A couple years ago, in honor of my late brother, Frank (an avid Chopin fan), we did a short series on piano miking. A big thanks to my good friends and excellent engineers Randy Poole (Anita Baker, Michael W. Smith, CeCe Winans) and Kevin Edlin (Nashville Symphony, Kings Singers) for contributing their techniques and tips to the GetYoshed blog!
The project Kevin was recording while writing this blog was a solo piano album for acclaimed pianist Agnes Wan (http://www.agnes-wan.net). This album has recently been released and we wanted to share it with you to listen to while you're reading Kevin's post and thinking about your own piano recordings. The album can be found on Soundset here or iTunes here. Here's what Kevin wrote:
"Thanks for having me, I really appreciate it. As far as classical piano recording techniques go, here are some of my thoughts. The first thing to consider is the type of piece you're going to record - whether it's a work for solo classical piano, or rather a piano concerto (a piece written for piano and orchestra) with the pianist as the featured soloist. Further consideration needs to be given to the approach of the recording, i.e. a live concert as opposed to a closed session. As you may know, in classical music the aesthetic is generally for recordings to be made in somewhat of an audience/listener's position, but yet having more clarity and detail than seated patrons can observe.
For purposes of this discussion, I'll leave out anything related to recording a piano as only a part of the orchestra, where it is only an element of the music and not a featured instrument. I'll also only include non-studio techniques, as most classical recordings are made on location in different concert halls and performing arts venues.
For a solo classical piano piece, the first thing one should do is make sure the instrument is in a good spot on the stage. The sound of the piano as it resonates in the hall it's played in can change greatly if moved from the front to the back of the stage. Generally, you'll want to have the instrument somewhat in the center. This however can vary slightly though, as some performers like to have the center of the sound board directly in the middle of the stage, while other prefer to have the hammers and action in the middle, thereby putting the keys and the performer in the center as well. Sometimes this is done for acoustic reasons, and sometimes it may be done like this just for the sake of appearances. After this has been decided upon, it's a good idea to talk with the performer about past experiences he or she might have had playing in that hall (if they ever have before) to gain any insight from them, and just to make sure they're comfortable. It's also paramount to do a little moving of the instrument from upstage (closer to the back wall) to downstage (closer to the audience) - and a lot of critical listening while the performer plays through a few excerpts of the material at hand. I can't emphasise this enough. Sometimes, just a few feet in either direction can make a big difference in finding a particular spot on the stage where the sound blooms.
When it comes to equipment, I would normally start with a spaced pair of omnidirectional microphones positioned 4 to 5 feet over the opening of the lid at full stick, with the angles of the mics generally at the same degree as that of the open lid. This would be used as the main pair of mics, and for the most part be responsible for capturing the instrument and the overall sound of the recording. For this, my preference would generally be the DPA 4006. I have however had good results using a pair of high quality cardiod or sub-cardiod microphones, such as Schoeps or Neumann, in an ORTF position or something similar. I also try and use the cleanest, quietest, and most neutral preamplifiers available, typically by manufacturers such as Millennia, Grace, or Lavry. The Millennia HV-3D 8 channel unit is very commonplace for this application. For a solo piano, I might also put up a pair of flanking omnidirectional microphones, with each one being 6 to 8 feet or so to the left and right of the main pair. This is primarily to capture the reflections of the stage and to allow for a greater width to the recording. Lastly, I almost always have some sort of ambient hall pair of mics. These are usually omnidirectional as well, and could be anything ranging from the DPA compact series to some sort of high quality large diaphragm condensers. Using these allows one to capture the natural reverberation of the hall. They can be placed anywhere from the far left/right corners of the very back of the hall and high up near the rear ceiling, to mid-way down the isles near the stage and fairly close together - or anywhere in between. The exact position can depend on the size the room, whether it's a small recital hall or a large concert venue, and the given rooms acoustics.
Another major factor involved in classical mic technique that I have yet to mention is whether or not an audience is involved. This can be much greater factor than most people first imagine. In live concert recordings, microphones are often times not allowed to be placed on stands on the stage during performances! Depending on the venue management, the performer and/or music director, and what the audiences of that venue are accustomed to seeing, equipment such as mics, stands, and cables on stage can be thought of as cluttering and unsightly. It can therefor be necessary to suspend them in the air somehow from the ceiling, rafters, or architecture of the building. This could mean hanging them from the overhead grid or catwalk railing of a performing arts center, or even through the rafters and attic of a church. Naturally, this can pose some problems. The ways and means of doing this could be the subject of an entirely different essay, and would well go beyond the scope of this one. Suffice to say, in a live audience situation, a good classical recording engineer must be able to get the microphones in the best spot available despite the possible adversities. So, whatever mic placements you have decided are best from your acoustic experiments and critical listening, you may now have to suspend in mid air and secure properly so that all performers, patrons, and backstage personnel are safe from any falling equipment! The placement of ambient hall mics are a good illustration of this. While in some occasions no one will care if the main or flanking pairs of mics are attached to stands on stage or not, it will always be against fire codes to put equipment in the isles or seating area of a hall during a performance. Mic stands, cables, or anything that could be a trip hazard will always be completely off limits when a live audience is present. This however becomes a non issue during a closed session! One then has the freedom to choose to narrow the focus of the ambient pair, as opposed to hanging them from the one accessible beam found in the back of the hall. This however can even affect the mic choice of the main pairs as well. For instance it is usually easy to hang a pair of small diaphragm condensers on a stereo bar in front of an audience, while it may be nearly impossible to suspend a pair of Neumann M 50's or M 150's (with their accompanying tube power supplies) safely in the same hall.
This concludes many of my thoughts on recording a solo classical piano piece. I'll leave the topic of recording a piano concerto to another essay. And while I know that I have recored Chopin pieces before, I can't recall which ones, or exactly when or where. I'm sure I've recorded the Nashville symphony performing the music of Chopin in concert, and probably also the Aspen Festival Orchestra as well. And while I have never recorded an album of his music, I am never the less both humbled and thrilled to be included in your blog."