With a little TLC and the right miking technique, even the most neglected piano can produce great recordings.
Whether a grand or an upright, a real acoustic piano is a beautiful instrument. Yes, there are dozens of great-sounding sample libraries, but I always enjoy the challenge of recording the real thing and tailoring the recording to the track I'm working on; it's a very different, and arguably more satisfying, experience for both player and engineer. So, despite having only a moderately sized live room here at Half‑Ton Studio, I choose to keep and maintain an upright piano. I love the character it can bring to a recording session, and the availability of the real deal is also seen as a big plus by many clients. However, owning a real piano and keeping it maintained to a decent, recordable standard is quite a commitment. For starters, pianos require regular tuning — which really isn't a DIY job — and they occupy a good chunk of space too.
In the first part of this article I'll explore how an upright piano can be set up and maintained to a recordable standard, and in the second I'll compare several miking techniques. To help me in this, I invited Steinway-trained piano technician Marcel Kunkel along to service my piano, to talk me through his approach, and to offer readers a few pointers on what to look and listen out for if they're considering buying an old upright. Marcel's also a great pianist and keen recording engineer and, with fellow SOS writer Matt Houghton also joining us on the day to take some photos, we all took the opportunity to compare notes on some recording techniques.
A good piano technician can, obviously, tune a piano — but he or she can also change its sound considerably, even tailoring the tone and dynamic response to suit a specific player or recording. So, before he even started to tune it, Marcel asked, "How do you want your piano to sound?" I'm not sure I really understood the question! I'd hitherto considered my piano an instrument with its own sound, with the piano technician's job being to make the most of it. So Marcel demonstrated how much the instrument's tonality and playing feel can be changed. He emphasised the importance of the relationship between player and technician, pointing out what an unusual state of affairs it is for a musician to be unable to tune their own instrument! With a wry smile, he remarked that this situation can come with a lot of baggage, and that the relationship between serious players and their technicians can become very personal.
Of course, I was talking not as a player but an engineer who records other people playing my piano. I explained that I like my piano's slightly darker–than–typical tone; it generally works well for the sort of indie-rock and electronic material I often produce, where I often want the piano to 'sit' in a mix rather than sound bright and up-front. It works less well on sparser arrangements, especially where piano is the only accompaniment to a vocal. With such material I become acutely aware of any clunks and squeaks, and of the inherent lack of fullness in the low end that you get from any upright, compared with a grand. I also mentioned that a few notes either side of middle C seemed to 'stick out', sounding a little louder than the rest. Having patiently listened to my ramblings, Marcel removed both front panels from the piano, opened his toolbox and set to work.
First, this meant an initial tune. Marcel explained that his basic approach isn't a simple linear process of tuning each string to perfect pitch; he's more often listening to the relationship between many different pairs of notes. This is a highly skilled process that relies on a complicated mathematical system. It is explained more fully in the 'Tuning: Imperfect By Design' box.
After tuning, Marcel calls the next stage, during which he assesses and fine-tunes the mechanical aspects of the instrument, 'regulating' the piano. He checks whether the action works as it should, and listens carefully for issues with the 'trap work' (the mechanism linked to the pedals) that either cause unwanted noise or affect how the instrument feels to play. He'll listen out for creaks from the player's seat too, since they're just as annoying on a recording. Even really high-quality instruments exhibit mechanical noise, and...