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Recording Piano in Chamber Music

Discussion in 'Piano' started by JimboJ, May 23, 2006.

  1. JimboJ

    JimboJ Active Member

    The thread on recording solo piano got me thinking about the challenges of spot micing piano on chamber music concerts. I record a lot of chamber music with piano. Generally, there are two to seven string players or wind musicians situated in front of the piano. And they all like to snuggle up to the piano and play right in front of it. If I record this type of ensemble with a main pair only, the piano sounds distant and indistinct relative to the winds and/or strings playing in front of it. Spot micing the piano seems to help. If you do this, how do you go about it? I’ve sneaked in one or two mic stands between the piano and the other instruments and recorded the piano in ORTF near the middle of the piano or with a couple of spaced cardioids – one near the stick and one nearer the nose of the piano. The mics are usually less than a foot out from the piano (because that’s all the room I’ve got) and about halfway between the top of the case and the lid. I’ve also done this with just one cardiod. Obviously, the null side of the microphone(s) faces the backs of the winds or strings. Is this all a bad idea or is there a better way? (Remember, this is a concert situation so there’s very little leeway in moving the musicians around.)


    -- James
  2. JoeH

    JoeH Well-Known Member

    seems like you're on the right path, James. If it's a concert, there's not much you can do about it. (Well, you can make suggestions and hope for the best, but it's usually a situation where you're the tail wagging the dog - unless it's a REALLY important recording they've having done.)

    For a studio recording, you could of course move them around more, getting the best of both worlds, but in a situation like that, you're often limited to what you can do in the space you have.

    Another suggestion might be to try mic'ing the piano from underneath (or at least one mic down there). I think David has suggested this in a previous post. I've also done it with a Harpsichord (lid closed) on a very crowded stage. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. You may get some thicker/fuller sound under there, while capturing the detail and upper harmonics with a main stereo pair.

    Worse case scenario, the piano is at half stick, and we simply cheat a cardioid or two in there. It's not perfect, but with a main omni pair taking care of the rest of it all, sometimes all you need is a little detail.
  3. DavidSpearritt

    DavidSpearritt Well-Known Member

    I have been recording a group regularly with this configuration, both in concert and for CD recordings for 11 years.


    Its very difficult to get the sort of separation one requires. We hve oboe, bassoon, clarinet and horn that like to sit very close to the piano even in recordings and also in a rectangle looking at each other, two on each side.

    On top of this, we have a soprano out front as well. :(

    The last CD recording I did with them earlier this year, I multitracked for the first time and started to get some really exciting results. Here is the config.

    1. Main pair, AKG426 Blumlein, angled down, so that soprano was in null, standing under it.

    2. Higher 4003 omni outriggers.

    3. Schoeps MS Pair on piano, in close, similar to where you had your cardioid, always full stick, never half stick.

    4. SF24 on soprano, some 2m in front of her at mouth level.

    Recorded to 8 track and I am keeping what I did with the pairs secret :), but I will post an example soon.

    But multitrack gives you the control you need to get the important balance correct between the piano and the group. I have done many stereo recordings of this as well, and the MS pair on the piano gives the most control. I find a mono mic on the piano, sounds unacceptable in general.

    My point is, that you need multitrack for best piano control, ie adding reverb to the piano pair to get its sound into perspective with the main pair despite being so close. Just lifting a cardioid into the mix does not work well, as just a highlight does not provide enough gain for chamber music piano parts, and if you use too much gain, the sound perspective is all wrong and too close and mono.
  4. JoeH

    JoeH Well-Known Member

    Why, David, I am SHOCKED!!! You've gone multitrack on us! :cool:

    Sounds like you're enjoying it, too. :wink:
  5. FifthCircle

    FifthCircle Well-Known Member

    I find that piano can be a tricky beast when doing concert recordings. I usually will request the piano to be on full stick for most performances. Piano volume is not controlled by the lid height, but rather the spectral/tonal balance and the projection is affected by lid position. Volume is controlled by the player.

    First thought is: If the ensemble isn't balanced, they need to play balanced.

    Second thought- if the perspective is messed up (ie piano sounds distant), than the microphone position or choice is in need of adjustment.

    Third though- sometimes the room sucks and you just don't have a choice as to position. In that case, I'll haul out the spot mics. I've done a few things that work- The most often when things are that tight is a mic on a boom coming from the back of the piano. Usually I'll use either an omni (to get a reasonable low end) or a hypercardiod depending on position to avoid performer's production sounds. The other option is a microphone such as the DPA 4021 with the piano gooseneck. Neither is going to give a great piano sound, but the purpose is a touch-up spot. Not a main piano mic.

    Oh well, just a few thoughts...

  6. Niliov

    Niliov Guest

    I agree that recording piano in a classical chamber setting is tricky not to say the least but this is the first time I've heard somebody claim that volume is not controlled by the lid height! Do you mean for the recording or for the audience?

    I am a pianist (besides recording engineer) and with the lid closed the piano definitely sounds softer (muted). Maybe you are talking about recording volume but then I have another question:

    how do you convince the other musicians on stage to play with an open lid piano when they think it is too loud?
  7. FifthCircle

    FifthCircle Well-Known Member

    I'm a pianist as well... Clarinet is my main instrument, but I was also a pretty decent pianist (but not anymore).

    It tends to be nearly impossible to convince most players about this. But the volume really doesn't change. The tone will radically change. The lower the lid, the more muted the sound and the less it will project, but the SPL coming off it remains...

    I've had the mics out there and heard the sound change because of an overzealous performer (usually vocalists) who insists on closing the lid all the way. Ends up ruining the sound, but the ballance issues usually remain. On occasion, because the piano is muted, it will help, but it is always at the expense of the piano sound.

    In the end, I usually don't make a huge deal about this because it is a live performance. The most important thing is to make sure the performers are happy and comfortable. It is my job to make the best recording I can based on the set of circumstances. If the recording will suffer because of this, so be it. In a session, I'll be a pain about this, but for a concert I will usually let things go however the performer wants it.

  8. Niliov

    Niliov Guest

    Well Ben,

    I tried it out today and I have to admit that I was "shocked" with the results. It seems you were right: there is a difference in volume but just a tiny tiny bit, the biggest is in the sound (but that is obvious!!).

    By the way, I visited your site and listened to some of the demos's and I must say: impressive stuff!

    Thanks, learned another thing!

  9. Plush

    Plush Guest

    Good news that Ben has pointed out that the piano lid should be open.

    The most experienced players (strings, winds etc.) playing with a piano will demand it. The pianist should demand it.

    Violin players who are scared of an open piano just haven't tried it enough.

    There is nothing wrong with spot micing the piano in a chamber setting.
    If the clarity is missing, add some back in. I usually do the touch up micing in stereo, although a mono omni spot is also good. Just don't turn it up too much so that you ruin the stereo picture by pulling everything into the center.
  10. JoeH

    JoeH Well-Known Member

    I'm also a piano player (not nec. a good one either) and I've known that for years. I ALWAYS hated closing the lid at all. I'd much prefer to control my playing myself, instead of closing the lid. The first thing to suffer is the tonality, not the volume.

    If anything, it comes down to exerting a little more control with the lid open, and that often falls outside the artists' comfort zone, at least if they've never tried it before. As most already know, fighting with the artists about it isn't worth it just prior to show time.

    Another interesting approach is to take the lid off entirely, or (usually in a session) have it straight up vertically.

    I record the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia with Ignat Solzhenitsyn conducting from the piano, with the lid removed entirely, the tail pointing upstage, and the piano keys facing the audience. We're finishing up the third of three Mozart concerts this way, next week. I use a pair of DPA 4006 TL's overhead and a KMi84 for spot on the piano, and that's it. (the selection of the KMi84 is as much cosmetic as sonic, in this case; I really don't need much beyond what the DPA's give me.)

    Of course, in this case the piano is the solo instrument, and even with the lid off, it can still easily overpower the ensemble. How well the piano blends with the ensemble really comes down to the players and the pianist.
  11. Niliov

    Niliov Guest

    Actually, I was not arguing with the fact that the piano sounds better with the lid open, I think that much speaks for itself. Piano players can control their own volume, also very true. In my experience though a lot of chamber musicians playing with the piano often ask for the piano to be closed, because they feel it is too loud in some halls on stage. I'm not talking amateurs here, but very experienced musicians who are actually quite well known! From now on though I will demand the lid to stay open!! :)
  12. DavidSpearritt

    DavidSpearritt Well-Known Member

    Here's a couple of samples of the recording described above. Ravel Greek songs, arranged for this ensemble.

  13. Thomas W. Bethel

    Thomas W. Bethel Well-Known Member

    Just last Sunday I did a recording of a children's choir and piano accompaniment only the accompanist thought it was a piano concert with children's choir accompaniment and played SO LOUD that we had to ask the choir director to have her close the piano lid to muffle the sound. (The choir director told me that she had mentioned the volume level a number of times to the pianist but it seemed to fall on deaf ears) The accompanist is a classically trained pianist who is use to giving concerts in large halls and plays accordingly. When she is accompanying it seems she only knows one volume level to play at and that is FFF squared.

    The recording came off OK after a lot of microphone placement changes but IMHO the piano was still to loud.

    I never know what to really do in situations like this. It seems that the pianist is a professional and would know how loud to play and if the choir director cannot get her to "turn it down a notch" then what do you say.
  14. JoeH

    JoeH Well-Known Member

    Tom, I know exactly what you mean. (Although I'm not sure I'd call them "professionals" with that kind of pounding...)

    I do a similar thing every year (coming up next Saturday, as a matter of fact) with a youth choir that does an annual CD culled from thier best stuff over the performance year. It's often three age levels of the choir, each with their own accompanist(s).

    The very first time we did this with them, one of the over-eager pianists nearly blew them all out of the room in terms of level. As I was setting up and getting levels, I asked for a private moment with the conductor/artistic director. She already knew about the insane level - this pianist was literally POUNDING instead of accompanying. There wasn't much we could do, but she did her diplomatic best to get the levels down from the pianist, who was clearly more worried about hitting all the right notes, and GETTING THE MUSIC OUT THERE!!! than any artistic interpretation. (She probably would have been better off in a marching band somewhere....)

    And as you can imagine, this is the kind of problem that makes people run to close the lid, thinking THAT will solve the problem. Recording techniques aside, it's really the mindset of the pianist that wins the day in the end. I've also had situations where the pianists had little or no dynamic range either; one was too quiet the entire time, or one was too loud. I dealt with it in post - gently boosting the quiet pianist with the spot mics, or just turning off the overly loud pianists tracks.

    Not to sound egotistical, but having been on both sides of the mic here, I DO know that the solution is with the pianist/accompanist. The really pro's know that it's NOT about them. It's about getting the job done correctly, artistically, and doing what one is hired to do. (Get yer rocks off on your own time, and while doing the accompanist bit, remember who's gig it is.) Every time I hear a pianist moaning about being told they're playing too loud, or that the room isn't right, I know we're in for a little turbulence. There's a couple of really really pro's in this area, and i love working with them.

    One other interesting note on mic'ing a pianist in the midst of an ensemble; with this same choral group, we had a situation where the piano was way out of the way of the rest of the ensemble, nearly under the risers, and it was only used on a few tunes. At the time, we were low on mic choices, so the only thing I had was an old AKG 451 with a hyper cardioid mic capsule. THe lid was half stick (of course) but my assistant found a sweet spot just inside the crook, about a foot out from the instrument. By sheer dumb luck, it sounded fantastic, and sat in the mix perfectly.

    Accompanists; ya gotta love 'em. :roll:

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