If you really want a really powerful piano sound, forget pansy grands, and go butch with an upright. Many uprights—particularly the taller ones with longer string lengths—yield killer recordings, so forget about tip-toeing around that Bösendorfer grand. Here’s how to capture upright piano sounds with impact, weight, and almost frightening presence.
Get That Thing In Tune
Sure, you can say that out-of-tune piano is part of your sound, but to the vast majority of creatures with ears, out-of-tune piano is like having your eyebrows plucked with tweezers. Spend a couple of hundred bucks to make sure the thing is in tune and working properly a few days before recording.
Location. Location. Location.
Experiment with moving the instrument around the room to find the best sounding spot. Because uprights are designed to be up against a wall, my experience has taught me that it is the best place to record them— especially for a real up-front and present sound.
Tear That Sucker Down
The main problem with uprights is the cramped size of their cases. The small, resonant body of the piano is a nightmare of complex acoustic reflections, and just sticking a mic inside the top probably won’t cut it. You need to open the piano up so it can breathe!
While it varies from instrument to instrument, most upright pianos come apart the same way. Open the hinged lid on the top. Once the lid is open, you will probably see a pair of hinged pegs holding the front face of the piano together. Unlock the pegs and pull the front off. This exposes the hammers and strings, allowing for a greater degree of mic placement. If you really want to go hog wild, remove the plate that covers the bottom part of the strings (right in front of the player’s knees). This will increase the piano’s projection, and make the sound much clearer.
Mic It Up
Now you are ready to explore some mic techniques. As we’re going for power, we’ll ditch any notion of ambient mics, and get real up close and personal. After rigorous experimentation, I discovered the most powerful sound came from the back of the piano. You’d think this would provide a muffled sound, but with the extraneous body panels removed, the sound really cranks out the backside. The percussive sound from the hammers is still heard, and the exposed soundboard adds some depth, so our power is enhanced with tone. Miking from the back also diminishes noise from pedals, creaky benches, and the player (grunts, sighs, sing-alongs, etc.).
I recommend using two mics on the backside, positioned to capture a balance between the high and low strings. Placing the mics does take some experimentation. I got the best results using two AKG C1000 smalldiaphragm condensers, but any small-diaphragm condenser will do a great job. Each mic was placed about two or three inches from the exposed soundboard, and pointing at the bass or treble strings. It is possible to have phase-coherency issues with two mics, so if things start sounding weird or thin or muddy, simply move the mics around until everything sounds full and wonderful. If you need more isolation, put a blanket on the wall behind the piano, but I liked the natural reverberation the bare wall provided.
For my final hot-setup mic technique, I placed an Audio-Technica AT4033 large-diaphragm condenser on a boom, and positioned it to be the same height as my ears, so I could record a track that was essentially the same sound I was hearing from in front of the piano while I was playing. This track is great for blending with the rear mics to construct a truly mammoth and articulate sound.
If you want a big piano sound, you’d better be prepared to bash the bejesus out of the keys. Sorry, this is old school, so there’s no MIDI information you can edit to make the audio loud if your ladyfingers aren’t up to the task. Listen to the Beatles’ “Lady Madonna.” Do you think Paul was tickling the ivories, or hitting it like each key had a picture of John Lennon scrimshawed into the ivory?
As for tracking, piano puts out mucho harmonic content, and there are peaks that meters just don’t see, but can slaughter your DAW with evil distortion. Use your ears to listen carefully for any overload the VU meters might be missing. If you need to tame the beast, Universal Audio’s LA-2 plugin works wonders to stop the overloading, and it also can add additional punch to what should already be a piano sound that will detach your retinas if you’re not careful.