Recording PianoPeriodically, we like to check with engineers to see whether technology or other considerations have changed the ways they record music. 11/01/2003 7:00 AM Eastern
Periodically, we like to check with engineers to see whethertechnology or other considerations have changed the ways they recordmusic. During my two decades at Mix, there have been so manytechnical innovations, revolutions and paradigm shifts that I'm alwayssurprised to hear that, by and large, most engineers stick by thetried-and-true methods (and in some cases, equipment) that have workedso well for so long, with an occasional new wrinkle added here andthere, of course. On the subject of piano miking, we spoke to engineersAl Schmitt, Bill Jenkins (along with pianist Mike Garson), TonyFaulkner, Ed Cherney and Jay Newland. Our thanks to all of them fortheir insights.
Veteran engineer Al Schmitt believes that “piano is the mostdifficult instrument to record really well because it has such a widedynamic range — it can be extremely subtle or very, very loud,often in the same song, so you really have to pay attention to whatyou're doing.”
Schmitt certainly knows what he's doing when it comes to piano,having worked with some of the best players in the business over hisstoried career, including his recent Grammy™-winning recordingswith jazz-pop chanteuse Diana Krall.
“The difficult thing with recording Diana is she plays andsings at the same time,” Schmitt says. “Probably 95 percentof her vocals are live and 95 percent of the piano is live, so we havea little problem trying to keep the separation going. When we work hereat Capitol, I have this foam-rubber padding that fits right behindwhere the music stand folds up, and then we will drape over the pianoto get that isolation. Inside the piano I use a couple of [Neumann]M149s. On the vocal, I use a U67. I keep the piano wide open so I canget the mics up a little bit; they're probably up about 18 inches.
“With someone like Joe Sample, who is playing but not singing,I'd keep the piano open, use the M149s inside, and then outside thepiano, right at that curvature at the top, I'll use some B&Ks mosttimes to get more ambience, or I'll use a [AKG stereo] C-24. I havesome really nice preamps that I like for piano — I'll use theseStuder valve preamps that sound terrific. I also use the Mastering Lab[preamp] on piano. If I'm working on an old Neve board like I do a lotat Avatar, I use the preamps in the board, which sound great onpiano.”
Has Schmitt's piano recording technique changed through the years?“Not really. The microphones have changed a little bit. Beforethe M-149s came out, I used to use C-12s or B&Ks, and even in acouple of cases, I'd use a couple of Schoeps. But since the 149s havecome out, I'm just crazy about those on piano.”
Schmitt notes that many other variables can affect the piano sound,including the piano itself, the room it's being recorded in and, ofcourse, the player's style. “Usually, an artist has a piano theylike or are most comfortable with,” he says. “So if you canget that, so much the better. I've heard some incredible EuropeanSteinways. There was a German Steinway piano we used with Joe Sample onSpellbound and a couple of those albums that I think it was thebest piano I ever recorded in the United States.” Schmitt alsoraves about a $125,000 Fazioli piano at Plus 30 in Paris: “It wassensational; it really spoke.”
Schmitt is currently working on yet another Krall album.“She's writing more of her own songs this time and reallystretching out.” And along with fellow engineering titans EdCherney and Elliott Scheiner, Schmitt has started a small jazz labelcalled Bop City. Not surprisingly, there's going to be plenty of pianomusic coming out of that imprint; in fact, the maiden release is by19-year-old piano prodigy Taylor Eigsti, recorded by Jeff Cressman andremixed by Schmitt.
Esteemed British engineer Tony Faulkner has recorded hundreds ofalbums of (mostly classical) piano music through the years: solo, insmall ensembles, piano concertos with orchestra; just about everyconceivable variation. He shared some of his thoughts on differentaspects of piano recording:
“I have two favorite mics I use for piano. For most classicalrecording, I'll use the Neumann M50c, which is one of the wonderful oldtube Neumanns, as my main mics. But if I want a closer pickup for jazzor something, I like to use ribbons. I have some old RCA-type 44s madeby AEA in California that are fantastic. The problem I have with moderntransistor mics is, particularly when you go close on a piano, theysort of spit at you and rattle, and it's a rather ugly sound. It's likeseeing too much nasal hair on a photograph; it's not what you want on aclose-up. But ribbons have such incredibly low distortion, and becauseof the pattern, you can get a very present sound that you can actuallyrecognize as something warm and friendly, and it doesn't squeak andscratch and spit at you.
“I don't really like the sound you get putting mics inside apiano,” he continues. “A piano, particularly something likea Steinway with the lid up, was really designed to project in a placelike Carnegie Hall. And if you have something designed to make a bignoise in a big space, going in close usually doesn't sound quite rightto me. The problem with close-miking is where are you going to put the[mics] without highlighting certain parts of the piano? You also tendto get a little more of the mechanics: the action noise, the popping upand down; not everyone wants to hear that, and it also makes the pianoa much more percussive instrument. I like my sound to have some spacefrom the room in it, and, of course, in classical music, we're oftenrecording in concert halls or very large studios.”
So where does he put the mics? “Well, it depends. You mightwant to put the mics in the arc of how the lid of the piano isprojecting the sound of the piano into the hall. You might come backeight to 10 feet with a pair and catch the sound there. Or, if you godown to the bottom end and look under the lid, you'll see three linesof the frame casting. If you align a pair of mics to look down themiddle one — one in from the one closest to the back angled about15 degrees — place one mic to the left and one to the right andcome back three or four feet. That can make quite a nice stereo effectand can give you a different clear and weighty perspective than puttingthe mics at the front. It's a matter of taste.
“Piano concertos are difficult because if you just put up acouple of overall mics for everything, as you might for an orchestra,the piano can either overwhelm the other instruments or become too mucha part of the overall sound and lack distinctness,” he says.“You have to be careful to put the mics someplace where there'sthe right proportion of each; it's quite difficult. Then, if you takethe lid off the piano to boost it, sometimes the room becomes tooresonant and the sound goes all over the place. How I would deal withthat is I'd use the M-50s for the orchestral pickup and probably havesomething like a pair of my [Neumann] M269s for my piano, and you justuse enough of that.”
Faulkner's preamp of choice is “Tim de Paravacini's EAR[Esoteric Audio Research] tube. Tim's a brilliant man and he's veryspecial, in that he's got some experience in recording and professionalbroadcasting, and the gear he makes is not only very good-sounding, butit tends to last a long time and doesn't fall to pieces on the road.It's incredibly robust and well-made. That preamp has lots of head roomand bottom end; he's paid a lot of attention to bandwidth.”
On changes in recording piano: “When you did a record with apianist 30 years ago, chances are he'd done a concert of the music twoor three nights before the session, and he came in expecting to do acomplete take of the first movement of the first piece. He'd come inand listen to it, have a cup of tea and go back and do another completetake of it, and if there was something very specific that he didn'tlike, he might cover a page of music where there was trill in the musiche didn't quite get right, or whatever. But that would be the basis ofthe editing: a complete performance with a couple of smallsubstitutions. There are many artists now — the next generationalong — who may have done more recording than concerts andthey're used to the idea of doing a complete take of the movement, butthen they'll go back and play it maybe eight or 10 bars at a time, andthen it becomes a creative process in which the producer, the artistand the editor make it something new rather than a slightly embellishedversion of a performance. I'm more used to the first approach, mainlybecause I think that's how you make the best records of classicalmusic. But if you're doing film scores or something like that, youcan't expect these guys to learn every piece the week before, becausechances are, it's still being written when they arrive in thestudio!”
Jay Newland is probably best known these days for his engineeringand production work on singer/pianist Norah Jones' multi-Grammy-winningCome Away With Me. But Newland already had a long, successfulstudio career pre-Jones, working with a wide variety of jazz, blues andpop artists, including Etta James, Kenny Baron, Charlie Haden, RandyWeston, Abbey Lincoln and many others. He's already started work onJones' next album, but we started our piano recording discussiontalking about the last one. “The piano sound on Norah's album wasmostly a pair of B&K 4007s, which to me are always very clear,almost a little bright,” he says. “So a lot of times, whatI'll do is, I'll take a [Neumann] 87 and put it on a piece of foam andjust lay it in the lower midsection of the piano as a third mic to geta sort of warm mono signal. I'll listen to it a little bit by itself,maybe EQ it slightly and put it on a separate track. It's a little bitdark and more old-fashioned-sounding. Sometimes I'll use it, sometimesI won't. It works best when you have a good stereo [image], but yousense a little emptiness in the middle and you want to fill it inslightly with a warmer tone.
“On Norah, I couldn't use any room mics because she's singingwhile she's playing. We've got the piano covered up; in this case, atSorcerer Sound, we had a 1-foot-thick piece of foam rubber that wasoriginally part of some gobo thing, and we put it where the sheet musicgoes, and then we placed piano blankets around the side. We probablyhad 90-percent isolation; maybe more.
“I did a few tracks for the new album at Allaire, up inWoodstock [N.Y.], and we used a C-24 a few inches behind the hammers,maybe 10 inches up. I don't like to get too close because it's still ajazz thing to me. If I were doing a more pop or even a hard-hittingbluesy kind of thing, I might get a little closer with two or three[AKG] 414s. I've been in many situations where an 87 is perfect. I madea Keith Jarrett record [Bye-Bye Blackbird] where I usedJosephson mics and Demeter tube preamps. With Randy Weston, who plays aBösendorfer and always has lots of low end in his playing, I useda [Neumann] 47 instead of the 87 as the third mic because it reallyemphasizes the low end, which is so important in his playing. You tucka little of that into the mix and it makes it larger than life.
“There are a few preamps I like for piano. For years, I'veused Millennias: the four-way high-voltage. I like GMLs, too, and ifI'm in a Neve studio, the Neves always sound good to me, as well. TheSontec compressor is the best-sounding piano compressor I've heard, ifa compressor is necessary or desirable.
“I did a record with Charlie Haden called Nocturne,which won a Grammy two years ago, and the pianist there was GonzaloRubalcaba, who is just unbelievable. On this particular date, it was abeautiful, brand-new Yamaha piano. It was little bright; they tend tobe a bit brighter than Steinways. And on that I used a Neumann 149,which worked out great. One thing that helped me on that session downin Miami, though, was having a technician who worked on the pianoduring the entire session. He'd be in there checking things onevery playback. And he voiced the piano in a much mellower way. Thehammers can be softened or hardened a little bit and that can affectthe tone and attack. It was outstanding. The harmonic richness ofGonzalo's playing really came out on that recording. There are a lot ofsessions where they'll have a tuner on standby and that makes a bigdifference. When a piano starts to go out of tune, especially in theupper midrange before it's actually out of tune, it gets a littleplinky. So if you can keep it in perfect tune, the recording will bethat much better.
“In the end, though, a lot of what you hear has to do morewith the musicians than the equipment you use; that's always the case.I did a record with [producer] John Snyder about 10 years ago and therewere four piano players on it: Kenny Barron, Barry Harris, TommyFlannagan and Hank Jones. We used the same piano, same mics, SSLpreamps right to the console, and we came up with four absolutely,totally different piano sounds. It's really an individual playerthing as much as anything. You can make your equipment choice based onsomething you've known from the past, but then when you hear somebodyplay, you might change that. You have to stay open.”
It seems as though every time I've spoken with L.A.-based engineerEd Cherney during the past few years, he's either in the midst of, orjust completed, some project for the Rolling Stones. This time, Cherneywas deep into mixing four different Stones DVD projects culledfrom the group's last tour; truly, there is no rest for the weary. Soit is with some measure of relief that he takes a break to talk aboutrecording piano, first noting, almost wistfully, “It doesn't seemas though I record regular acoustic pianos much anymore.” But hehas plenty of experience to draw from, having worked with such pianistsas Michael McDonald, Billy Joel, Randy Newman and Elton John.
He agrees with his buddy Schmitt that the piano is a particularlydifficult instrument to capture: “There are transients that themeters don't see, so you have to really use your ears, and every pianohas a different personality and every player does, too. You record it alittle differently for any kind of music you're doing. There are just alot of variables.
“But I do have a place I start from. I've been using twoB&K 4011s in an X-Y pattern over the hammers of the C above middleC. Then I'll typically use an 87 — or a FET 47 if I don't have an87 — down at the low end on the soundboard. I'll split the X-Y'sleft and right and I'll blend the low mic into both sides, maybe favorit on the left side a little bit. With the X-Y, maybe I'll have it tothe right a little bit to bring [out] the higher strings and higherkeys.”
How far off the strings? “It depends on the music,” hesays. “Sometimes, you're forced to get in really tight becausethe piano is in the room with the rest of the instruments. Ideally, ifyou have the piano open, I'd like to be between eight and 12 inches offthe hammers [for the B&Ks], and on the low end, I like to get thatin tighter; just a few inches. I want plenty of proximity effect on itto blend it in. I don't like to use too much EQ.” Cherney likesAPI preamps on piano, adding, “I carry some Neve 1073s with me. Ilike the sound of those: They've got a lot of headroom and a lot ofbody; they saturate nicely.
“You know what, though? Depending on what you're going forwith a piano, you might want to just take a [Shure] 57 and beat thehell out of it with a Fairchild or some other limiter and really knockdown all of the instantaneous transients and get the harmonics to comeup. There are so many fun things you can do with it. Put penniesbetween the strings. I'm always up for experimenting.”
No recording article would be complete without a touch ofcontroversy: “The waveform and the harmonics on the piano are socomplex that I don't think digital recorders can really capture all ofit that well yet,” says Cherney. “They will eventually, butit's not quite there for me yet. A lot of times, I can hear theholes, so any kind of action I can get in front of [the digitalrecorder] is a good thing.”
Blair Jackson is a senior editor at Mix.
In the pop world, virtuoso keyboardist Mike Garson is well known forhis 30-plus-year association with David Bowie, as well as session workwith the likes of Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins and No Doubt,among others. In jazz, he's worked with Stan Getz, Freddie Hubbard andStanley Clarke, to name a few, and also put out a number of discs underhis own name and with the group Free Flight. Though adept at any kindof keyboard instrument, Garson says, “I've stayed true to thepiano; it will always be my favorite instrument. At the same time, Ialso want to take advantage of what's out there, so I've been using aDisklavier a lot.”
In his home studio in Bell Canyon, at the west end of the SanFernando Valley, Garson has three grands: two different models ofYamaha Disklaviers and a MIDI grand. On the road with Bowie, he plays aGranTouch Disklavier, “a 380-pound digital piano that has realpiano action and it sounds really good. I also use a Kurzweil on somethings and I use a Yamaha Motif [synth]. On the road, Bowie doesn'twant to deal with tuning issues and feedback, so that's why we don'tuse a conventional grand piano.”
Garson says that using the Disklavier system in his studio allowshim to stay fresh as a pianist, because “it's essentially like acomputerized player piano. When I'm working with Bill Jenkins, myengineer, I can go in and play some arpeggios — soft, medium andloud — and he can play that back in Repeat mode and set the micshowever he wants them, depending on what we're going to record. Thatway, I don't have to play over and over again and burn out.”
Of course, the Disklavier's other advantage is that it can play MIDIfiles. For instance, on the forthcoming Bowie album, Garson notes,“On this song called ‘The Loneliest Guy,’ I recordedit on synthesizer originally and then took home the MIDI file andre-recorded it on my 9-foot Yamaha Disklavier, recording it as itplayed back.” Adds engineer Jenkins, “[Producer] TonyVisconti said he didn't have to do much to it when he mixed it, whichis nice to hear.”
Conversely, on a track called “The Disco King,” Garsonsays, “[Bowie] called me in and all he played for me was a drumloop and his voice and he said, ‘Show me the chords and play thepiano over that,’ and I came up with this whole arrangement, butit doesn't have bass or guitar on it. It's an eight-minute song and itcloses the album. But there's an example where I took the MIDI filehome, recorded onto my piano and, ultimately, he decided he liked thesynth sound better — the Yamaha S-90 keyboard — so that'swhat's on there.”
According to Jenkins, for the Bowie project, “What we've beenusing mostly is a pair of Groove Tubes GT67s run into a couple of theM-Audio TAMPA mic preamps. Then I use another pair of mics fordistant-miking — the Oktava MC012, small pencil-style mics— into a pair of TAMPAS and then into an 02R and into DigitalPerformer from there. My own preference for piano mics and preamps isNeumann M149s to an Avalon M5; I've had great success with that. I'vealso used 414s for certain piano things through the years.”
Jenkins says he “can get a pretty good piano sound in Mike'sstudio, but if I were at Schnee or O'Henry, I could get him agreat sound, so at his place, I tend to close-mike a littlemore. But it also depends on the genre we're doing. With classicalstuff, I like to back it off, obviously. With rock, you go closer in.Using the four tracks [two close, two room mics], we've mostly used theclose-miking [in the mix] with just a little bit of the overheads togive it a little more depth.” And though he, too, admires thesound and versatility of the Disklavier system, Jenkins notes that“It doesn't re-create some of the real finesse stuff in theplaying. There's some difference when you play it back, which isunfortunate, because Mike plays so great. I'd like to hear it come backexactly as he played it. But it's very, very close.”—