Grand pianos may seem like formidable beasts to record, but they’re actually as tame as any other instrument. Depending on the sound you’re going after—in your face, bright, ambient, warm, and so on—success is typically measured by critical listening, mic selection, mic placement, and the artistry and dynamic sensitivity of the performer. Here are some starting points for devising your own approach to miking a grand.
Open the Hood
A pretty basic option is opening the lid of the piano and positioning a mic near the treble strings, and a mic near the bass strings. If you want more of a percussive midrange attack, choose a dynamic mic such as the Shure SM57 for each position, and place the mics about a foot from the piano strings. Move the mics until you get the preferred balance of lows, mids, and highs. If I want a little more complexity in the midrange—as well as sweeter highs—I trade out the dynamics for large-diaphragm condensers. For a slightly odd sound, use a single condenser set to its figure-8 pattern, and position it right in the middle of the soundboard and about a foot high. Face the mic directly at the strings so that one side gets the attack of the piano, and the other side picks up reflections off the piano lid, as well as some reflections from the recording environment itself. You can also position the mic sideways, allowing the piano’s bass, mid, and treble frequencies to become washed in a little more room ambience.
If you want less of a percussive attack, you can move the mics completely away from the piano soundboard. In this application—as the mics are not positioned inside the piano—you can experiment with opening or closing the top of the piano. Walk around the room and try to determine where you hear the sound you want—which, for me, is typically a magnificent blend of the source piano sound and room ambience. If I’m incorporating the piano into a rather dense rock-type mix, I typically opt for a single condenser mic, as a mono track can often be positioned within the mix a bit easier (via panning, EQ, and level) to deliver enough impact against the competing sonic textures. I’ll also experiment with polar patterns. If I want an “audience perspective,” I may go with a cardioid pattern that picks up more sound from the front of the mic. If I want to capture a more ambient, “piano room” sound, I’ll go with an omni pattern. There’s no wrong way to do this—just go with whatever option gets you all tingly.
For a stereo piano track, position two condenser mics at the spot where you heard the best sound. You can point the mics away from each other in a “Y” pattern, or towards each other in an “X” pattern. Again, there’s no right or wrong, so play around until you get what you’re looking for. Sonic tweakers can also experiment with putting up two matched large-diaphragm condensers, or using two different condensers, or mixing a largediaphragm condenser and a smalldiaphragm condenser, or going with two small-diaphragm condensers. Trust your imagination and your ears.
Close it Up
A fairly isolated and percussive sound can be gained if you toss the mics into the piano, close the lid, and affix PZM mics or mini mics.
Just make sure the piano owner won’t freak out when you start taping mics to the inner surface of the lid. PZM mics will require a fair amount of tape, while minis might need just a thin strip to keep them from falling onto the soundboard. Where you place the mics is up to you. Now the fun begins. Getting a more conventional sound is as easy as watching your levels and laying down a clean track. But what if you want something unique? Then, experiment with signal processing. You can hedge your bet by running one mic clean, and routing the other mic to a compressor, an overdrive unit, or any number of wacky effects. I’ve fuzzed the piano sound, compressed it within an inch of its life, added delay for unearthly note cascades, and phased, flanged, tremoloed, and ring modulated the sucker. Sometimes, I go with the fullon processed mess, and, other times, I’ll use the clean piano track as the foundational sound, and then mix in a hint of the bizarro sound. I tend to like giving the listener a sound they’re used to hearing, but if they listen closer, they’ll discover a bounty of weirdness. In the end, you’ll need to do whatever is appropriate for the song, but it sure is fun exploring a few uncharted territories. Bon voyage!