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The Grand Mother

The myriad ways to capture the sound of grand piano, which remains hands-down music's most popular keyboard...

Ask 100 sound engineers how to mike a piano and you’ll get 99 ideas.

The piano is the Mother of Musical Creation, the heart of most musical genres and every singer’s lover, yet in live sound it’s often replaced by digital synthesizers and samplers due to the inconvenience of a half-ton instrument that needs 230 strings tuned with a propensity to feed back and resonate with adjacent sound sources.

However, a piano’s organic sound remains music’s most popular keyboard, “hands down.”

My love affair with grand pianos was cemented two decades ago mixing Ralph Sharon’s Steinway with its lid removed on Tony Bennett’s Unplugged tour, where our unplugged look used a pair of small Countryman Isomax microphones near the action, spaced low and high, while also relying on the spare vocal mic placed at the sound hole and a C-ducer contact mic underneath to beef up the monitors.

Years before at Dartmouth, Dr. Billy Taylor taught me to use just a couple Shure SM58 overheads for a piano duet jazz concert with Ramsey Lewis. Sparky Neilson showed me how to use a pair of BETA 91s firmly taped to the lid and oriented towards the action over the low and high strings.

A decade with Dave Lawler’s Yamaha C7 for Teddy Borowiecki on k. d. lang tours employed AKG C414 spaced pairs, supplemented with a Helpinstill pickup. Ryan Smith recently helped me discover a new American classic using a pair of Shure BETA 181s for Dr. John with my Barcus-Berry pickup.

Going Solo

Small diaphragm condensers (SDCs) or “pencil condensers” are obvious choices for open lid solo piano performances, whether used as coincident or spaced pairs due to their wide bandwidth, high headroom and flat response.

Common favorites include Neumann KM184, Shure KSM137, Audix SCX-One and Sennheiser e614, though there are many to choose from, while the Audio-Technica ATM450 provides a side-address SDC solution. Large diaphragm condensers (LDCs) are even more popular, especially those with adjustable polar patterns that lend themselves to a wider range of options.

There are many ways to record or reinforce solo grand piano with the lid open. The Coincident Pair (XY) technique places matched mic capsules together but at an angle to each other, near the curved side of the piano. Spaced Pair is another popular method that booms one mic over the high strings with a second over the center of the mid and low strings.

Alternately a Spaced Pair can be positioned over the high and low strings near the keys to better represent the image heard by the player when panned. Three-mic variations combine high and low mics near the action, with a third mic where the low strings cross or further down the piano at its “toe.” Blumlein Pair is an old-school method employing two figure-of-8 (bidirectional) mics, with their capsules crossed at 90 degrees and placed near the piano’s curved edge, so one aims at the low strings and the other the high strings.

Mid-Side (MS) is a two-mic, three-channel technique, with a center-panned mic added to a figure-of-8 mic with its null aimed at the center and patched to two more channels panned hard left-and-right with one channel’s polarity reversed. These last two are often accomplished with either ribbon mics that are naturally bidirectional or pattern-adjustable LDCs, often C414s.

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On k. d. lang’s symphony pops tour, we experimented with the lid opening and settled on a custom height determined by listening in the audience with the lid slowly raised and lowered while the band played, deciding on a height unavailable from the piano’s standard tall or short stick by employing a special 2-foot piece of wood we carried with us.

John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet promoted another method for many years, using a Sennheiser MD 421 on a boom stand positioned almost touching the fully open piano lid, two-thirds of the way up, catching both the piano off-axis below plus the lid reflections in phase. Also, close-miking the soundboard from below the piano can be surprisingly effective after its sweet spot is located.

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