Nothing Like A Steinway
Simon is a pianist and composer that I’ve been working with for years. We have recorded together several times in Windmill Lane and Camden Studios, and in June we went back in to Camden Studios, Dublin to record piano for three of his compositions. Over the course of these sessions I’ve learned a lot about recording grand pianos, which I am sharing here in the hope that the information will be useful to some folks. This will be a pretty nerdy post, but there’s a video at the end if you just want to hear the results.
There are many things to be taken into account in preproduction when preparing for an acoustic piano recording session. First up is practice. Simon’s pieces are fixed compositions, so it is not like a jazz session which relies on improvisation. The player should know the pieces inside out – not just the notes but the feel, the dynamic, and the appropriate tempos. We sometimes use click tracks for recording for various reasons, but it is vital to “free record” each piece in preproduction where possible, analyse the resulting tempo(s) from the best takes, and create a tempo map so that the click follows the players vision of the piece, not the other way around. A 4-bar silent lead in is a good idea, as are consolidated WAVs of any guide tracks that might be needed – vocals, strings, etc.; two of the pieces on this session were recorded with tempo-mapped click tracks, and the third, “Insiéme”, was recorded without a click.
I like to have my Pro Tools sessions prepared well in advance, with the click track and guides ready. Simon and I work in Logic Pro, and we do our prep work there, so I usually create a MIDI click track in Logic to export as a MIDI file. This is the easiest and fastest way to get a tempo map (including tempo and time siginature) out of Logic and into Pro Tools. I will have my consolidated guide tracks in there too, as well as piano guide track if I am not as familiar with the piece as Simon. On the day I “Import Session Data” from my sessions to the studio’s template session.
Setting Up The Session
As a result of having recording grand pianos on many sessions, I now have a trusted approach that has served me well. Time is the enemy when recording piano, as a good performance takes a huge amount of effort and concentration from the player. This can only last so long. It is also usually expensive to hire a studio with a good grand piano and get it tuned, so you have to work fast to get value from the session.
My default setup is an ORTF pair roughly 10cm above and 10cm back from where the hammers hit the strings, with the lid up. I compliment this with a pair of omnidirectional mics at player-ear height at either end of the keybed. I like at least one room mic (depending on the room quality and size), and a mic beneath the piano to capture any low frequency magic going on down there.
In Camden we had Neumann U87s for the ORTF pair, AKG 414s for the keybed pair, a Royer R121 ribbon mic for the room (null pointed at the piano) and a Neumann TLM 103 for the under-mic. Simon was able to play while we set up, allowing himself to get a feel for the Steinway. I kept an ear to this too, encouraging him to make full use of the dynamic range of such a large instrument. Players that mainly use plugin emulations forget just how quiet and loud a real grand piano can be – it is important to get the most out of it.
The under-piano mic went through a Neve 1073 preamp, and all the others went through the Manley 8:8:2 that they’ve got in Camden. I set the preamp levels conservatively because the last thing you want is saturation or distortion of the signal. Headroom is king. We used no EQ or compression, instead adjusting the mic positions to capture what was happening. I love ORTF as it offers excellent phase coherence between each mic involved, but also generates a nice stereo image. Not too wide, not too narrow. Perfect for contemporary classical. The key-bed pair add a sense of what the player is hearing, and the room adds some ambience if needed. It is important, especially with the under-piano mic, to check for phasing issues. Most times you will need to flip the phase, but don’t assume this. Trust your ears.
Tracking & Comping
With levels set carefully (don’t want to be changing them!) and a nice headphone mix ready, it is time to track. Make sure the piano level in the artist headphones is as close as possible to the “real” level in the room – ask the artist to take one ear off and check. Record some piano for 20 seconds, stop, and check for click bleed and any other noise. The key thing then is focus, and an ability to communicate with the artists in a meaningful way. Some music theory knowledge is helpful here, as is an awareness of how a piano is played – the fingering, use the pedal. Keep your artists focused but watch out for frustration and exhaustion. Quality beats quantity. Take breaks and get air. Don’t be afraid to record individual sections if there is silence on either side – just watch that the dynamic is correct.
The real key to getting a good piano recording, as well as having a great player that can acquaint themselves with the specific, unique dynamics of the instrument in the room, is a good set of “comping” notes to offer useful direction on what is working, what needs to improve, and how you can build a final recording.
Piano is tricky, as it is a very “alive”, resonant instrument that has a huge dynamic range. You have to listen for the right notes, tempo, feel, overtones, sustain pedal use, dynamic, and flow. I “name” short sections of every tune and assign them “tick” scores based on how good they are in each take. I mark timing issues with little “t”s, sustain pedal mistakes with “p”s and those magic moments with big boxes drawn around them. I build my finished “comp” as I go, to make sure the recording is in the bag before walking out of the studio. This is very important, as your notes are just a guide – what you think might work may not actually work in the edit!