How To Easily Record Pianos, Keys and Synths
With over 7,000 moving parts, pianos are incredibly intricate instruments.
They fall somewhere in between a stringed instrument and a percussive instrument. Pianos produce a very complex sound with rich overtones that can be difficult to record.
Let’s break down a few simple techniques for dialing in the perfect piano sound—whether you’re on a grand, an upright or even a keyboard!
When it comes to micing a grand piano, there are several approaches.
Micing the inside of the piano gives you a bright tone with lots of attack and great isolation, which works well for modern genres like pop, rock and dance music.
Micing the outside gives you a balanced tone with more “room sound” and sustain, which works well for jazz, classical and ambient recordings.
First, let’s take a look at how to mic a piano from the inside.
Interior Micing Techniques
The first and most common technique for micing the inside of a piano involves using a pair of large diaphragm condenser mics with cardioid pickup patterns.
With the lid open, place the mics six to twelve inches above the strings, pointed directly down. According to the 3:1 rule, the mics should be about 18 to 36 inches apart to avoid phase issues. For more isolation, try lowering the lid of the piano.
The second technique involves using a single omnidirectional condenser mic over the center of the piano harp. This technique gives a more balanced tone, although it can be tough to dial in.
Some engineers prefer “boundary” style condenser mics like the Shure Beta 91A, which can be taped to the inside of the lid. Using a boundary mic also lets you close the lid to the piano for maximum isolation.
The third technique uses a large-diagram condenser mic with a cardioid pickup pattern. Place the mic just inside the lid of the piano, as far as possible from the hammers.
By placing the mic this far back, you can capture the entire length of the lowest strings, giving you a rich, smooth sound with plenty of sustain. This technique is perfect for pushing pianos back in the mix, allowing room for other instruments.
Exterior Micing Techniques
Micing a piano from the outside captures the natural sound of the piano in the room.
The easiest way to determine where to place your mic(s) is to simply walk around the room and find where the sound is most balanced. Remember, the closer the mic is to the piano, the more direct sound it will capture. As the mic gets farther away, it will capture more ambiance.
A good starting point is roughly three feet back from the piano and five feet from the ground. Point the mics towards the open piano at a 45-degree angle.
For improved isolation, use large diaphragm condenser mic with a cardioid pickup pattern. For more ambiance, switch to an omnidirectional mic. And as always, ribbon mics work well for a warm, vintage vibe.
For a wide stereo sound with a more balanced tone, try using a pair of cardioid condenser microphones in X/Y position. Essentially, you want each of the mics pointed towards a different side of the piano, and at a 90-degree angle to each other. For more details on how to use the X/Y stereo micing technique, check out this article.
To save space, upright pianos use an innovative design with the strings running up and down the back of the instrument. Because of their unique design, upright pianos can be a little more challenging to mic.
If you like the sound of the piano in the room, just keep it simple and set up a single microphone. Walk around the room and identify the exact spot you think the sound is most balanced, then place the mic there.
Similar to a grand piano, A good starting point is roughly three inches back from the piano and five inches from the ground. You can also try placing a microphone right next to the player’s head to capture an intimate sound that puts the listener on the piano bench—just like the player hears it.
For a more direct sound with improved clarity and articulation, open up the lid and set up a spaced pair of small diaphragm condensers. Move the mics closer to the hammers for a brighter tone with more articulation and a wider stereo image. And don’t forget the 3:1 rule!
If you’re having phase problems, or simply want a stronger center image, try using an X/Y configuration instead.
For a richer tone with lots of sustain, mic the soundboard on the back piano. Place two large-diaphragm condensers six inches or more from the soundboard.
This technique provides a rich, deep tone with lots of sustain. For a more direct sound, try removing the wooden panel for more direct access to the strings. This method also works well for artists who want to record vocals at the same time. Since the mics are actually behind the piano, this technique offers great isolation from the vocals.
For a more natural sound with a good balance of highs, lows, articulation and sustain, open or remove the front panel under the keyboard to expose the bottom of the harp. Use the spaced pair method explained above, with the mics angled up slightly towards the bottom of the keyboard.
It can be difficult to avoid unwanted noise in this area, which is why a pair of hypercardioid microphones work best. This focused pickup pattern can reject everything but the sound of the piano.
KEYS / SYNTHS
Thankfully, recording keyboards and synthesizers are much more straightforward than micing up an acoustic piano.
In most cases, you can simply run the direct output(s) of your keyboard or synth directly into the line level input(s) of your interface. For a little extra analog vibe, you may consider using a nice DI box with Jensen transformer to add some color. This works especially well on bass synths.
DO NOT use the headphone output for recording. Sure, you’ll capture a sound, but the signal will be weak and thin.
In addition to direct outputs, you can also record MIDI tracks from most keyboards and synths. Recorded through USB or old-school MIDI outputs, MIDI tracks capture your performance, but not your sound.
MIDI is data, not audio. It can be used to trigger any number of virtual instruments. This can be extremely useful when experimenting with arrangements. Maybe that grand piano would sound better as a Rhodes, or a Wurlitzer, or a choir of Mongolian throat singers. With a MIDI track, the possibilities are endless.
If you’re struggling with capturing a great piano tone, follow these simple recording techniques and for tried-and-true, radio-ready sounds.
Brad Pack is an award-winning audio engineer and writer based in Chicago, IL. He currently owns and operates Punchy Kick, a professional mixing and mastering studio that specializes in pop-punk, emo, punk, grunge, and alternative music.
He has been helping artists connect with fans through emotionally resonant mixes, cohesive masters, and insightful guidance for over ten years. Check out his website PunchyKick.com or say hi on Instagram @PunchyKick