Around here, we've talked a lot about home studio recording. Makes sense, right? If you’ve taken the time to learn the tough but highly respectable craft of musicianship, sooner or later, you’re going to want to perform with other players, maybe even start a band. And then after that comes the demo! But you probably don’t want just any demo, you’re going to want something that sounds as professional as possible, right? Well, that’s where we come in. As I mentioned above, we focus a lot here on home studio recording; from choosing the right mics to setting up your monitors and plenty more. Whether you’re one of those musicians I just spoke of or a behind the scenes home studio engineer, we here at PAL like to give our guests the tools and information necessary for carving out that perfect studio mix. Now, when it comes to recording specific instruments, we’ve already covered most of the more common types such as drums, bass, guitar and vocals but what if you’re in the need for something a bit more… romantic? Classical even? Well of course, I’m talking about the piano! I myself would say its hands down the best instrument ever invented simply because of its history in music, its poignant emotional capabilities and the sheer variety of styles it can play with. Think about it – jazz, rock and roll, classical, country, pop, rag time, adult contemporary, etc. – a piano can fit it just about anywhere! In this article, we will be touching on some of the more important aspects of the piano that extend beyond the home studio scenario such as mic setups for live, ways to change tone and yes, even how to record them. So, let’s get to it.
The Evolution of the Piano
Harkening back to my music appreciation class, I was surprised to learn at the beginning of the course that only a tiny portion of the students actually knew of the piano’s origins. I was not part of that group but the professor was kind enough to enlighten me. Well, like many of today’s most popular instruments, the piano came about as a variation of the many well known keyboard instruments before it – specifically the organ, clavichord, and harpsichord – each of which were around about 300-400 years before it. Even with that said, the piano itself isn’t really a huge leap beyond its predecessors, more like good upgrade, but enough of an upgrade to give it a sound all its own and one that has since been prized in music history. So what made it so different that a clavichord, harpsichord or organ? Well, it’s all in how you strike it! The organ for example makes sound when air is blown across pipes of different sizes, just like the sound you get when you blow across a glass bottle – notice how the sound changes with the size of the bottle and the amount of liquid in it? Same principle goes with the organ. The harpsichord and clavichord are more similar to a piano than an organ in that they all use strings to make their sound but differ in the way the strings are struck, resulting in a different overall tone. In a harpsichord for example, a little “plectrum” plucks different strings to sound different notes. In a clavichord on the other hand, the string is struck by a small metal “tangent” (kind of like a flat-head screwdriver) that not only creates the sound but controls its pitch based on where the tangent hits the string.
The fortepiano right before hitting it big
Skip ahead a few centuries to 1700 when Bartolomeo Cristofori di Francesco had the idea of striking the strings with a hammer, which produced a much more pronounced and sustained sound. Soon after, the piano “action” was developed, which not only kept the strings damped when not being played, but also kept the hammers from remaining on the strings after striking them. Then soon after that, Gottfried Silbermann invented the precursor to the modern damper pedal, which lifts the dampers from all the strings at once. At around this time in its evolution, the piano was starting to become the instrument we now know and love but there were still a few tweaks that needed to be made. During most of the 1700s, pianos – known then as fortepianos – incorporated wood frames, two strings per note, and used leather covered hammers. This gave them a softer, clearer sound than today's pianos but with less sustain. From the late 1700s to the late 1800s, iron frames came into use (which allowed for three strings per note) as did steel piano wire "strings.” Furthermore, felt hammers began to replace the earlier leather-covered versions. By the early 1800s, damper and sostenuto pedals were perfected and the keyboard grew from 5 octaves to the modern 7 1/2 octaves, finally giving birth to the piano as we know it today!
Things to Think About
When it comes to piano, there are a lot of things to think about. First of all, the piano has a dynamic range that is a bit wider than most instruments so using the right microphones is integral. Not only that, the type of piano you’re recording – be it a baby grand or an upright – will consists of different tasks. Even then, the same type of piano will have multiple recording techniques as well, each of which will become important in finding the sound you’re looking for. And if that wasn’t enough to think about, the humidity of your recording area will have an affect as well just as it does with any acoustic instrument. When humidity is fairly high, hitting that A note at 440HZ is probably going to yield something a few cents off such as 439 or 441. In a pro studio with controlled humidity, this is not a problem but I take it that most of you out there didn’t equip your area with a humidifier. Not a huge problem though as many audio programs with pitch correction can let you fix this, just be aware that it this is something you want to pay attention to. Also, humidity can affect the tone of a piano as well. With high humidity, it can give the piano dark overall tone. For most of us, we might not even be able to clearly distinguish it but for some of the perfectionists out there, it can be enough to wait for another day.
What’s the Deal with the Lids?
You might have noticed that at certain times, piano players might choose to have the lid on their grand or baby grand either up or down during a live performance. Does this make a difference? Oh yeah, you bet it does, A LOT! With the top up for example, the sonic waves hit the lid at an angle that can then send it out towards the audience. Not only that, the sound becomes more clearly defined. With the top down on the other hand, the tone becomes much darker and thick. Most pianos usually come with at least two different lid settings for this reason – to give you varied tone.
In a live setting, you might notice that some players might prefer to play with the lid down even though, as I just mentioned, with the top up allows for better sonic resonance. You probably saw this during a big performance by a notable player, probably on TV, but anyways, the reason for this has to do with the microphones a bit more than with the tone (although tone is still a part of the reason). During one of these huge shows, other sounds can easily bleed into the piano’s mics which can then lead to feedback – no good! Also, with the lid down, there’s a good chance that certain pianist was going for a rock tone since it gives off a softer sound with plenty of roundness that works well with rock and rock, at least in general.
Microphones and the Live Environment
The typical build of a Pressure Zone Microphone (PZM)
But since we are talking about recording, let’s get a little deeper into microphones. Speaking of a live setting, PZM is where it’s at. PZM – or Pressured Zone Microphones – is a relatively flat microphone that people usually tape or Velcro underneath the lid. Even though it was made to work in closed lid situations, you can use it with the top up as well. These PZMs are omnidirectional which basically means that they capture sound from all around them. You might not have thought about it but there is actually a reason why they are shaped like a plate; there is a lot of sound bouncing around inside a piano and even off the PZM’s plate itself which is why there is a small mic in there that can actually pick up the sound that’s reflected off the plate and into its diaphragm. This enables a PZM to capture the entire resonance and sonic reflections going on under the hood. Another common method used in a live setting is the use of dynamic microphones which many of you out there recognize them as simply the regular stage mic. On most pianos there is usually more than enough room to slide on in there but often times you’ll also see these mics peer inside with the lid slightly open and held by a stand.
That’s all well and good for live, but what about recording in the studio, right? Unfortunately, there is a lot of ground to cover in that one topic alone and will be fully explored in tomorrow’s article so don’t forget to come back as we will be discussing recording a grand, baby grand and upright piano as well as what to do when you don’t have access to an actual piano. There will even be some tips regarding DAW programs and other little tidbits so be sure and check it all out tomorrow. Until then, how about killing some time browsing our past articles or even checking out a few good electrics?