Why Piano Recording Is So Challenging

Piano miking
Previous piano session miking using a matched pair of small-diaphragm condensers

In my last post, I mentioned in passing that I wrote a new piano composition. Well, now I’m getting ready to take it to the studio.  It’s called “Equinox,” and it’s eight minutes long, in the key of Db (also modulating to Ab and Gb/Ebm), has lots of tempo changes, uses nearly the entire keyboard, and requires all three pedals (yes, even the middle one).  Recording it, to say the least, is going to be challenging.

While one might think it would be easy to record one acoustic instrument, personally, I find it much harder to do well.  It’s so much more exposed; you can’t hide your problems.  There’s no covering up bad edits or poor tone-quality by burying it among other tracks.  With this kind of recording, you hear it all––the good and the bad.

Piano might be the hardest acoustic intrument to record.  The sheer frequency-range from the lowest to the highest key on the piano already eliminates certain mic choices, but capturing the nuances with the piano’s dynamic range is the real challenge.  You can get away with a lot when you’re working with a band that just “happens” to use some piano in a song.  But when the song is the piano––well…  You can’t get away with anything but the best recording and editing techniques.

But the technicalities of the engineering aren’t always the hardest part.  The mechanics of the piano itself can be problematic and delay schedules. If something goes wrong with a piano, it usually doesn’t have a simple fix.  In the process of learning to play “Equinox,” I already broke the sostenuto pedal.  The soste-what?  Not the right sustain pedal––the middle one (sostenuto).  I did fix it, but it involved a machinist, some glue, an engineer, and partial disassembly.

All Because of the Middle Pedal

The middle pedal is fine now, but tuning?  Don’t get me started on that.  There are some “flat” strings on the piano despite a tuning two weeks ago (dramatic temperature changes where I live).  I’d really rather not record a piano composition with an out-of-tune piano, so I need to do something about that, too.  Perhaps we’ll here more on fixing that problem in a future post…

Another reason why “Equinox” will be such a challenge is that I’m not just recording and mixing––I’m playing.  So what, right?  Am I not a musician?  Well, even though I pretty much live in the studio, when it’s my turn to be on the other side of the glass (or, in my case, the other side of the room), suddenly the studio seems intimidating.  Part of the problem is that if I make any mistakes, I know I’m going to be the one who will have to edit it out later, so then I get even more nervous about playing a perfect take.  I think it would be a lot better if I knew my errors were someone else’s problem…

Tempo changes--yikes!
Click or no click?

And then there’s the click track.  With “Airborne,” there were no tempo changes, so I just set the metronome to 130 BPM and played.  Not so with “Equinox.”  There are at least three different tempo markings throughout the piece, so it would seem I need three metronome settings.  Could I just record one section at a time?  Absolutely not––it’s a very “sustained” piece with hardly a split-second of silence.  Editing would be a pain.  Could I do without a click?  Well, that seems somewhat reasonable for this type of hybrid romantic-jazz-pop music, but even my more “classical” recordings sound way better when I play to a click (I guess I’m too used to having a drummer).

I know it won’t be easy to do this recording well, but I’m ready for the challenge.  I didn’t think I would be able to pull off producing and mixing My Heart Beats in such a short time, but I did.  And I wasn’t sure how I was going to pull off those ten days in the studio this summer in Los Angeles, 3000 miles from home, but I sure did.
“What is impossible with man is possible with God.”  -Jesus
Have any of you done much solo-piano recording?  What tips do you have for dealing with the unique challenges of the piano?

12 thoughts on “Why Piano Recording Is So Challenging

  1. Sounds like a challenge! I did in fact just do some solo piano recordings myself (see my blog post from December 5, 2012 for details) and came across a fair few problems. One tip someone told me is if you put a pillow underneath the pedals, that will take out a lot of the clunky low end pedal sounds from the recording. (I guess a little natural pedal sound is nice but intrusive loud pedal noises can distract from the music in my opinion) also if the room has bad acoustic qualities dangling a duvet or sheets over the lid also makes a big difference. So basically cover the piano in your bedding! Hope it goes well!

    1. Yeah, I saw your blog post on recording jazz piano. It sounded nice, too! Did you record with the lid all the way open, or was that just for show?
      I usually record my piano with the lid opened a few inches and then drape a roll of acoustic foam over the opening (you can see some of the foam in the picture!). Now that you mention it, the piano does end up looking more like a bed than an instrument, haha. I’ll definitely have to try the pedal pillow technique, too…
      Thanks for the comment!

      1. Yeh we recorded the piano just as you see in the picture of him playing. Good idea opening the lid just a few inches – does that give you a more intimate sound? Look forward to hearing your recording. Thanks for checking out my blog too!

        1. Well, I don’t know if I’d call it more intimate, but keeping the lid more closed helps keep out room noise. Right now, I unfortunately don’t have my piano in the best room as far as acoustics go, so I try to keep the recording as dry as possible and then I add reverb in the mixing stage. I’ve done recordings with the lid up, too. I guess it depends on what kind of sound you’re after…

    1. Great video. Thanks for sharing that!
      It’s been challenging to get a piano recording with a nice stereo image that can still work in mono. Never tried using Blumlein, though, since I don’t have bi-directional mics yet. What do you think of ORTF configuration on piano?

      1. I like ORTF but it does not tend to be as mono compatible as any of the arrays shown in the video. It’s tough to get something that easily collapses to mono without being completely coincident (XY, Blumlein, and Mid-Side are coincident). Give this a try: use XY, but increase the splay angle. Typically people think XY should be 90 degrees. But that often sounds too narrow. Angle them out to 130 or 135 degrees and listen to the difference in sound stage. I hope that helps.

What do you think?