Sometime around the end of last year, I struggled to figure out a way to best capture the piano sound. After engaging in an extensive study on how to do it, I have collated all I’ve learned to come up with this comprehensive article about acoustic piano sound recording. You may find this article useful if you are struggling to figure out a way to capture piano sound.
Recording a complicated musical instrument like the acoustic piano is always very much challenging. It is challenging because this instrument is sonically cumbersome and huge. Technically, recording piano sound is demanding, not only on the mics but also on the one who’s doing the recording.
Recommended Ways to Record Piano
There are a couple of mic techniques for recording the sound of the piano. It will help if you sift through these techniques to figure out the most appropriate recording need. Based on my research, here are the most recommended ways to capture the sound of the piano:
1) Microphones Inside the Piano
One of the best techniques to attain a brighter piano sound is by positioning the mics inside the piano. I tried this once when I was recording a love song with piano accompaniment, and it does achieve a bright capture of the piano sound. The finished recording gives out clear pop sounds and nuances. Moreover, positioning the mics inside the piano isolates the mics, sans the use of any isolation booth.
You can achieve this setup by using two tube condenser microphones. Open the lid of the piano and hover the two mics 11 inches over the strings. Direct the mics downward toward the strings. You would need a cardioid mic for this purpose.
You should follow the 3:1 rule when utilizing two microphones. Both mics should be at least 33 inches apart, allowing you to achieve the right phase alignment. Check for the phase alignment using the monitoring console. Remember that each mic should be positioned over each string group.
Be wary of positioning the mics so near the strings to avoid overemphasis of certain groups of strings. As a rule, you can move the mic closer to the hammer to increase the brightness or farther away to decrease brightness. This mic setup is perfect if you want an in-your-face recording of the piano.
2) Microphones Outside of the Piano
Another good mic setup for capturing the piano sound is positioning two mics within the periphery of the piano. You can use two stereo AT40551b cardioid condenser mics for this purpose and position each mic some five feet high.
Move the mics some three feet away from the piano, facing the front of the piano. Experiment with the distance and try to find the sweet spot from where the piano sounds would seem best for you.
3)Recording Using A Single Microphone
I had tried this once when I was recording another love song, and it let me capture a full piano sound. I’ve used an AT2020 cardioid condenser microphone for this purpose. The trick is—you should position the mic outside the instrument. Just like what you’ve done with the second technique, you can move the mic around the piano and figure out where the sweet spot is. If you want a less roomy sound, you should situate the microphone nearer the piano.
Best Mics for Recording Piano Sound
The abovementioned techniques give you a good idea of how to best record the piano sound. Yet, you still need to ensure that you are using the right microphones for piano recording. You can’t simply use any mics out there. You need to carefully select the mics that are most responsive to the piano sound. For your convenience, here are the six most recommended mics for piano recording:
1) AKG Pro Audio C414 XLS
The AKG Pro Audio C414 XLS has been developed by an Austrian manufacturing company named AKG. This company has been copping out well tested and reliable microphones for such a long time. The AKG Pro Audio C414 XLS, of course, is one of its most popular mics. This one is an all-purpose mic rolled out in 1971. It is known to provide exceptional sound quality as well as great frequency extension.
As a diaphragm condenser mic bearing 9 polar patterns, the AKG Pro Audio C414 XLS is a perfect choice for piano recording. It also comes with 3 attenuation pads as well as 3 high-pass filters. Equipped with these 9 selectable patterns, you can easily choose the best pattern most suited for your recording environment.
Using the C414 XLS, you can choose the Omni polar pattern because it sounds best when recording near the piano strings. Yet, once you move the mic further away or if you are simultaneously recording vocals and other instruments, this polar pattern may not be your best option. You can choose another pattern that can best isolate the sound of the piano. You can also choose another polar pattern that lets the tonal characteristics of the piano come out.
The C414 XLS has an unbelievable low noise pickup. It also has a great dynamic range of 152dB. This range is perfect for ambient recording. It is also equipped with a locking mode for live sound recording. Moreover, it has a LED display of overload peaks. This mic is a legendary mic that has become the standard mic for studio recording.
2) Neumann U 87 Ai Switchable Studio Microphone
The Neumann U 87 is a huge diaphragm condenser mic that comes with multi-polar patterns. Like the AKG C414 XLS, the Neumann U87 is likewise legendary with its awesome clarity and great accuracy. This microphone is great for almost all types of miking techniques.
The Neumann U 87 is manufactured by Neumann Company, which was founded in 1928 in Berlin. Since then, Neumann has been producing great microphones that have become standards in the recording industry. With its multi-patterns, it is a perfect choice for recording the sound of the piano.
The Neumann U 87 has been a usual fixture in most recording studios since the 70s. You’ll see this mic on congas, strings, brass, vocals, overheads, guitar amps, and piano. It features three directional patterns from which you can choose the best pattern for your piano recording.
You can choose the cardioid pattern, for example, if you want the mic to be unidirectional. Then, you can switch to the figure-8 pattern or bi-directional pattern if you want to pick up ambient noise, voices, and instruments. It also comes with a switchable high-pass filter as well as a pre-attenuation pad. Neumann U 87, of course, is a perfect choice to record the sound of the piano.
3) Rode NT1-A Cardioid Condenser Microphone
A relatively affordable microphone that is widely used in most studios is the Rode NT1-A. This condenser microphone is perfect for home studios, and it is great for recording piano sound. It was first rolled out in 2003 and is still getting great raves from studio owners and experts.
The Rode NT1-A is large, yet, extremely quiet and responsive. This microphone offers great accuracy and clarity, especially when used for recording acoustic piano. It is easy to set up likewise and is perfect for recording the sound of the upright piano. Equipped with a cardioid pattern, this mic can enhance the upper range as well as the harmonic content of the sound of the upright piano.
Compared to the aforementioned mics, the Rode NT1-A is not as versatile as the abovementioned mics. Given its price, it surely offers great performance. The slight boost offered by NT1-A is negligible and would not cause any problem. It would simply enhance the texture and character of the sound of the piano. Moreover, it would add a bit of brightness to the recorded piano sound.
With its great roll-off, the NT1-A makes the sound not harsh and overly bright. The package also comes with a high-quality pop shield as well as a shock mount. The NT1-A will provide you with everything you would need to come up with a professional piano sound recording.
4) Audio-Technica AT2020
The Audio-Technica AT2020 is a “no-frills” microphone that comes with a basic stand mount along with a soft vinyl case. The AT2020 features a fixed cardioid polar pattern and is a good mic, especially if you are looking for a professional sounding affordable mic. It features a mid-range warmth when used as a vocal mic and awesome presence peak for greater clarity and air. Thus, this mic is a favorite of many singers.
When close-miking instruments and voices, this mic offers great clarity. It may not be exceptional in dampening noise, yet, it will work well if you would position it near the piano when recording it to dampen the surrounding noise.
When used with acoustic piano, the Audio-Technica AT2020 offers a balanced sound. Moreover, you will easily find the sweet spot to position this mic and get a solid recording of acoustic sound. You’ll be surprised with this mic’s quality and depth without that extra “honkyness” that other mics bring in.
The Audio-Technica AT2020 provides a remarkable rear-axis rejection and offers great off-axis capture. This may come as a plus factor, especially if you’re using computers and other equipment inside your studio. As a low-cost mic, this mic provides a mature and believable sound that you would surely appreciate.
5) Shure SM7B Cardioid Dynamic Microphone
Another legendary microphone for recording sounds is the Shure SM7B. You would often find this mic in many radio stations, studio recordings, and voiceovers. This mic proves wrong those who believe that one should use only the most expensive mics for recording.
The natural sound of this mic is a big surprise for many. It offers a frequency response that is wide-ranging and flat, making this mic a great choice when recording vocals and instruments. This mic doesn’t exhibit any boominess nor distortion. It offers a balanced bass likewise, which makes this mic a favorite of many. It also offers great mid-range emphasis and comes with a response setting’s graphic display.
The Shure SM7B offers enhanced electromagnetic hum’s rejection and is engineered for protection against any interference from other pieces of equipment that emit EMF. It also comes with built-in shock isolation that prevents transmission of mechanical noise. Equipped with a pop filter, it can eliminate explosive sounds.
More importantly, the Shure SM7B comes with stand nut for easy adjustment, allowing you to record piano sound from various angles. This feature is great, especially if you are instantaneously making a YouTube video. It has a wide frequency range from 50 to 20000 Hz. As a dynamic mic, the Shure SM7B will perfectly work when used in halls and huge rooms.
6) MXL Mics 770 Cardioid Condenser Microphone
One microphone that should be included in your list of prospective microphones for piano recording is the MXL 770. This mic may not come with as many features as the abovementioned mics. Yet, it comes with 4 Blue LED, making this mic cool to look at.
This mic is a favorite of many, with its patented design that everyone will love. Moreover, it features a manageable roll-off of low frequency that dampens unwanted rumble. It will work well with the piano and other acoustic instruments.
Offering high end-clarity due to its well-balanced bass response, this mic will make you enjoy a balanced output recording. It also lessens noise capture, and thus, this is an excellent choice not only for recording the piano but also for podcasting and streaming.
Factors to Consider When Selecting a Mic for Piano Recording
In this article, aside from knowing the most recommended mics for recording the piano sound, you will also be made cognizant of the succinct factors to consider when selecting a mic. Below are the important factors to consider:
Choose Between Dynamic or Condenser!
There’s a big difference between dynamic and condenser microphones. A dynamic microphone, for example, may have a hard time capturing very high frequencies. When used with a piano, it may fall short in capturing the very high frequencies (transient) of the piano sound. This is because dynamic mics are not designed to capture transient sounds.
In such a case, the dynamic mic may misrepresent the percussive clicks and the actual sound of the note. Yet, there are exceptions to the rule because you will also find great recordings of the piano using dynamic microphones. It all depends on how the piano sound recording has been engineered.
On the other hand, the condenser mics are the most appropriate mics for recording piano sound because it provides great frequency capture covering almost all the sound frequencies given off by the piano.
The directionality of the microphone refers to how a mic picks up or capture ambient sound. Some mics, of course, are designed to pick up sounds from various directions simultaneously. Some, however, have limited directional pickups.
In the case of recording piano sound, most sounds you would like to pick up are off-axis sounds. So, when choosing a mic, your choice should be doing well with picking up off-axis sound. Yet, your choice should also make up for whatever apparent volume difference.
When choosing a mic for piano recording, you should choose a mic with a wide frequency range. The sound of the piano has a wide range of frequencies, filled with very high frequencies. So, the mic that you should choose should have a wide range of frequency response to capture those very high frequencies.
As mentioned above, there are various ways on recording piano sound. One way is to position the mics inside the piano. With this nearness to the strings of the piano, the mics may capture some “boomy” sounds. Hence, when choosing a mic for this technique, you need to choose close miking to avoid the proximity effect. This is because the proximity effect will play well when you are already mixing the sounds.
You don’t want to make those booming sounds become an issue afterward. To avoid these booming sounds, you can use omnidirectional mics, for these mics can easily handle “boomy” sounds.
As mentioned above, recording the sound of an acoustic piano is challenging. This is because of the sonic complexity of its sound. So, to make the recording process easy, you need to choose the right mics for this type of recording. There are several ways to record piano sound. You can try all the above-mentioned miking techniques to figure out the most appropriate mic setup to capture the piano sound.