What and how

January 3, 2023
 by Paul McGowan

In any endeavor, it’s important to be clear about what you hope to achieve and then worry about how you will get there.

Here’s a good example from two recent recording sessions at Octave Records. Both sessions used the Steinway piano in Octave’s tracking room. The first was a solo classical music piece while the second was a group pop track.

Does it make sense to record the piano in the same way for both genres? After all, it’s the same piano in the same room.

The answer gets back to the headline of today’s post.

What and how.

The what part of this challenge starts with the sound one’s looking for. In the classical music piece, it’s important to fully capture the sound of the entire instrument in the room. In the pop piece, getting in close and grabbing the hammers pounding on the strings may be more important.

That’s the what element, and the how part is what follows.

In a classical music recording, I prefer to focus first on microphone placement in an effort to capture all of the instrument. If the microphones are shoved inside the grand piano (as you often see), you will lose the sound of the instrument. This is because the sound of a grand piano is a combination of the strings and the box as heard at a distance. Once that decision is confirmed, it next comes down to the type of microphone used (though this is less important than placement).

In rock, pop, and jazz recordings, we focus first on how we want the piano to integrate with the others in the band. Whether the piano is part of the rhythm section or the lead makes a big difference in where the microphones are to be placed. The sound of the piano or the sound of the integrated group?

Bottom line. To make the best recordings, it’s important to focus on first what it is you’re hoping to capture and how you do it follows.

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18 comments on “What and how”

  1. ….or to summerize: modern pop music is all about artificialsound effects and the sound engineer is as important as the composer and feels himself as an artist creating the overall sound, while classical music is all about music and harmonies!?

  2. And the fascinating thing is, the piano, from a distance, heard live in the room sounds the same in all cases.

    That suggests why recordings mostly sound artificial or wrong (related to e.g. a piano), either in balance or in tone.

    We get the live experience? We get what the recording engineer focused on as a compromise I’d say.

    Do we get the best live experience (from a distance) with one point or two mic setups, even if the piano (without close mic’ing) then doesn’t sound as if we stand besides it?

  3. The ‘what’ for classical piano recordings is almost always the sound of a decent sized concert or recital hall, which is hardly ever found in a recording studio. Perhaps the biggest piano ‘signing’ in classical music in recent years was Lang Lang to UMG, who own studios including Abbey Road. Their first project was a cross-over album recorded mostly in Abbey Road Studio 1 (which can fit an orchestra)

    Their first serious classical release (Bach Goldbergs) was recorded at a modern church in Germany. This location, apparently used by the BPO/Karajan, is also used by Myrios, one of my favourite independent classical labels, who for quite some years have been advocates of DSD recordings using Pyramix.

    There are full details of a Pyramix DSD orchestral recording at the same church, microphone placements etc here:

        1. Yes it also sounds good.
          Fazil Say is generally an interesting pianist and composer in case you didn’t know him yet. But I didn’t exactly expect on of the better Goldberg variations.

  4. Paul I have been an audio enthusiast for close to sixty years. And have been attending concerts (Rock, jazz, classical, opera) for more than 55. Piano happens to be one of my favorite instruments and is present in at least 35% of my listening. Yet I am totally perplexed by your post today. Other than very special cases (such as for instance “tuned piano” concerts), I have never attended a live event where musicians tried to present something different than the entire sound of the piano. I also think if I listen to what I consider well recorded jazz, I can always hear the sound of the entire instrument. I understand scaling relative volumes, but not why one would want to change the sound captured.
    It would really help me understand your post better if you were to give a few examples of well recorded jazz or rock where the producers/engineers deliberately placed microphones so as to preclude one hearing the entire instrument.

    1. I’m much the same as you, but not quite as long. The post made no sense to me for classical recordings. What does vary is the balance between the piano and the room. I’ve been to an audio demonstration that started with about 6 piano recordings graded but the perceived listening distance from the piano. We may have our preferences based on where we choose to sit at live performances, but you have to start off with a decent sized hall. How near or far can also depend on the music being played, perhaps closer for Bartok than Liszt?

      You might want to try Parallax, an album by the jazz trio Phronesis (piano, percussion, bass). It was recorded in Abbey Road Studio 2. It’s as good a studio jazz piano recording as I can think of. Track 2 “OK, Chorale” is my piano demo track for audio testing purposes.

      I bought that particular album after hearing a live performance in a good venue in Oxford. Listening to a recording after a live performance is a pretty good way to judge the recording quality.

  5. About piano, have you ever noticed that pianos sound better when the piano is being recorded as just another instrument on the recording as opposed to when the engineer is actually trying to record just the piano in a solo!

  6. Since I do not play any instrument I certainly do not consider myself knowledgeable as to how a piano sounds or should sound. So what I am about to say is a novice opinion and should be taken as such. On two occasions I have heard a Steinway grand piano being played in a room by someone who was pretty good at playing the piano. The pianos, the players, the music and the rooms were different. Based on this very limited experience I though the piano sounded much better in the larger room. So, I guess the room does matter.

    1. I’ve heard Steinways in big concert halls, small halls, recital rooms, a Victorian warehouse, a concrete car park, my son’s school hall and in the open air. The sound can be mellow, hard, overly reverberant, visceral … whatever it is, it sounds real because you can hear the room, except for in the open air, which sounds poor and usually has to be amplified for the audience to hear properly. The visceral warehouse is one of my favourites and fortunately is the location for an annual 3-day series.

      So I think it is even simpler, you just need to hear a real room for it to sound real. My view is that rooms are more different than better or worse, although a wood-panelled school hall is pretty awful.

      I’m sure my experiences are pretty common, and I and I’m sure many others have also listened to piano in restaurants and bars. I’ve heard world class pianists in a restaurant recital venue. I don’t fuss over the sound quality of a venue, but for me it has to be there in a recording.

      1. I am pretty sure that a recorded instrument will never sound “real” if the different drivers in a multi-way loudspeaker aren’t exactly time-aligned / playing “in-phase”. Simply look at the more or less wide region of the crossover-frequencies and the inherent phase delays due to a passive crossover network.

  7. I recall JA of stereophile making a few Piano Recordings at different venues.

    He mentions the challenges and solutions. I enjoyed many of his recordings.

    I have season tickets to our Symphony and go to DFW & other venues for
    live music….. it’s never as good as live, and the venue has such a major impact.

    a few weeks ago I was able to hear a very nice Vandersteen System. WOW!

    I’ve heard similarly ambitious systems. it’s always fun & enlightening.

  8. What and how. As in, violin and fiddle.

    As a kid, occasionally I used to put thumb tacks on the cloth hammers of our upright piano. I gave it a cool ragtime old saloon sound. A dual voice piano. With a quick application or removal of 88 thumb tacks. Hmm. Likely not practical in live concert settings… Then I got my first Korg M1. Wheeee! It was like musical Disneyland in a box! With drums! Now I can sound dreadful in multiple polyphonic sounds & voices!
    MIDI. It’s like a whole musical language that you can delve into for eons and grasp & utilize about 1% of its capabilities. Guys like Jordan Rudess impress the bajeezus out of me – not just for the insane playing, but I gotta give credit for their quick and vast navigation skills within the electronics parameters & settings. Not to mention the potential for things to go wrong in a live performance – it must be nerve racking…

  9. What is the purpose of the recording? To produce the sound that one would hear in a concert hall? Or to provide the sound that the composer (or another?) wants you to hear? The classical recording above is an effort to create the piano as it would sound in a concert hall. The microphone in the piano would produce a sound which you could not hear in the concert hall. The controversial recording of Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony with Teodor Currentzis has some effects that I do not believe you could hear in a concert hall. I happen to enjoy the recording very much – therefore I accept that this is not something I could hear the same way in the concert hall. The What, then, includes the decision whether to create something that faithfully emulates a live performance in the concert hall or something different. Who decides the What? Who knows What the composer wanted?

    1. Well said.
      I look for ‘pleasing’ rather than for ‘live’ or ‘accurate’
      in a recording.
      Some mastering engineers have great ‘ears’ & some
      don’t…it’s pretty-much hit & miss.

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