There is something magical and mystical about the sound of a piano. A good piano part can easily embellish the composition and, what’s more surprising, fits in almost every given musical genre. But it also can easily ruin a perfect track if not treated properly. So knowing how to record and how to EQ piano is crucial for every audio engineer, beginner or not.
How to record a piano: explained
We have a very sad truth to share with you. No matter what top-notch plugins and gear you have and how masterfully you use it, if your piano wasn’t recorded properly, there’s not much you can do to fix it. So knowing how to record piano is as crucial as being a very good mixing engineer. But the good news is that, despite some very obvious logistical problems, recording a piano doesn’t provide much of a challenge if you have the right gear and a proper room.
Prepare your room
Unless you own or at least have access to a professionally engineered recording studio, you might get yourself in a bit of trouble while trying to record a piano. Usually, home recording studios lack one very important feature that most home recording engineers tend to ignore. For some reason, for them, room treatment isn’t very high on a to-do list, which is a pity since it’s not a very challenging thing to do. All that is required of you is to lessen the reflections of your room.
A bit of acoustic insulation panels on your walls should do the trick as those acoustic panels aren’t usually expensive, and you can make them yourself for even less. Putting a couple of panels on each wall of your living room, where presumably the piano is located, should make it sound less boomy, which in turn will make your recordings sound more professional.
Although the previous step is somewhat necessary and saves you a lot of time and effort later on, it isn’t imperative. The one thing that is an absolute must is proper mic placement. Since most modern production requires a piano to be recorded in stereo, you’re going to need at least two microphones with very similar frequency response. Unless you’re recording something very vintage that requires mono, let’s face it, chances of that are very slim. Ideally, you’re going to need at least 3 different pairs of mics.
One pair for the close position, which you would put very near to the hammers with both microphones closer to the center of the piano. The second pair is used for the middle position, you should put those directly above the piano as far away from each other as possible. And the last pair is usually used as room mics. Put it in the center of your room. Here is a clever little trick for you, if you want more chamber sound, put them closer together facing the piano, but if you are looking for a grandeur hall effect, put them further apart and facing away from the piano.
Balancing the mics
Once you figure out the position of your microphones, you could always add some more which will give your sound even more dimension. But having three stereo pairs is more than enough to have a pretty versatile piano recording. Even one pair would do. But be prepared for more elaborate mixing in that case.
For this argument’s sake, let’s just say that you’ve settled up with 3 different pairs, which, in turn, left you with 3 stereo tracks. From here, everything is as simple as making some of those tracks louder and others quieter. If you’re going for a very intimate and present sound, make close mics louder and middle mics quieter. In this case, you should make room mics either even quieter or turn them off completely.
If you’re going for a very big and majestic sound, make middle mics louder and leave room mics as is. You can mute the close mics, but generally, it’s a good idea to make them rather significantly quieter since it’ll let you preserve some definition and the transients.
When it comes to the types of mics to use, any will do. As a general rule, you may consider using condenser mics for close position and dynamic or ribbon mics for the middle position. But that’s just a matter of personal preference, and of course, if you do actually have such alternative options at your disposal.
Most of the tube or solid-state preamplifiers could do wonders for your piano recordings, especially if you’re going for a very warm and nuanced sound. Vintage limiting amplifiers also could enhance the sound of your piano drastically.
But remember that all of the above is completely optional, and you can easily get a perfect piano recording without any additional gear. That being said, there’s something mesmerizing about the piano that was recorded on a reel-to-reel tape. So you’d be golden if you can get your hands on a vintage tape machine. If not, modern digital emulations are very reliable and sound pretty convincing.
How to EQ piano: explained
Once you’re happy with your recording, it’s time to apply some additional processing. Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer on how to EQ your piano since we couldn’t possibly know what exact project you’re working on. It all very much depends on the situation and what goal you’re trying to achieve. And instead of wasting your time giving you a lot of examples that you may or may not find useful, we’ve decided to give you a general understanding of the process. Below you’ll find some particular frequencies that we believe you should pay attention to.
When it comes to the low end, we usually start with a cut, but when it comes to piano, things might get a little tricky here. If you’re working on a project that consists entirely of solo piano, you may find a lot of very useful information below 80 Hz. So if you want your piano to sound more powerful, you can emphasize frequencies between 20 – 80 Hz. But if your piano is in a very dense mix, you may consider cutting those frequencies off because there might be a conflict with a bass guitar or any low register instrument, for that matter.
If your piano sounds a bit muddy, you may consider cutting frequencies somewhere around 150 and 350 Hz, but at the same time, those frequencies could add a lot of fullness to the sound. So if you feel that your piano sounds too thin, boost those frequencies.
If you need to add more depth to your piano recording, boost frequencies within 1 – 4 kHz. But at the same time, those frequencies could add a lot of boxiness to the sound, so in some cases, you may consider cutting those frequencies off. Use your ears as a guide. If you want to achieve a more defined and present sound, you may want to isolate and find frequencies between 1 – 5 kHz to boost, especially at the higher end of that range. Doing this may add a lot of clarity to the sound of your piano. But be careful, this range may also compete with vocals if there are any, so make sure to check that there aren’t any frequencies overlapping. You can easily see this in your EQ’s visualizer, as well as using your ears.
When it comes to EQing a piano, as a general rule, we want to make very gentle 2 – 4 dB cuts and boosts with a very wide Q. Of course, you could always take a more aggressive approach, but you’ll risk making your piano sound very unnatural.
Boosting the frequencies above 5 kHz will add some air and brilliance to the sound of your piano. This is where an EQ with some vintage coloration comes in handy since it could add some character to the sound, especially if you feel that it is too clean. But be careful though, pianos are very sensitive to harmonic distortion, and it is very easy to make it sound rather excessive.
Usually, a high cut filter is completely unnecessary, but if you’re going for a very dramatic and cinematic sound,
You may consider cutting frequencies above 10 kHz with a very steep slope.
Overall, recording a piano properly is as crucial as mixing it. You can do just fine with one pair of mics in stereo, but having 3 pairs will give you a lot more versatility when it comes to shaping the sound. As for how to EQ piano, it should be pretty straightforward from here, a boost between 20 – 80 Hz will make your piano sound more powerful. To eliminate muddiness, cut between 150-350 Hz. Boosting 1 – 4 kHz will add depth to the sound, but at the same time can make the piano sound boxier. To add presence, boost somewhere 1 – 5 kHz. To add more air make a high-shelf boost at 5 kHz.