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Recording solo classical piano

Hi all,
I'm really curious to hear everyone's favourite way to record the piano. To me, this is one of the most interesting challenges in recording classical music. I know it's a huge area, and there are so many ways to do it that there could be an entire classical piano forum.

I've recently heard a particularly wonderful recording with two MKH-20s into a Focusrite ISA-428. I heard another great one with two Neumann M149s, but I don't know what the rest of the recording chain was.

Anyway, I look forward to hearing lots of ideas!

John Stafford

Comments

JoeH Mon, 01/03/2005 - 10:54
For solo classical piano, my techniques are similar to Ben's, at least for the B&K 4006's in a spaced omni pair config. It's really hard NOT to mess it up with that pair of mics.

I also (sometimes) put a large diaphragm mic (AT 4050, etc.) at the tail end of the piano (near the base of the low strings, actually, looking at the performer, but situated at the far end of the piano) if we're having issues with the low end. This all began once when a client complained of not enough "oomph" and/or detail on the low end. Until this request, I would have never considered it, but since I was recording on multitrack, I figured it was worth a shot. In the end, it did help, but just a little. (Plus it's nice for an added low end/bass management if you're ever going to mix in surround, etc.)

I also like to put up a second set of omni's in the room (assuming it's a large enough space to make it worth your while....) These mics are much higher up, about 10-15 feet out from the instrument, with the goal being to capture the sound of the piano IN the room. (Yes, we can dial in all kinds of great reverb (and Samplitude/Sequoia has some KILLER room sims that I use all the time) but I like to capture as much real sound as possible, and mix it to taste later, in my studio, after we're done recording and our ears have gotten a rest.

Between the main stereo omni pair, the low end mic, and the ambient pair, that's five mics: overkill or necessity, depending on the situation and the project at hand.

And it's always worth pointing out that the piano itself has to be up to snuff. Steinways are arguably everyone's favorite, esp the model D's, etc. There are of course many other good instrument makers out there, and at that point it comes down to taste & personal preferences: Yamaha, Mason & Hamlin, Estonia, Bosendorfer, etc.

I have also gotten somewhat snobby over the years with the size of the instrument; I usually check out the low end of a piano right away. If it's less than a 7' instrument, it's usually not worth it as a solo instrument. I dunno about anyone else, but my ears IMMEDIATELY hear that "fake" low end that occurs with thicker strings, instead of LONGER strings. The overtones don't sound the same, and to my ears, it all begins to sound like a spinet. That may be ok for an ensemble instrument or for accompaniment, but it sucks for solo piano work. Don't get yourself caught in a situation where they're trying to get you to make a cheap piano sound like a Richter recording....it's not going to happen no matter WHAT mics or preamp you use....

Last but not least is the room itself. A live room that's not overly reverberant is ideal. Wood is usually your friend; steel, glass and concrete usually isn't. Hopefully you'll be able to record in a space that gives you all of the magical ingredients: A good instrument, good acoustics, (NO audience if poss.) and above all a good performance by a talented artist.

If you've got all that, your job at that point will mainly be to NOT screw it up, no matter what mics you choose. :lol:

JoeH Thu, 01/27/2005 - 07:32
That's a beautiful sound you've achieved there, David!

If you didn't add any reverb yourself, I am all the more impressed with the acoustic of that theater. Amazing; what a space to have! (I can never get tired of hearing "Pictures," either.)

That certainly sounds like an ideal "Recital" sound, and what you described for the piano mic'ing makes perfect sense. On the other hand, I'd expect a completely different sound for what Ben's describing when he says "Film score." (Maybe he can elaborate...)

FifthCircle Thu, 01/27/2005 - 09:00
Sure... I wouldn't do that mic technique for a solo date as it would be too close to the instrument (I prefer a stereo mic out a bit or a pair of spaced omnis), but for Film Score, I mean recording of music for film.

When I have a film orchestra to record, often the piano will play a central role in the sound. There will likely be a number of solos along with the ensemble work. For the big orchestral dates, the sound of the piano is big and lush, but has to be very controlled for the mixdown.

--Ben

bap Fri, 01/21/2005 - 19:39
Old Mason & Hamlins are something. I once had a 1930's 7' with mahogany veneer that I got at an estate sale for $6000. A technician friend repaired soundboard cracks and re-strung and re-did hammers, shanks, and dampers with Renner parts. It was lovely and had the fattest legs I've ever seen on a piano.

I had to sell it [not for $60,000!] but got some profit out of the deal. It was truly a magnificent instrument.

Some of the older Chickerings are well respected as well.

DavidSpearritt Thu, 01/27/2005 - 12:14
If you didn't add any reverb yourself, I am all the more impressed with the acoustic of that theater. Amazing; what a space to have! (I can never get tired of hearing "Pictures," either.)

This theatre is really stunning. We are so lucky to have recorded many many concerts in here over the last 5 years. Chamber music and string quartets in particular sound unbelievable.

A year ago we recorded the great Quatuor Mosaiques in there, with an SF12. This recording can never be produced of course, but its one of my favourite recordings of all time. The other is the recording we did of Stephens Hough and Isserlis doing the Rachmaninov cello sonata, this was a world class performance. Same magnificent piano.

Nagata Acoustics and Bligh Voller Architects were responsible.
http://www.nagata.co.jp/gyoseki/brisbane-e.htm
I think Nagata got the current job of revamping the Sydney Opera House concert hall (over Arup Acoustics) due largely to his achievements in the Con Theatre in Brisbane.

What it allows us to do, is to test mic techniques and get fantastic feedback on each technique and how it works. This is why I love Blumlein and ribbons, but I recognise that a good hall is required.

DavidSpearritt Thu, 01/27/2005 - 13:25
Yeah, my brother in law is a violinist in the Berlin Phil and he has played in the Disney Hall and says its amazing.

My inside sources now say that Nagata and Russell Johnson (Artec) are probably the world's top acousticians for music halls. Check out the technology used in Russell Johnson's designs. He loves MASS, big concrete walls, floors for retaining bass in a hall, ie don't let it get out. This is difficult to do, apparently.

The project pictures on this site are worth a look.

http://www.artec-usa.com/index_projects.html

John Stafford Mon, 01/03/2005 - 20:55
Thanks everyone for the input.

I too think that anything less than 7' for a piano isn't really good enough. I love the overtones you get with a decent piano.

I usually use one of two Steinways (a 7' and a 9')or a Schimmel. The big Steinway is in a huge room but the sound in there isn't great, but it is very dead, so I can work with it. I've been surprised by how many classical pianists initially like cardioids inside the piano and close to the hammers -in a sort of 'pop' configuration. Maybe it's the novelty value, given that this mic technique captures the sound that is the furthest from the pianists own experience, but even with lesser mics (and I do mean LESSER!), I've always found that the room simply has to be allowed to play its part before the magic can happen.

I'll be recording a friend of mine who has a rather nice piano in his house. It's in a huge room that sounds pretty good. I'm going to try my AT4060 (if it ever arrives!), but as I will only have one of them I'll have to do a lot of experimenting with combinations. I might be able to borrow a pair of C414s to fall back on.

Something tells me that Audix TR-40s could come in handy as well, and they're on my future acquisitions list.

Thanks again everyone,
John

JoeH Thu, 01/27/2005 - 20:31
Ah yes; Russell Johnson.... He's one of the acousticians/designers of the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts here in Philadelphia - he was onsite for quite a while during the first year of operation in both Verizon Hall and the Perelman theater. They did a lot of listening and tweaking for at least a year, as things settled in. Both halls are 'tunable' for various types of music.

They're fairly easy to configure, and as time goes by, they're gathering more and more data on what music sounds best in which config. You can see more at: http://www.kimmelcenter.org.

TanTan Sun, 01/02/2005 - 09:01
Hi ,

I've never tried the m149s on piano , but i've also heard they are great for the job ,

A few weeks ago i recorded a piano with a pair of u67's with a very sweet sounding results , i've brought over my pair of neve 1064 preeq's and that was great for this application,
I've tried to add another m48 for getting more "center bass" , i used a focusrite (220 i think , isn't it the same pre from the blue series as the 428 ?) they had in the studio and the focusrite blue sounded thin synthetic the eq is unmusical and colorless , i wouldn't use it for piano !

John Stafford Thu, 01/20/2005 - 23:47
Sonarerec wrote: [quote=John Stafford]I'm afraid DPAs are a little beyond my budget!

Then try the 4061s-- the noise is not quite as low as 4006, but thety can be found for about $400ea, and if yu remove the grill entirely the response is flat, rather than with the presence boost.

Rich
Rich
This is probably me being a snob, but I never really considered these because of the price. Are they that good?

Thanks
John

John Stafford Thu, 01/20/2005 - 23:58
Simmosonic wrote: The 4015 has an on-axis high frequency boost that, combined with its wide cardioid response, actually works very well - believe it or not! It allows you to get back a good distance and capture a very full-bodied sound, while the on-axis boost effectively 'reaches in' to the instrument and pulls all the transient detail out so it's not dull at all.

Greg
This is what got me interested in the Neumann KM-183, but by all accounts the on axis boost leads to harshness instead. Having said that I haven't tried this mic myself, but I'd like to compare the two some time. I'd be interested in micing a choir using these from a bigger distance than one might normally use.

John

Member Fri, 01/21/2005 - 00:40
Personally I do not think you would like what you'd hear. Sibilants and crunchiness do not really smooth out with distance with brighter mics.

As for 4003s, yes, they are that good, but now you can get the 4006 transformerless and you are VERY close to a 4003.

I would use the DPA 4061 without the grid before I'd use the 130s or ATs. The 4061 are flat without the grid.

Rich

JoeH Fri, 01/28/2005 - 07:13
I'm in there all the time, at least 1x per week, sometimes more depending on dress rehearsals and multiple nights. We just did a concert opera in Perelman Theater (it airs this Sunday) and one of my main clients is the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, also performing there this weekend - dress on Sat., concerts Sunday and Monday; Joseph Silverman is guest violinist & conductor.

George does the Phila O in Verizon Hall and I see him a lot; a great, terrific guy. (His humor cracks me up whenever I run into him.) We've both rolled with the punches with Verizon (him moreso than I - I'm in Perelman much more often, while he's got a booth/room in Verizon for the Orch.).

Verizon is much nicer than the early nervous critics were bitching about; it's got a lovely texture to record in, but in the final analysis, not a whole lot better (or worse) than the Academy of Music, just different, and it varies wildly depending on where you sit. I've done St. Olaf's Choir in there (for a broadcast), as well as various other Choral and Orchestral Groups, and again the Chamber Orch of PHila. when they play in there. It's a great place, and the inside joke is that the CHEAP seats up on the 2nd & 3rd tiers sound the best! :twisted: . (Pics are on my website under current events if you want to see more...) They can alter the resonance of the hall with a series of panels that swing in and out, closing up or opening resonant chambers up and around the shoulders of the staging area. (The hall itself is like the insides of a giant cello - the stage area near the top, or "Shoulders" of the cello.) It's all under computer control, and they've been working with it since the day it opened, generating presets and getting more adept with it as time goes by, during rehearsals and sound checks. (email me privately about Russell Johnson and co.)

Again, the critics have not nec. been real kind to it (because it wasn't "Perfect" right out of the box), but it works nicely in general (I've have nothing but excellent results so far), and people are still flocking to the place, even after it's novelty has worn off a bit. (Two separate concert halls, under a huge dome of arched glass, with a covered plaza connecting it all.) The overall boon to the arts smack dab in the middle of Center city (on what they are now calling "The Avenue of the Arts") is incaclulable. The Academy of Music - 2 blocks up the street - is in great shape, too (totally renovated over the years, and used constantly for Ballet, Opera and Broadway shows), and the Phila Orch is performing their 148 Anniversary Concert there this Saturday, if for no other reason than nostalgia.

Actually, there are many who never liked the sound of the Philadelphia Orchestra in there, claiming it was not a good place for a symphony orchestra, but it's arguably the very reason why/how the "Philadelphia Sound" developed. It is fundamentally an opera house, modelled/built after "La Scala" in Italy - which was no small reason why Muti had such a good time during his tenure here.

For me it's apples and oranges, they both have their place and usefulness. I'll admit that anything we ever did at the Academy of Music tended to 'Record itself" while the Kimmel, like any other modern, multifunction space tends to require a few extras (ambient mics highly recommended out in the house, for example), and the smaller hall like the Perelman theater can be VERY dry when set for the recital (small) side with a full house. (Nowhere to hide for the artist, either! ;-) )

I've revisited some of my older (analog & early digital) recordings from the Academy of Music, and said: "Wow, did we do THAT!?!?!" -they're that good. To be fair, the stuff from Kimmel is still too new, and I'm too close to it all. But happily, it means a lot of work for a lot people (musicians, union, ushers, etc.) and I for one am NOT complaining about the sound of either hall. I can easily work around any subjective limitations. (Never had a "bad" performance in there yet, due to acoustics, for example.)

I've done a solo piano recording with Christopher O'Reily ("From the Top") doing his "Radiohead" tribute show in Perelman, and the results were some of the best solo piano recordings we've done yet. (It's more close-mic'd and pop-flavored than a trad classical concert, but the Steinway they have - usually reserved for Perelman - is to DIE for....the thing practially records itself; it's gorgeous.)

Haven't done a solo recital in Verizon Hall yet, but I'm looking forward to that whenever it comes up.

FifthCircle Sun, 01/02/2005 - 10:21
Piano is strangely difficult to record... To get the perfect sound can be the search for the elusive goal. :D

A few techniques I have used-

Mid side pair- usually an AKG 426 or C-34. Varry the center pattern to bring hall ambiece in and out. Depending on the hall, I usually have the mic about 4-5 feet out and only about 4-5 feet high. Reflections, though, can cause a sound that is a bit mid-range heavy.

Blumlein- Same mics as above are the ones I usually use. I've also had good luck with the Royer SF-24

ORTF- I generally do a slightly wider spaced ORTF pair using Schoeps MK-21 capsules...

Spaced Omnis- One of my favorite techniques. I usually use my B&K 4006's for this. Space the mics about 3-4 feet apart and place about 7-8 feet high and about 5 feet out from the instrument.

--Ben

Simmosonic Fri, 01/21/2005 - 05:13
John Stafford wrote: This is what got me interested in the Neumann KM-183, but by all accounts the on axis boost leads to harshness instead. Having said that I haven't tried this mic myself, but I'd like to compare the two some time. I'd be interested in micing a choir using these from a bigger distance than one might normally use.

I wouldn't call the on-axis boost of the DPA 4015 'harsh', it is bright but in a sweet sounding way. It is not shelving. However, I don't think you'd like them for choir. The HF boost is actually quite directional, in my experience, and I think you'd end up facing the axis away from the musicians in general. Although you're talking about a bigger distance, so perhaps they'd work. Remember they are wide cardioids, so they pick up a bit more room sound than a cardioid, but not quite as much as an omni.

It is due to the directionality of the HF boost that I've been using them in a modified version of ORTF, with the angle much smaller. The first time I used them was in standard ORTF, on an organ/choir recording. When I sat down to master it, I noticed that there was a HF hole in the centre. Everything was there, but the sounds in the centre were sublty duller than those at the sides. It was one of those things that probably only an audio engineer would notice, not blatantly obvious. Fixed it by separating the audio into M and S components, mimicking the 4015's HF boost on the M signal, then decoding back to LR. No problem.

But then I started experimenting with less angle to keep a consistent HF balance across the stereo soundstage. They are extraordinary microphones, but you'd probably get a better result on a choir with a different technique.

- Greg Simmons

Simmosonic Sat, 01/15/2005 - 06:06
Early last year I did a concert recording that included a few pieces of violin and piano. It was a freebie and I was experimenting with a pair of DPA 4015 wide cardioids in a psuedo ORTF set-up. (17cm apart but much less than 110 degrees subtended angle. More like 60 degrees, I would imagine...)

The 4015 has an on-axis high frequency boost that, combined with its wide cardioid response, actually works very well - believe it or not! It allows you to get back a good distance and capture a very full-bodied sound, while the on-axis boost effectively 'reaches in' to the instrument and pulls all the transient detail out so it's not dull at all.

It's one of the best classical piano recordings I've made, although the piano itself is slightly mono and to the right because one half of the pair was pointing at the piano, while the other half was pointing at the violin. And I ought to point out that it was contemporary music, very angular and choppy, with lots of other little noises where the pianist would pluck the strings with his fingers and so on. The 4015 didn't miss a bit...

The piano lid was on full stick, and the mic was aligned with a line projected from the hinge of the piano lid and running half way between horizontal and the angle of the lid itself. It was about 2.5m away, and focused at the centre of the hammers. I figured a single 4015 in pretty much the same position, along with a bidirectional, might be worth trying as an MS rig for piano recording.

A short time later I did another freebie, grand piano only this time, and I tried a single 4015 with a Neumann KM120 as an MS pair. I think it would've worked well, had the piano not been set up on a flimsy temporary stage that literally conducted all the low frequencies out of it. It's a nice recording, but there are no lows in it - as there weren't in the room, either!

I'm keen to try some more piano recordings with the 4015, because I love the way it allows you to get back for a full sound, while also reaching inside for detail.

- Greg Simmons

FifthCircle Fri, 01/21/2005 - 07:40
Simmosonic wrote: I wouldn't call the on-axis boost of the DPA 4015 'harsh', it is bright but in a sweet sounding way. It is not shelving. However, I don't think you'd like them for choir. The HF boost is actually quite directional, in my experience, and I think you'd end up facing the axis away from the musicians in general. Although you're talking about a bigger distance, so perhaps they'd work. Remember they are wide cardioids, so they pick up a bit more room sound than a cardioid, but not quite as much as an omni.

Yeah... But we used these for the top pair of mics for the Concert at the Sydney Opera House last July on the choir... The do have that peak, but on the choir, we came from overhead and aimed down into the group. Worked beautifully.

--Ben

ptr Fri, 01/21/2005 - 07:58
John Stafford wrote: This is what got me interested in the Neumann KM-183...

Its quite interesting that You mention the KM 183, I have an upcomming session for the complete Rachmaninov preludes, and when I and the artist discussed what kind of sound to be preferd, the mentioning of the Decca piano sound of messers Wilkinson and Dunkerly was what got the loudest voicing. Not leat their recording of Vladimir Ashkenasy playing them at All Saints Church of Petersham, UK. I've only had this recording on LP and as such its a fantastic sounding recording. By chance I stoped by one of the local CD emporia today and there I found the latest CD incarnation of these. (Decca Legends 467 685-2). And despite a scent of tape hiss, I belive that this is a quite wonderful transfer.

Anyway what ia the most intersting information about this CD is that here Decca lists the equipment used :

Mixer - A purpose built 6 Channel unit by Roy Wallace. (also of Decca fame)
Microphones - Neumann KM 83
Monitors - Tannoy 'Canterbury' speakers
Tape Machine - Studer B62

I was not really prepared for the fact that they had used KM 83's,
much becuse I just passed up a second hand stereo pair. :(

I wonder if they just used two (As spaced omnis) or if they used som other kind of configuration? Any thaughts?

My own usual set up for grand piano resembles what has been written here about spaced omnis by Ben and JoeH. The Mic's I have preferd thus far are a pair of Neumann TLM 50 (4-6 feet from the middle of the rim, 4-5 feet up) + an aditional stereo pair further into the room, usualy KM 130's (usualy about 15-20 feet away from the instrument and atleast 10 feet up) to get more of the space.

My main take on recording piano is that the sound You get is very dependent on the room used.

/ptr

Cucco Fri, 01/21/2005 - 09:39
I can't imagine that I would add too much to this, but I also like to use a spaced omni pair with highlights depending on the room. However, I've also had good luck with ORTF using a pair of large diaphragm tubes (Oktavas). This produced a more "jazzy," well centered tone - but I also did the pattern relatively close (3 feet out and 2 feet higher than the lip).

FWIW, one of the best pianos I've ever heard was actually a 1940s 5' Mason and Hamlin. I would have put this piano against any 7' Stein or Bosendorfer. The resonator on it was as rich and as full as I've ever heard. This piano could still be yours if the price is right ($65,000 at a local vendor). I'm thinking about buying it someday - even though I don't play. I just can't imagine this thing going into some old bat's house who would never tune it/adjust it so she could play "Come to Jesus" every Sunday morning for her cats!

j...

Member Fri, 01/07/2005 - 22:48
John Stafford wrote: Something tells me that Audix TR-40s could come in handy as well, and they're on my future acquisitions list.

I used a pair of borrowed cardioid Audixes (model unknown) several months ago, and unless you have tried them and like them, DEFINITELY audtion them before buying.

Rich

Member Tue, 01/11/2005 - 18:20
Didn't mean to thwart thread-- my piano favs are DPA 4003s spaced 50cm. Depending on the room Schoeps M222/MK2H can be nice also.

I have tried other mics and techniques but to my ears these come closest to sounding like a piano.

I second the point on the size and quality of the instrument-- if it isn't REALLY fine (and completely in tune) you are wasting your time.

Rich

Member Wed, 01/26/2005 - 19:53
There were a few things I've tried out when recording classical piano that resulted in a very decent sound.

1. AKG 414's in an ORTF array pointing at the middle of the piano, standing about two feet away.

2. (you'll be surprised by this) A pair of Sennheiser MKH20's in an ORTF array (yes, a pair of near-co omni's) about a foot away from the middle of the piano.

FifthCircle Wed, 01/26/2005 - 23:02
phil2dot6 wrote:
2. (you'll be surprised by this) A pair of Sennheiser MKH20's in an ORTF array (yes, a pair of near-co omni's) about a foot away from the middle of the piano.

Not really. When I record Piano in film scoring situations, I'll often use a pair of omnis (usually Schoeps MK2S or MK5) in an ORTF configuration...

---Ben

DavidSpearritt Thu, 01/27/2005 - 00:19
phil2dot6 wrote: 2. (you'll be surprised by this) A pair of Sennheiser MKH20's in an ORTF array (yes, a pair of near-co omni's) about a foot away from the middle of the piano.

This is so close. You do this for solo piano? The closest we get when doing a solo piano in recital or for CD is about 2.5m.

Do you add reverb later?

DavidSpearritt Thu, 01/27/2005 - 00:45
Here is our most recent recorded solo piano project.

http://www.move.com.au/disc.cfm/3290

There a couple of MP3's to listen to. A magnificent 9ft concert Steinway, with an AKG426B as main pair in pure Blumlein, of course, with B&K 4003 outriggers, AKG into NagraV mic inputs, 4003's into 9098 then into Nagra line inputs, mixed live to 44/24. Almost no mastering, poofteenth of EQ to balance sessions months apart, no added reverb.

We were at least 2.5-3m away with the main pair and even further away with the outriggers.
x