There are nearly endless ways to record a piano, but most techniques fall into one of two general approaches: classical, and everything else (pop/jazz). Jazz/pop piano is often recorded in a studio, with mics placed inside the piano, often right above the strings giving a very immediate sound. Reverb and other effects are usually added later with these close-mic techniques. Classical piano recordings tend to try to capture the instrument from an audience’s perspective in a concert hall, so mics are used from a distance. This article details just one of many classical piano recording techniques (sometimes called Decca/Eadon). It’s easy to setup, it works with a variety of microphones, and it’s easy to modify if you wish a brighter or darker tone, or a drier or more reverberent ambience. This article primarily covers recording grand pianos, but there’s a bit about upright pianos at the end.
You can make a perfectly nice mono piano recording with just a single microphone, but stereo adds dimension and perspective to a recording and most handheld audio recorders are equipped with a pair of mics for stereo recording. If used properly, better mics will yield even better sound, but at a price. The hierarchy of making a good recording, assuming the mics are placed well, goes something like this:
- Quality of musician 😉
- Quality of instrument (2 and 3 can be reversed, depending)
- Quality of acoustics (Carnegie Hall or a school gymnasium?)
- Quality of microphones
- Quality of audio recorder/preamps (to power the microphones)
- Quality of microphone cables (anything that’s not complete junk will be fine)
Microphones and audio recorders are beyond the scope of this article, but there are many good hand-held audio recorders available with decent built-in mics made by companies like Zoom, Tascam, etc. These recorders are a good place to start. Better recorders allow external mics to be connected. Look for XLR inputs with 48 volt phantom power if you might eventually want to upgrade to professional external mics. You can also record directly into a computer, but you will need either a USB microphone, or an external audio interface to use standard XLR mics.
For this technique you will need to place your mics on a stand about 5-6 feet above the floor. If you are using a recorder with onboard mics, you can likely attach the recorder to a tripod. If you are using dedicated microphones you will need to put them on a mic stand. Place this toward the tail end of the piano, opposite side from the keyboard. Start roughly 5-6 feet away from the piano, about halfway between the back leg of the piano and the leg facing the “audience.” Imagine two parallel lines coming out of the back of the piano from these two legs, and place the mic between these lines, 5-6 feet back from the piano’s case.
Just as a camera should be aimed at what you want to see, aiming your microphones at what you want to hear is crucial. Make sure you know which side of the microphone to aim with. Many large microphones are “side address” mics, and so you would speak/sing into the side. Many small microphones are “top address” mics, so you would speak/sing into the top. Point the side you might normally speak into so it “looks” at the lowest A0 bass damper. In other words, aim the microphones down slightly so that if that bass damper were singing, it’s song would go directly into the correct side of your microphones (many onboard mics are positioned at a 90 degree angle to each other, so just think of pointing the mic end of the recorder itself at the bass damper). And of course make sure the piano lid is fully open so there’s nothing between your mics and that A0 damper.
That’s a good basic setup. If you have various microphones, omni mics generally work great in concert halls with good acoustics, while cardiod mics are often better if acoustics are poor. If your acoustics are really poor, move right up to the piano to minimize the sound of the room. All mics are different, and many have a strong proximity effect, so playing around with the distance to the piano could make a big difference in how weak or strong the bass is–too close and the bass might be too strong, too far away and it may be too weak.
Modify Tone & Reverb
Here are some general tips to modify your sound, regardless of microphone type: If you get too much “room sound” with heavy reverb and the piano sounds too far away, move the mics a couple feet closer to the piano and test again. If it sounds too “dry,” or like your head is inside the piano…, move the mics back a couple feet and test again. And of course all pianos are different too, so this next tip can be useful for both different mics and different pianos: If the piano sounds too bass heavy, dull, or muffled, move the mic around toward the curve of the piano… closer to the treble strings. If the piano is too harsh, or bright, or you aren’t getting enough bass, move the mic more in-line with the back piano leg, closest to the long bass strings. You can think of a semi-circle around the piano, moving closer to the keyboard gives a brighter tone, more towards the tail gives a darker tone. Important: wherever you move it, always aim it at that bottom bass damper.
Keep it Simple & Check Levels!
You might have seen mics way up high at some concerts. That’s more suited to recording ensembles and orchestras where you want a nice even spread of sound. For solo piano, “head height” is generally ideal, and even if you place the mics 10 feet back for a heavy reverb, there’s usually no need to go further up than about 10 feet, and lower should be fine. More than two microphones can be used, but that’s much more advanced. Many excellent piano recordings are made with just two mics. The most important thing is to let the mics “see” the inside of the piano. Also, set the audio level so the loudest thing played doesn’t clip. Aim for the loudest parts to be around -6 dB or lower (-12 if it’s a really important recording and you don’t want to risk clipping).
When recording upright pianos, keep in mind that you want the mics to be able to “see” the sound source. Open the top of the piano and position the mics up above and aimed down so they’re looking at the strings. You can also take off the front of the piano’s case if practical. Or, you can mic an upright from the back, looking at the soundboard, which may give a darker tone. Assuming the piano isn’t in a fine hall, you’ll likely want the mics to be fairly close to the piano to minimize that “small room” sound. You’ll end up with a dry recording, but you can always play around with adding a little artificial reverb in later to sweeten things up.