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Music production questions and answers about recording the upright piano.

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Recording the Upright Piano

Q:

Hi there. I read your piano article in Recording Magazine and really enjoyed it. I have an upright piano and i was wondering what I need to do differently to record it. I don't know if it matters, but it is a Yamaha. Your article talked mostly about recording grand pianos. I appreciate any tips you might have for recording it.

thanks, Nick

A:

Hi Nick! I wish I had room to include a section on recording uprights in the original article...and a section on maintenance...and an article on tuning.... Anyways, the good news is that most of the principals in that article will also apply to your Yamaha. Experiment moving the instrument around the room to find the best sounding spot, get it tuned the day you record, and be ready to move microphones around to find spots that have well balanced tone.

Many uprights, particularly the taller ones due to of their long string lengths, yield excellent recordings. There are also times when the sound of a small piano is more appropriate than a grand.

The main problems you will face are the cramped size of its piano case and the tone produced by its short strings. The way an upright is laid out can also lead to track bleed and player noise (key clicks, grunting, etc.) when close miking the front of the instrument.

The small resonant body of the piano is not a flattering place for recording. Even if you can manage to stick a mic inside and point it somewhere useful, the upright's sound, like with a grand, is produced over a wide surface area with a lot of complex acoustic reflections. And as with a grand piano, you can't always move the mics farther from the source. Sometimes close miking is the only way to get the sound you are after. It is also the only way to control bleed from other instruments.

Break it up

This is why I recommend removing the panels that cover the piano. This will reveal a world of mic placement and allow the piano to "speak" more freely. It also feels better to play this way; allowing for more control over dynamics and expression. Needless to say, proceed at your own risk. While I highly doubt you will harm your instrument, we can not be responsible if you do.

It varies from instrument to instrument, but pianos basically come apart the same way. Usually there is a hinged lid on the top. Once this lid is opened, you will probably observe a pair of hinged pegs holding the front face of the piano in place. These pegs rotate, unlocking the front, allowing it to be rotated towards you and pulled out. This exposes the hammers and the strings and allows for a much more conventional mic placement, (what I referred to in my article as "the missionary position": two small diaphragm cardioids pointing down at the hammers, six to eight inches above of both the bass and the treble strings).

With the front off, the lid that covers the keys may not have anything to hold it up and the hammers may clatter against it. Obviously, this is bad. So to remove the keyboard cover, pull it upwards and towards you. The lid is attached to blocks on the side which also pull out. The whole thing can then be lifted gently from the back and rotated towards you. If you are squeamish about this (or if family members start making make high pitched sputtering noises) you can probably fashion something to hold the lid at attention so you don't have to gut the instrument. Also, remember that with the front off the piano, there will be nowhere to place a piece of sheet music which could be a problem if the pianist is going to be reading.

I usually take things one step further and remove the plate that covers the bottom part of the strings (just in front of the player's knees). This simplifies the piano's projection and makes the sound a good deal clearer. It is removed via a spring mechanism that rests directly below the keyboard. Press the metal spring to allow the top of the wood panel to be pulled towards you and then lift it out or the pegs that hold it in place.

Often, this is all you need to do to begin exploring mic techniques. With the inside of the piano exposed, you will be free to move mics around and hone the sound.

Don't stop with the obvious choice. While "the missionary position" is a safe bet when recording any kind of piano, on an upright it will almost certainly result in an increase in player and mechanical noise. Breathing, grunting, keyboard thumps and clicks as well as squeaky stools can become a big problem in a quiet piece. You may have luck moving the mics back (and a bit higher), but this may capture more room tone than desired.

Behind Every Great Upright...

There are a few tricks that you can do with an upright which don't work so well with a grand. One of my favorite's is to mic the back of the instrument. Not only does this alleviate player noise and instrument bleed, it also tames some of the harsh frequencies that accompany short strings and small cases. Surprisingly, the sound from the back of an upright is usually not muffled at all. The percussive sound of the hammers is still evident, and an extra bit of from the exposed sound board can add a nice depth to a recording.

As always, placement is critical. Care must be taken to find two complementary spots which capture the piano in a clear and balanced way. Although every piano is different, I usually mic it close; perhaps two or three inches from the exposed sound board in the back. I often find a spot about two-thirds of the way up and a foot in from either side, pointing slightly inwards. Phase coherency is an issue here, so listen for weak bass and imaging problems. Often a small adjustment is all that is needed to correct these phase issues.

As far as mic choice, a small diaphragm condenser seems to work well; something with a decent high end to make up for the inherent muddiness of the upright and the proximity effect. I recommend the Neumann KM84, AudioTechnica 3031, AKG C1000, or a Shure SM81. If you happen to have a pair of Scheopps, they would probably do nicely too.

The Wall

More often then not, uprights are placed against a wall. This can be both a blessing and a curse. If adequately blanketed, a wall provides a surprising amount of isolation. I usually take care to cover all the gaps between the piano and the wall where sound might get in. I also pad the wall to try and cut down on direct reflections which can cause comb filtering and muddiness. But occasionally, reflections from the wall work to your advantage, making the upright sound warmer. Try it both ways and decide for yourself what you prefer. Experiment with both the amount of absorption as well as the distance from the wall itself. You can achieve a surprisingly good tone this way as well as excellent isolation.

Conclusion

Knowing some of the obstacles in recording an upright will prepare you for the task. With the strings exposed and an open mind, there are a myriad of other mic techniques. own As always, use your ears and have fun.


Best, Nathan

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Nathan Rosenberg

Music Recording and Production

www.doghouseNYC.com

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