Recording a piano is no small task but I can assure you, with perseverance and a little bit of knowledge, you’ll be able to record a piano with ease. A piano is an instrument that can never truly be recreated with absolute accuracy as when you play a note on the piano, the strings surrounding that note vibrate and create resonance too which is practically impossible to recreate effectively.
Before deciding on a mic position, I would ask yourself what sound you’re trying to achieve. Pop recordings require a bright and up-front sound and focuses less on the right type of sound, where as classical and jazz recordings require a lot more attention to detail and most of the work will be focused around capturing the right resonance as well a bit of the ambience from the room you’re recording in. One of the hardest things about recording a piano is trying to use the room to your advantage, use the natural reverb available and don’t be afraid to take this advise with a pinch of salt and alter the position of the microphones to better suit your recording environment.
Assuming that the room works well with the piano, a simple stereo/coincident pair (cardioid) positioned 6-10 feet from the right of the piano lid will would be a good starting place. Feel free to experiment with the distance as the room ambience might over power and muddy the clarity you are trying to capture. If this is the case, I’d advise you to move the mics closer, using cardioid mics means that you can work further away from the piano than omnidirectional microphones for the same amount of spill/ambience.
‘Many engineers favour miking a piano in a rhythm-section context near its sound holes in the frame on the curved edge of the instrument, as this gives a good punchy sound… For the quieter numbers, revert to the mics over the piano.’ (Robjohns, 1999)
Recording a grand piano in a pop style can be approached in a number of ways depending on the register thats being played on the piano. The microphones needed are obviously the condenser mics as they have the largest frequency response of any microphone and I’d advise to set them to the omni polar pattern as that’s the surest way of capturing all of the resonance from the strings in all directions. It is the most common approach to space the omni’s about 300mm above the bass and treble string groups, ensuring there’s an even coverage of notes across the keyboard. (White, 2012)
As the image on the left shows, for close micing the piano you can either attempt figure A: close mic the sound holes, B: a coincident pair 6″ away from the hammers, looking down the piano or C: a spaced pair pointing down towards the player.
There is a third alternative for those who happen to own a boundary/PMZ microphone, as the picture below shows, by taping the boundary mic to the underside of the open piano lid. This is used as a spot mic and is typically blended for more colour and presence with the main array. Boundary mics have a distinct advantage over the stereo array set ups as they don’t suffer from phase cancellation problems. This is where the sound from an instrument reaches the microphones at different times as they are positioned at the reflective boundary of the piano itself.
The boundary microphone requires a large flat surface in order to pick up low frequencies effectively and the piano lid on the small-medium stick height is the perfect distance to achieve a balanced recording.
When recording an upright piano, the first thing I am prone to doing is removing the front panel to reveal the open strings and hammers. This brightens up the sound and allows the sound to resinate more up and toward the player.
The simplest way to record an upright piano is to use a spaced pair of omni mics, however, placing the mics too close together will favour a group of strings and the strings furthest away will not be as prominent. I would suggest spacing the mics 400mm – 800mm away from the piano and 600mm – 800mm apart from each other. As a rule of thumb, you want to space your microphones the same distance as the width of the instrument thats producing the noise.
If you are after a brighter sound, try raising the mics over and above the piano, this will produce a livelier tone but the higher you raise the mics, the more room you’ll capture so bare that in mind to your particular situation.
If the front of the up right piano isn’t removable, the alternative would be to place mics facing the soundboard of the piano from the back. I wouldn’t recommend placing mics next to the players feet as you will capture to much mechanical noise from the pedals and the clarity of the notes below 300Hz can easily become muddy this way. Instead move the piano into an open space where it has room to project it’s sound and resonate and place two omni mics 200mm away from the sound source and 800mm apart from each other.
Below I have linked a Soundcloud clip of my recording of a piano. I used a pair of AKG C-414’s in omni settings as well as an Audio-Technica RE-20 as a experimental room mic. The RE-20 produced clear results and blended well with the resonance captured by the C-414’s. The room that I recorded in was very dead and had very little natural reverb. I was looking to capture a bright tone for the register that I was playing in and my focus was on clarity and resonance. I’ve posted my pictures below for any that wish to try to recreate my tone.
Reference and Reading List:
Robjohns. Hugh, 1999 ‘Recording Real Pianos‘ [online] Available from: http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/may99/articles/recpiano.htm
White. Paul, 1999 ‘Basic Microphones‘ London, Sanctuary Publishing Limited
White. Paul, 2012 ‘The Producer’s Manual‘ London, Sample Magic