Tips For Tracking Pianos & Keyboards: Part 2 of 2

In Part 1, we explored aspects of recording white key noise, mic placement and stereo considerations when recording pianos and keys. You can read that article in the August 2012 print issue.

Concert Stage vs. Studio

You might be lucky enough to have a friend with a nice piano in their living room, but the downside is that there are usually less-than-stellar acoustics and unwanted background noise problems when recording in a house.  Studios with big rooms and expensive pianos can be, well… expensive.   If you are creative and do your homework, you can probably find a church, music school or small concert hall in your area with a well-cared-for piano that you can use off-hours for cheap.  We have a local Performing Arts Center nearby with a stunning Steinway grand available for use, so check around, you might be surprised.  So pack up your laptop, interface and mics and capture the piano in its natural environment without the problems a live audience can cause.

Piano Tuning

No one will care about all the trouble you took to position the mics if D#3 and F4 are out of tune on the final recording.  Our studio piano goes out of tune so often that we’ve learned to tune it ourselves (it takes about an hour to do a touch up tuning).  But there are plenty of local piano tuners in the $100 range – just look them up on the interwebs, it’s money well spent. 

Play Nice Together

If you are recording acoustic piano that will be part of an ensemble, then the first question is whether the piano will be played at the same time as the other instruments.  If so, then the next question is whether you can physically separate the piano from the group.  If it’s sharing the same space, then the piano has to be close miked, and if possible, gobos (portable sound absorbing walls) should be set up to minimize leakage from other instruments.  Try placing two mics about 14” above the soundboard as seen in (see photo).  You can also cover the piano with heavy blankets to reduce unwanted bleed.  If the piano can have its own room or be recorded as an overdub, then you can back up the mics and have more placement options.

Electronic Keys

As we’ve talked about previously, you can use an electronic keyboard to “trigger” piano samples and any other sound you can imagine, from classic Rhodes to stunning.   These synth and sample engines can reside inside a computer or inside the keyboard.  For the purposes of this article, we’ll assume that you want to capture sounds directly from the keyboard outputs.  Some keyboards, like the Roland 700GX have XLR outputs, which are nice because you can plug them directly into your mixing board or audio interface.  If your keyboard only has 1/4” outputs, don’t despair; many newer mixers can handle these signals well.  But if your test recordings sound thin, you may want to use a direct box, preferably a stereo one like the Radial Engineering ProD2 Passive Stereo Direct Box (retail $150) to convert the impedance of the signal to match your mixers inputs.  Just plug the 1/4” cables from your keyboard into the direct box inputs and then plug XLR cables from the direct box outputs into your interface/mixer.

Hit the Wall

Keyboard patches and acoustic piano performances vary widely in their volume, so we recommend recording a whole test pass of each keyboard part from beginning to end and adjusting your mixer’s input trim levels accordingly.  Don’t be tempted to adjust the mixer’s input faders, these should always be set to 0dB.  Instead, use the pre-amp trim adjustment on your mixer to get the input levels right.  What is right?  Well, if you have a limiter, you can set up a “brickwall” at -2dB output level with a very fast attack so that you don’t have to worry about a stray loud chord, while still getting a nice “hot” signal.  Without a limiter you may want to be a bit more conservative, setting the trim so that loudest part of the performance on your test pass reaches only -4dB or -6dB.  You would hate to have to re-record a take just because your keyboard player got a little excited and pounded a bit harder than usual during the last chorus, causing digital distortion.

Capturing MIDI

Digital pianos have improved dramatically in the past 15 years, with many now providing an authentic piano feel (we like the feel and sounds of the Roland RD-700 Series).  So nowadays, if the keyboardist will agree, we simultaneously record the MIDI and audio with the keyboardist performing on a digital piano.  This way the keyboard player and the other artists can hear the piano live during the take.  With the MIDI data recorded, we can now audition other sampled pianos with almost limitless options, including different recording spaces and lid positions.  Also, we can fix less than perfect performances by manipulating the MIDI data (aka cheating).  Recording MIDI data opens up the world of soft synths and samplers (too big for this article), but suffice to say that whenever you have the option to capture MIDI you should take it. The biggest hurdle we usually encounter is the picky, purest pianist who poo poos performing Chopin on anything but a pristine Petrof piano.

Keys in the Mix

When keys are recorded as part of an ensemble, keep in kind that they will have to play nice with all the other tracks.  Unlike a solo performance where the piano has to fill the sound spectrum by itself, in a crowded mix the keys may have to be EQ’d and panned to complement the entirety of the ensemble.  Resist the urge to tweak your keyboard tracks (or any tracks for that matter) while they are soloed.  And you don’t have to hard pan stereo patches left and right; in fact for many patches, mono may be the way to go, using the pan control to place the keys in their own mix location that doesn’t compete.  What matters most is how they sound together, so make your adjustments and don’t be afraid to roll off the low end to make room for the bass and carve out other frequencies that may interfere with vocals, guitars, etc.

Zac Cataldo is a musician and owner/producer at Night Train Studios, a recording studio in Westford, MA.  He is also co-owner of Black Cloud Productions, a music publishing company. Reach him at [email protected]

Brent Godin is a bassist/guitarist and engineer/producer at Night Train Studios and talent scout at Black Cloud Productions.  Reach him at [email protected].

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