While I am a guitar player first, there is a special place in my heart for the instrument that basically encompasses the whole of western music beneath its ebony and ivory tempered keyboard. For the past few hundred years or so, this centerpiece of western music has been the writing platform for composers, the accompanist for soloists, the feature of passionate concertos, and more recently – an instrument recorded and amplified. I wanted to spend a few paragraphs here on some knowledge I’ve acquired by trial and error, the accepting of advice, and successes and failures of my time both recording and amplifying this beloved instrument – the Piano.
1. Every Piano is Different
It may seem obvious, but just as every guitar, voice, and flugelhorn are different from each other, so is each individual piano. A 4’5 foot Baldwin baby grand will have a wildly different sound from a Kawai upright… which in turn will create sound very differently than a 9’ Bosendorfer. Take the time to get to know the piano you are working with… and if you have the means, ask your pianist which sound they prefer. See if they like the action; the tone; the resonance of the low end; the clarity of the high end. Often in a live concert situation, you get you what you get… but when recording, don’t be afraid to go find the piano you want to record.
2. Piano players have very different preferences.
I recently had the pleasure to work with one of my favorite artists, Nich Mueller, for a solo piano and voice album he is producing. As we were discussing piano options, he didnt choose the 9’ Steinway D Concert Grand he has access to, or any of the baby grands we could have easily brought into our studio from our contacts. Instead, he chose a piano in a lecture hall at Western Michigan University. It didnt really matter what brand the piano was- this piano was the one that felt the best, and gave him the sound he wanted. Price doesnt matter. Reputation doesnt matter. What matters is what makes the artist most comfortable in both playability and captured sounds. Speaking of captured sounds…
3. Piano micing is not the same for every piano or every genre.
Remember that for most of the piano’s elegant history, it was heard from a distance. Recital Halls, Concert Venues, Churches… the audience sat anywhere from tens to hundreds of feet away. In fact, other than for the pianists themselves, hearing close-up piano did not really occur until pro audio needed to amplify or record the sound without feedback or bleed. It wasn’t until the recorded pop music of jazz and rock n roll that this close, direct, dry sound became the norm. While guitars have their super important 6 strings that generate neat harmonics, pianos have roughly 230 strings that are always reacting with the wood, the metal and the room to create the lush sound of the instrument. So… close mic, spaced pair, over the hammers, over the strings, in the sound holes, full stick, half stick, omni, cardioid, stereo, mono… spend time with your instrument and know your situation to discover what works best for you.
4. Pianos make noise
I put a call into a local piano guru named Yat-Lam Hong (if you ever have the opportunity to work with him on your piano, do it!) and told him that the piano I was recording was making some strange noises. He came in and spent hours working on the instrument. I went to record and was still hearing a strange hissing noise along with some sort of mechanical sound whenever we pushed on the pedal! His response- “Thats the sound the piano makes”. The pedal is a mechanical device. The dampers are mechanical. And as part of the natural sound of the instrument, they make sounds. Hammers have distinct attacks, wood resonates differently, and each player breathes and makes their own shifting sounds on the instrument. I have used some GREAT artificial piano sounds controlled by MIDI. But its near impossible to simulate the completely natural sound a piano and its player makes. This is mostly noticeable in close-micing situations, so be aware of this when placing and using your close mics. Dont ruin the piano by trying to EQ it out and don’t blame yourself. This is how the instrument sounds.
5. Piano lore is NOT simple.
I have the luxury of being around some locals who have an amazing grasp of piano theory and lore. Next door to our recording studio is the Kalamazoo Piano Company with two amazing pianists and technicians named Jessica French and Burt Ebrite. We just finished an album using one of their company pianos for the incredible local artist Laruen Durham. I am right next door to a Steinway school at Western Michigan University with the aforementioned Yat-Lam Hong as their in-house technician. Along with the school come the incredible talents of Yamaha artist Jeremy Siskind, and professors Silvia Roederer, and Lori Sims. The Gilmore Piano Festival is hosted here and every other year pianists from all over the world make Kalamazoo their destination. Professional pianists and technicians exist in a very unique world. There are THOUSANDS of piano brands out there, each of which have a different history and build. Just like a car company, every piano brand will help you “get there”. But it’s the nuances of each make and model that make them special. Trust those who spend their lives in this world. Let them inform you. Pianos are much harder to access than guitars. A high end guitar may run $10k. A high end Piano might run $300k. So instead of wasting money trying to guess which piano will sound good. Trust those who’s best friends are dressed in wood and always wearing black and white.
Gordon Van Gent // Creative Director of Sounds