The grand piano is the most challenging instrument to mic effectively due to its dynamic volume levels,
expansive frequency range, broad throw and complex design.
Miking Grand Piano
Engineers should first understand what role the piano will play in a recording. A solo piano performance may call for very different mic’ing techniques than a rock ballad or jazz improvisation. The chosen technique will ultimately determine the relationship between presence, articulation, room sound, hammer noise, and body resonance in the final recording.
Because there are so many variables, there are a seemingly infinite number of methods to record the piano. While adjustments may be necessary during a recording session, taking time to calibrate your microphone setup in advance will minimize the need for downtime. Below are some common approaches that can be helpful starting points.
Because the grand piano is such a complex instrument, as mentioned above, where possible it is highly advantageous to use two or more microphones for recording. Some engineers use multiple special surface-mount microphones called PZMs that attach to the inside of the piano body, or miniature microphones with small, flexible mic stands for recording. For the purposes of this section, we will assume that you plan to record the piano with the top open, using stand-mountable microphones, either large or small diaphragm and perhaps a combination of the two.
In pop and rock recordings the piano may be required to “cut through” other instruments in order to be heard in a finished stereo mix. This is often achieved by close-mic’ing the hammers to capture their transients or the “attack” of the hammer hitting the strings. Placing a pair of cardioid condenser microphones face down about six inches above the hammers and about one-third from each respective side should yield a good tonal balance between low- and high-frequency sound. Be careful not to place them too close to the hammers vertically as it will restrict the pickup area to only part of the required range of notes. Adjust the distance between microphones until you achieve the desired balance of stereo ry and even response across the entire range. (See image “D”.) Angling the microphones slightly away from each other will improve separation. Moving the microphones further down the harp (away from the hammers) will create a mellower sound, which is often desirable in the low frequencies. (See image “E”.)
Jazz and pop ballad genres typically require the fuller sound attained by positioning the mics further away from the hammers. For this effect, try placing a pair of cardioids condenser microphones at a 45-degree angle in the deepest part of the curved side of the instrument, with one mic facing the performer and the other facing across the harp. Start with a separation of three to six inches, decreasing the angle if you move the mics further apart. It’s also perfectly valid to try an X-Y or other coincident configuration at this position. The vertical position should be about halfway between the strings and the open lid.
Classical and solo piano performances often benefit from distance mic’ing to give a sense of stereo imaging, room sound and the piano’s natural resonance to the track. A good starting place for this type of technique is to place the mics four to eight feet from the curved side of the piano and at heights from five to twelve feet, which can best be done with microphone boom stands, particularly telescopic boom stands. The closer the mics are to each other, the more intimate the sound. Conversely, moving them further apart makes the piano sound larger. As always, cardioids will focus the sound more on the instrument.
Some engineers like adding another microphone under the piano facing up to the soundboard to capture the warm, mellow sound of the resonating wood. If you have enough condenser mics at your disposal, try a combination of close-mic’ed stereo pair on top, a single mic on the underside, and a matched pair for distance-mic’ing to capture the sound of the hall.