Being an audio producer, as hard as it is, might introduce you to some quite unexpected challenges that you didn’t anticipate beforehand. We all have been there – young, naive, and full of hopes and dreams. We all dreamt about the big stages and a shelf full of Grammy awards, but more often than not, there is a different path laid for us. Who would have known that instead of giving an acceptance speech on stage, you will be looking for the best compression settings for piano?
What You Need to Know The Piano
Since we enjoy very much digging deeper into things, we recognize that it is not for everybody. So if you do not share our enthusiasm about general background knowledge, you might actually skip this part. As for the rest of us, let’s find out what the piano actually is and how the sound is made before compressing it.
Originally, the piano is an acoustic string instrument that was invented in Italy somewhere around the 16th century. It consists of a wooden body with strings of different lengths and hammers that are attached to a keyboard. These days, there are a lot of different variations on the mechanics and sound reproduction of the piano, but for the purposes of this article, we will leave it at that.
The most important clue that we might have had considering the piano compression is actually hidden within its name. The “piano” means “soft” in Italian. The full name of the instrument originally was “pianoforte,” which vaguely translates to “from soft to loud,” which shows the great dynamic range that the piano possesses. Also, modern pianos have a row of 88 keys, which means that in addition to superior dynamic range, we also deal with a quite wide frequency range, which in turn gives additional challenges concerning the piano compression.
Compression settings for piano
All things considered, it is always a good idea to know in hindsight what you’re trying to achieve and what results you are looking for. Since the piano is a highly-dynamic instrument and is widely used in almost every possible genre, there are no universal settings for piano compression that might be applied in every situation. It pretty much depends on the type of performance and musical style. But there are certain steps that could be taken almost in every situation before you start up your compressor.
Before we start compressing
If you are dealing with the live recording of the piano, the chances are that you have way more than two tracks. More often than not, pianos are recorded with multiple sets of stereo mics that are put in different positions. A close-set of mics will give you a very detailed sound that contains most of the dynamics and all of the nuanced mechanical sounds, if there are any. Far set of mics, or as they are usually called room mics, will give you the body of the instrument and a sense of space. These being the basic ones for the recording piano, there is an option to place any amount of mics in between those positions.
As you might know, multiple microphones that are placed at a different distance from the subject will give you some unwanted phase issues that you might want to fix before you will do anything else. Phase issues are usually fixed by aligning the peaks of different tracks. After that, you might apply some gain staging and some general balancing, depending on what mood you are trying to achieve.
Then, we are almost ready to compress the piano, but before we start, it might be a good idea to apply some EQ first. Since the piano has a very wide frequency range, and in most cases, you don’t use all of it in the mix, you might limit the range with some low and high pass filters. After, you might shape the tone of your recording by adding or reducing middle or high range frequencies. And finally, your recording may or may not need some additional surgical EQing here and there.
Pop and rock piano compression
Since we are almost ready to start to compress the piano, there are a few more steps that you might feel like to consider taking.
Firstly, you might send outputs of all mic positions to one single bus, which might save you some time and resources for later.
Secondly, you may just bounce all of those tracks to one stereo track if you are confident in your gain staging and overall balance. Nevertheless, the choice is yours.
To be honest, the piano compression doesn’t really come down to a particular genre but more or less to a particular performance. Generally speaking, when it comes to pop music, rock, or any similar styles, piano parts tend to be more rhythmic, aggressive, and at times even percussive. So for convenience, we refer to those parts as “pop” and “rock” pianos.
When it comes to rock and pop pianos, slower attack times are usually applied. Slower attack times (from 0 to 15-20 ms) will make your piano sound more punchy and present, which in turn will complement bass and drums parts.
As for the release times, it pretty much depends on the general flow of the track. Try to start at 100 ms and try to slow it down or make it faster depending on the sheer feeling of the track.
Ratio settings will depend on how compressed you want your piano to sound. Lower ratios of 3:1 will make the compression more subtle, and higher ratios of 10:1 will make it sound smashed to bits.
Ballads and solo piano compression
In this particular situation, we’re dealing with either gentle and nuanced performance or a fluid one with a sense of grandeur. In this case, you might feel in need of using slower attack times to make your piano sound thicker and more present.
As for the release settings, you might use the slower release to bring up sustains but be attentive not to overdo it because if the release is too slow, you will get a pumping effect, which might not be a good thing in your case. With this kind of performance, we usually use lower ratios of 3:1 to make the compression more subtle.
Also, an interesting thing to try might be some parallel compression. Using your compressor in parallel with your original signal lets you apply slightly more aggressive settings and mix it back until the result satisfies you.
Don’t compress the piano
As we already know, the piano has a superior dynamic range than the most professional keyboards, and piano players tend to use it all frequently within one performance. Especially if we are talking about classical and academic pianists who perform intricate and rich classical pieces, generally, in such a case, you might want not to apply compression at all since compressors are designed to limit the dynamic range. Or, at the very least, you might want to apply the same compression settings that you would normally use on your master bus.
Compress the piano without a compressor
Sometimes even mentioned above pop, rock, or ballad piano parts do not really need any compression. That happens rarely, but nevertheless, that happens. Also, since the piano has a rich frequency range and every compressor changes tonal contents, it is very easy to destroy an otherwise perfect piano track with a compressor. Instead, you might want to use a very simple tool, which is called a transient shaper. This tool lets you manipulate the oscillation of your soundwave with very minimal intrusion to its tonal balance. With transient shaper, you can reduce poppy attacks or bring up quiet sustains without making the track sound compressed at all.
Summing up, before even applying the compression settings for piano, you need to prepare your tracks by aligning your phases and EQing the piano so it would find its rightful place in the mix and fit better with other instruments. Then, depending on what type of piano part you either apply compression or do not. If you have a percussive part, apply a fast attack and moderate release depending on the general flow, if you have a more fluid and intimate piano part, you might consider using slower attack times with slower release. In some cases, you don’t want to use a compressor at all or use it in a parallel mode with a moderate mix down, in other cases, you want to use a transient shaper instead of the compressor, which will let you make some changes to the dynamic of the waveform without affecting its tonal content. Still and all the most essential thing to remember is that we all do it for the love of art, so do not let your passion become something mundane and routine.