With some basic understanding of how a piano works and sounds, the mammoth task of recording one is much simpler. Choosing microphones and positioning them for a piano is something of an art, but it’s really enjoyable to learn as there are so many opportunities to experiment and play around.
Recording with an stereo pair
Rigging a simple stereo pair is probably the most reliable way to get a decent piano sound, as it will force you find the spot where the piano sounds best. Since you only have two mics to listen to, you will find yourself asking a lot of questions: Does it sound bright enough? Is the stereo image well defined? Can you hear the full range of the piano clearly? Does the direct sound balance against the reverb? All you need to do to answer these is listen to what you have, move the mics, then listen again and ask yourself if it’s better or worse. You might need to move the stereo pair a foot or two, or even just a couple of inches to get the balance right so don’t be afraid to experiment.
Setting up an omni pair
Omnidirectional microphones are a good choice when you want to record the piano as a whole because they naturally have a better low frequency response than cardioid mics, which you will notice on a piano. To get started put up a pair of omni mics at shoulder height, about two feet in front of the piano and two feet apart, then aim them towards where the lid joins the piano body. If you don’t have any omni mics, cardioids will do fine but rig them closer together. Now, go and listen to the pair panned hard left and right.
Important: Keep in mind that this is only a rough starting point and is unlikely to be perfect first time, and there are a lot of things you can change. Even if it is perfect, you should still try a couple of mic moves to see what else you can get.
Changing mic position
By moving the pair closer into the piano you can pick up more of the direct string sound, and by moving further back you will get a more blended sound reflected from the lid.
To alter the balance of the high and low end you don’t need any eq, just move the mics closer to the keyboard end for more top or towards the tail for more bass.
Stereo width can be tricky to judge on headphones, so if at all possible try and stick to speakers. If the piano sounds like it’s coming out of the two speakers independently with a ‘hole in the middle’ rather than a nice spread between the two, your mics are probably too far apart. Mics that are too close together (especially omnis) will collapse to mono and just sound flat and dull. If you can’t get the stereo width just right, you can angle the mics away from each other slightly. This will increase the stereo width, even with omnis as they are not truly ‘omni-directional’. (proof is in the response patterns here)
How does it sound?
This technique will capture the sound reflected off the lid of the piano, which will be smooth and rich with some of the direct string sound to add some brightness. It will give you a natural sounding stereo image, with an impression of high frequencies on the left and lows on the right, rather than a spread of individual notes across the image as with closer miking techniques.
This technique may not suit pianos with noisy pedals, as the mics are outside the body of the piano so they are more prone to picking up pedal noise.
[image via Philippe Lin]