Professional Quality Home Recordings
There are a lot of pianists trying to make high quality recordings on their own. Surely, if you are satisfied with your current recordings, you may not feel the need to change or upgrade your recording gear. For those who desire that extra 5-10% increase in quality, you may find the following information useful. In the spirit of music, I thought I’d share some thoughts from an equipment perspective on producing high quality recordings whether at home or in a large hall. Bear in mind that the pianist, piano, and space makes 95% of the recording. This thread is for those striving for that extra 5%. In a short thread, I can’t delve into great detail about theory and various miking techniques - I've included useful links below for that purpose. However, I’ll share ideas that has given me professional sounding master recordings in my own home. It has become a great archival tool, a great convenience, and has produced stunning results.
Keep in mind that you can’t get something for nothing, even with best electronic effects. The quality of the pianist, piano, and space are the most important factors in any good recording. The equipment can't record what's not there. The room is an extension of the instrument in the far field. Basically, if you have a decent sounding piano, in a room that has a minimum of 2,500 cu. ft., you should be able to get a good recording. Low ceilings are deal breakers, so higher the ceiling, the better. The recording space should have enough “acoustic treatment” to minimize standing waves and flutter echo that’s typical in home settings. Most untreated music rooms are bright sounding, which yield harsh sounding recordings. To help counteract brightness, you can add rugs, furniture, curtains, and certain fabrics to absorb high frequency content and help neutralize the harshness. There are links to sound absorbing materials that I have provided below. In smaller spaces, such as a home environment, the single most important upgrade in acoustics you can make is treating the room with acoustic panels or bass traps. (See ethanwiner.com/acoustics). If you are interested in making your own panels for the fraction of the cost, PM me.
Before you buy any recording equipment, you must decide on what palate of “sound” appeals to you – Transparent, Colored, Bright, or Dark? It’s a matter of taste, so it’s a very subjective question with varying degrees of opinions. For example, a particular recording may sound “clear” to one person, but may sound “harsh” to another. Any equipment you add to the electronic chain, will affect the tonality, timbre, and response time of your sound to some degree. I am a purist when it comes to recording equipment – I use only the minimum number of equipment to yield the highest quality of sound obtainable. My taste leans toward an accurate, realistic, and neutral sound with the least amount of change in tonality. To predictably make an accurate classical piano recording, the chain of recording gear has to be transparent, have a fast transient response, and sound neutral relative to the source. In other words, the electronics shouldn’t add any coloration that would alter the timbral and tonal characteristics of the sound.
Depending on the musical content, interpretation, dynamics, room acoustics, piano, and recording gear, certain type of gear may “color” a sound that could be desirable or undesirable. For example, I once auditioned a pair of Rode K2 vacuum tube microphones, thinking that it may produce a lush, euphonic sound associated with tubes. The bass improved, and highs were smooth, but at the expense of an altered tonality from the instrument and a nasal sounding midrange. It sounded like the piano had the flu! I replaced the stock tubes with a NOS Siemens-Halske E88CC A-phi code (1964) tubes, it sounded a little better, but still had that nasal quality to the sound. So, in this case the result was undesirable. However, certain kinds of mics and preamps may retain the timbral and tonal characteristics, but provide a wider soundstage and a feeling of “larger than life” quality to a recording. The Brauner Valvet tube microphone is a good example of this characteristic sound. I find that to be safe, go with a microphone that has neutral and transparent characteristics. Ask reputable dealers, and most are studio engineers on the side.
Remember, nothing is for free. For example, a particular microphone or preamp may add spaciousness, but at the expense of focus. Keep in mind that even the best recording can only sound as good, but not better than the source. The room plays a dominant role in the overall sound, there are sites online which will help you get started and companies which specialize in custom designing a good recording space.
Individual tastes will vary. My personal taste in sound is to capture the Steinway B’s double-reed sweetness in the midrange. This piano has it all – well defined bass with a bronze timbre, euphonic mids, and bell like highs. The sound is refined, sophisticated, and lush with rich harmonic content. I built my system to capture the "sweeteness", "euphonics", "3D quality", and the bass definition of the instrument, WITHOUT CHANGING THE TONALITY of the instrument or adding any harshness.
You have to experiment with mic placement for a particular room. Record identical tracks by varying mic placement, polar patterns, phase, etc. Ideally, omnidirectional mic pattern gives the most natural sound in a decent sized hall, but in a smaller home environment with 8-10ft ceilings, the standing waves can lead to harsh and muddy sound due to the room’s standing waves, flutter echo, ringing, and comb filtering. In this case, choose a microphone pattern with a wide cardiod or cardiod pattern. There is a slight trade off in the bass response and a minor change in tonality, but helps to eliminate some of the harshness of a small or acoustically untreated room. There's probably at least 80 different stereo combinations by varying micing technique, polar pattern, distance, and position. Compound that with 5 test tracks... That's 400 tracks to analyze at some point not including varying phase or mixing polar patterns within the stereo pair. So, take your time to get it right, and it will reward you at the end. Take notes on everything so that you can make reference.
I've tried close and distant miking, and for classical recording, my philosophy is to capture more of the tone and air, rather than the strident percussiveness of close miking inside the piano. Obviously, if the mic is too far away, you’ll lose too much focus and timbral characteristics to the sound. Psychoacoustically, the sphere of sound from the piano doesn't coalesce until about 3-4ft from the instrument. To my ears, miking closer than that sounds unnatural for classical music.
Deciding how much and where to spend money on improving your sound, it helps to know how much your equipment will influence the sound. Here is a simple table to give you an idea how microphones, preamp, and A/D converter will influence the "sound."
Individual Contribution To The Overall Sound: (Excluding Acoustics and Source)
- 75% Microphone
- 20% Preamp
- 5% A/D Converter
By far, the microphones have the greatest effect on the overall quality of sound, excluding room acoustics and the piano source. So, you're better off in investing more money into your stereo microphones.
I am not advocating that one should duplicate my setup, but if one is interested to know what I am running, here is my current setup:
EQUIPMENT: (2) AKG C414B-XLS microphones
Avalon Design AD2022 Preamplifier
Yamaha CDR1000 CD Recorder with Apogee UV-22 dithering
POST-PRODUCTION: 8-core MacPro, LogicPro 8, Apogee Ensemble interface, Adam
S3A Monitor speakers, and Beyerdynamic DT880 (2005) headphones.
I am using the AKG C414B-XLS mics in “Wide Cardiod” mode through an Avalon Design AD2022 preamp which is fed directly into a Yamaha CDR1000 CD recorder. This combination yields a modern sound – transparent, clear, smooth, airy, and uncolored. The piano is a 7ft Steinway in a 35x14x8.5ft living room in an open floor plan connecting with the dining room, foyer, etc. So there is decent amount of natural reverberation of 6,000+ cu. ft. I have very little acoustic treatment - so it's bright. I can’t use the natural sounding omnidirectional mic pattern because of too much standing waves. The most balanced sound I heard with this instrument in my room was 3ft from the curve of the piano at a height of 5ft pointing down toward the strings in Wide Cardiod mode. The mics were spaced 10-15in apart at an angle of 75-degrees, with one mic pointing toward 1/3 the length of the copper wound bass strings and the other mic 2 octaves above middle C. The resulting sound was lush, harmonically rich, natural, and it captured that double-reed sweetness in the mids. The only thing it was missing was the deeper bass. A quick fix solution was EQ +3dB @ 55Hz, and -2dB @1.8KHz, and a 6% wet reverb in audio editing software.
It seems that getting the best of ALL worlds is an impossible from an electronic standpoint. To gain a specific quality of sound, you compromise something else. The "Color vs Accuracy" discussion will continue in audio electronics as well as in acoustical instruments. Subjectively, the choice of electronics is analogous to the Steinway vs Bosendorfer debate for some pianists, i.e. two different pianos emphasizing different harmonic and tonal characteristics. The hardest (and most expensive) part of accumulating equipment is to find that balance between the desired sound and what sounds natural and accurate. At the end, it’s all a matter of taste. Good Luck!... I've compiled a list of the equipment used by 95% of classical piano recording studios.
EQUIPMENT LIST FOR HIGH QUALITY PIANO RECORDINGS
MICROPHONES: Ask for transparent sound, flat frequency response.
-DPA 4006 or DPA 4011 – industry standard for classical
-Schoeps CMC6/Mk2 or MK21
-Sennheiser MKH8020 or MKH8040 - warmer than DPA, excellent for piano and pipe organ
-Neumann KM183 or KM184
-Neumann TLM 193 or TLM 170R
-Earthworks QTC 40, QTC 50, QTC1
-Neumann M50 or M150
-Josephson C617 with Gefell MK221 capsule - open, accurate, excellent for piano
-Flea 49 - identical clone of vintage Neumann M49
-Brauner Valvet - bright timbre, better suited to darker sounding pianos
-Shure KSM 32, 141, SM81
-MBHO (Haun) 648 body + KA100LK omni capsule
PREAMPLIFIER: Ask for transparent sound, fast transient response.
-Millenia HV-3C – industry standard
-DAV BG No.1U - just the right amount of syrup without losing transparency
-Thermionic Earlybird 1.2
-Great River MP-2NV
-Avalon Design AD2022
Optional, for maximum fidelity. Can also use built in A/D in recorder
-Lavry AD10 - superb for classical, flatter response.
-Mytek 192 - open, airy top end
-Apogee Rosetta 200 or 800
Any 24bit recorder - CDR, DVD-A, DSD, Hard Disk, Compact Flash, computer based, rack unit, portable, etc.
-Tascam DV-RA1000HD - DSD or 24bit PCM
-Korg MR-1000 or MR-2000S - DSD or 24bit PCM
-Sound Devices 702, 722 - best portable. Excellent preamp, A/D converters, 24bit PCM
-M-Audio Microtrack II - best micro portable. Decent A/D converters
-PC: WaveLab, Soundforge, Audition, Cubase, Sonar, etc.
-MAC: LogicPro, Digital Performer, etc.
NOTICE: The equipment I am describing is what the pros use. Like most serious hobbies of this nature, it can get very expensive to get that extra 5-10% in recording quality. For some it will be worth it, for others it will not. However, if the goal is to record the best sound possible for years to come, then it might be worth saving up as an investment. May it reward you well!
Acoustic Treatment Links:
http://arts.ucsc.edu/ems/music/tech_bac ... es_14.html
http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/jul98/a ... tics1.html
Equipment Review Links:
Microphone Technique Links:
http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/jan08/a ... g_0108.htm
http://www.dpamicrophones.com/en/Microp ... Piano.aspx
http://www.sweetwater.com/feature/micro ... ing101.php
http://www.wesdooley.com/aea/Microphone ... oners.html