Recording upright piano (mic / pre-amp suggestions)
Apologies if this has been covered elsewhere. I have read quite a bit but want to keep it simple. I'm looking to purchase a pair of mics to record my upright piano in my living room. The living room has a fairly low ceiling and doesn't sound great, but ok. A engineer friend of mine suggested a pair of Neumann KM 184's. After some reading I feel like these might be too bright/harsh? I've also been suggested AKG C414's. And just now started looking at Schoeps CMC-64's which I'm interested in. DPA 4011's have also come up. I want a detailed solo piano sound. I want to achieve this as simply as possible - I'm technically not very proficient! I guess I will take the front of the piano off and close mic.
Any advice would be greatly appreciated. Also if anyone has suggestions of good preamps that would fit this situation. And audio interface.
My budget for mics would be £1-2000. Same for preamp £1-2000.
We do piano's quite a bit, but the real problem before you spend ANYTHING is to borrow or find one or two inexpensive condensers and do a test recording. Uprights in a living room are the hardest instrument to record. Ten to one your space has hard walls, is not acoustically warm and nice, but hard and boxy. Your piano will be placed soundboard to the wall. Your quest will be to find the magic place to put ANY mic where it sounds nice. Pulling the piano out and spinning it around will have more impact on the sound that reaches the mic than any expensive purchase. In fact, better mics reveal the compromise that is acoustic upright pianos. The nicer mics will capture more thumping from the mechanism, more reduction in the straightforward sound paths, more of the nasty sounds that emerge towards the player. Consider a grand - hugely simpler to record because the mics can see open strings. So much of an upright is overstrung, and has the huge mass of felt and woodwork between those strings and the mics. Opening the lid places them in a confined space that grabs all the noise and squirts it upwards and it sounds pretty unpleasant. Get the piano into free space. Find a pair of closed back headphones or even foam sealed ear-buds, connect a mic up and move it around the piano - 360 degrees, varying distances and varying heights. Hopefully somewhere will suddenly sound good - often not remotely where you think. You then need another, perhaps on the other side that you can blend to get a nice balance of left and right hand. People treat uprights like 90 degree grands, and they are not. I did a recording of an opera singer recently. Trouble was due to covid her singing was in England and the accompanist was in Boston USA. her quite nice Yamaha piano recorded badly - so badly that in the end she borrowed a nice controller keyboard and sent me the MIDI file that I then played on Pianoteq and it was so much better than her piano.
Do the recording experiment first - almost all condenser mics will do the trick - then listen critically. Do the test using playing that explores the ff+ range but more importantly the less than pp range. Just tickling the keys with use of the sustain pedal will be revealing - some actions are horribly creaking and noisy when the gain is set to capture pp properly - releasing the pedal creates a thump, and pressing it a creak
Good advice there from Paul. Certainly don't invest the sort of money you are talking about without doing some trials first.
Even spending £50-£100 on a second-hand Zoom H4N that you could set to record and then walk slowly around the piano from position to position while someone else plays pp-ff would give you an indication of what sort of shock you are in for. Speak each position in some coded form at each stationary point so you can identify where it is when replaying. The H4N has a built-in pair of perfectly serviceable condenser microphones that are well up to the job of doing test recordings.
It's amazing what degree of filtering our ears/brain perform when sitting in a living room listening to and watching someone playing an upright piano. A sound recorder does not do that sort of filtering, and it's very revealing to play it back and listen to what your intended audience to the recording will hear when all they have to go on is the acoustic sound.
Here's an article on piano recording. There is a specific call-out about 2/3 of the way through that talks about recording uprights.
I think we can talk about microphones and pre-amps when you have some idea of how the sound source comes across in a test recording.
I have a lovely 1889 Upright that they call an upright grand...even though there is no such thing. It was marketing back in the day when pianos were sold door to door. It's a big piano and has a beautiful cabinet.
Anyway.....I've had it for many years. It holds tune really well and has a nice sound to it. I've mic'd it in so many ways with so many different setups that like my friends from over the pond have said, it's going to be a crap-shoot about what works best in the environment the piano lives in.
Several years ago a friend of mine was downsizing his studio and I bought a pair of Audix SCX-25AP mics from him. These solved a lot of things for me. Especially on the upright. As well as most things acoustic. I use my True Systems P2 preamp and I cheat (because I can) and add a Crown PZM to the formula in the back of the piano.
BUT...and here's the rub....this piano lives in it's own little treated spot in the studio. I pull it out from the wall when I record it and the PZM hangs on a stand behind the piano. I blend it more than use it's signal. The Audix mics I put in front and remove the upper case exposing the harp. The biggest problem with this is self noise from the player.
If I mic from the top it also works but doesn't get that honky-tonk piano sound I use this instrument for.
Anyway....follow the learned advice of my Englishmen friends. And in case I wasn't clear, I use Audix SPX-25AP mics...True Systems P2 mic pre and if you dont have an interface theres not much better than the Apollo stuff.
Super. Thanks all for your informative and instructive advice. One good thing - my piano's in the middle of the room.
That will make a HUGE difference. If it helps, some, like the compact Yamaha’s record better on the soundboard side. If you pull the upper front off one of these, you can hardly see a string!
There's another path you can take with this. I've seen this in a home studio set-up of a keyboardist who had very little room.
He had one of those Yamaha uprights......U? something....and he had added a passive Helpinstill pickup to it and would roll it out and throw up a U87 with the top open. That sounded pretty good on his recordings to my ear. Those Helpinstill pickups are pretty fantastic.
Interesting, thanks Dave I will check that out. And thank you Paul for the further suggestions.