The Ultimate Guide To Recording Everything – Piano

Whilst piano and acoustic-guitar share many things in common when it comes to recording, there’s still plenty of idiosyncrasies to account for. Here’s how it’s done…

piano

As we’ve already stated, the piano and acoustic-guitar mic’ing setups are quite similar, as they’re both aiming to capture the full range of the instrument – so both bass and treble. If you consider them as stringed instruments, then perhaps that’s not surprising. Another similarity is that it’s best to avoid dynamic microphones here, as you need your mics to capture all of the subtleties.

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So a condenser or ribbon should be your choice. Yet another is the 3:1 rule for a two-microphone recording setup. If you have one mic placed a foot away from the piano, the other should be three feet away from the first microphone (but still a foot away from the piano). Again, this solves any phasing issues from having two microphones involved and should give you a smoother sound overall.

The piano, more than any other instrument, demands time to experiment with mic placement, but also tends to sound great in many places – so let’s look in more detail at some of these microphone placements, for both grand and upright models.

Method 1: One microphone

Microphone type: Condenser mic, small or large, depending on the piano model

Yes, you really can get away with using just one mic. A decent condenser on a stand placed near the side of the grand piano and under the lid will capture a good sound.The best way to find the best position is to use your ears. Walk around while the player plays and you may discover it will be in an area above the strings towards the middle, perhaps a foot above the strings themselves – but, again, the exact point will be as you hear it best.

Another single-microphone method for a grand is to actually insert the microphone on a mount at the far end of the piano, away from the keyboard. This offers a very natural sound and no hammer noise and great isolation.

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With an upright, you could place a mic on a stand in the middle at the front of the piano (with the front-panel removed) and pointing at the hammers between six and 12 inches away. If this gives too much hammer action, then try placing this mic above the upright, almost within the piano itself and above the strings, around eight inches away, but once again – experiment for the optimum balance between the room and source sounds.

Method 2: Two microphones

Microphone type: Condenser microphone, matched pair

When adding another microphone – and you can go for a matched pair here – you can get into quite complex scenarios with a grand, so we’ll stick with the 3:1 rule and only detail ones that help phasing issues. With a grand piano, two microphones would be on quite tight stands – or, more likely, surface mounted within the piano itself (because of the grand’s more awkward lid), and placed equidistant from each other and the piano edges.

This captures a good attack sound and a full range of frequencies, although you may need to move each one left (looking from the front of the piano), to get more bass, or right, to get more treble.

With an upright and two microphones, it’s a similar story – with two microphones above or in front of the piano (with the lid lifted or front panel removed, depending on which method you choose).

Again, you’ll want to experiment to decide how much hammer action you require and how much bass (left) and treble (right) – but this should be a somewhat simpler process than when dealing with the grand, as you won’t have to mount the microphones inside the piano.

Piano-mic recommendations

Aston Starlight
Price £699 pair
We didn’t directly test these with a piano, but our hunch is that they’d make a great matched pair for one – given that they excel with all other instruments.

Neumann TLM 107
Price £1,089
An affordable ‘Swiss Army microphone’.

sE Electronics Se5
Price £399 each
A good workhorse pairfor a variety of studio tasks.

Sennheiser MK 8
Price £690
A fine-sounding studio workhorse, with a clear modern tone.

Shure SM57
Price £92
Well, it is the ultimate instrument mic – and still many people’s favourite for all sorts of situations.

Other recommendations (and matched pairs)

AKG C451 Matched pair
Price £449
Great instrument mics, particularly suited to uprights.

RØde NT5 matched pair
Price £281
B-stock from Thomann as we write this – and a great price for a matched pair of RØDE NT5s.

Neumann U87 (x2)
Price £2165 each
Okay, this is the ultimate matched pair – if you have the money…

Woodwind, brass and other instruments

Both woodwind and brass instruments are relatively straightforward to mic up – as you might reasonably expect, given the obvious places where the sound emanates from. So here, we’ll quickly run through some of the biggest players and mic types, and recommended distances to place them.

For brass (trumpet, tuba, cornet trombone), you can use dynamic, condenser or ribbon mics and place them one-to-three feet in front of the instrument hole. Moving away from the centre of the bell gives a more mellow sound, when compared to the edgier on-axis results.

For saxophone, it’s a little different: use a condenser or dynamic up to two feet away from the bell or between four and eight inches away from (but aimed at) the sound holes, for a natural sound.

For woodwind and flute, a condenser is required for the extra detail. Place it up to a foot away from the soundholes – and as close to six inches. With the flute, aim between the mouthpiece and the tone holes.

Click here for the final part our ultimate guide; vocals

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