Notes from the Shore

Work, marriage, kids and music

Recording Session: Piano

What a great Columbus day! I’ve been planning this session since, like, May. It all started last February when my daughter’s speech and debate club hosted a tournament at First Baptist Church of Norfolk. I helped out leading some music during their opening convocations each morning, and got to play their fantastic 9-foot Steinway grand piano. It was a joy and inspiration to play.

A few months later, frustrated with the piano samples I have available on my music computer, I got a wild hare and contacted the music director through their website to see if it would be all right for me to record at their piano. Long story short, it was – although it took over four months to coordinate a date.

Monday morning my roadie Bethany and I headed out for Norfolk bright and early for a recording session. I was armed with some new mic stands that I picked up for a song on closeout back in Champaign, my trusty Apex ribbon mic, MXL tube mic, and a borrowed Zoom R16.

I’ve been researching piano microphone techniques for nearly two months. I knew that we had a tried and true method back when we recorded Beyond the Horizon, but we had really optimized the placement for a progressive rock mix. I wanted something a little softer, but not so distant as a typical classical recording setup.

I ended up placing the microphones under the lid, but back from the hammers and up relatively high, as can be seen in the opening photo. The ribbon mic is over the bass strings about halfway back and the tube condenser is over the treble. Up high is a small diaphragm condenser (SDC) – but not the one I brought with me. Mine is really, really cheap, but when I got to the church, they had some really nice AKG C460B‘s in their string section, so I borrowed one for the morning.

Finally, the Zoom R16 has two built-in microphones, so I decided to use them as well. The question was where to place them? My first thought was out in the room, somewhere, collecting room tone. Well, the airborne SDC was already taking care of that.

Then I read that one “big” producer liked to mic his pianos from underneath the sound board. Genius. The church had small carpeted steps scattered about the platform bridging the various levels. I absconded with one of those, placed it on the piano dolly frame and set the recorder on that.

The resulting tracks don’t have a ton of attack – more of a warm woody sound. I’m looking forward to seeing how they mix in with the rest of the tracks.

I recorded each song as one long take – I did two complete takes of each song and then went back to pick up sections I knew I blew both times. Sometimes I also stopped right after an error, backed up, and played over that section again. I figure I’ll have to edit everything together when all is said and done, anyway.

The plan is to import the five separate tracks into Sonar and then mix them down to a single stereo track. I’ll apply whatever filtering and EQ I need to the individual tracks before bouncing them down. Once I have a single stereo track to deal with, it will be a lot easier to edit together a performance.

Once I had 5 of the seven songs laid down, I rearrange the microphones. For the first five songs, the piano is either a solo instrument or half of a duet. For track six, I’m playing along with a jazz ensemble (prerecorded via my iPod).

Since I’m sharing sonic real estate with the whole band, I didn’t want to create such a huge sound. I’ll probably not even use the under-piano mics. The main thing I did was set the two primary mics up in a mid-side recording arrangement. I described mid-side in my earlier post about recording dulcimer, so I won’t rehash it here. Suffice it to say that it should create a nice stereo image of the piano without stepping on the other instruments because I will have great control over the stereo width.

The last song I recorded was not for this project. It’s a demo of a worship song I wrote several years ago and never got around to recording. I pulled the high mic (the SDC) down and borrowed one of the church’s nice Beta 57s for my vocals.

At 11:30 Bethany and I were cleaning up and resetting the platform. I had moved the piano out so I could mic it cleanly without getting reflections directly from the wall directly behind it. I also had to re-plug everything of theirs that I had unplugged.

One last note, if you would like to leave a comment about this post, I welcome it. I love to hear what people think. However, if you are reading this via Facebook, I ask that you leave your comment here on my blog site – it’s much more permanent than Facebook, and available to readers who are not my Facebook friends (hopefully I have a few of those at least).


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