How to Record an Upright Piano: A Look at 5 Distinct Mic'ing Techniques

Not many of us have ready access to a glorious concert grand stationed in the middle of a beautiful recording studio. But upright pianos are quite common and totally suitable for recording, provided you know how to mic them to get the sound you want.

As with any instrument, there are multiple ways to mic an upright piano. Today, we're going detail five of the most useful strategies that you can employ to cover just about any genre or playing style. While we're focusing specifically on stereo techniques that use matched pairs of microphones, any of these approaches can be adapted for one microphone as well.

Au Naturel: Stereo Pair Near Player’s Head

Good for: Classical, jazz, all-purpose

If you love the way your piano sounds in your room, keep it simple. Use a stereo pair of mics just above and behind the player’s head for the best representation of what they’re hearing. The lid can be opened or left closed depending on your desired sound.

Any stereo technique, such as X/Y, Blumlein, or Mid-Side, will work great like this, but one in particular gives an especially true-to-life sound. The ORTF technique — developed by French broadcast engineers to simulate human hearing — utilizes two small-diaphragm condensers at a 110-degree angle with their capsules spaced 17 centimeters apart to approximate the position of our ears.

For the best sound, move the instrument out into the open if possible. To minimize ugly reflections and null zones, position it just off the center of the room and not quite parallel with the walls. If the piano must stay against a wall or if your room’s sound isn’t particularly flattering, hang towels or blankets behind it and on the side walls to eliminate reflections.

Ideally, no processing should be necessary, but a slight EQ scoop in the low-midrange can help in less-than-flattering rooms.


Full and Mellow: Spaced Pair on Soundboard

Good for: Ballads, jazz, classical

The wooden panel on the back of an upright piano acts like the body of an acoustic guitar, so this is the spot you want if you’re looking for resonance and body. This method shines in slower-paced tunes because of its inherent sustain, and it’s also a good choice for singer-songwriters because it provides great isolation from the vocals.

Place two large-diaphragm condensers a few feet apart and at least six inches from the soundboard. Any closer than that, and you’ll get an exaggerated bass buildup due to the proximity effect, which can be desirable but often leads to a muddy sound.

You’ll get a very full, deep tone, but you won’t hear much hammer action, and the overall high-end will be reduced because of the wood between the strings and the microphones.

It’s important to note that upright pianos are strung in an X shape. Looking at the back, the bass strings go from the top right to the bottom left, while the middle and higher strings go from the top left to bottom right. Keep this in mind when designating the “left” and “right” microphones to avoid confusion.

Because the tone achieved with this method is heavy on the bass and low-midrange, you may need to use a gentle EQ to scoop out some of the “muddy” 200-500Hz range. Slow attack, slow-release compression at a low ratio can improve sustain and transparently even out notes.


Up Close and Personal: Lid Off, Mics Pointed at Hammers

Good for: rock, blues, intricate pieces

Faster tempos and intricate parts need clarity and note separation to stand out. Whether the piano is serving a rhythmic role or playing a lot of fast licks, bringing the sound of the hammers to the fore will give the track a staccato punch — think of it like mic’ing a guitar near the picking hand.

Small-diaphragm condensers are the mic of choice here, excelling at capturing fast transients. Mics with a built-in pad are extra useful, being so close to the sound source. Open the lid (or the top front panel on full-size uprights) to expose the hammers, but don’t stick your mics too far inside.

You have a wide choice of placement options here, and being right above the hammers gives you maximum control over the stereo image. You can use a spaced pair off to each side for a very wide sound, an X/Y configuration for phase coherency and a strong center image, or fine-tune the positioning to the part by placing mics at the lowest and highest notes being played.

In a rock context, some fast-attack, fast-release compression will give the part a rhythmic “smack” to poke through a wall of sound. An old-timey tack piano sound can be achieved by cutting the low- and high-end, boosting the percussive midrange, and recording to tape or tape-emulating plugins. Bonus points if your piano is a little out of tune.


Balanced and Rich: Front Panel Open, Mics On Bottom of Strings

Good for: all-purpose, small spaces, effects

For a good balance between the sustain and articulation of methods two and three, open or remove the front panel under the keyboard to expose the bottom of the harp, and position a mic on either side, angled slightly in. Hypercardioid dynamics are preferable because their focused pickup area and reduced sensitivity will reject most of the pedal and bench noises inherent in this setup.

This positioning will pick up more of the overtones created when unplayed strings resonate with each note or chord, resulting in a harmonically complex sound. The stereo image will be less distinct, however, since the bass and treble strings overlap and the note order is mixed up (from left to right: low treble, high treble, low bass, high bass). If only one mic is used, position it on the left side looking across the strings for even coverage that highlights the midrange.

This configuration comes with some unique benefits. Conveniently, it’s the easiest to set up in a small space or to leave permanently set up. Just use desktop-sized stands and hide your cables neatly (side-address mics are recommended because their low profile will keep out of the player’s way). This method also plays well with effects: the clean, up-close signal with slightly reduced dynamics will translate better through pedals and plugins alike.

A high-pass filter around 40-80Hz will clean up the sound and reduce any thumping from the pedals, and a gentle boost above 6kHz will return a little brightness to duller mics.


Distant and Huge: Any Microphone Placed Away from the Piano

Good for: Just about anything

This way is probably the most fun and the most open to interpretation. All you need to do is have someone play while you walk around the room and surrounding area until you find the right sound (you’ll know). Then, throw some mics up and record.

As for what type of mics you use and where you place them, the sky’s the limit. Two omnidirectional microphones at the far end of the room will give a pleasing natural reverb, one down a hallway will produce an eerily distant echo, and a heavily compressed mic at medium distance can make for a huge rock sound.

There are also many opportunities to get weird, such as pointing a mic into a corner, picking up the piano through vents or ducts, or placing a contact mic on windows. Any of these can be used alone for dramatic effect or added to any of the above techniques to add a little space.

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