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Piano recording under less than ideal circumstances

Discussion in 'Piano' started by Thomas W. Bethel, Jul 30, 2007.

  1. Thomas W. Bethel

    Thomas W. Bethel Well-Known Member

    On Monday, Wednesday and Friday night I get to do a piano recording of some Beethoven pianos works. The player is a graduate student, the piano is a German Steinway but the room is awful. It is a large Orchestra rehearsal room with very high ceilings, lots of HVAC wind noise and it is located right next to a major intersection and none of the windows are sound proof. I am not sure how to proceed and any and ALL suggestions are welcome. If I record it as a classical recording I will be picking up all kinds of noise from the room and from the traffic outside. If I do it as a jazz or popular miking setup the piano will sound too forward. Since this is a multi-night affair and I don't have any assistants to work with me I want to keep my equipment to the bare essentials. Thanks in advance
  2. Cucco

    Cucco Distinguished Member


    Does the reverb processor you use have the capability to adjust the ratio of dry and wet sounds?

    I've had to close mic a piano for Beethoven Emperor before and using the reverb (a short but smooth decay with a decent amount of early reflections timed at about 5-10 ms) I was able to convincingly move the piano back a little in space and time.

    I can't say it would be ideal, but it certainly seems like the situation isn't ideal either...
  3. JoeH

    JoeH Well-Known Member

    Six mics / three stereo pairs: Two inside and as close as you dare get them, same way you'd do a rock/pop session. Two midfield; the usual distance up and back, much like you'd mic a classical session. And finally, two up and out in the hall. (I know, I know.....lots of noise, etc.) Mutlitrack them all, and work in the mix after-the fact.

    You may luck out with a relatively quiet evening, or a cool night where the AC can be turned off, etc. You may not. But you'll want those distant/room mics anyway, if only to give you an idea of what the piano sounds like in that room. (You can always work on dialing in a similar-shaped reverb after the fact.) You may also get a quiet moment where you could even sample the room resonance and rebuild it later with convolution reverb.

    The mid-distance mics will be similar; most of the time, you may not be able to use these, either, but it might be nice to have them in case you can. This would probably give you the best sound of the piano in that space.

    Lastly, the in-close mics may not be exactly what you want or need, but they'll get the job done, and you may even survive all but the worst of the bleeding sound & noises.

    As long as your client knows what you're up against and what the expectations are, you should be able to get SOMETHING out of the experience. Not nec. world-class solo piano audiophile stuff, but perhaps something useable.
  4. Thomas W. Bethel

    Thomas W. Bethel Well-Known Member

    All good ideas as usual

    Some problems

    I have no control over the AC system since this is a Conservatory and they keep the system running 24/7 with NO local control (it it all computer controlled and we have no access to the people who do the programming)

    I really want to do this as simply as possible since I have to set up and strike three nights this week. They are putting in a new floor (wood instead of asphalt tile) in this same room as we are doing the recording (which is why we can do the recording since no one is around) so I can't put markers on the floor and expect them to be there (or the floor for that matter) the next time we record. I want to go with a stereo pair of microphones. I agree with all you are saying about the far field and mid field microphones just not on this recording.

    The client is very aware of the problems but I will tell him again. He is Russian and many things to him are hard to understand. He seems like a great person and from what his teacher tells me might be going somewhere in his professional career.

    Keep those cards and letters coming.
  5. Boswell

    Boswell Moderator Distinguished Member

    I was faced with a similar problem some time ago. I used a pair inside the piano, and a room pair placed a little further back than they would have been had they been the only pair. However, what saved my day was the third pair that I used, which I placed underneath the piano, in shock mounts and facing up towards the soundboard. I was able to get a convincing sound from them without all the action noise that the inside pair picked up. The level from that pair was such that the extraneous noises were relatively much lower, and also the piano body blocked the direct line between the mics and the AC vents. The hall pair needed a high pass at around 80Hz to reduce traffic rumble and LF components from the AC.

    In the mix, I had to adjust phasing and time delay between the pairs, having used a tape measure to record mic distances. I mixed by ear as usual to get the best sound I could, and I was surprised how much of the final mix was from the underneath pair. The recording wasn't perfect, but acceptable in the circumstances.
  6. David French

    David French Well-Known Member

    If all I could use is a single pair, I might try a coincident pair of Beyer M-160 40cm up and away from the hammers. I've tried a Royer Blumlein here several times, and it provided a surprisingly soft presentation without much hammer noise each time. But, it may be unwise to open up a Blumlein in that room, hence the hypercardioids.
  7. DavidSpearritt

    DavidSpearritt Well-Known Member

    Tom, a nasty one, no question. I would get in close and dry with a cardioid pair, ORTF, and then in post, add some decent large euro hall reverb. But Beethoven is big forte's and fortissimo's so you will need to be careful. Perhaps even add some stereo expanding to the mastering as well.
  8. Thomas W. Bethel

    Thomas W. Bethel Well-Known Member

    First night report

    The pianist is GREAT and his interpretation of Beethoven is spot on.

    We were able to use the concert hall.

    I used two AKG blue line Cardiod microphones about 4 feet apart and 6 feet back from the German Steinway and it sounded great. What a piano no sostenuto swishing sound from the dampers coming up and no pedal sound. Those 4 in solid brass wheels and a shine 6 feet deep also make the piano look great.

    Next time we are in the rehearsal room. Thankfully same piano different room.

    More to report after Wednesday night.

    Thanks for all the helpful suggestions. Keep um coming!
  9. David French

    David French Well-Known Member

    You will post a sample, won't you Tom?
  10. Thomas W. Bethel

    Thomas W. Bethel Well-Known Member

    If the client gives me permission - sure!
  11. Thomas W. Bethel

    Thomas W. Bethel Well-Known Member

    Day two last night (Wednesday)

    We are back in the Orchestra Rehearsal Room. Same piano as Monday night and same microphone setup

    Got set up in and ready to record in 27 minutes

    I am using a Firebox, a Sony Viao Laptop and Wavelab. My microphones are AKG Blue-lines. Cables are all BLUE from the microphone manufacturer.

    We had to do some reconfiguring of the room and the piano placement. We also had to add some sound absorbing materials since the room is so live. That took about 30 minutes.

    The performer went to the bathroom before he started playing and on the way back into the room got one of his fingers got caught in the door and it got pinched. I had him run it under cold water and like the trooper he is he played the recording session with one hurt finger. He had to change some of what he was going to play but we got a lot done.

    Tomorrow night we will finish up.
  12. Thomas W. Bethel

    Thomas W. Bethel Well-Known Member

    This was suppose to be the final night but we ran into some problems. The piano tech is out of town and did not work on the piano before the session as he has done before all the previous sessions. We had some problems with the sostenuto swishing sound that we had not had previously and for some reason the bass pedal on the piano does not work correctly and the piano was starting to drift out of tune and you could really hear the beats especially octaves.

    Ohio weather is not helping and the past two times we recorded it was more humid than it was last night with the passage of a cold front. The Conservatory is air conditioned and a humidity level is held about 50% year round. Not sure what contributed to the problems but it may have been lack of tuning more than anything else. The performer wanted to try some alternative miking and we spent about 30 minutes trying some different things to satisfy his curiosity. We got two movements done last night and will finish up next Wednesday.

    I got him CDs of everything we had done up until now and we will start the editing process after the final session next week.

    The recording session was cut short by some people arriving to have a rehearsal for an upcoming concert.

    Will keep you posted.
  13. David French

    David French Well-Known Member


    That's a new one to me...

  14. Thomas W. Bethel

    Thomas W. Bethel Well-Known Member

    He is very obsessed with the idea that somehow the recording medium/selection of microphones/talent of the engineer can make a good sounding piano in bad surroundings sound like a good sounding piano in a good hall. He is fairly new to recording and wants to "try everything" He is paying the bills and if he wants to try some alternative miking I am all for it.

    We sometimes go to extremes to satisfy our clients. This is one of those times.
  15. DavidSpearritt

    DavidSpearritt Well-Known Member

    This is the time to suggest some alternative fingerings or piano technique to him.
  16. Cucco

    Cucco Distinguished Member

    :lol: :lol: :lol: :lol: :lol: :lol: :lol: :lol: :lol: :lol: :lol: :lol: :lol:

    Side story...
    I'm known for being a smart ass and having a short fuse (no $hit, right??)

    I get SO sick and tired of having "know it all" junior high band directors come up to me while I'm setting up and tell me that the best place to put microphones in the hall as at the back of the auditorium so that I can get that "you are there" sensation.

    I had this one guy (fortunately he got out of the business later that year!!! YAY!!!) come up to me a few years ago and he was completely busting my balls while I was setting up. It was on one of those days where I was recording 2 or 3 festivals on the same day at different venues, so it was already very stressful and I only had about 30 minutes to set up. While I'm flying my Schoeps above the band (Jr. High band...), he was asking me all about my gear - what brand, where I got it and so on. I'm used to tire kickers though so I answered his questions and quickly kept setting up.

    I guess he felt I wasn't paying enough attention to him so he started comparing *his* special recording gear to mine. When he asked again what kind of mics I was using and I said "Schoeps," he commented something like "Hmmm...I've never heard of them. What are they, some kind of cheap knock off on Shures? I have a pair of Shures here at the school if you'd like to upgrade for a day and see what a great pair of mics is like." (Mind you, he was referring to his SM57s I saw back stage.)

    Finally, he actually started telling other band directors (most of whom I am friends with) that I clearly didn't know what I was doing since the sweet spot in the auditorium was about 4 feet from the rear wall of the auditorium and spaced about 12 feet apart and that since I was only about 8 feet back from the band that all I was going to pick up was flutes and clarinets.

    Anyway - I was later walking back stage and talking to my intern and I let slip a LONG stream of.......ahem..........words... about this kind gentleman. It turns out, he was just on the other side of the curtain less than 3 feet away and heard everything I said. It was hard to mistake who I was talking about since I used his name a couple times too...

    Oops :shock: :oops:

    That was when I changed my personal and company policy to never speak an ill word while on a job no matter how pissed I was getting.

    Anyway - sorry to temporarily hijack Tom!

    Do keep the info coming on this!

  17. Thomas W. Bethel

    Thomas W. Bethel Well-Known Member


    No problem I have had my share of people who "knew" better than me how to record "their" band or choral group.

    I have also had my share of "oh no you can't place the microphones there because someone behind them may not be able to see well" or the choral director who kept complaining that my recordings were NOT what she was hearing when she was standing 5 feet from the choir but she never let us put microphones were we needed to place them to give here the sound she was looking for because "they don't look professional" so we always had to have them in the audience even though the choir was 30 feet upstage from the lip.

    In the case of the piano recording I think the person is so wound up in what we are doing that he is looking for Nirvana and the "perfect" recording but fails to realize that this is being done under less than "perfect" circumstances. We did have a lot of problems with the piano on Friday and I think he was hearing them in the recording and wanted to see if we could do something about it by re doing the microphone placement.

    I had to give him the cold hard facts and that is that the microphones are not going to make up for the piano going out of tune nor the problem with the bass pedal nor the swishing problem with the sustain pedal being released. He is a very good pianist and is normally a very nice person to work with. He is just getting frustrated and is looking to me to solve the problems that are really the realm of the piano tech.

    We have one more session on Wednesday night and then the editing phase. I will keep you up to date.....
  18. Thomas W. Bethel

    Thomas W. Bethel Well-Known Member

    Client cancelled the session last night. The piano is due to be moved back into the concert hall today and he wants to finish up the recording in the concert hall next Monday.

    This is going to be one very interesting CD when it comes out if it ever does.

    We finished up the recording last night, Monday, in the Orchestra room. They never moved the piano back to the concert hall. They did however tune and check over the piano and it sounded great. We begin the editing process today.

    Great performer, great piano, less than ideal circumstances to record it but I think the performer will be very satisfied with the results. We did one movement last night about three times and the performer played it very well each time but he was not satisfied with his playing. He finally nailed it the fourth time through. This guy is a real pro.
  19. Thomas W. Bethel

    Thomas W. Bethel Well-Known Member

    We got all the editing done and the client is very happy.

    The client was a really nice person to work with and even under some really tight time pressure was always cheerful and helpful.

    All and all a very good experience.

    I got this job because the person who was going to do this decided to take a vacation and politely refused to do the recording at the last minute. His loss. I got to hear some GREAT piano playing, I enjoyed working with the client, I got paid for my time and the client told me that he will be back for more sessions. NICE!!!!!!

    He who snoozes - looses....
  20. JoeH

    JoeH Well-Known Member

    Congratulations, Tom. You are what I call a "Closer" - people who step in and get it done right, alllll the way to the end, and actually end up winning over the client with your ability to keep your head down and bring it to the finish line. Sometimes it's tough, esp when things aren't ideal circumstances, or near the end, when things seem to be impossible to ever finish up.

    I was laughing out loud at Jeremy's story of the guy who didn't know Schoeps from Shinola, and i've had a similar experience at a high school commencement excercise a few years ago. The live PA guy was a total idiot, and attempted to deliberately sabatoge everything we did on the musical side (we were doing video support and recording the orchestra, etc.) I unloaded a similar string of expletives to my assistant about their methods- well within earshot of the PA guy's assistant, unknown to me at the time.

    Suddenly they got very stand-offish, wouldn't talk to us, and generally left us alone for the rest of the gig - which actually worked out well in the end. I've never seen the company since; hopefully they've gone out of business.

    I too try to be polite but brief with people who want to yak with me while I've got 20 minutes to set up. One guy said: "What the heck are you using for mics?" and wanted to know how I thought I was going to get "Good" sound out of such tiny, thin devices. He had never heard of B&K/DPA, either....

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