Recording Piano, November 1997

May 17, 2004 12:00 PM



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All photos taken at OTR Studios by Muffy Kibbey

One of the most amazing creations in the universe of musical instruments, the piano is capable of everything from delicate melodic expressions to brute percussive attacks. It has been the vehicle for timeless classics like Brahms’ transcendent Concerto for Piano & Orchestra No. 2 and for the jazz playfulness of Chick Corea’s “Spain.”

Rock ’n’ roll, blues and R&B’s finest moments have also been served well by the piano, thanks to Jerry Lee Lewis, Charles Brown, Fats Domino, Allen Toussaint and many others.

Capturing piano on tape is an undertaking that requires a good understanding of the instrument at hand and its effect on the room in which it is being recorded. Mix rounded up four experts, two of them professional pianists, to talk about some of the subtleties of recording piano. The points of view range from classical to rock, and the philosophies include seeing mono as the best way to present the instrument and touting the virtues of dead strings.

Thanks to Jim Dickinson, John Hampton, Richard King and Cookie Marenco for their insight and enthusiastic participation in this piece. Thanks also to Ellen Fitton and Michael Omartian for their input.

Memphis-based producer and session keyboardist Jim Dickinson has produced critically acclaimed albums for Ry Cooder, Big Star, The Replacements, Mojo Nixon, Toots Hibbert, Jason & The Scorchers, Claw Hammer and Mose Vinson. Dickinson has enjoyed a successful piano and keyboard sideman career on notable releases by the Rolling Stones, Dr. John, Eric Clapton, The Cramps, Arlo Guthrie, Los Lobos, Aretha Franklin, Carman McRae and, most recently, Bob Dylan. Dickinson engineered Phineas Newborn’s Grammy-nominated jazz piano album, Solo, and has worked with Ry Cooder on 11 movie soundtracks.

First off, I want to dispel some mythology, which is that you should mike the piano from the inside. I’ve gone back to recording piano mono. I did record stereo piano for years, which I now think is incorrect, because you simply don’t listen to the piano with your head inside it. The whole idea of stereo piano, which is a ’70s idea, is totally incorrect. You can create a kind of false stereo, if you’re interested in the horrible idea of separating the left hand from the right hand, which of course, no piano player would want to do. You’re trying to create the illusion of one big hand anyway.

When you sit behind the piano, you do hear the treble in your right ear, and the bass in your left ear, but no one else does. It really depends where you think the piano image goes in the stereo spectrum. If you see the stereo spectrum as 9 o’clock to 3 o’clock, I think the piano goes at 1:30, for instance.

The lid of the grand piano is designed to project the sound out horizontally to an opera or concert hall, and the sound of that piano actually focuses about ten or 12 feet in front (meaning the audience side of the piano that the lid is open to) of the instrument, which is why it’s idiotic to put the mic inside it.

The best textbook example of concert hall grand piano recording that you could ever want is found in a documentary from the late ’50s of the Glenn Gould Columbia sessions. There are microphones all over the room, but they are recording in mono. There isn’t a microphone any closer than eight feet. There are some microphones considerably farther away. [The engineers] recorded with no EQ and no compression, and when they wanted more top end, they simply turned up the microphones that were close to the top end. It was just a beautiful thing to watch. They were recording with a mono unit and a stereo unit, which was really a safety, because the needle moved in unison on both tracks. Even with the multi-microphone approach, these old-school Columbia recording engineers were making a blending of the different mics. That’s what a grand piano sounds like.

Much of vintage rock ’n’ roll is an upright or a spinet piano, which is of course a vertical harp rather than a horizontal harp, and a whole different miking technique. The Jerry Lee Lewis records were cut on a spinet piano, with a microphone placed behind it, because on an upright or spinet, the sound comes from the back of the sound board. There is a place between the struts there, to the treble end of the keyboard, behind the third brace, where there is a sweet spot on any upright or spinet piano. That is where I mike it.

The Jerry Lee Lewis piano recordings were interesting in that part of the piano sound was coming through the back of the vocal mic, as well. On my recordings of old blues musicians, I like to mike the front of an upright piano so I can get the sound of the fingernails on the keys. That is a subtle thing, but to a piano player, it makes a big difference. Some players click louder than others. It adds personality. It is a question of what you think you’re recording from a keyboard player.

On the movie soundtrack of The Border, we had an old piano that came out of Amigo Studios, and it had a sticker on it that said, “This is the property of the Los Angeles County School System.” It had been painted white with house paint. Nobody used it, except for us. Nobody cared what I did to it, so I could cover the strings with duct tape and tinfoil, and whatever else I wanted to use. The strings were all really dead, so there weren’t any overtones, which is what I wanted it for. I wanted the piano that way to ensure that its sound would not interfere with the guitar’s tonalities. Someone might wonder why I would choose dead strings. Why not just EQ out the clashing frequencies on the piano? Well, I’d rather listen to signal than EQ.

The overtone series of a piano is very complex. The longer the strings, the more dominant the overtones are going to be. With dead strings, the first thing that goes are the overtones. The deader the strings, the more prominent the principal frequencies. With Ry, the guitar is a dominant instrument, so it is imperative that the piano is out of the way. Conversely, if I was making just a piano record, I would want a strong representation of overtones from a piano.

My personal favorite piano is an old white Bush & Gerts that was made in Chicago before World War II that I took out of Stax Recording. The best piano that I ever put my hands on is Willie Nelson’s sister’s full-sized grand piano at Arlyn Studios in Austin, Texas. I can never remember the name of it. It was just this fabulous instrument that made a Bosendorfer sound like a Kimball. It is exactly the kind of instrument I normally don’t like, but this one is wonderful. I have known that piano for 15 years, and it has gotten better. Steinways are really best-suited for classical players.

There is a piano down on Beale Street in Memphis that is absolutely whipped; yet every time I sit down and play it, I enjoy the experience. Here is this old piano that Mose Vinson and God knows who else has played since Year One, and you can feel the humanity through the ivory keys…something that plastic can never convey.

You can be “Save the Elephants,” and all that, but I’m sorry, man, give me ivory keys. I like elephants as much as anybody, but I hate to put my fingers on plastic keys. It feels like a synthesizer. Ivory feels so much better. You can feel the ivory feel, the wood and the felt on the hammer and the metal on the string. It’s all part of what’s in your hand, and it’s a wonderful feeling. Now that’s a piano, and there is not a real piano player on Earth who won’t understand what I’m saying.

Since the late ’70s, John Hampton has worked with a wide range of artists, including B.B. King, Travis Tritt, The Replacements, Vaughan Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Robert Cray, Alex Chilton, Little Texas, the Bar Kays and Afghan Whigs. Hampton’s productions of the Gin Blossoms have gone multi-Platinum, and for a number of years many of Nashville’s most successful country artists have come to his home base studio, Ardent Recording, in Memphis for his engineering and mixing expertise.

A piano was meant to be heard phase-coherently. When you listen to a piano, you’re hearing the piano hammers hitting the strings, and the sound reflecting off the lid and coming to your ear. It’s all pretty phase-coherent out there where you’re standing, because it’s all hitting your ears at the same time.

There are a lot of people who’ll put one mic on the bass strings, and then about three-and-a-half feet away, another mic on the top strings. Now, you’ve got your low end happening in one speaker and you’ve got your top end happening in one speaker, but what about the strings in between, which is the main part of the piano where most people play? You’ve got the sound meeting these microphones at all these different timing intervals, and it’s totally not coherent. In a mix, if you pan it left and right, it sounds like it’s coming from behind your head. That’s not correct.

There are several ways to obtain a phase-coherent piano recording. If you want the low end of the piano on one side and you want the high end of the piano on the other side, that’s fine; but there are a lot of ways to obtain that and still have phase-coherency to where the strings in between don’t sound like they’re coming from behind your head. One of them is MS stereo, or mid-side stereo. I love mid-side stereo. An MS recording of a piano can give you a truly phase-coherent, left-to-right picture of the piano without all the weird phase distortion on the keys between the low and the high.

The best microphone I have found for that application is the Shure VP-88. Put the mic over the hammers, but not too close, because you don’t want the mid-strings to be louder than the low strings and the high strings. Pull it back a foot or so from the hammers and put it on the “M” setting, which is a medium MS picture. If you do that, then you will have a phase-coherent picture of the piano. You also don’t need to EQ the VP-88 because it’s such a natural-sounding microphone.

There’s a French method of miking a piano, called ORTF, that was developed back in the ’70s. You take a couple of mics, like [Neumann] KM84s, and put them in an X-Y setup with the capsules seven centimeters apart. That’s the magic number. It’s actually not phase-coherent on the frequencies that are seven centimeters long, but it gives a fairly phase-coherent picture of a piano, low to high.

My favorite method, believe it or not, is to put two PZMs back to back—just tape them together. I will put them 12 to 15 inches above where the hammers hit the strings. They need to be the kind of PZMs with the high-frequency boost. With those, you never need to EQ the piano.

Those are the three ways that I have recorded piano and consistently experienced the most satisfying results.

Richard King has traveled all over the world recording symphonic, small chamber group and solo piano music. As a senior recording engineer for Sony Music Studios in New York, King has worked with Yo-Yo Ma, Riccardo Muti and the Filarmonica della Scala, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra and many revered classical pianists, such as Yefim Bronfman, Emanuel Ax, Murray Perahia, as well as other renowned artists and ensembles.

The two main elements needed are a good piano and a good hall. After agreeing on a recording venue, the producer and artist will choose a piano, out of many pianos, so they are really deciding on what piano sound they want based on the instrument. I only use two omnidirectional microphones, and I really rely on the piano sounding exactly the way the artist and everyone is expecting it to sound. From that, I try to duplicate exactly what we are getting in the hall. Very rarely will I add any additional mics to enhance the hall sound.

For mics, the B&K 4009 is my choice, which is a high-powered, 130-volt input mic that has been matched at the factory. People would probably be more familiar with the 4003, which is a powered omni. The 4009 is a matched pair of those. They match them throughout production, choosing pairs of caps and other elements to build them. They are a true stereo pair. The serial numbers are an A and a B. B&K 4006s are good, too.

On a number of occasions, I have also used the Schoeps MK2S, which is again an omni with a high-frequency shelf. The B&K has a peak way up high, around 18 kHz. So it has more of a sparkle on the top end, rather than the brightness characterized by the Schoeps. The B&K is a little tighter than the Schoeps on the low end.

I will use outboard preamps and go straight to tape, so there is no console involved. I have used, with great success, fully discrete Swiss-made preamps made by Sonosax. They are solid-state, and they’re very fast. The extension to the low and high end is very good. Like the B&K mics, it’s incredibly quick, which is a sound that I like.

I’ve also used the Millennia preamp, which is very good. It has a 130-volt input on it, so I can use the high-powered B&Ks without their own power supply, which I think is inferior. I can go straight into the Millennia with a 130-volt line, which is kind of nice. We’ve customized the input gain stage to 1½dB steps on the Millennias in order to optimize level to tape. Millennia did the mods for us.

The other thing that I’ve done on occasion is put my A/D out on the stage with the piano, and then just run an AES snake back to the control room to the tape machine, so that I’m converting digital on stage, so the analog line is getting pretty short.

We record 2-tracks. We’ve used the Nagra Digital tape machine with great success. It’s a 4-track machine, but I just put stereo down on it twice, for redundancy. Lately, we’ve been experimenting with 96kHz, 24-bit stereo, which we also store across four tracks of the Nagra. We’ve also used the Sony PCM 9000, which is a magneto-optical recorder, and also the Prism set up with the PCM 800, which is the same as the Tascam DA-88. It’ll do four tracks at 24-bit, but I’m just printing two mics again. So I just put the two mics down twice for redundancy.

I tend to prefer a liver hall. For my mic positioning, I could be anywhere from four feet to eight feet away from the piano. The mics are set, from the audience’s perspective, somewhere around the middle of the longest string on the piano, halfway down the instrument. The mics will be pointed, however, toward the hammers and are normally set up parallel to one another. For spacing the mics, I sometimes tend to go as tight as 18 inches apart, and I’ve been as wide as four or five feet. The mic spacing directly correlates to the desired image of the piano recording. The deciding factor depends on the repertoire and the sound that the producer and the artist want. It is always subjective.

I just did a record with Arcadi Volodos in England of all piano transcriptions, which means that orchestral scores were reduced to being played on a piano by one player. For that, it seemed right that we had a much larger piano image, so there was a much wider spread on the microphones. Prior to that, I did a record of Prokofiev piano sonatas, where I really wanted a good, solid center image, so I went with a tighter mic spread.

Obviously, with omnis you can’t pan them in at all, because there will be phase cancellation, so I always leave them hard left and right. In fact, I’m not even going through a console most of the time, so it really is just left and right. If I want more of a mono image, I’ll place the mics closer together.

If the hall isn’t so great, then I will also go a little tighter with the mics and add a little reverb. But generally, it’s all-natural recording, if I can get away with that. When I need to apply reverb, I like the Random Hall setting found on the Lexicon 480L. I also like the Small Random Church. Between the two of those, I can usually find something that I can work with. I always change the parameters and customize the settings—they’re just the settings I usually start with. I tend to pull down the Random Hall in size to around 31 or 34 meters, depending on the recording. Again, I’m trying to bring in something that matches the existing hall sound, because these recordings are never dry. I try to sneak in something where you can’t actually tell that I’ve added additional reverb, so I am very careful to match the characteristics of the existing room reverb.

On a 480, I find that the Shape and the Spread controls offer a lot of flexibility. There is also a high-frequency cutoff, which enables you to change the basic overall sound of the reverb without actually running an additional EQ stage. I only do this if the hall isn’t so adequate. Most piano records that I have done have just been two mics and that’s it—no EQ and no additional reverb.

Sometimes, if a grand piano sounds a little “covered,” I’ll extend the stick [the prop that holds up the lid]. I’m always on a full stick [the piano lid fully propped open] anyway, but if I want the piano to sound a little more open, I’ll bring a piece of wood that is maybe another four inches longer than the regular stick, and put the lid up slightly higher. I’ve used a pool cue with great success, because of the rubber base of the stick and the felt tip. It doesn’t damage the piano, and it gets the lid open a little bit more.

Concerning panning, I always go with the image of the lower notes to the right side and the high notes coming out of the left, so it’s always audience perspective for me. There are usually some tell-tale extreme low notes that come from the right, and extreme high that comes from the left, but the main sound of the piano comes from the middle. I think that most people in jazz and pop do the opposite panning, which is from the player’s perspective.

My absolute favorite hall to record in is on the east coast of England. It’s called Snape Maltings. It used to be the malting place, where they created the malt that then would get shipped out to the brewery. It is an old brick building with a wooden roof, and it has a really great reverb. Even the higher notes of the piano ring into the room with a great sustain, but it’s still a very warm sound.

My favorite pianos are Hamburg Steinways. I think they record the best. For classical, the Hamburg Steinway has a better balance of low and high notes. The Hamburg Steinways also seem to be a little better for me than the New York Steinways. I find that Bosendorfers sound great, but for some reason I’ve had real trouble recording them. It’s kind of a wild instrument. The Steinway sounds the most even over microphones. I’ve used Yamahas for pop and jazz, and they are really great for that, but for classical I find they’re a little too bright.

Before Cookie Marenco entered the wonderful world of engineering and producing, she was a professional jazz keyboardist who had been classically trained since the age of 4. Since 1981, Marenco has owned and run a San Francisco Bay Area studio called OTR, and she also worked as an A&R person during Windham Hill’s ’80s glory years. Her credits as an engineer include Mary Chapin Carpenter, Charlie Haden Quartet West, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Brain & Buckethead, Mark Isham, Turtle Island String Quartet, Phillip Aaberg, Steve Swallow, Carla Bley, Glen Moore, Ralph Towner, Oregon and Clara Ponty.

One of the hardest things to find is a good piano in a good studio. At my studio, I have a 7-foot Steinway that was built in 1885. A lot of people from all over come to play on it. As a player, I like the Steinway for the touch and because there is a roundness to the sound that I prefer. We keep the piano brighter than most Steinways. We don’t voice it down as much as a classical instrument for a concert, but it wouldn’t be as bright as a Yamaha, which tends to be a brighter-sounding instrument.

You can hear the difference between the various pianos once you get familiar with all of them. You can hear a recording and tell if it’s a Yamaha, Steinway or Bosendorfer. Sometimes Steinways get a little muddy in the midrange, between the octave below middle C and the octave above it. That’s the only thing you have to watch for in a Steinway.

Usually, when I record a piano, I’ll use two B&Ks, the 4011s or the 4012s, placed in sort of a “V” position, about eight or nine inches apart, with one mic pointed toward the keyboard and one pointed toward the back end of the piano. They’ll be placed at more of a 45-degree angle, somewhere in the center of the instrument, where the midrange is, about halfway up, between the piano lid and where the strings sit. If I do that, I get a lot of clarity in the middle.

If I’m doing more of a classical session, the mics may be backed off more—not even inside the piano—to get more of the room. It depends more on the sound that the artist is looking for. If I was in a situation where I didn’t have B&Ks, then [Neumann] KM84s would be another choice. The Schoeps mics work well, too.

You really have to listen, because every player attacks the piano differently. Even slightly different positioning or placements in a room can change the phase relationships. On a lot of the 9-foot pianos, I’ll even put up a couple of other floor mics, as sort of “insurance” mics, to capture the range of the instrument. I’m a big fan of stereo piano. Mono piano drives me crazy. I know a lot of classical engineers will record with one mic, but if there aren’t two tracks of piano, then what’s the point? [Laughs]

You know what drives me nuts is that whole low/high issue—with the bass of the piano on the left side and the treble end of the piano on the right. When I get that in reverse, my whole world goes bananas. There’s nothing wrong with it; it’s just me psychologically. I just can’t handle it. Unless it’s a solo piano record, I rarely hard-pan left and right. It depends on the instrument and the instrumentation, because I don’t necessarily pan at “10” and “2.” If I have a lot of guitars going on, I might do an “11” and “5.”

When I am laying down tracks, I try not to EQ anything. I try to go flat. Almost always, I am using Dolby SR. I prefer everything analog. With digital, I find that the transients are compromised. I don’t like the sound of what digital does to an instrument like a piano, or any kind of plucked or attacked instrument. Every generation of digital gives you more unpleasantness on the top end.

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