in XY
Ribbon mics in Blumlein
Large capsule condensers on the hammers.
You’ll hear four pianists all playing on a Yamaha C6 grand piano.
Johannes Wallmann, jazz
Vincent Fuh, classical
Meggie Shays, indie
Jason Kutz, improv
The five recordings included in this article will allow you to compare how the miking techniques affect the sound of each genre.
The Piano And The Room
The piano and the room in which you’re recording are the first things to consider. Every piano has a different sound and the room makes a difference in how frequencies travel. Have your pianist play while you walk around the room listening for mic placement possibilities and for potential trouble areas.
You’ll also want to experiment with different lid positions and some people even remove the lid. Only try this if you have a second person with you and take care to not bend the hinges as you remove the lid. Personally, I like the focused reflections that the lid produces.
Be aware that placing directional microphones too close to the soundboard within the piano might result in proximity effect issues especially toward the lowest strings. If you want to place a microphone near the soundboard use an omnidirectional mic or secure a PZM mic to the inside of the lid. This is usually more popular to do in live performance setting and less so in the studio environment.
1. Spaced Omnis
This is a matched pair of omnis spaced about 3 feet apart on the piano, one near the top strings and one near the bass strings. I’m using Earthworks QTC40s. This technique for recording piano results in a clear stereo image with a full sound across all frequencies. This is a go-to choice for solo piano recording. Listen to this audio file played by each performer in turn...
I like to keep my pairs of microphones matched so for this technique, you need something with switchable pick-up patterns. I’m using two Peluso 22 47 LE tube mics, one in cardioid for the middle and one in bidirectional for the side. One thing to be aware of when using this technique is mono compatibility. Flip between mono and stereo to make sure you don’t have any frequency cancellation. This sounds less spacious compared to the omnis, but would be a good choice for busy mixes. Listen to this audio file played by each performer in turn...
For recordings that need more punch or attack, placing a matched pair of large diaphragm condensers on the hammers of the piano will do the trick. I used AKG C414 EBs in cardioid, one near the top end and one near the bottom end. This technique has a very clear and defined sound. Of the four pianists that recorded for this article, three of them preferred the sound of this technique. This isn’t surprising considering this technique sounds closest to what the pianist hears as they play. Listen to this audio file played by each performer in turn...
Depending on whether you want a bright or darker sound, you can use small capsule condensers or ribbon mics in XY or Blumlein fashion, placed near the middle of the piano. I’m using both techniques; The small capsule condensers on the right are Neumann KM184’s and the ribbon on the left is an AEA R88 SN44 stereo mic. Listen to these audio files played by each performer in turn...
Many thanks to the incredible musicians that came to the studio to record piano for this article!
Thank you, Audrey, for another excellent tutorial. Mike.
More about Audrey Martinovich
Community member Audrey Martinovich has been an audio engineer since 2010. Since then she has switched to studio and on-location recording mostly. She owns Audio for the Arts with her business partners Buzz Kemper and Steve Gotcher and they specialise in classical music, acoustic instruments, and are highly sought after for corporate recording. in this article, she is going to share her experiences and techniques for recording a variety of stringed instruments.