Key Issues: Recording The Piano

Pianist Spencer Brewer has been involved with pianos his entire life— playing, tuning, restoring, and of course, recording on them: He has done 14 major label releases, produced over 200 CDs, and composed for numerous films.
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EQ interviewed Spencer at his Laughing Coyote studios shortly after the release of Cinematic, a double- CD featuring versions of his compositions done with both solo piano and full orchestration—and found out some of the recording secrets that come only from being a piano tech for over 30 years, and a player for nearly 50.

What was Cinematic’s signal path?

The album started in 1997 on a Neve 8232 console. The mics were generally two rebuilt 1968 and 1971 Neuman U-87s with new 3-micron capsules, going through a pair of matched Avalon 737s with NOS Telefunken tubes, then to a Pendulum OCL-2 and directly into 20-bit ADATs. We monitored using Genelec 1032s. The Neve’s EQs were fantastic for processing— about +1dB at 500Hz, +1.5dB at 1.6kHz, and +1 to +2dB at 16kHz.

Later cuts were recorded to Pro Tools, still using the Avalons but without the Pendulum. We now mic with a pair of matched Neuman M-149s, and monitor on a Yamaha DM-1000 board using Waves Platinum plug-ins for compression and EQ. Throughout all this time, we’ve used Lexicon reverbs.

How do you “prep” a piano for recording?

Every piano is different. The 1985 Yamaha C7 in my studio has been worked on consistently for 23 years to get our sound—a “bell-like” tone with clarity throughout each of the octaves, without no section “speaking” louder than another. This evenness depends primarily on the hammers, the strings, the termination points of the “speaking lengths,” and how well the action is regulated.

Can you elaborate on the piano’s physics?

Like any stringed instrument, a piano has a soundboard that generates the sound, and a bridge that serves as the actual amplifier—it connects the “speaking length” [the part of the string that rings when played] to the soundboard. The ribs behind the soundboard support the instrument’s curve, or “down-bearing” integrity; this bow is about 7°–10° for piano, to 40°–50° for violin.

The bridge is crucial—the amount of down-bearing, or the height of the top of the bridge compared to the soundboard, determines how well the instrument speaks in relation to the curve or rise in the soundboard.

All modern pianos (1900 and later) have two bridges. One runs the length of the piano from high treble to low tenor, while the other is the bass bridge. The crossover of these two bridges usually happens between notes A1 and G2. This is important, because this is where some of the magic of stereo mic placement occurs.

And what about mic placement?

If you’re doing a close mic placement for an “in your face” recording, put the mic in hyper-cardioid or cardioid mode and place it in parallel with the tuning pins, between the first and second plate stress rails. This way the cardiod pattern picks up the instrument’s high and alto notes. Position it about a foot behind the bridge and facing the bridge, around 1.5' to 2' high for optimum amplification.

Next, do the low end placement. The low end of the main bridge and bass bridge run parallel for about a foot and a half. Place the low end mic about 1.5' above the strings, between (and in parallel with) these two bridges. This allows the mid to low tenor notes, and the best of the bass notes, to be picked up in the cardiod or hyper-cardoid pattern at the bridges’ amplification points. This placement not only gets a good stereo spread, it also allows for some really fine interplay of harmonics and tone in the mid to lower frequencies.

For more “air,” move the mics just outside the piano’s rim, keeping them the same height above the ground for consistency. Point the treble mic at the same spot and aimed toward the player, with the bass mic also aimed toward the player but at the crosssection where both bridges run together. If you aim both mics at the bridge, the sound has more depth and a wider range of frequencies. Placing the mics further gives less definition, but a wider frequency range because of the way the sound develops on the way to the mics. In all cases, though, the bridges hold the key to the piano’s overall sound.