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Make that old up-right sound good—or at least unique!

By Jon Bare

In today’s world of piano sample libraries and synths that try to sound like pianos, you might wonder why anyone would want to mic a real piano. The answer is simple. Real pianos have a tonal complexity and character that is lost when you sample individual notes and play them back. If you want a piano to sound real, start with a real piano.

On a real piano, a hard key hit will create a sound that is not just louder than a soft hit, it has a different timbre. Velocity-sensitive keyboards may offer one sample for softer hits and another sample for harder hits, multiple layers of them, maybe even a morphing algorithm for in-between hits, but it is really not the same thing. Besides, do you have a sample for pedal presses, pedal releases and damper noise? I think not, unless you’re into the multi-gigabyte sound libraries that are just becoming practical nowadays…and even then, there’s room for argument as to whether all the bases are covered.

Now, everybody knows a 9-foot concert grand piano sounds better than a smaller baby grand. The strings are bigger, they are stretched tighter, they resonate longer and they are louder. They are also considerably more expensive and take up a lot of room. In fact, pianos generally need their own room if other instruments are being recorded at the same time.

So, no wonder you don’t own one. Chances are that if you have an acoustic piano at all it’s a spinet. It’s shorter than a true “upright” piano, and is probably what you learned to play “Chop Sticks” on. They sound okay for home use, but fall far short of a grand piano for recording. Still, it’s all we’ve got so we’ll have to make do, right? Hey, we’re recording engineers—we can fix anything.


Upwrong piano

It was only natural in 1798 for someone to invent an “upright” piano with the strings mounted vertically instead of horizontally. That invention would bring the piano into everyone’s home. Unfortunately, people didn’t have 9-foot doorways, so compromises had to be made. The strings were shorter. There were fewer of them. That changed everything.

These beasts were still pretty tall, until someone invented the modern-day spinet piano—the ultimate compromise. Beethoven would be aghast at the sound of these things, if he weren’t deaf—and dead. They are never in tune, the pedals squeak and moan, the low notes are mushy… even the high notes are mushy.

For classical music, they basically suck. But for styles like rock, blues, jazz, pop, country, they can work fine. Remember, it’s a poor carpenter who blames his tools. So let’s see what we can do to get a decent recording out of this weird “hammered dulcimer”-type instrument.


Hard to tune

Unlike guitars, pianos are hard to tune. There are a whole lot more strings to tune and none of them have convenient tuning pegs. You need special tools to tune a piano yourself, and considerable patience. I paid a guy $35 last time I needed my piano tuned. For the same money I could buy the tools, but I’m not convinced I could do as good a job. These guys actually play the piano to make sure it sounds in tune, and I’m not a great piano player.

Most people think that it’s not a good idea to move a piano, that it will go out of tune. Actually, you can move these smaller pianos around if you are careful. They will suffer more out-of-tuneness from daily temperature and humidity changes. Some major studios tune their pianos every day, and check them before every session. People like us, well, let’s just have the thing tuned the day before we need to record it. A week later, who knows what it will sound like?


Mic it up right

I love the piano. I’ve written songs on it I would never have written on guitar. Sometimes a simple piano riff can be the most memorable hook in an otherwise guitar-bass-and-drums-oriented piece. As I said, I’m no Gershwin, but I can learn to play a part well enough to record it. So I have spent some time experimenting with mics and mic placement on my studio piano and this is what I have learned.

First of all, if you are going to record a piano along with other tuned instruments, even as an overdub, make sure all the instruments tune to the piano, not to an electronic tuner. This will save you much grief.

Pianos resonate sound from many places. If you take a single mic and move it around close to a piano you will hear lots of different things. Pianos don’t have tone controls like guitars and amps do, so your placement of microphones becomes your tone control.

To get a blend of lows and highs you could try placing a condenser mic about 4 to 6 feet away from the back of the piano. This will probably sound like it does in the room—small and murky. You will have much better luck with that same mic up close to the back of the piano. The backs of these smaller pianos are designed to resonate, and sound amazingly good when properly miked. It usually takes two carefully positioned mics to capture the high notes where they resonate the best and the low notes where they sound the best.

Mic placement is also dependent upon the part to be played. If the song has a bass guitar track, you may want the piano to avoid playing in its range. In that case, your “low strings” mic should be on the middle strings. Have the piano player play the part to be recorded while you move the mics around, listening on headphones.

Mics and placement are the key. You may need three mics on the back of that piano to capture all of the player’s performance. In this case, proximity effect is your friend. The piano sounds much fatter as you move the mic closer to the back of the piano (unless the mics are omnis, of course, since omnidirectional mics don’t exhibit the proximity effect). Listen for phase cancellations when you combine the mic signals!

Of course, you can completely overload your recording chain this way. Pianos have a very large dynamic range and one hard pound can send your needles pegging (or your LEDs to the top). This effect is exaggerated as the mic gets closer to the resonating back plate.

Because of this, you may want to use a compressor or limiter on the signal before it hits your digital bitstream. Analog fanatics might actually like the sound of a piano hitting the tape too hard. Either way, a little compression can help even out the level differences between notes. That can help the track compete with the other tracks around it.

Be careful not to squeeze all the life out of a piano track—it will sound artificial and lifeless. It’s a percussion instrument, after all. It’s supposed to have some loud notes and some quiet notes. If you do use compression, pay attention to the attack and release controls. Too fast an attack will remove the sparkle from the notes, and too slow a release will produce audible compression artifacts like pumping, breathing, and an almost organ-like artificial sustain.


Mikey likes it

All mics are not created equal. They are more like the crayons in that jumbo box of 72 that you got one year for Christmas. Putting different mics in the same spot on the back of a piano will give you different results. Some mics accentuate high frequencies. Some give you boominess (proximity effect) when you get up close.

You want to find the right combination of mic and placement—for two or three mics—that will give you the sound that is right for the track. That sound will depend on the style of music being played. A Gospel tune will benefit from a different piano sound than a high-tech rocker. Often in mixing, the lows are rolled off the piano part to give more clarity to the track and to make more space for the other instruments. You can do this with mics and placement if you can plan that far ahead.


Some like it on top

So far, I’ve only mentioned miking the back of a spinet. True, that is where I have had the best results. Some prefer to open (lean forward) or even remove the the upper panel. Be careful when you do that. There are many sonic anomalies lurking inside. They can ruin your track with funny resonances and hammer noises. Pedal movements seem to be extra-loud at this location and the keys nearest to the mic will be louder, too.

Speaking of pedal noises, you must do something to make them barely audible during the performance. Pressing the pedal is usually not so bad, but releasing it can make a big thump. I usually wrap an old paisley shirt from the ‘60s around the pedals where they contact the piano frame when released. Hopefully, you have an old paisley shirt from the ‘60s. They work great.

Most of these pianos have top plates that you can prop open, and front panels down by your knees that you can remove to make them louder. Play with them to see if your ears pick up any especially good sounds. Then try to capture that with microphones.

You can mic the front surface of the piano with or without the front panel, but again, pedal noises will be louder. It sounds different than miking it from the top, but has all the same sonic problems, which is why I prefer to mic the back plate. You could, of course, mix and match—adding one mic over the open lid to emphasize something missing from your pair of mics on the back.

I have a Royer R-121 ribbon mic that sounds like God when I put it over the lowest strings of my spinet. If you have one of these mics, you’ll have to hear it to believe it. (While you’re at it, try putting that mic very close to the top surface of a small splash cymbal and tap the cymbal lightly with a drum stick. You’ll hear the most unbelievable gong sound. But I digress.)


Mono or stereo?

I record all my important rhythm tracks in stereo. Drums get octereo (8 tracks). Piano tracks are usually mono, but that doesn’t mean they’re not important.

Unless you need your piano track to sit in the mix all alone and sound glorious, generally it sounds weird to have a piano track as wide as your whole mix. Pianos on stage are not that wide—they come from one spot, so even if you record them in stereo, they tend to sound more natural in mono, panned somewhat to one side.

If your guitars are in stereo and your piano is in stereo then you’re in trouble. If they play in the same range they will probably fight each other. Try panning one stereo pair from hard left to straight up, and the ot her from straight up to hard right.


A (baby) grand digression

I once did a location recording of a young lady playing a baby grand piano at her mother’s home. It was the only piano she felt comfortable playing, something about the action. Her music was very complicated and some of the tunes took twenty or more takes before she felt that she nailed it.

We recorded in stereo directly to digital and got a marvelous recording. We propped open the lid and I placed an AKG D112 kick drum mic about ten inches above the bass strings. Then I put a Fender P-2 cardioid condenser mic about ten inches above the treble strings. Both mics were plugged into a small mixer with no EQ or effects.

Back at my studio we transferred these tracks to 2-inch tape so she could add some flute parts and her vocals. That piano sounded great! Listening to it, you could not tell it wasn’t a 9-foot Steinway Concert Grand. All the notes were evenly balanced and there was just the right amount of “room” sound.


Getting tacky

If you have an old spinet or upright piano that you don’t really care about, it’s fun to put thumbtacks on the felt hammers where they contact the strings. This will convert your old tacky piano into a tack piano. It will also permanently destroy the hammers in time, making the piano useless for anything but this purpose. If you can accept that this is a one-way adventure with no going back, a tack piano is not only fun to play but has a unique sound that can spice up your tracks.

People have been known to put all sorts of things in pianos to make weird sounds when the keys are hit. Bits of wire, pieces of metal, kitchen utensils, you name it—all can be used to turn your piano into a strange new toy. You can hold down the damper pedal with a concrete block while you scratch the strings with a guitar pick, or beat on the strings with spoons.

If you are clever, you can use a piano as a spooky reverb unit. You can also smack it with the air blast from a kick drum and get some interesting overtones. There’s a world of oddball, crazy things you can do to pianos to get unique sounds—sounds you won’t find in any sample library!

On Mics & Miking