In 2014 I met with Daniel Blackmer, Co-Founder of Earthworks Audio. I was intrigued by his PM40 microphone system. It's a pair of omnidirectional microphones on a bar that lies across the piano case over the strings...very easy to leave in the piano for a quick recording.
I initially thought the PM40 microphone system could be a great solution for several situations such as a customer on a budget, an unplanned overdub, or even maybe with the lid closed or quarter open in a live situation...yet what I found was that the mics are quite useful and have a great sound without restriction to my predisposed assumptions...and leaving the mics in the piano allowed me to lower the entry point for customers to record on a vintage Steinway B with (almost) the convenience of an electronic keyboard*... This opened the door to Student audition videos, any performance video really.
*note that even though the piano holds tune very well, professionally speaking, a piano should always be scheduled for tune and voicing before a session by our Steinway technician. There's nothing wrong with saving some money and skipping this part of the process, but please adjust your expectations to fit your budget. It'll always be close, but perfection comes with the cost time and labor.
Another thing about pianos and microphones when a camera is involved... While I think a pair of Telefunken C12's on Triad-Orbit stands look classy, some perceive as a visual nuisance. This is another spot that the Earthworks PM40's really filled at Costa Mesa Studios...and maybe at your home studio too!?
In this video, Dan Delaney demonstrates and speaks about both the Earthworks PM40 microphones, and the vintage Steinway B at Costa Mesa Recording Studios. For this video, my signal path was quite simple. The PM40's went to a pair of API 512's. Dan's dialogue testimony was captured off axis with a Neumann m149 into a third 512. I could have done a bit of editing with his dialogue to clean it up and level it out a bit and I'm sorry I didn't at the time, but his dialogue and the piano are straight off the preamps - no mixing, no compression or EQ. I really wanted to showcase what that piano and those mics do without anything more than Dan and Bob's work. Bob is the piano technician. I can hardly wait to start writing more about Bob in another post.
Before this post sounds too much like an ad for the Earthworks mics, there's so much more to discuss when it comes to recording piano. It can get very creative and can go very wrong very fast. For example, to the right is a photo of the Yamaha WX7 - my favorite upright grand (That piano could inspire another blog) mic'd with a pair of u87's.
On an upright piano, the soundboard is vertical. Let's get that piano away from the wall and do something cool with the space behind it...let it breath, or choke it up against the wall if that's more fitting for the part. The fact is that something is going to happen with the sound coming off both sides of the soundboard. I like to bring it away from a wall at an angle, or if the part calls for it I might park it up against a broadband bass trap. I'll take the lids off the top and below. Take a listen to Greenday's album 21st Century Breakdown title track, that's actually when I snapped this photo at Costa Mesa Recording Studios. Those mics are super compressed and "radio'd out". It's a cool sound...but this technique can also sound like they do on the song ¡Viva La Gloria! from the same album.
I may come back and write more but there's a few little secrets I'd like to hold back for now...Just remember if you're recording your piano on your own - listen to what you're doing and imagine the sound waves - where they go - what they'll bounce off and where they'll return. Protect yourself from phase cancelation and consider the effects of comb filtering.
The piano is a very dynamic instrument and when recorded well, the sky is the limit. Please write me if you'd like to read a blog about how I turn pianos into live synthesizers with effect pedals and time/pitch toys...or listen to #Avenged Sevenfold's 2023 album "Life is But A Dream..." and write me when you spot it. That was fun.
Written by Nick Fainbarg without the use of AI in 2023 - Copywrite September 2023