Piano Recording In 5 Steps [GUIDE]

How To Record Piano In 7 StepsDid you know: recording a piano is more than just placing the microphones near the instrument.

Before recording some conditions must be met.

Here is a step by step guide to successfully record your piano tracks anytime.

1. Goals 2. Pianist & Instrument 3. Microphones 4. Sound 5. Recording

Step 1: Goals of the recording

First of all you’ll need to know if the recording is going to be a sound registration or sound production. These two really differ from each other.

With sound registration you record the instrument as it is, while with sound production your going to be considering the desired sound and tonal character of the recording.

When your choosing for a dull kind of piano sound, your usually going for that romantic vibe. While within pop production a clear sounding piano is often used.

It doesn’t really matter as long as you get the sound that you see fit.

Some differences between lo-fi and hi-fi: ‘Hi-fi’ is used when you want to capture that high definition piano sound, while with a ‘lo-fi’ approach it’s all about the character and effect.

Then you have the no-fi, which doesn’t really have any definition. You can think of a toy piano when talking about no-fi. Stop! Sometimes a toy piano is just what you need, if it fits the production.

It’s a nice sound when it fits the production, while it’s no-fi when it’s unintended ugly!

Usually your not going for ugly, I hope.

Before actually recording the piano, you need to know what you need to get it done. What resources do you have to accomplish this and how will you even start.

Step 2: The pianist and the instrument

Before you even start recording you must be sure the pianist knows his part and how it should be played.

If the part can’t be played as it should be, it’s better to postpone the recording to another date.

There are a few questions we come across when recording a piano:

  • Does the sound fit the music production?
  • Does the Piano need to be tuned?
  • What about noises like crackle?
  • Is there reverb or echo in the room?
  • If so, does it sound nice?
  • Do we have to use absorption panels of some sort?

If you’re placing a piano in a room make sure you don’t place it near a wall. This way you will repress the first reflection.

This reflection can sometimes be louder then the direct sound.

The main goal is to record the direct signal of the instrument.

Here is a rule of thumb: The distance between the instrument and wall must be 3 times as great as the distance from the microphone to the instrument.

How is the recording being monitored? Is there a control room or are headphones being used to monitor?

It’s important to know how your monitoring system sounds. Even if there’s not enough definition in the system (like not enough lows) the engineer should know about this. And he should also be able to translate this.

The best situation would be to have a dedicated monitoring system, so you can adjust your settings with ease.

Step 3: The Microphone

Every microphone has it’s own character, this character has it’s own pro’s and cons.

One thing that is noticeable is the size of the capsule, which influences the color of the sound.

Usually with piano’s condenser microphones are used. Because these respond faster to air and sound pressure. It makes your recording sound more clear.

When recording pianos always make sure you use good microphones which give you a clear signal.

If you can’t capture certain frequencies you can’t add them later. If you want to have a romantic type sound, you can always sculpt it later.

The setup with three microphones is one of the most used:

  1. Place a microphone at about 4 to 7 inches away from the snares, but not to close the little hammer.
  2. Place the second one about 6 to 10 inches from the other one. These two microphones will be panned left and right.
  3. The third microphone will be used to capture the bass. This one will be panned to the center. This centered bass sound will fill the space in the mix and gives a nice stereo effect in combination with the left and right signal.
  4. The bass signal microphone should be placed at least 3 feet away from the first two mics to avoid phasing problems.
  5. Try to use cardioid polar patterns, this gives an overall better sound because it’s aimed and doesn’t pick up to much background noise.
  6. The two snare microphones should be setup at an angle of 45 degrees aimed on the snares.

The advantage of big condenser mics: they record less noise in contrast to small condensers. Because of its bigger dimension, the outgoing signal has a greater sound level.

A disadvantage of bigger condenser: they color the sound when recording from a wrong angle. The Recording will then sound nasally.

Using a low pass filter at 150Hz and 12dB per octave the sound of the third microphone will be adjusted. We only want to capture the bass.

We’ll do almost the same with the stereo pair, but instead were going to use the high-pass filter.

Experiment with the filter setting of -6, -12 or 24dB per octave. Usually 12dB will give you the best result.

Nowadays you can’t really find bad equipment but…

…there is a big difference in amateur or professional sounding equipment.

But if you have a computer with a Digital Audio Workstation and an Audio Interface you can get some decent recordings going.

Do not use the sound card which is build into your PC.

Step 4: Sound Checking

At this stage it’s important to check which play style on the instrument is being implemented.

This hugely influences the dynamics, sometimes the gain of the microphones has to be reset.

This is because we need to adapt to the changing dynamics and loudness.

If it can be arranged make sure the pianist plays with the same dynamic style when recording.

Step 5: The Recording

Take all of the above steps into consideration and you’ll be on your way to become a good prepared engineer.

Here are some facts you may want to know about:

  • Bigger piano’s can give you better low signals when comparing them to smaller piano’s. It’s not strange because bigger piano’s have bigger snares, this enables the instrument to produce more accurate low tones. But that’s not always the case!
  • The snares are attached on a bottom giving a piano its characteristic sound. With a ‘wing’ or older piano this bottom can lose its tension. This will cause the instrument to sound less dynamic. In that case a smaller piano might sound better then the big wing.

Know your instruments and how to utilize them when recording. Have some fun!

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