Bob Dylan on an upright piano in 1965
How’s it going music fans? For the past couple of articles, we here at PAL have been focusing on the very versatile piano. After giving you guys a brief history lesson on the instrument, laid out the basics on certain things that can affect tone – such as humidity or the positioning of the lid – and even gave you guys tips and techniques on recording a grand or baby grand, there is still a big section that we need to cover; recording an upright piano! For the most part, your average home studio producer is probably not equipped with a full blown grand piano, not to mention the space they require. Upright pianos on the other hand are far more common in a domestic setting. And if you’re reading this, you probably own one yourself! Great because when done correctly, adding a natural piano track can definitely take your recording to another level and that’s exactly what we intend on showing you guys how to do today.
For the most part, there are a lot of basic principles that grand pianos and uprights share but there are also, as to be expected, plenty of important differences, especially when it comes to recording them. Certain techniques for example that work great with an grand piano, such as using condenser mics to record its ambient sound, wouldn’t translate as well with an upright piano – mainly due to the fact that grand pianos were made to produce enough resonance to fill a concert hall while uprights just need to fill an average room. Anyways, by understanding the sonic principles in an upright piano along with its inherent strengths, you will be able to carve yourself out a recording that plays to the specific sound that you are looking for. Sounds good? Alright, so let’s get started.
Prep Work for Recording an Upright Piano
Before we get started with mic placement and recording tips, you need to make sure that your recording environment is set up correctly because unfortunately – aside from bad tuning – the room in which your piano sits will probably have the most impact on your recording than anything else. If you don’t know some of the basics of acoustic treatment, you should do yourself a favor and check that out. Also, upright pianos tend to always be setup close to or right along a corner or a wall. In order to accurately capture the sound of the piano, its best that the piano is as far away from any walls as possible. This might be asking for a lot for some of you out there but trust me, you will be fighting an uphill battle if you don’t try and manage this as best as your area allows. Alright, let’s say you have already applied acoustic treatment to your work environment and the upright piano is in the middle of the room; now we can talk about removing the panels.
Removing the Panels
By removing the panels you can get those mics easily in there
Alright, as far as recording techniques go, you can either take a similar (but not exact) route as a grand piano or focus on upright only setups. Whether or not you can even consider using grand piano techniques will basically depend on how well you can get a microphone near the strings. Most upright pianos let you take off the front panel (located directly above the keys) as well as the lower-front panel (where the pedals are located) without damaging any part of the instrument. Also, you’re going to need that top most lid up as well. If you are able to do all this, great! You can now safely use some of the same mic setups we talked about yesterday. If you can’t safely remove the these panels, you should still be able to open the top fairly easily although it might be near to impossible to get mics in there if you don’t happen to own a rather tall and capable mic stand. If this is the case, you still have plenty of options in getting a great recording without having to expose the strings, but more on that in a bit.
Removing the panels isn’t only recommended for better mic placement – it creates a better overall tone for recording as well, although you might not hear it at first. Compared to grand pianos, uprights have less ambient sound as well as boxy feel to it. By taking off the panels and opening up the top lid, you can reduce much of the boxy colorations as well as remove any annoying rattling that you might have from loose panels.
Miking Techniques with Removed Panels
As mentioned in yesterday’s article, there are several ways you can go about recording a piano. While some methods are more popular than others, it’s a good idea to try out plenty different mic placement setups as each can give you a drastically different sound. Simply put; take the techniques I’m about to lay out for you as general guidelines. You might find that your specific situation will call for a slightly altered mic placement – this is expected, so just keep that in mind and don’t be afraid to experiment. Always listen – literally, listen – to find what sounds best for your particular song. Alright, now that we got that disclaimer out of the way, let’s get into some techniques.
Well, although I wouldn’t suggest it, sometimes it just can’t be helped; if you only have one mic to work with, good luck! Well, kidding, but you might still need some of that luck regardless. Anyways, place it as close as you can to the middle C or near the middle of the range your song will be playing. For a grand, we suggested that the mics be placed about two to three feet above the strings – not with an upright. Because of its decreased weight, upright pianos simply don’t create as much low end or ambient sound as a grand. The way you compensate for this is by using close-miking techniques which is exactly what it sounds like. How close? Well, again, it’s your song, depends what you’re going for, but it’s definitely going to be at two thirds of a foot away if not much closer. If you are going for a pop type of piano sound with plenty of staccato and attack, you will want to place the mic near the top part of the strings where the hammers strike. This technique tends to give a bright, clear sound that cuts through well in a busy mix. I tend to place the mic about six inches away from where the hammers hit but you can alter as you like until you find something that suits you – and that’s assuming you’re using a small diaphragm condenser like I use. For a dynamic mic, you’re going to have to play around with it a bit but the same general principles apply, although I’d aim for something a bit closer than a condenser. The farther you place the mic from the strings the rounder and more ambient the sound will be, less clear and precise but a bit more “full,” so keep that in mind in case that sounds like something you’d want. Still though, your very limited if you only have one mic.
Now, let’s say you have two mics of identical make and model; now we can really open up the possibilities! First of all, the same principles apply as far as mic placement goes – such as close placement for more attack and brighter sound, father for rounder and fuller – only this time you have to be careful about balance. Yesterday, we talked a bit about recording using the XY pattern which is a type of coincident stereo miking (roughly meaning two mics that work off each other). Unfortunately, coincident stereo miking techniques require the mics to be place directly at the center of the piano. On a grand piano, there’s enough room for this technique and the player; on an upright, not so much. You can place the mic stands on both the left and right sides of the upright but a bit closer to the front corners and slightly towards the player. This should give your stands ample mobility for mic placement but as long as you get the actual mics in there, the stands don't matter as long as they aren't in your way. Again, same principles apply here; place the mics close for a bright attack or farther away for a more balanced and full sound. The only thing is now you need to worry about frequency balance. If you find that your recording is has plenty of highs and plenty of lows but at the expense of the midrange, move the mics slightly away from the strings but closer to each other until the mid is no longer being cut off. Also, don’t forget; if you’re only using a limited amount of the piano’s register (that is to say, not all of the keys) make sure to compensate for this. For example, if the piece you’re playing is a bit on the high end, you’re going to need to move the mics a bit to the right in order to keep balance. No use placing a mic at the bass notes if you won’t be using them.
Now, when you use two mics or more, make sure that they are the same distance from the strings – as much as possible at least – or else you will run into phasing issues. Sound travels from the strings to the mic at a certain speed and while an inch or two might not seem like it makes much of a difference but once you hear it for yourself, you’ll see that it does. If one mic is placed farther than the other, the two mics will not be recording in sync with each other, plain and simple. You can fix this in the mix but it’s FAR TOUGHER of a job than simply making sure your mics are placed correctly. This is very important so don’t forget it. Now, back to business; if you have three or more mics, the same principles still apply, only this time – as you can imagine – you will have to find a balanced in a slightly different way. Be it three, four or five (I can’t see how you would need more than five if it’s your standard upright), space them as well as you can equal distance from each other and from the strings but make sure that you are still the very center.
You might want to experiment with placing a couple of mics near the front of the bottom panel where your feet rest but I would advise against this unless you seriously can’t find the sound you want from working with the top simply because more often than not, you will record far too much of the mechanical foot pedal’s noise. which as you can imagine doesn’t sound all too professional. If you’re upright is pretty new or has been very well taken care of, you might find that the pedals aren’t so noisy in which case you can try this out.
Recording through the Back
Whether you weren’t able to safely remove the front panel of your upright or maybe you simply didn’t want to take that route, you can still get yourself a surprisingly well balanced recording by placing mics facing the piano’s back side. Anyways, whether you’re using one or two mics, move them around until you find a good balanced sound. A good place to start is by placing the mics above the keyboard level of the piano. With one mic, finding the center should be easy but with two, remember to make sure that they are space equal distance from the piano to avoid phasing issues. Same principles still apply as far as how far they should be but you won’t be able to get that same sort of pop attack since you won’t be able to get close enough to the strings. Regardless though, you should still be able to find a pretty good balanced sound using one or two mics directed at the piano’s back. The big thing with using this method is that the piano’s back definitely needs to be away from a wall. The colorations made by the echoes tend to get caught far too easily of you are close to a wall. You can use three mics if you want a fuller sound but it might take away from the sharpness of the sound, that is to say, it will all start blending together. If that’s something you might want, go for it, but remember to avoid phasing issues.
Remember that these are just guidelines and what works for me might need a little bit of tweaking for you. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different mic combinations. For example, if you happen to find that you need a bit more bass, instead of placing the mics closer to the bass notes (which you shouldn’t do because it will throw off the balance and not give you more overall bass), try using the proximity effect which is the tendency of microphones to artificially raise lower frequencies when miked at close distances. That’s just one example of a host of clever workarounds. Anyways, while there are still plenty of other exotic recording techniques and tricks out there, buy using these guidelines, you will aim yourself in the right direction but ultimately, recording and songwriting are creative arts and you’re not going to get anywhere unless you’re willing to think outside the box – but knowing the basics will sure make it that much easier!