Suggestion on Classical Piano Recording? AT2020USB vs H4n vs Rode NT4.

Discussion in 'Acoustic Keyboards' started by jae12321, Nov 6, 2017.

  • AT5047

    The New AT5047 Premier Studio Microphone Purity Transformed

  1. jae12321

    jae12321 Active Member

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    Hi.
    I'm very new to recording and looking to record a classical piano performance in a small studio that could be used for pre-screening in applications for music schools. There is not much guideline on the requirement for the pre-screening material, but I want to make it as professional as possible while staying within budget. I have hired an audio engineer to help me recording for 10 hours, but because of their limited availability I want to have some options to record by myself as a backup plan. I'm also considering about finding another engineer out of town (could only find one in my town) but am constrained by budget (around $500)

    For the recording environment, I will be playing in a small studio. It is about 800 sq ft with two Steinway grands with sound-absorbing material on the walls. The recording system would be connected to my Macbook Pro (i5, 8GB RAM) which has two USB ports and use GarageBand (or other DAWs you would recommend.) I have no experience recording by myself and want most simple setup. I'm considering following options, but not so sure how the actual outcome would differ and what would be the minimum requirement setup to sound "professional" without crackling or pedal noises.

    Options:
    iPhone/Macbook microphone. (cheapest, just need holder.)
    AT2020 USB+ with Mac
    Zoom H4N / H6
    Rode NT4+ some interface (Maybe Scarlett solo USB?)
    1 or 2 Shure SM57 or some other microphone+ some interface
    Any other recommended setup.

    +finding another recording studio with remaining budget.

    Also, I'm not so sure if I would need any other equipment like an additional power source or preamp. I tried to do more research but can't really understand how they work. Any help would be extremely appreciated regarding those setups, comparison, or thoughts.

    Thank you in advance!
     
  2. pcrecord

    pcrecord Quality recording seeker ! Distinguished Member

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    If you hire an audio engineer, he/she should be your first reference as to what would be better to record in your situation and expectations.
    This would likely start the relationship and thrust between you which is very important to succeed.
    If it's a newcomer that doesn't have any experience. Don't call him/her a audio engineer, just a guy or girl who wants to learn. ;)

    In all the suggestions you made, nothing calls quality or professional to me.
    A piano is the instrument that produce the widest and most detailed audio sound. I'd want at least 2 large condenser mics or even 3 if the room sound any good.

    First option :
    Personnaly I would take my money and go to a professionnal studio that has a piano ready to record. Book 8-10 hours depending on their rates.
    A pro studio will have the best mics and preamps available and hopefully their engineer will know how to make that piano sound good right away...
    While being there, you will see how it's done and if treated right most engineer will answer many of your questions.

    Second :
    Rent a minimum of 2 quality large condenser mics (AKG 414, U87, Neumann M147 or 149 etc..), 2 good preamps Neve, ISA, Millennia, etc
    and a nice interface that match the quality. RME Fireface UCX, UFX or 802 or others high quality interfaces.

    Third :
    Forget about the whole recording thing and rent a Piano midi controler and buy a Good VSTi plugin (virtual instrument)
    Some sound impressively acurate.
     
  3. Keith Johnson

    Keith Johnson Active Member

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    First thing is to make sure that the piano(s) is / are well maintained....make sure that the pedal mechanism is functioning correctly and that, for example, there are no unwanted sympathetic resonances on the instrument(s)...(the latter is less likely with them being Steinway rather than something more downmarket...but I've run into issues before where the piano kids have vibrated with a specific note or even octave!).

    In terms of the actual recording, the answer (as for pretty much all of this kind of query) is "it depends". A whole bunch of factors can influence what you do...the piano, the room, the repertoire, how the pianist is playing etc etc.

    That said, as a starting point, I'd tend to disagree with Marco (@pcrecord) here...especially as your post alludes to 'classical' piano.

    I'd look at a pair of small diaphragm condensers along with a stereo interface...if you google search you'll find plenty of pre-existing information about it...

    For a two channel interface I quite like the Audient iD-14...if I wanted omni microphones on a budget I'd be considering Line Audio OM1...or for directionals their wide cardioid CM3 sounds very good.

    In terms of mic placement (rather than technique)...you quite literally move them around until they sound like you want them to do while minimising any mechanical noises you want to avoid.
     
  4. DonnyThompson

    DonnyThompson Distinguished Member

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    I agree with Marco regarding your mic choices. With perhaps the exception of the Rode, maybe the H4, there isn't a model that would be considered to be a good mic for this scenario, and even the Rode (or the H4) isn't your best choice, either ... they just happen to be the best of the bunch that you mentioned. DM57's are tried and true dynamic mics that are wonderful for many things - but miking a Steinway isn't one of them.
    Here's the thing you have to realize, and it's pretty much audio recording's most important rule - and that is that the quality of your recordings will only ever be as good as the lowest quality link in the chain. Mic choices are really, REALLY important. It doesn't matter if you are recording a $50,000 piano or not; using a cheap mic to record it will always and only ever get you a cheap sound.
    You didn't mention your budget ... you may want to consider renting a pair of pro level condensers for this task.. as well as a pro multi channel preamp, which also matters a lot.
    You mentioned bringing in an audio engineer for this ... is this person an actual audio engineer? A pro? Or just someone who does some recording as a home hobby? Because there is a gigantic difference between those two types of people.
    A pro person - an actual audio engineer - will know what mics to use given the setup and the surroundings. This person may also very well have their own quality mics that they could bring in and use.
    Piano isn't really all that difficult to record for a real engineer with access to pro level gear, but having cheap mics and preamps, as well as someone who isn't really an engineer, will only result in you pulling your hair out in a futile attempt to try to make the recordings sound good. If you really want these recordings to sound good ... don't do it yourself. Hire a real audio engineer to handle it for you.
    FWIW.
     
  5. pcrecord

    pcrecord Quality recording seeker ! Distinguished Member

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    Could you elaborate to what you disagree in my propositions ?
    I'm not searching for a confrontation, just to have more information put into this thread in case someone gets here from a google search. ;)
     
  6. Keith Johnson

    Keith Johnson Active Member

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    Only insofar as I prefer - in the right space of course - small diaphragm condensers (in particular spaced omnis)...but in a lot of ways it's just down to that...personal preference :)
     
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  7. Keith Johnson

    Keith Johnson Active Member

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  8. Boswell

    Boswell Moderator Distinguished Member

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    Lots of interesting opinions here! All of them have merit for the right set of circumstances.

    I often get called out to do piano recordings, often at short notice. I used to keep a "grab and go" bag with all the bits in it (stands extra) that were needed for acceptable recordings of piano. I have tended to refine the technique over the years to include quite a lot more, and it now does not all fit in one bag.

    With a decent piano in a reasonable room, my starting point is usually spaced small diaphragm omnis, much as Keith suggested. Most times they were positioned above the strings, roughly towards the treble end and the bass end of the instrument. However, sometimes I would put one in sight of the hammers and one underneath the piano, but only after crawling down there while the performer was practising to see what this instrument sounded like from that angle. Some pianos are not good from below.

    Get the microphone choice and positioning correct, and the rest is relatively easy. For recording. I used to use an Audient Mico pre-amp with optical output into a MacBook Pro, but with the advent of the Retina MBP, the optical input has been quietly dropped. I have had quite reasonable recordings using a Zoom H4N with external microphones, but you need access to a mains supply, as the battery does not last long when supplying microphone phantom power. These days, to allow extra channels for additional performers or vocalists, I usually lug along an Alesis HD24XR recorder fed from an Audient ASP880 and an API 3124+.

    There's no single universal recipe for piano recording. Here's a Sound On Sound article about grand piano recording. They have done a similar one for uprights.
     
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  9. paulears

    paulears Well-Known Member

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    Have a listen to these two recordings - one a real piano, one a VSTi.
    Yamaha C3 two AKG 414s
    http://www.granthorsley.com/melancholy.mp3
    Weighted controller keyboard and Pianoteq VSTi
    http://www.earsmediastore.com/allegro-samples/excerptsmp3/29excerpt.mp3

    The reality is that for the projects these two piece came from, the pianist happily, after a prod, repaid the benefits of MIDI.The first recording took far longer. we tried all kinds of editing - recording an entire movement without a single mistake or clipped key meant it was very tiring for him. We experimented with shorter sections that could be edited together, and for four CDs we worked out a workable system that didn't compromise his playing, but speeded up 'repairs'. Then we tried MIDI and as we have a decent pro piano with MIDI, we now spend far less time. The latest version of the pianoteq now has a rather nice Steinway which we're using now. With these kinds of VSTi and some decent reverbs the benefit is really time. The current project we're doing is accompaniments for really good musicians who want to practice with a proper pianist, before they take examinations with a real one! Some of the pieces are so tough they are still taking maybe a week to record, and that's before we start on the treatment - just getting the notes in, edited and tweaked takes a week. If this had been a studio job with a real piano - maybe three or four weeks per piece - 3-8 movements - seriously hard work.
     
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  10. JayTerrance

    JayTerrance Active Member

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    Based on your equipment list and the fact that you want a pro sounding recording, I would seek out a trusted recording studio in your area. Also if your engineering friend is not available, the chances of you putting everything together correctly without past recording knowledge for piano is going to be very very tough.
     
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  11. DonnyThompson

    DonnyThompson Distinguished Member

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    I get what you're saying, Paul. I'd thought about presenting that option myself.
    The thing is ... and people are different when it comes to this - the OP might still prefer to use these Steinway beauties... or the people involved might.
    From a "quick no hassle" point of view, midi seems to be the easiest way to go, but it might not please those who are "purists", especially with classical music.
    Then again, the sample option is always going to be better than someone who is inexperienced trying to get good recordings of the real deals, especially with the mics that the OP mentioned having access to in his initial post. I suppose it's possible that he could get "lucky" and randomly stumble upon a sweet spot that sounds okay - after all, even a stopped clock is accurate twice in 24 hours, so yea, it's "possible". But it's not probable. IMHO, the OP needs to either hire a real AE who has experience recording real pianos - and who also has mics that are better suited for it than what was on the list - or, look to a hi res sample on an 88 key hammer action controller.
    FWIW :)
     
  12. paulears

    paulears Well-Known Member

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    Absolutely, but these people will also want to record in nice spaces, and there's the rub - few of us have the right rooms to do a decent grand justice. No matter what mics we like, the sound of a grand is the sound of the instrument in the room, unless you're doing nightclub jazz - and I suppose this all comes down to what these Steinways sound like in that space, and the music. Space and the room might dictate a certain style of technique, and let's hope this engineer is experienced in it.
     
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  13. DonnyThompson

    DonnyThompson Distinguished Member

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    I think this really all comes down to the OPs expectations. Sure, any mic will pick up the sound of the piano, and it's certainly not difficult to get that sound to a DAW track.
    OTOH, when I read that it was a Steinway piano that was going to be recorded, that puts the visual of a certain level of quality in our minds, and that's where we saw the mic list and winced. I think that the instrument itself also brings forth a certain expectancy of talent, too. Those who will be playing that piano very likely have their own expectations of a certain level of sonic quality, too.
    My final advice to the OP, if he's still listening - since he hasn't returned here to comment ( he might have seen our replies and bailed ) would be to hire a pro audio engineer for this project.
    And, please know that we aren't trying to wave you off the project; your questions were presented to a forum of pro audio people, so we are telling you what we think you should do to help you get the best results possible.
    ;)
     
  14. pcrecord

    pcrecord Quality recording seeker ! Distinguished Member

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    My first answer covered 3 options, go to a pro studio, rent nice mics and pre or use VSTi.
    It was clear to me that the OP didn't have experiences and he didn't really want to learn the craft because he's hiring an engineer.
    What I'm not sure about is the pre-screening side. If those recording are only ment to judge performances of applying students, the quality doesn't need to be high.
    A zoom recorder could be the best if quality isn't an issue.
    But then he ask for 'as professional as possible' which calls for better gear for us but 'professional' need to be defined better.
    I don't know if he'll return but many very good suggestions were made. Unless something about the situation wasn't specified in the question ;)
     
  15. paulears

    paulears Well-Known Member

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    For what it's worth - my piano collaborator was explaining to me that seeing Steinway should never make your expectation rise too much, as they need very careful tending, from specialists not always something the local piano tuner and restorer can manage. So many older Steinways sound truly horrible and are a nightmare to play for recordings because the damper pads on the pedals make very audible thuds and thumps when you pedal quickly, and half pedal, something the classical pianists do a lot works haphazardly. He tells me a well maintained Steinway is a gem, but sadly, the costs of this regular maintenance are often too much for the studios to do, until a well financed project comes in. The C3 we used for the early projects had to be tuned every time we scheduled a date - so gets damn expensive.
     
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  16. DonnyThompson

    DonnyThompson Distinguished Member

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    Good points, Paul. Maybe we get momentarily blind-sided by the notion of recording something like a Steinway, because they've become so iconic over time. But then the realities come to the surface, those things you mentioned...
    I guess it's similar to wanting to own a "classic" LFC... The thought of having a Neve, SSL, Harrison, Trident or API to track through makes us swoon, LOL, but then the reality of it comes into play, when we realize the constant - and expensive - maintenance that those older beauties will eventually require to remain what we expect from them.
    We don't know what kind of condition the Steinway in question is in, perhaps impeccable, perhaps needing work; the OP didn't mention this... And, as you mentioned, the acoustics of the room...
    Looking at his list of available mics, perhaps midi would be the best option for this scenario, with a very nice 88 key hammer-action controller.
    FWIW
    -d.
     
  17. paulears

    paulears Well-Known Member

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    The only way to know how bad something is, is to try it - lots of newcomers read the net, learn a set of rules, and then do their recording by following rules blindly. For years when I got a nice reel to reel, I recorded stuff very hot, and never heard the 'terrible distortion', savagely compressed tape sound and bags of hiss. I started avoiding red. Then noticed that a little bit of red was OK, and louder, and too much was nasty. A few years later I got a book, and then now, we're told that decimal point management of dB is essential. The old Sony stereo mic I had sounded really nice, the Eagle one didn't, and the one that didn't work, and seemed to be full of black soot was obviously faulty and rubbish - and now, according to Ebay, worth thousands!!!!

    If there wasn't somebody else involved - I'd say slap up what you have, play the piano and have a listen. Then your decisions will largely be made for you. Bring in the engineer, and it will be his ideas and selection.
     
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  18. DonnyThompson

    DonnyThompson Distinguished Member

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    I agree with trying things, it's how we learn, and actually applying certain things is how we best retain what we've learned... perhaps I'm wrong, but the OP didn't mention having a lot of time to experiment with what he has to work with. That being said, if he can get in there and work for a few hours, maybe there will be something usable. At the very least, he could learn some things, what works - and just as importantly, I believe - what doesn't. ;)
     

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