Recording Piano, November 1997 - Mixonline

Recording Piano, November 1997

HOW DO YOU CAPTURE THE FULL RANGE OF THE MUSICAL WORLD'S MOST VERSATILE AND DYNAMIC ACOUSTIC INSTRUMENT? FOUR TOP PROS SHARE THEIR SECRETS
Author:
Publish date:

All photos taken at OTR Studios by Muffy Kibbey

One of the most amazing creations in the universe of musical
instruments, the piano is capable of everything from delicate melodic
expressions to brute percussive attacks. It has been the vehicle for
timeless classics like Brahms’ transcendent Concerto for Piano
& Orchestra No. 2 and for the jazz playfulness of Chick
Corea’s “Spain.”

Rock ’n’ roll, blues and R&B’s finest moments
have also been served well by the piano, thanks to Jerry Lee Lewis,
Charles Brown, Fats Domino, Allen Toussaint and many others.

Capturing piano on tape is an undertaking that requires a good
understanding of the instrument at hand and its effect on the room in
which it is being recorded. Mix rounded up four experts, two of
them professional pianists, to talk about some of the subtleties of
recording piano. The points of view range from classical to rock, and
the philosophies include seeing mono as the best way to present the
instrument and touting the virtues of dead strings.

Thanks to Jim Dickinson, John Hampton, Richard King and Cookie
Marenco for their insight and enthusiastic participation in this piece.
Thanks also to Ellen Fitton and Michael Omartian for their input.

JIM DICKINSON
Memphis-based producer and session keyboardist Jim Dickinson has
produced critically acclaimed albums for Ry Cooder, Big Star, The
Replacements, Mojo Nixon, Toots Hibbert, Jason & The Scorchers,
Claw Hammer and Mose Vinson. Dickinson has enjoyed a successful piano
and keyboard sideman career on notable releases by the Rolling Stones,
Dr. John, Eric Clapton, The Cramps, Arlo Guthrie, Los Lobos, Aretha
Franklin, Carman McRae and, most recently, Bob Dylan. Dickinson
engineered Phineas Newborn’s Grammy-nominated jazz piano album,
Solo, and has worked with Ry Cooder on 11 movie soundtracks.

First off, I want to dispel some mythology, which is that you should
mike the piano from the inside. I’ve gone back to recording piano
mono. I did record stereo piano for years, which I now think is
incorrect, because you simply don’t listen to the piano with your
head inside it. The whole idea of stereo piano, which is a ’70s
idea, is totally incorrect. You can create a kind of false stereo, if
you’re interested in the horrible idea of separating the left
hand from the right hand, which of course, no piano player would want
to do. You’re trying to create the illusion of one big hand
anyway.

When you sit behind the piano, you do hear the treble in your right
ear, and the bass in your left ear, but no one else does. It really
depends where you think the piano image goes in the stereo spectrum. If
you see the stereo spectrum as 9 o’clock to 3 o’clock, I
think the piano goes at 1:30, for instance.

The lid of the grand piano is designed to project the sound out
horizontally to an opera or concert hall, and the sound of that piano
actually focuses about ten or 12 feet in front (meaning the audience
side of the piano that the lid is open to) of the instrument, which is
why it’s idiotic to put the mic inside it.

The best textbook example of concert hall grand piano recording that
you could ever want is found in a documentary from the late ’50s
of the Glenn Gould Columbia sessions. There are microphones all over
the room, but they are recording in mono. There isn’t a
microphone any closer than eight feet. There are some microphones
considerably farther away. [The engineers] recorded with no EQ and no
compression, and when they wanted more top end, they simply turned up
the microphones that were close to the top end. It was just a beautiful
thing to watch. They were recording with a mono unit and a stereo unit,
which was really a safety, because the needle moved in unison on both
tracks. Even with the multi-microphone approach, these old-school
Columbia recording engineers were making a blending of the different
mics. That’s what a grand piano sounds like.

Much of vintage rock ’n’ roll is an upright or a spinet
piano, which is of course a vertical harp rather than a horizontal
harp, and a whole different miking technique. The Jerry Lee Lewis
records were cut on a spinet piano, with a microphone placed behind it,
because on an upright or spinet, the sound comes from the back of the
sound board. There is a place between the struts there, to the treble
end of the keyboard, behind the third brace, where there is a sweet
spot on any upright or spinet piano. That is where I mike it.

The Jerry Lee Lewis piano recordings were interesting in that part
of the piano sound was coming through the back of the vocal mic, as
well. On my recordings of old blues musicians, I like to mike the front
of an upright piano so I can get the sound of the fingernails on the
keys. That is a subtle thing, but to a piano player, it makes a big
difference. Some players click louder than others. It adds personality.
It is a question of what you think you’re recording from a
keyboard player.

On the movie soundtrack of The Border, we had an old piano
that came out of Amigo Studios, and it had a sticker on it that said,
“This is the property of the Los Angeles County School
System.” It had been painted white with house paint. Nobody used
it, except for us. Nobody cared what I did to it, so I could cover the
strings with duct tape and tinfoil, and whatever else I wanted to use.
The strings were all really dead, so there weren’t any overtones,
which is what I wanted it for. I wanted the piano that way to ensure
that its sound would not interfere with the guitar’s tonalities.
Someone might wonder why I would choose dead strings. Why not just EQ
out the clashing frequencies on the piano? Well, I’d rather
listen to signal than EQ.

The overtone series of a piano is very complex. The longer the
strings, the more dominant the overtones are going to be. With dead
strings, the first thing that goes are the overtones. The deader the
strings, the more prominent the principal frequencies. With Ry, the
guitar is a dominant instrument, so it is imperative that the piano is
out of the way. Conversely, if I was making just a piano record, I
would want a strong representation of overtones from a piano.

My personal favorite piano is an old white Bush & Gerts that was
made in Chicago before World War II that I took out of Stax Recording.
The best piano that I ever put my hands on is Willie Nelson’s
sister’s full-sized grand piano at Arlyn Studios in Austin,
Texas. I can never remember the name of it. It was just this fabulous
instrument that made a Bosendorfer sound like a Kimball. It is exactly
the kind of instrument I normally don’t like, but this one is
wonderful. I have known that piano for 15 years, and it has gotten
better. Steinways are really best-suited for classical players.

There is a piano down on Beale Street in Memphis that is absolutely
whipped; yet every time I sit down and play it, I enjoy the experience.
Here is this old piano that Mose Vinson and God knows who else has
played since Year One, and you can feel the humanity through the ivory
keys…something that plastic can never convey.

You can be “Save the Elephants,” and all that, but
I’m sorry, man, give me ivory keys. I like elephants as much as
anybody, but I hate to put my fingers on plastic keys. It feels like a
synthesizer. Ivory feels so much better. You can feel the ivory feel,
the wood and the felt on the hammer and the metal on the string.
It’s all part of what’s in your hand, and it’s a
wonderful feeling. Now that’s a piano, and there is not a real
piano player on Earth who won’t understand what I’m
saying.

JOHN HAMPTON
Since the late ’70s, John Hampton has worked with a wide range
of artists, including B.B. King, Travis Tritt, The Replacements,
Vaughan Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Robert Cray, Alex Chilton, Little
Texas, the Bar Kays and Afghan Whigs. Hampton’s productions of
the Gin Blossoms have gone multi-Platinum, and for a number of years
many of Nashville’s most successful country artists have come to
his home base studio, Ardent Recording, in Memphis for his engineering
and mixing expertise.

A piano was meant to be heard phase-coherently. When you listen to a
piano, you’re hearing the piano hammers hitting the strings, and
the sound reflecting off the lid and coming to your ear. It’s all
pretty phase-coherent out there where you’re standing, because
it’s all hitting your ears at the same time.

There are a lot of people who’ll put one mic on the bass
strings, and then about three-and-a-half feet away, another mic on the
top strings. Now, you’ve got your low end happening in one
speaker and you’ve got your top end happening in one speaker, but
what about the strings in between, which is the main part of the piano
where most people play? You’ve got the sound meeting these
microphones at all these different timing intervals, and it’s
totally not coherent. In a mix, if you pan it left and right, it sounds
like it’s coming from behind your head. That’s not
correct.

There are several ways to obtain a phase-coherent piano recording.
If you want the low end of the piano on one side and you want the high
end of the piano on the other side, that’s fine; but there are a
lot of ways to obtain that and still have phase-coherency to where the
strings in between don’t sound like they’re coming from
behind your head. One of them is MS stereo, or mid-side stereo. I love
mid-side stereo. An MS recording of a piano can give you a truly
phase-coherent, left-to-right picture of the piano without all the
weird phase distortion on the keys between the low and the high.

The best microphone I have found for that application is the Shure
VP-88. Put the mic over the hammers, but not too close, because you
don’t want the mid-strings to be louder than the low strings and
the high strings. Pull it back a foot or so from the hammers and put it
on the “M” setting, which is a medium MS picture. If you do
that, then you will have a phase-coherent picture of the piano. You
also don’t need to EQ the VP-88 because it’s such a
natural-sounding microphone.

There’s a French method of miking a piano, called ORTF, that
was developed back in the ’70s. You take a couple of mics, like
[Neumann] KM84s, and put them in an X-Y setup with the capsules seven
centimeters apart. That’s the magic number. It’s actually
not phase-coherent on the frequencies that are seven centimeters long,
but it gives a fairly phase-coherent picture of a piano, low to
high.

My favorite method, believe it or not, is to put two PZMs back to
back—just tape them together. I will put them 12 to 15 inches
above where the hammers hit the strings. They need to be the kind of
PZMs with the high-frequency boost. With those, you never need to EQ
the piano.

Those are the three ways that I have recorded piano and consistently
experienced the most satisfying results.

RICHARD KING
Richard King has traveled all over the world recording symphonic,
small chamber group and solo piano music. As a senior recording
engineer for Sony Music Studios in New York, King has worked with Yo-Yo
Ma, Riccardo Muti and the Filarmonica della Scala, the Los Angeles
Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra and many revered classical
pianists, such as Yefim Bronfman, Emanuel Ax, Murray Perahia, as well
as other renowned artists and ensembles.

The two main elements needed are a good piano and a good hall. After
agreeing on a recording venue, the producer and artist will choose a
piano, out of many pianos, so they are really deciding on what piano
sound they want based on the instrument. I only use two omnidirectional
microphones
, and I really rely on the piano sounding exactly the way
the artist and everyone is expecting it to sound. From that, I try to
duplicate exactly what we are getting in the hall. Very rarely will I
add any additional mics to enhance the hall sound.

For mics, the B&K 4009 is my choice, which is a high-powered,
130-volt input mic that has been matched at the factory. People would
probably be more familiar with the 4003, which is a powered omni. The
4009 is a matched pair of those. They match them throughout production,
choosing pairs of caps and other elements to build them. They are a
true stereo pair. The serial numbers are an A and a B. B&K 4006s
are good, too.

On a number of occasions, I have also used the Schoeps MK2S, which
is again an omni with a high-frequency shelf. The B&K has a peak
way up high, around 18 kHz. So it has more of a sparkle on the top end,
rather than the brightness characterized by the Schoeps. The B&K is
a little tighter than the Schoeps on the low end.

I will use outboard preamps and go straight to tape, so there is no
console involved. I have used, with great success, fully discrete
Swiss-made preamps made by Sonosax. They are solid-state, and
they’re very fast. The extension to the low and high end is very
good. Like the B&K mics, it’s incredibly quick, which is a
sound that I like.

I’ve also used the Millennia preamp, which is very good. It
has a 130-volt input on it, so I can use the high-powered B&Ks
without their own power supply, which I think is inferior. I can go
straight into the Millennia with a 130-volt line, which is kind of
nice. We’ve customized the input gain stage to 1½dB steps on
the Millennias in order to optimize level to tape. Millennia did the
mods for us.

The other thing that I’ve done on occasion is put my A/D out
on the stage with the piano, and then just run an AES snake back to the
control room to the tape machine, so that I’m converting digital
on stage, so the analog line is getting pretty short.

We record 2-tracks. We’ve used the Nagra Digital tape machine
with great success. It’s a 4-track machine, but I just put stereo
down on it twice, for redundancy. Lately, we’ve been
experimenting with 96kHz, 24-bit stereo, which we also store across
four tracks of the Nagra. We’ve also used the Sony PCM 9000,
which is a magneto-optical recorder, and also the Prism set up with the
PCM 800, which is the same as the Tascam DA-88. It’ll do four
tracks at 24-bit, but I’m just printing two mics again. So I just
put the two mics down twice for redundancy.

I tend to prefer a liver hall. For my mic positioning, I could be
anywhere from four feet to eight feet away from the piano. The mics are
set, from the audience’s perspective, somewhere around the middle
of the longest string on the piano, halfway down the instrument. The
mics will be pointed, however, toward the hammers and are normally set
up parallel to one another. For spacing the mics, I sometimes tend to
go as tight as 18 inches apart, and I’ve been as wide as four or
five feet. The mic spacing directly correlates to the desired image of
the piano recording. The deciding factor depends on the repertoire and
the sound that the producer and the artist want. It is always
subjective.

I just did a record with Arcadi Volodos in England of all piano
transcriptions, which means that orchestral scores were reduced to
being played on a piano by one player. For that, it seemed right that
we had a much larger piano image, so there was a much wider spread on
the microphones. Prior to that, I did a record of Prokofiev piano
sonatas, where I really wanted a good, solid center image, so I went
with a tighter mic spread.

Obviously, with omnis you can’t pan them in at all, because
there will be phase cancellation, so I always leave them hard left and
right. In fact, I’m not even going through a console most of the
time, so it really is just left and right. If I want more of a mono
image, I’ll place the mics closer together.

If the hall isn’t so great, then I will also go a little
tighter with the mics and add a little reverb. But generally,
it’s all-natural recording, if I can get away with that. When I
need to apply reverb, I like the Random Hall setting found on the
Lexicon 480L. I also like the Small Random Church. Between the two of
those, I can usually find something that I can work with. I always
change the parameters and customize the settings—they’re
just the settings I usually start with. I tend to pull down the Random
Hall in size to around 31 or 34 meters, depending on the recording.
Again, I’m trying to bring in something that matches the existing
hall sound, because these recordings are never dry. I try to sneak in
something where you can’t actually tell that I’ve added
additional reverb, so I am very careful to match the characteristics of
the existing room reverb.

On a 480, I find that the Shape and the Spread controls offer a lot
of flexibility. There is also a high-frequency cutoff, which enables
you to change the basic overall sound of the reverb without actually
running an additional EQ stage. I only do this if the hall isn’t
so adequate. Most piano records that I have done have just been two
mics and that’s it—no EQ and no additional reverb.

Sometimes, if a grand piano sounds a little “covered,”
I’ll extend the stick [the prop that holds up the lid]. I’m
always on a full stick [the piano lid fully propped open] anyway, but
if I want the piano to sound a little more open, I’ll bring a
piece of wood that is maybe another four inches longer than the regular
stick, and put the lid up slightly higher. I’ve used a pool cue
with great success, because of the rubber base of the stick and the
felt tip. It doesn’t damage the piano, and it gets the lid open a
little bit more.

Concerning panning, I always go with the image of the lower notes to
the right side and the high notes coming out of the left, so it’s
always audience perspective for me. There are usually some tell-tale
extreme low notes that come from the right, and extreme high that comes
from the left, but the main sound of the piano comes from the middle. I
think that most people in jazz and pop do the opposite panning, which
is from the player’s perspective.

My absolute favorite hall to record in is on the east coast of
England. It’s called Snape Maltings. It used to be the malting
place, where they created the malt that then would get shipped out to
the brewery. It is an old brick building with a wooden roof, and it has
a really great reverb. Even the higher notes of the piano ring into the
room with a great sustain, but it’s still a very warm sound.

My favorite pianos are Hamburg Steinways. I think they record the
best. For classical, the Hamburg Steinway has a better balance of low
and high notes. The Hamburg Steinways also seem to be a little better
for me than the New York Steinways. I find that Bosendorfers sound
great, but for some reason I’ve had real trouble recording them.
It’s kind of a wild instrument. The Steinway sounds the most even
over microphones. I’ve used Yamahas for pop and jazz, and they
are really great for that, but for classical I find they’re a
little too bright.

COOKIE MARENCO
Before Cookie Marenco entered the wonderful world of engineering and
producing, she was a professional jazz keyboardist who had been
classically trained since the age of 4. Since 1981, Marenco has owned
and run a San Francisco Bay Area studio called OTR, and she also worked
as an A&R person during Windham Hill’s ’80s glory
years. Her credits as an engineer include Mary Chapin Carpenter,
Charlie Haden Quartet West, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Brain &
Buckethead, Mark Isham, Turtle Island String Quartet, Phillip Aaberg,
Steve Swallow, Carla Bley, Glen Moore, Ralph Towner, Oregon and Clara
Ponty.

One of the hardest things to find is a good piano in a good studio.
At my studio, I have a 7-foot Steinway that was built in 1885. A lot of
people from all over come to play on it. As a player, I like the
Steinway for the touch and because there is a roundness to the sound
that I prefer. We keep the piano brighter than most Steinways. We
don’t voice it down as much as a classical instrument for a
concert, but it wouldn’t be as bright as a Yamaha, which tends to
be a brighter-sounding instrument.

You can hear the difference between the various pianos once you get
familiar with all of them. You can hear a recording and tell if
it’s a Yamaha, Steinway or Bosendorfer. Sometimes Steinways get a
little muddy in the midrange, between the octave below middle C and the
octave above it. That’s the only thing you have to watch for in a
Steinway.

Usually, when I record a piano, I’ll use two B&Ks, the
4011s or the 4012s, placed in sort of a “V” position, about
eight or nine inches apart, with one mic pointed toward the keyboard
and one pointed toward the back end of the piano. They’ll be
placed at more of a 45-degree angle, somewhere in the center of the
instrument, where the midrange is, about halfway up, between the piano
lid and where the strings sit. If I do that, I get a lot of clarity in
the middle.

If I’m doing more of a classical session, the mics may be
backed off more—not even inside the piano—to get more of
the room. It depends more on the sound that the artist is looking for.
If I was in a situation where I didn’t have B&Ks, then
[Neumann] KM84s would be another choice. The Schoeps mics work well,
too.

You really have to listen, because every player attacks the piano
differently. Even slightly different positioning or placements in a
room can change the phase relationships. On a lot of the 9-foot pianos,
I’ll even put up a couple of other floor mics, as sort of
“insurance” mics, to capture the range of the instrument.
I’m a big fan of stereo piano. Mono piano drives me crazy. I know
a lot of classical engineers will record with one mic, but if there
aren’t two tracks of piano, then what’s the point?
[Laughs]

You know what drives me nuts is that whole low/high issue—with
the bass of the piano on the left side and the treble end of the piano
on the right. When I get that in reverse, my whole world goes bananas.
There’s nothing wrong with it; it’s just me
psychologically. I just can’t handle it. Unless it’s a solo
piano record, I rarely hard-pan left and right. It depends on the
instrument and the instrumentation, because I don’t necessarily
pan at “10” and “2.” If I have a lot of guitars
going on, I might do an “11” and “5.”

When I am laying down tracks, I try not to EQ anything. I try to go
flat. Almost always, I am using Dolby SR. I prefer everything analog.
With digital, I find that the transients are compromised. I don’t
like the sound of what digital does to an instrument like a piano, or
any kind of plucked or attacked instrument. Every generation of digital
gives you more unpleasantness on the top end.