The audio files available on this page accompany my article in SOS December 2019 about how piano technician Marcel Kunkel sets up, tunes and maintains an upright piano. In the second half of that article, I explained how Marcel and I tested various mic choices and techniques for upright piano, and these are the audio examples from the session — thanks to Marcel for tinkling the ivories while I was recording!
For the first four examples I used a spaced stereo pair of DPA ST4006a mics in (roughly) the middle of the live room as a means of comparing the sound of different piano placements and configurations — eg. position in relation to the back wall, or with the various panels on/shut or off/closed. This first example is of the piano with all the lids on and about 20cm from the wall — which had hitherto been my default position for recording my piano.
This example is the same but with the piano pushed right up against the wall. The tone of the instrument does seem to change slightly in the mid-range, and it also appears to me to have a little less bottom end.
The same as position one, but with both the front panels removed and the top lid open, exposing the strings. The sound of the instrument in the room is surprisingly similar — perhaps just a touch brighter.
The same as the first position, but with a couple of heavy duvets draped over the piano. This creates a much duller, quieter tone for the piano and is a quick and easy way of creating a different sound.
This example is of the stereo pair of DPA mics about 4-5 feet back from the front of the piano with middle C in the centre of the stereo image. The back of the piano is about 3-4 feet away from the wall. This is the position we choose for the remaining audio examples which were all recorded with a single performance. The lower front panel is on, but the upper one is removed to expose the strings. The top lid is also open. You don't get much ‘room’ sound in a smaller room like mine, but it had a full sound that could work in combination with a close mic option. I liked the darker sound, and it worked really well on the more spacious chord-rich material.
A stereo ribbon mic (Royer SF-12) pointing at the strings around Middle C from about five inches away. I use this technique a lot, as it’s very quick to set up and always gives a tight, balanced sound. You don’t get much bottom end, but it works well in a track with a full band playing. It’s also relatively forgiving in terms of how little mechanical noise it captures. I’ve found, though, that the quality of mic is important; I’ve tried some cheaper stereo ribbon options that didn’t work nearly as well in this application.
A pair of cardioid capacitor mics (AKG C414 B-ULS) pointing at the strings. This is a common technique, with the mics spaced so that one is pointing towards the bass strings and one covers the higher notes. Around four feet apart and 4-5 inches away from the strings, you get a bright, well-balanced sound that can work well for many styles. The sense of stereo width can be impressive, but the balance can suffer in mono if your mics are too far apart.
This is the result of a single cardioid dynamic mic (AKG D19, which is unusual in not exhibiting any proximity effect bass boost), positioned about two feet above the piano pointing down towards the strings. This is vaguely similar to how some Beatles piano recordings were made at Abbey Road. It provides a familiar jangly sound that should cut through well in a busy track but, unsurprisingly, it feels thin on the more classical styles. There’s no need to worry about mono compatibility of course!
This is a pair of cheap Realistic PZM mics, taped inside the of the lower removable front panel of the piano. This is a technique Marcel uses to get a fuller sound. As well as a ‘grander’ low end, it seems to capture quite a scooped sound. You do a quite a bit of mechanical noise, which is not surprising considering where the mics are positioned. But while it might not always provide the best balance on its own, it can work really well used to augment another miking setup — I really liked the low end if added to the SM57s used on the rear (example 11).
A spaced pair of cardioid capacitor (Neumann U87s) mics facing the back of the piano, about four feet apart, and positioned just below halfway up the piano and about 4 inches back. There’s little bottom end, but it’s a nice, balanced sound that worked well on all the pieces Marcel played on the day. Note the lack of mechanical or key noises — this makes it a great option for any material where the piano will be fully exposed.
This a pair of Shure SM57 dynamic mics positioned similarly to the U87s at the rear of the piano, just a little lower down (they couldn’t be in exactly the same place!). We all really liked the sound of this setup, which produced a tight, controlled sound with, again, no mechanical noise. You get a lot of ‘poke’ with an SM57, but this could be perfect for getting a piano to cut through a busy mix.