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?