How breaking the rules can transform your piano recordings
This article first appeared in Recording Magazine. I reprint it here with permission, and I encourage you to subscribe to that publication, as they are a stand up bunch of folk!
The piano is an amazing creature. It’s ubiquitous in all kinds of music and its frequency range means it can play any role. It’s also so crazy to record that there are volumes written on how to record it right, including my piece “Caging the Beast” from May 2016’s Recording. Since that’s been done, let’s talk about the “wrong” way; nutso things you can do with piano recording that may yield something new.
A piano is huge, and there are a million “good” ways to mic it, including close miking, room miking, spaced pairs, mid-side pairs and so on. There are, however, several places considered not great, at least for capturing a traditional piano sound.
Try a large diaphragm condenser like an AKG 414 placed right above one of rear holes. It turns out this might sound nice and can help isolate the piano in an ensemble. A dynamic like an SM57 pointed straight into the hole is a recipe for weird and muddy, but that may be perfect in the right context.
Under The Piano
There’s a whole world of tone under the piano that may not be considered normal, including a wealth of low frequencies that might even help a traditional mix. Try an omni-directional under the middle of the case and see what happens. Or try a ribbon mic to capture the movement of the pedal. Often that movement coincides with the rhythm of the tune, so there may be a rhythm track there.
Nathan Rosenberg reminds us in his November 2004 Recording piece that “there is a wonderful place at the tail, just about where the back leg is, or often just outside the case. Here, the various registers tend to project in a surprisingly uniform manner.” This is a great place to place a stereo pair or even a single mic for mono capture. This isn’t particularly crazy, but it’s worth trying.
Tradition holds that the best microphone for piano is a condenser or ribbon. There’s good reason for this, as condensers and ribbons are good at capturing high-end detail. Mics like the AKG 414, the Neumann U87 and even the Rode NT1-A are common.
That leaves out dynamics, which are generally too sluggish to capture the detail a ribbon or condenser could. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying! As mentioned, an SM57 in a sound hole can result in something weird, especially if you were to, say, amp that signal?
Also mentioned before, the underside of a grand piano can be a treasure-trove of low frequencies. Maybe try something like an AKG D112 underneath and see what happens.
For that matter, what would happen if you placed that D112 above the low strings? As a matter of fact, that’s exactly what Recording contributor Jon Bare did on one location recording, and it made a baby grand sound like a 9-foot concert grand (see his article “Miking The Not So Great Piano” on Recording’s website).
Perhaps you could try that crappy vocal mic from your dad’s 1970’s live rig placed smack dab on top of the keys, or 17 omni-directional condensers under a closed lid, specifically placed to create phase problems. What if you taped a lavalier to the inside of the shell? The possibilities are endless.
Mess With the Piano
Next let’s try the instrument itself. There are tons of ways you can cause a piano to sound abnormal. Recently I put a sweatshirt on the strings to create a muted sound that proved useful for rhythms. Some avant-garde pianists spend hours before a gig preparing the piano contraptions placed on the strings, hammers and soundboards.
“Tack” pianos are made by sticking thumbtacks in the hammers so they make a tacky sound when striking the strings. (Beware: this is permanent, as it damages the felt.) Or what if the hammers were softer than normal?
You could prepare the innards of the piano, or you could mess with the outside. Try closing the lid, draping a storage blanket over it, and miking from above. You’ll probably get a dull sound, but what if you were to hold down the sustain pedal and let a ton of notes build up on top of each other?
For that matter, you could remove the lid entirely. In fact, that technique, which Elton John producer Gus Dudgeon was fond of, isn’t even rare.
Let’s not forget we’ve been talking about grand pianos this whole time. Uprights and spinets are a whole different world, and while there are “right” ways to capture them, there are also crazy ways. Most importantly, consider a bad upright. Perhaps you have an antique which can’t be tuned and has strings missing. Maybe there’s an opportunity for some interesting stuff by finding the worst sound it can make and recording that. This kind of buzzy, crackling thing can be great for creating interesting rhythm tracks, for example.
Play With the Playing
By now we’re placing wrong mics in wrong holes on wrong instruments. Awesome!
Now let’s play with the playing. There’s an incredible variety of playing styles available to the piano. Super staccato, flowing legato, damper pedals, low registers, glissandos and tigers and bears, oh my! Even staying at the keyboard, you can probably think of a hundred ways to break out of the box. How about using the lowest two octaves to create a bassline, replacing a bassist? What about recording the same riff 7 separate times in all the octaves?
Beyond the keyboard itself, a piano can make a lot of sounds we don’t normally think of. Check out The Piano Guys for a litany of examples, from plucking and poking strings to hand drumming on the soundboard to threading a frayed violin bow through the strings.
The cool thing here is breaking these rules doesn’t lead to any particular genre. You could end up doing pop covers like The Piano Guys, avant-garde craziness ala The Mars Volta, or even create hip-hop track.
There Are No Rules
Just like music in general, there are no rules with the piano (as long as you don’t destroy a piano that’s not yours!) You can stick with the tried and true and there’s a world of creativity to be had with such a versatile instrument, but if you get bored, run out of ideas or have a sticky problem you can’t solve, it may be time to do things a little wrong. You never know what might come of it!
I‘m a singer, rapper and writer who uses the piano in a fashion that’s not always right. You can talk to me on social media @AaronJTrumm