Recording a grand piano may seem like a little bit of a dying art. Most recording studies these days prefer to use digital keyboards or digital sequencing. Going digital definitely has its benefits, but there are times where using an acoustic piano really has no substitute. Whether you are recording a solo pianist’s newest album or just wanting to add some rich acoustic piano to your pop track, use these grand piano recording techniques to get the best sound out of these elegant and powerful instruments.
Grand Piano Recording Techniques: Before You Record
Days before you are scheduled to record, make sure your piano is in good repair and in tune. You can generally contact piano tuners through your local store or just with a quick Google search. If your studio has a grand piano that you will use regularly, consider learning to tune your piano yourself. You can purchase piano tuning tools and take courses to learn how to tune your piano accurately and safely.
Room placement is an important part of recording any instrument, and this is no less true for the grand piano. Unlike with other instruments, however, you will likely only need to make this decision once because of the piano’s size. As a general rule, you don’t want your piano to be too close to the walls or any corners. Being too close to the corners of the room can cause bass loading. Bass loading is when the bass frequencies bounce off the walls and interfere with the current frequencies. (As an aside, you can avoid bass loading in general with sound-proofed walls and corners. Even just a well-placed corner bookshelf can help reduce bass loading significantly.) If applicable, ensure the piano is oriented so the pianist can see the other players and the main console.
Condenser mics are the best options for recording grand pianos for most recording situations. Condenser mics can handle the transients of the keys while capturing the nuances of the grand piano’s frequency range. If you are recording in stereo, ensure that you have two identical mics to get the most congruent sound. Some great condenser mic options include the MXL 770 Cardioid Condenser, Rode NT5-MP Compact Cardioid Condenser Matched Pair, and the Rode M5-MP Matched Pair Cardioid Condensers. Feel free to experiment with different mics to find the best choice for your current project.
Grand Piano Recording Techniques: Choosing Your Mic Placement
Just as important as choosing the right mic for the project is finding the right mic placement. There are a few things to consider when choosing a mic placement: whether you are recording in mono or stereo, whether you want an intimate or an ambient sound, and whether you are recording for a classical or contemporary piece.
Mono Recording vs Stereo Recording
When recording with one mic, you will want to find the sweet spot that captures both the low and high frequencies. Place the mic one foot above the strings in the middle of the soundboard. Test the sound and adjust the position of the mic in order to find the right balance of high and low frequencies for your mix. If you want a more ambient sound, move the mic farther away from the strings. Avoid getting the mic too close to the strings as this will pick up unwanted mechanical sounds from the piano (such as the hammer hitting the strings).
Recording with two mics is a little more involved but can allow for a much wider, richer stereo field.
The first option for recording in mono is a spaced pair. As with mono recording, ensure that your mics are roughly one foot above the strings. Place one mic over the high strings and the second mic over the lower strings. Whenever you record in stereo, always make sure that there is a 2:1 space ratio between the two mics and the instrument. This means if both mics are one foot away from the piano, ensure that the mics are two feet away from each other.
If you want more low end, place the mic covering the high strings more toward the center. This adjustment can also be made in your mix, but it’s best practice to mitigate how often you leave something “for the mix.” If you want a brighter sound, bring the mic placed above the low strings closer to the mid strings.
A second option is to record using X-Y or ORTF configuration. These configurations are nice because it mimics the way humans hear and create a little bit of a tighter sound. I would recommend placing your X-Y or ORTF mic pair slightly higher than one foot above the strings. Because the mics are closer together it would help the recording to give the sound a little more space to develop. As always, it’s important to play around with different configurations and placements to know which combination will give you the right sound for your project.
Ambient vs Intimate Mic Placement
Each of the techniques listed above can be customized even further by deciding how ambient or intimate you want the recording to be. Deciding how ambient you want the piano to be is often a matter of personal taste, but there are a few situations that generally do better with a more ambient sound and others that do well with less.
Ambient Mic Placement
If you are recording a solo pianist, I would suggest using a more ambient approach. To achieve this ambient sound, place the mic(s) outside of the body of the piano facing towards the strings. The mic(s) will end up being about three feet away from the strings. Consider opening up the lid of the piano to the highest placement to prevent the sound from being obstructed.
Placing the mic(s) farther away from the strings will allow the sound to develop more naturally. When you record this way you will only need to use minimal reverb when mixing. If you want more natural room ambiance, back up the mic(s) even farther. If you are recording in stereo, remember to separate your mics farther away from each other as you move away from the piano to maintain a 2:1 mic distance to instrument distance ratio.
Another simple way to add some ambiance when recording in mono or stereo is to change the mic polar pattern(s) from cardioid (uni-directional) to a bi-directional or omni-directional polar pattern. Bi-directional and omni-directional polar patterns will pick up frequencies from behind the mic as well as in front of the mic. In short, mics set to these polar patterns will pick up frequencies directly from the instrument and from the room ambiance.
Intimate Mic Placement
If the grand piano is being used to play a background part, I would suggest a more intimate mic setup. The natural reverb that works so well for piano soloists can be a detriment if your piano part is meant to be in the background. An intimate mic position can create a tighter sound. This will keep the piano’s sound from conflicting with other instruments in the same stereo field.
To record with an intimate mic position, follow the guidelines listed in the previous sections. Keep your mic(s) about a foot from the strings. Turn the polar pattern on your mic(s) to cardioid. Finally, lower the grand piano lid to a lower placement. If you are recording in stereo, you might have more success obtaining a drier, more intimate sound if you use an X-Y or ORTF configuration.
Pop vs Classical Mic Placement
The last thing to consider when choosing a mic placement is the genre that you are recording for. How you record will be different depending on whether you are recording a classical piece or a pop tune.
When recording for classical pieces, follow the guidelines for recording with ambient mic placements. Most classical and new-age pieces are meant to have an open sound with rich reverb. You obtain this space and reverb by placing the mics farther away from the piano. This gives the sound time to develop. However, if your piano player is going to use a monitoring system, you might want to take steps to send them a drier signal. An overly “wet” sound can translate as latency and cause your piano player to trip up.
When recording contemporary pieces, most of the time you will want a more intimate sound. However, placing your mics for a pop tune is a little bit different from just choosing an intimate placement. Instead of placing your mic(s) in the middle of the keyboard, you will want to place them towards the keyboard and hammers. Feel free to place the mic(s) closer than one foot away from the strings when recording pop. In some cases it is desirable to hear the hammers hit the strings — it makes it sound more human.
Using these Grand Piano Recording Techniques
As with most things in the music industry, these grand piano recording techniques are guidelines, not rules. These best practices will work great in most situations, but you may have a unique setup or want a unique sound that isn’t accounted for in the principles I’ve outlined. Feel free to experiment with mic types, polar patterns, mic placements, and configurations to get the right sound for your project. Take these recording techniques to give you a good foundation. But, as always, it’s important to let your ear be your guide.
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