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Home Recording Acoustic Piano

Discussion in 'Piano' started by robg_88, Feb 6, 2013.

  1. robg_88

    robg_88 Active Member

    Good evening guys,

    I am very new to all this recording malarkey so bear with! I have only been researching online about home recording over the last couple of days so my knowledge is pretty limited on this topic.

    In a nut shell I'm after setting up a pair of mic's (I've heard condenser mics are the best for this application), and recording my live acoustic piano playing onto my laptop where I am able to edit using software.

    My laptop is a pretty bog standard spec (Dell Inspiron, Windows 8, 4GB RAM, Intel Core i5-3210M CPU @ 2.50 GHz).

    My understanding is that I will have to buy a 2-channel audio mixer to connect the mics to my laptop?

    Do I need to buy a better sound-card to the one that is already in my laptop? or is a sound-card integrated in the mixer/external card needed?

    I am not looking at spending big bucks, just something a bit better quality than just video camera - total budget ~£200

    Any help on this matter would be greatly appreciated as I'm getting a headache with all this technical jargon!

    Thanks in advance.

  2. mikej

    mikej Active Member

    Rob, I got started not too long ago and I will try to give my 2 cents worth (sorry I don't know the current exchange rate between the dollar and the pound). My very first recording efforts worked like this: I had a small mixer ($49), I downloaded Audacity software (for free) off the internet and I connected the stereo outputs of the mixer into the 1/8" mic jack on the laptop (you can find the right cable for this at any electronics store). It worked and the quality was OK. If you buy two matched small diaphragm condenser mics expect to pay at least $150 for a pair of inexpensive ones. Throw in two mic cables and mic stands and that will cost you at least another $75-100. OR you can skip the mixer and buy a USB interface. The interface connects to your laptop via a USB cable, will have inputs for microphones and instrument cables, will most likely come with a free version of a recording software package and it acts completely independently of your laptop's sound card. Inexpensive one's are going to run between $100 and $200 dollars. Mine is a Roland Tri-Capture and I paid about $120 for it. You want an interface with 2 XLR inputs for your two mics. If money is an issue, then the mixer route can be done more cheaply and will still get way better results than you are getting from your video recorder. Hope this is helpful.
  3. Boswell

    Boswell Moderator Distinguished Member

    Hi Rob, and welcome to the forums! I'm assuming you are talking about recording a grand piano under domestic conditions, although there is a hint that by "live acoustic piano playing" you may mean performances in a public place.

    This may be just a matter of terminology, but you really do not need a mixer, nor should you use the computer's built-in sound card for what you want to do. What you need is called an audio interface. On the input side, an audio interface has pre-amplifiers for the microphones and analog-to-digital converters (ADCs). It may also have some output facilities for monitoring the captured sounds; this would include digital-to-analog converters (DACs) and output amplifiers that could drive headphones and/or external power amplifiers for loudspeakers. These two parts are tied together by a computer interface that connects to the computer to get the digital information in and out. To record the piano, you need a pair of microphones that are up to the job, along with stands and cables. Your laptop should be fine. The hidden extra may be acoustic treatment of your piano room to make it suitable for recording. Don't forget that you will also need monitor loudspeakers or quality headphones (or at a pinch a good hi-fi system) for use when editing the recordings, but you may already have these.

    Now the problem is that you will not get microphones and an audio interface that would make a half-decent job of piano recording for £200. Yes, a pair of small-diaphragm condenser microphones (SDCs) are conventionally used for piano recording at this level, but they do need good acoustic conditions. They also need to be of the type that do not spit and fizz on the high notes, as many of the low-cost far-eastern manufactured ones tend to do.

    This is not to say that you cannot make reasonable piano recordings for a budget price. One of the gadgets you should look at is the Zoom H4N all-in-one recorder. Although the two SDC microphones on the H4N are attached to the unit and so cannot be individually positioned for best coverage, use of a camera tripod allows you to get it into a position that can capture a reasonable stereo image from a grand piano. After the recording, the H4N can be connected to a USB port on the laptop for decanting the recorded tracks. It's also not far off the budget you mentioned, and there are packages for a little more that include a tripod mount, remote unit and high-capacity SD card.

    Here and here are a couple of articles on piano recording from Sound on Sound, a well-respected UK periodical on sound recording.
  4. DonnyThompson

    DonnyThompson Distinguished Member

    I agree with Boswell that this is probably your best bet for your budget.

    Recording real piano, and getting it to sound good, can be tricky. Certainly not impossible, but tricky. The zoom device that Bos mentioned has a built-in stereo capsule array, which is nice in obtaining depth and space.

    What you may run into, and this is regardless of the mics you use, are things like pedal noise (damper, sustain) along with reflections from the lid or the body of the piano ( however, this reflection can also be advantageous if you're using a piano that sounds very nice, as those reflections that occur inside the piano itself is also part of the sound).

    Your distance from the piano will determine several things... the first is room reflection - that is, how the piano sounds in the space that it occupies. The further off the piano that the mics are, the more of the room sound you will pick up.

    The second thing is that the closer to the piano that your mic is, the less room ambiance you will pick up, and if you are working with a piano that allows you access to the hammers and strings, the closer you place the mic to these, the more "tac" or presence you will pick up, but, the more other stuff you'll pick up as well, like the pedal noise mentioned above, for example.

    If you are working in a room that sounds great, my suggestion would be to use the Zoom that Boswell mentioned for your up-close mic, and then use another mic, out away from the piano, to capture the sound of the piano and the room. This would, however, require another mic, and in your case, an audio I/O device that would allow more than two inputs at once, or, a small 4 channel submixer that you would run the microphones to first, and then use the stereo output of that small submixer to send a pre-mixed stereo signal to your soundcard or audio I/O's inputs.

    I haven't mic'd up a real piano in years, but the best results I've ever had in doing so - (and I realize that with your budget mentioned, you won't be able to afford even one of the mics I used) - was while using AKG 414's in a stereo array under the lid of a baby grand, with an M-S array placed about 8 ft away from the piano, to capture the entire sound of the piano and the room... although, it was a really nice sounding room to begin with. ;)

    One final suggestion... you may want to have an assistant on this gig, someone who can move the mic(s) around a bit, while you are monitoring the sound, to find that "sweet spot" where the piano sounds the best.

    Anyway, let us know how it works for you.
  5. Boswell

    Boswell Moderator Distinguished Member

    Just a follow-up on Donny's post: the H4N is a 4-track recorder, so you could (maybe at a later date) add a pair of external microphones to use in addition to the two built-in mics without having to buy a separate mixer or audio interface. Depending on the type of piano and the room, you could have the H4N close to the instrument and the other mics at a distance or vice versa. Adding more microphones would need further careful thought and probably more in the way of detail suggestions from us, but it does give you an expansion route.
  6. robg_88

    robg_88 Active Member

    Cheers for the input guys, great help!!

    You are correct in saying that its for home or "lounge" use - its a Yamaha upright to be more precise and the acoutics aren't too bad. I understand that recording from behind or close to the soundboard generates better results, or just above with the lid open (trying to minimise mechanical/pedal noise as much as possible, as you previously mentioned).

    Also, am i right in thinking that an audio interface has a sound card integrated into it? (sorry for asking all these dumb questions!)

    One last thing... is it better spending a higher portion of my budget on a pair of mics and less on the interface, or visa versa? ie. whats the deciding factor when it comes to sound quality?

    Thank you!

    Quick question - I am looking for a device where i am able to independantly change EQ/gain/volume on each of the mic channels before i record and generally have more control over the sound of the mix. Is this possible with an audio interface or even a Zoom H4n? or do i need to look further into mixers? (not entirely sure what the difference is between an audio interface and a mixer? just seems like you have more control using a mixer?) Do i have to start looking into mixers to get more control over the channels?
  7. robg_88

    robg_88 Active Member

    sorry for the jumbled up reply! not entirely sure what happened! :/
  8. Boswell

    Boswell Moderator Distinguished Member

    OK, an upright is a different problem from a grand, but is just as sensitive to room acoustics. You may well do better by pulling the instrument away from any wall and removing the front. Here and here are two more SOS articles on recording uprights.

    The piano pro here on these forums is John Dutton ("The Jack Attack"), so he may chime in with some suggestions.

    The term "sound card" is usually reserved for the audio side of a Skype connection, home theatre or gaming interface built into a computer, and is not usually applied to any external box that is used for quality audio I/O.

    The fraction of budget to be spent on what is a difficult one, and would be quite different if you were a guitar-playing singer/songwriter than a solo pianist. As I mentioned earlier, a good piano recording is not easy to achieve, as it places considerable demands on both the microphone choice and positioning as well as the audio interface or other recording device, and this is before you take room acoustics into account. That said, a device like the H4N achieves a pretty reasonable match between the sonic qualities of microphone, pre-amplifier and digital recording system, and to get that from individual components could cost considerably more. However, you would get more in terms of flexibilty using separate components, not to mention lower noise levels.
  9. robg_88

    robg_88 Active Member

    OK, so after careful consideration and lots of reading i've decided I'm gonna opt for the audio interface USB/2 mic approach as this seems like the best solution. I quite like the 2 mic approach and experimenting with different mic configurations rather than just sticking down the zoom.

    Can anyone recommend audio interface or mics? I'm probably looking at spending around 80-100 quid on the interface and 200 on mics (approx £300 budget total) - would smaller diaphragm or larger diaphragm condenser mics be more appropriate for recording upright acoustic piano? or possibly one of each?

    What are the main things to look out for when shopping for interface cards?

  10. TheJackAttack

    TheJackAttack Distinguished Member

    I'm in a bit of a rush just now, but I would say you might want to start with the aforementioned Zoom H4n and a pair of Shure SM57's or a decent budget ribbon like the Avantone CR14 (or similar available on your side of the pond). A pair of condenser microphones in this situation are not necessarily ideal especially if the room needs to be minimized. As Boswell mentioned, removing the knee board and lifting the lid are good starting points.
  11. RemyRAD

    RemyRAD Well-Known Member

    I'm also going to chime in and tell you that most inexpensive condenser microphones can be quite disappointing sounding when the room ain't right. And in those situations, one of the cheapest microphones used for rock 'n roll PA is one of the finest recording microphones in the industry the SHURE SM-57/58 and the Beta 57 & 58's. And in fact, I will always choose one of those over my $1000-$3500 studio condenser microphones. And simply because they work so well and sounds so good especially in a compromised acoustical space. There is no loss of quality in using these microphones. In fact you may have a boost in quality by using these cheap microphones. And I recommend the Pre-Sonus Audio Box USB 1.1 or for the extra money that USB 2.0 version over most other inexpensive, two channel, USB audio interfaces. They make a truly quality product.

    Now all computers have some kind of built-in sound " card ". They are perfectly lovely for home and personal entertainment purposes of playback. There recording capability is usually quite awful, certainly not professional. It's only designed for that $.98 microphone on the seven dollar multimedia headset so you can talk to your friends over the Internet. There is no quality involved with that and none necessary. It's only intended for voice communication purposes, like a telephone. And you're not going to make a quality recording with a telephone.

    So in order to make a quality recording upon a computer, an external, professional, computer audio interface is quite necessary. It also frequently prevents any kind of computer clocking noise from getting into your recordings. Because it is external to the computer. And most start around $150 US including that Pre-Sonus Audio Box USB 1.1 version. Within all of these units is a professional quality microphone preamp. Some better than others. I like the Pre-Sonus. And it's microphone preamp is claimed to be that of what we call " Class A " design. That class designation does not indicate good, better, best. It describes more the circuitry design concept. And also what is known to be quite a musical sounding designed preamplifier circuit. A/B designs are also quite popular. Class B, designs are not considered professional. They contain what is known as notch distortion. And where the description of that is far too technical to describe in depth here. Tube circuits are all Class A. And with which the Pre-Sonus Audio Box, transistorized electronics were designed to function as continually biased on Class A. Other famous recording preamps rely upon Class A/B, transistor designs for the highly sought after American API and British Neve consoles that cut most of the rock 'n roll hits we all grew up listening to, all use. No problem there.

    Circuits not intended for professional audio applications are frequently designed as Class B. They are very efficient. They can produce a lot of power. They have crossover notch distortion that usually isn't a big deal on a PA system or a consumer entertainment system. But it is a big deal if you try to use that compromise design for professional audio application. And where it won't sound good. And also quite representative of the built-in audio features on most consumer computers. Which is why we highly recommend you do not use those. No point in plugging anything good into those. It would be a waste of money to do that. Nothing to be gained and lots to be lost. So you don't want to go there.

    I would even record your piano with a pair of those cheap 57's over most any other condenser microphones within the same budget. Because I'd rather have those extremely versatile and good sounding, built like a tank, nearly indestructible 57 & 58's over any cheap condenser microphone.

    So take this information however you want. Just know, Boswell, Donny & myself are top professionals in this field. We're not selling anything. We'll tell you what works well and what doesn't work from folks like myself, who have been doing this all their lives. And I've got three major recording award nominations along with 20 years at the finest television network in the world next to the BBC (which is a government run operation), NBC-TV and radio. Network coast-to-coast, around the world and locally in the Washington DC metro area. And as a broadcaster, I approach recording much differently than most recording studio engineers would. But then I'm also a highly skilled recording studio engineer also. And advertising and marketing of which I am a third generation at. So I know all about advertising/marketing and all of the false claims that are made. Everybody will tell you their stuff is better than the other guy's stuff when none of it is any good from either party. And so who are you supposed to believe? The sales guys? The advertising in the magazines? Or the folks that do it for a living and have for quite some time? This is information that would not only cost you hundreds if not thousands to obtain, we're saving you hundreds if not thousands on poor equipment choices. So you've come to a win-win place here. Where information as opposed to sales policies reign. And we are really, I think your budget is about half of what it should be to be able to have a professional and enjoyable time making quality recordings at home. And where you might never use a condenser microphone of Chinese origin or similar? Because we have just given you one of the best known secrets amongst successful and talented engineers. And that's that cheap PA microphone. Used on more recording sessions and more hits than any other microphone ever made. And they sound even more fabulous into even better sounding microphone preamps than any cheap condenser microphone will ever give you.

    Lots of folks think those microphones suck on piano. Hardly. They don't. In fact they sound quite fabulous. And they actually eliminate ambient noises that the condenser microphone will accentuate. And something ya don't want. The 57 & 58's won't be as cruel in that respect.

    So my recommendation is that cheap microphones and that Pre-Sonus Audio Box. Believe me, you'll be as happy as a pig in a swimming pool filled with feces. Maybe that wasn't quite the image I wanted to convey? OK then... like a kid in a candy store. Like another engineer in my control room LOL. They all drool over what I have acquired through the years. Because nothing that I have or use you will find at your local music store for sale. I only use equipment from the early mid 1970s. It's all fully restored which took me months to do. Almost like piecing together back an old Duesenberg. Or, Rolls-Royce, Bentley something of that level of quality to begin with. Which means a lot of soldering, endless cleaning and a complete replacement of hundreds upon hundreds of electrolytic capacitors to bring it back to like new operational condition. But you don't have to go through all that rigmarole. Because that $150 US Audio Box will provide that same level of quality. Your computer's sound card is about as good in quality as a gumball machine would be to fight crime with. And where if you break the glass, you will be without your balls and go nuts without your balls. And then you've still been ripped off and now you have a broken gumball machine. And your balls are on the floor and not where they should be.

    I also think you could do well with that ZOOM H-4 n which is within your budget. It's a quality device with quality sound. And it offers up other capabilities such as also being utilized as an external USB audio interface for your computer. Or just by itself as a standalone recorder capable of recording for simultaneous tracks from the two built-in microphones and two external sources, such as another pair of microphones or even a line level feed out of the PA mixer. And you can record both at the same time from the built-in microphones and also from the mixer, to four separate simultaneous tracks. Along with that, it has numerous built-in features such as dynamic range limiting, equalization a.k.a. tone control adjustments, digital effects of all sorts including reverberation. Something software also has the capable ability to do but this little thing a little larger than a pack of cigarettes has that all built it into a computer chip. So it really can expand your versatility while you save your money to purchase a couple of extra external microphones at a later time. It's something that will grow with you. It does have its limitations and complications but its capabilities exceed far beyond others that are more costly. And the versatility is just plain remarkable. And with which, you could set it up for your piano recording and then you also plug a 58 in, so you can sing while you accompany yourself or others. So it's really a phenomenal bang for the buck that you won't lose any pounds over LOL. Funny how we can speak the same language and yet say two different things in the same sentence to each other. It's all good for a laugh about our minor cultural differences.And we know how different people can be that don't speak the same language we both do. You speak the Queen's English and I speak our Kings English. Good thing I don't speak Bush's English because you can fool me once and then...??? Well you shouldn't be able to fool me again? I don't think? And he didn't.

    I rather like Bush's baked beans but only for the dog in the commercial. And it's not affiliated with our past presidents. Even though both will give you gas.
    Mx. Remy Ann David

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