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Recording Grand Piano (Classical)

Hi all,

Long post ahead, apologies in advance. I've done too much reading, and am paralyzed by indecision.

I'm in need of some advice. I've recently taken a piano faculty position at a University, and have been given quite a bit of funding to use as I see fit and I'd like to dedicate a portion of it to a decent 2-mic setup. As a preface, I would like to say that we have an excellent engineer who has a ton of experience and an awesome equipment list. He's also a very busy man, and I don't want to bother him every time I want to do a bit of recording, especially since I tend to record at odd hours. To be clear, I do have plans for a solo classical album, and I will be exclusively going through him when I record it.

What I'm looking to do is get as much quality as I can out of a 2-mic setup for publicity materials and what I refer to as "rough draft" recordings - recordings that are "practice runs" from rehearsals, performances at venues where I won't have an engineer, etc. I like these to be of sufficient quality so that I won't mind putting them on my website - you just never know when you'll have that unexpectedly good run. Additionally, I want my students to have more recording opportunities than they might ordinarily have, so that they can put together a decent portfolio for job/graduate school applications without being limited only to a small number of recordings to choose from.  For the most part, recording will be done in a fairly "live" 200-seat recital hall.

I am adamant about a 2-mic setup, simply because it's what I feel comfortable being able to set up by myself fairly quickly, and with minimal (ish?) hassle. I know that three or four would be better for overall quality - but like I said, for bigger performances and albums where I need the highest quality, I'll be working with our engineer. 

Here are the mics I'm considering (all pairs). I would like to keep the cost of microphones to $2500 or less, as I have other items to consider (stands, cables, an audio interface, and headphones, all of good quality):

SDCs

1) Neumann KM183 - Omni. Would use a typical AB/Spaced Pair setup.

2) Neumann KM184 - Cardioid. Would setup either XY or ORTF.

3) Budget Option: Rode NT55 (Interchangeable Cardioid and Omni capsules)

LDCs

1) Austrian Audio OC18 or 818 (Cardioid or Multipattern)

2) AKG C414 XLS (Multipattern)

3) Neumann  TLM 103 (Cardioid)

4) Budget Option: Audio Technica AT4033

For all of the above, I am absolutely open to other suggestions. I am having a devil of a time deciding between LDC and SDC. I love the warmth of LDCs, but conventional wisdom for piano recording tends to point towards SDCs. I'm also a bit hesitant about going for a fixed cardioid capsule as it may be nice to have the versatility if I want to experiment with different setups. The LDCs are, apparently, also good vocal microphones, so I can also use one for virtual guest lectures and the like.

Thanks in advance.

TLDR: I made the mistake of reading too much. Now I don't know what to do. Please help me pick a good 2-mic setup. 

Comments

Profile picture for user paulears
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7 years 4 months

paulears Sun, 05/09/2021 - 01:19

I’m an ex educationalist back in the real world. You have done plenty of reading but you are not asking the right people. You have an excellent engineer who you intend to use, but you are designing a system that physically is easy and simple for you? Can you not see the two huge issues. You do not want the most appropriate system for your space and your instrument, you want to spend the money on the most appropriate and simple system for you to use as the pianist. Would you want your engineer selecting the best new string, or would you get your piano tuner to make that choice, does your piano tuner adjust the instrument without your input? In circumstances like yours, the critical features are the space, the instrument and where the instrument sits in that space. Your engineer may think the best technique is a Decca tree and a few hundred pounds spent on arranging a few pulleys for quick suspension rather than a cathedral stand. You picked some interesting mics, but a pair of omnis in your room could sound absolutely horrible. Really truly awful. You need to do this as a group project because whatever you pick he has to use, even if it means he hates the sound and no engineer is happy with having to use somebody else’s setup they know is poorer than their ideal. If his role is engineer then why is the piano player calling the shots? Because that’s how it is in education. You have the pips and the budget, he suffers the consequences. Education does this all the time. The Beatles had George for the music and Geoff for the technicals and gradually those two because almost empathic and George knew Geoff would want to use technique 4 on the small string ensemble, and Geoff knew George would want to spread the bassoons away from the oboes, so his Decca Tree would need outriggers. 
 

You use the word ‘apparently’. Why not schedule a day and spend a little of your budget on some hired in mics and do some real tests and together see which work for you and talk about what you record. It builds relationships. You are doing what every educationalist does, take on other people’s roles, read and research and analyse the spend your budget. It rarely works. My 15 years revealed it time after time. The engineer effectively gets given your choice and is expected to make it work. If they do not have an opinion, as some sadly don’t, then they are not very good. You say he is awesome and has excellent equipment, so why are you buying kit you’ve not even held in your hand? Surely anything you buy should be complimentary to what you already have. If after you buying the new kit, he can still make better recordings, then you wasted the money. Do you select pieces to play based on playing an easier piece really well, or a harder piece that will take days of practice to perfect?  Or maybe just let somebody else select it for you?
 

I'm not having a pop, just saying that your idea is essentially to use a compromised technique with excellent mics to produce the best result, based on a guess formed by random research. It’s flawed.

 

An X/Y pair is the safe bet on a high stand if you want a distant perspective and the room really is conducive to it. Spaced pairs in bland spaces are often horrible. An omni in a cathedral can sound wonderful because the acoustics are interesting and unconventional, maybe even lopsided. In a smaller space it will just be a live room so there isn’t much to actually capture that adds rather than detracts from the instrument. Even X/Y in a bland space is dull. 
 

My suggestion is to have two systems. The concert system your engineer is comfy with that really captures the space realistically AND a closer perspective system. Perhaps just a pair of 414s as they are multi-pattern and you can use a full stick or even lid off approach to get some sense of the instrument. Close in Blumlein or even just twin mic hi/low spacing and then nice artificial reverb for your own recordings. If the instrument sounds nice when you play it, a closer technique would replicate this in your recordings? I can’t really agree with you on the warmth thing with diaphragm size for piano. All mics sound different, and some sound lovely on a Yamaha but fail on a Steinway. Hire or borrow some and use your ears, and ignore reviews done by people who you cannot trust. Some reviewers are grade 7 piano, and they think it qualifies them. My concert pianist friend has a Yamaha C3 and never records it because in his house it records awfully. He uses the pianoteq simulation and he is very, very picky. I still have vintage AKG451s but the 414s are real workhorses, rarely producing anything less than OK no matter how you use them.
 

Teaching staff making decisions on technical staff’s area of work is the cause of so much wasted money and I’m feeling it here. Many will tell you they are happy with this. Behind the scenes I’ve never found this to be true. I’ve done it myself. Presented my technician with my choice of kit and it sits unused and unloved while they find every reason for not using it. Sometimes I was right, sometimes I was wrong, but when I became a department head, the best solution was always try before buy and involve everyone. Some academics picked kit that was simply within their comfort zone. One bought what he used doing his Phd, thirty years before because his technology stopped dead at that point. I discovered the technicians had a graveyard. Full of teaching staff mistakes quietly hidden away as they were stupid purchases to everyone bar the person who picked it, who often was also grateful for it being ‘lost’.

In education there is also pathetic understanding of industry practice, so your single person array could suddenly be detected as a two person job, by the H&E department audit, wrecking the entire concept. 
 

A pile of preformed aluminium tube with mic clamps and quick clamps and proper ceiling pulleys and lines can get an array rigged by one person up amazingly quickly if properly designed. You drop it in, attach the mics and pull it out. The angles and placement always identical, the cabling always available. A couple of tie off points and pre-formed loops to set the height. In our old recital room we had this and could rig four mics and get it back up in two minutes. X/Y and M/S, four cables coiled in a corner. Recording in ten minutes. After I left, it was not used for six months instead of daily and then the technician left and it was removed by the new one. That’s education.

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1 month 2 weeks

GoldenBrahms Sun, 05/09/2021 - 10:26

 

paulears wrote: You are doing what every educationalist does, take on other people’s roles, read and research and analyse the spend your budget.

 Wow. You've summed this up so succinctly.

Don't misunderstand me, I really appreciate the time you put into this write-up, and I think you've really struck at something here. Like all academics, I've overestimated my "research" as compensatory for actual technical skill. Nonetheless, thank you for your recommendations, and for suggesting the 414s. I've used them before, and enjoyed the sound I was able to get out of them. Our engineer has a pair of 414 XLS in his locker, so I assume that he would endorse them as well.

As it happens, I do have a call scheduled with him later this week - I wanted to go into the call prepared to talk about a few options, and see what he thought. 

Profile picture for user Davedog
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Davedog Mon, 05/10/2021 - 12:30

A pair of 414's under hood is the way to go for a quick quality capture. Not much futzing around needed. Maybe slide the placements before you ever need EQ.

 

Profile picture for user paulears
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7 years 4 months

paulears Mon, 05/10/2021 - 15:13

One of these was made on two close field 414s, and the other is the Pianoteq - and I don't know which. Memory says the Krommer was later and would be the synthesised one, but the pianist is convinced the Handel is the Pianoteq. I really cannot decide.

http://granthorsley.com/handel-2.html

http://granthorsley.com/krommer.html

These are not normal  recordings of course - they're designed for accompaniment practice, where a proper pianist is unavailable for regular sessions for expense or distance reasons - sort of classical karaoke. It's also very strange choices made by the higher level exam boards = not easy to listen to.

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1 month 2 weeks

GoldenBrahms Tue, 05/11/2021 - 19:22

In reply to by paulears

Oh gosh, is it bad I can't tell for sure? My ears/instinct say that the Handel is the 414, and the Krommer is the Pianoteq. Something about the resonance/sound of the attack in the Handel...but I'm not 100% sure! A testament to the quality of Pianoteq, I suppose.

wrote: One of these was made on two close field 414s, and the other is the Pianoteq - and I don't know which.

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markharmer Mon, 05/17/2021 - 01:46

First suggestion: be totally clear what the purpose of your piano recording is. In other words do you need a beautiful sound or something distinct / analytical? 

Until you do that, you are going to get a lot of different answers. You may or may not want a beautiful balanced piano sound in a lovely open acoustic! (Extreme example of that: as an accompanist sometimes I want a very close-up recorded sound, because that is absolutely appropriate if I have to record an accompaniment which will be replayed over a sound system to accompany a choir. By the time it’s replayed in a typical church hall, it will sound realistic, whereas the conventional recording will just be muddy, indistinct and impossible to follow. So a “bad” recording for listening may be the perfect one for another purpose).

My second suggestion is that once you have the purpose of your recording in mind, go and ask the person who you normally work with! I think if they know what you are trying to achieve, they will recommend something, and you will both be comfortable working with each other when you do need to work together. If you go it alone, you risk damaging the relationship and that is very difficult to go back from. Involve them, rather than potentially alienate them!

Profile picture for user paulears
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paulears Mon, 05/17/2021 - 06:51

Concur completely - thos recording I linked are far tto dry to be realitic, but the purpose Mark mentions is exactly right - Ballet music which we also do it recorded even dryer because it's always played in studios that sound crazily live, so having carefully balanced reverb would make it a mess. Piano music of any genre is so specific. always a challenge.

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8 years 8 months

markharmer Tue, 05/18/2021 - 03:11

In reply to by paulears

Thank you – I’m glad it wasn’t imagining this! Context is everything.

I ran a series called Sound essentials for musicians, in the Turner-Sims Hall at Southampton University in the 1990s. Part of it was about looking at the anatomy of sounds. I did some live manipulation of transients to show how important they are: that you can change the transient on a sound and that completely changes your perception of what the instrument is that is playing.

I was also doing a session on acoustics, and looking at the way that reflections give us clues as listeners about how far away recorded instruments are. I had a wonderful demonstration for this – an orchestra which was recorded in a huge anechoic chamber. Apparently they wore headphones so they had some reverb, otherwise it would have made playing incredibly unpleasant for them. Listening to this recording on normal quality studio speakers, it sounds as if every instrument in the orchestra is right next to you. Quite unpleasant and unnatural! Without the early reflections, there is no clue about the distance the instruments are away from you / each other. There is left/right information, but not front/back, so it sounds like the orchestra is strung out in a single line right in front of you.

Anyway, just before I started the lecture, one of my lovely big studio loudspeakers blew an amplifier, and the people at the University managed to find a pair of good quality speakers to replace them. I did a quick test using one of my smaller recordings to get the sound levels right on their speakers, and launched into the session. 

When it came to playing the anechoic recording, I introduced it and flagged up that it would sound highly unpleasant and unnatural because of the lack of any reflections. When I went to play it – for the first time in that hall, because of the speaker problem – it sounded astonishingly realistic. I was really taken aback. Thinking about it, I had an orchestra full of instruments recorded without any acoustic, and then played into a concert hall acoustic. So essentially – albeit lacking the front to back information, you were pretty much replicating real instruments playing in that hall. Good lesson for me!

Since then I’ve done a ton of other projects, some of which have been pretty unusual. Most of them, actually! I created a lot of music for children with profound and multiple learning difficulties/sensory impairments, and other music to support groups of children and workers in typical play-settings, which was often be a large, untreated hall. So the appropriate recording quality – often, very dry – has to consider the replay space. Your ballet example is spot-on!

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