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I want to record myself playing the piano. I am a complete beginner when it comes to this, so I just want to ask the basic questions, so I can and make an informed decision, once I buy the equipment (I have about 1500 USD to spend).

What components do I need, what do they do and what do I have to think about when buying one or the other? What do you have to think about when setting up the recording (positioning, acoustics, etc.)?

Note: I know there are several questions in this question, but mind you, this comes from a newbie who, just want a push in the right direction.

  • Are you planning to record yourself playing an acoustic upright piano? – Bob Broadley Oct 8 '14 at 20:33
  • Also, do you want a computer based setup or not? – Charles Oct 8 '14 at 20:46
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    There is also another option- you can use a USB/MIDI keyboard to play samples of a grand piano on your computer. It won't sound as good as a pro recording a real piano, but it would probably sound better than an amateur recording with budget gear. You'll still need a computer, DAW, and keyboard, but it simplifies things a bit. – Charles Oct 8 '14 at 22:10
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    More info will give better answers. Do you already have the piano? What sort is it? What sort of room is it in? Do you want to use more traditional means or computer to record? Do you want new/used equipment? Is this a one-off, or do you want to pursue the recording bug over a long period? All relevant points that when made, will give more helpful answers. – Tim Oct 8 '14 at 22:20
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    "Asking the best way to record a piano is like asking the best way to photograph a mountain." I know this is not at all helpful but thought it would amuse readers of this question. – nekomatic Oct 9 '14 at 22:38
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This is a really broad question, so I'll touch on all the parts only briefly. The assumptions I'm making are:

  • by complete beginner, you mean a beginner at recording, not playing piano
  • you want to make a high quality recording of an acoustic piano performance
  • you want the recording to be digital

The minimum components you need to do this well are:

  • a great-sounding, in-tune grand piano
  • a room with great acoustics
  • at least a couple condenser microphones
  • an audio interface (think "professional sound card")
  • a computer with a DAW (recording software) installed
  • monitoring equipment

What do they do?

A room with great acoustics is, to some extent, subjective. The room needs to be large enough to allow the piano to "breathe". Room height is as important as the other two dimensions. If you have walls or other flat surfaces too close to the piano, sound will reflect too much and smear the recording. They'll also help to build up low frequency resonances, which you won't want on your recording. The room should be reasonably sound proofed so things like trains, birds, garbage trucks, neighborhood children, etc. aren't recorded along with your piano. (Your eyes and ears can focus; microphones, like cameras, get everything.) You'll want good sound diffusion, which is caused by having objects with lots of irregular surfaces. Some sound absorption (the foam wedges or pyramids) to tame higher frequency reflections is usually a good thing, but some natural reverberation is desirable. (Bathroom reverb is way too much; walk-in closet reverb is way too little.)

An audio interface will provide the audio inputs, preamps, and phantom power you need to connect your microphones to your computer and get them working. It will also provide audio outputs so you can connect your monitoring equipment. It also handles the analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog conversion that you will need.

The DAW (digital audio workstation) is a multitrack recorder + mixer in software form. (There is a lot more to it than that. All kinds of editing features, special effects, sequencing, etc. are included in a DAW.) There are many DAWs out there. Some are free. Some are expensive. All will be capable of producing a high-quality piano recording.

The monitoring equipment you'll need includes high-quality studio headphones and, ideally, a set of studio monitors. Essentially, those are loudspeakers which have a flat response. (The "flat response" bit is important because most speakers and stereo systems color the audio on purpose to make it "sound good" to its intended market. You don't want that because you want to hear what's really there. The same thing applies to headphones. You don't want the most fashionable ones, you want the good ones.) Most studio monitors are active nowadays, which means you won't need a separate amplifier. Active monitors and headphones plug directly into your audio interface.

You'll need to experiment with microphone placement to get a good sound and a good stereo image. There are whole books written about that, but you might try to start by putting the microphones in an X-Y pattern above the strings. If you have a third mic, you might want it in the room or under the piano. I've seen both done. Here is a good article about it.

Note that you probably won't get a great sound your first time trying. People who do this for a living have years of experience and training on you. If you're expecting a world-class recording coming from anything but a grand piano recorded in a spacious studio with good diffusion, you're likely going to be disappointed.

A better use of your money (especially if this is a one-off thing) might be:

  • renting time in a recording studio where they already have the equipment and expertise to make a great recording

  • making a MIDI recording on a high-quality MIDI controller or a digital piano and sending the MIDI to a studio like this, this, or this, where they'll use a Yamaha Disklavier to render your performance on a acoustic piano and send you the recording.

If, on the other hand, you're talking about recording a digital piano or a software piano or a sampled/modeled piano patch from a workstation, synthesizer, stage piano, or whatever, you'll do just fine with the budget you have, and you won't need microphones.

  • You're assumptions were right and the answer great (however it is not a one-off thing), maybe you could just briefly clarify in your answer what a room with "great acoustics" means? – Perry Oct 9 '14 at 5:24
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    @Perry You want a room that neither completely dissipates the sound (that's like playing outdoors, and will sound empty) nor has too many echoes (which will sound muddy or harsh). Clap your hands once to get a feel for the echoes. Avoid too many hard surfaces, especially windows. Check all notes to see if any of them resonates in an annoying way. – 200_success Oct 9 '14 at 8:30
  • I added the info you requested, Perry. @200_success has it dead on. – trw Oct 9 '14 at 14:59
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trw gave you the professional version, so here's my amateur version:

Most of the arts - music, photography, etc. - have a tendency towards diminishing returns. You can spend a little bit of money and get something decent, or you can spend a lot of money and get something slightly better, or you can sell your house and get something that is almost indistinguishable to anyone without experience.

That being said, see what equipment and services are available for you to buy, borrow, have donated, etc. Often, "decent" is all you need to get started, and you can upgrade as you need and have funds for.

Get something relatively cheap but not cheesy-sounding (do some testing to figure this out), make a recording or two, and go from there. This includes everything from the instrument to the mics/electronics to the environment to the person that operates the instrument and/or other equipment.

If you buy used to start with, you can probably resell for a similar price as you upgrade.

Edit:

Also don't forget that a world of difference can be made solely by mic placement. Before you blame the equipment or the operator for a bad recording, experiment with the mics and try again. Theory can only get you so far here; the rest is trial and error. In fact, you may even create a new sound that you like.

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    A million times this, but do keep in mind that spending a few bucks more on a good external sound interface with decent microphone amplifiers can make a big difference in the overall quality. – sleblanc Oct 9 '14 at 5:00
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Some things to think about.

1) Get your piano tuned. It doesn't matter whether it's an upright or a grand since an out of tune piano will sound bad.

2) Yes, a grand piano is better, but a well placed audio device, with the lid opened on the upright can sound okay.

3) Invest in something like this:

http://www.zoom.co.jp/products/

I have one of the earlier Zoom recorders. It's a great device, although for me the little display is a bit difficult to see now. It records, or at least that one did, to flash memory cards like those used in digital cameras. The quality is quite nice and the device can be placed on a microphone stand. The audio range is quite good and the mic is very sensitive. I used mine to record some music performed on my clavichord, which is a very, very soft keyboard instrument.

3

I have a baby grand at home, and here's how I used to record it.

Hardware:

  • Windows Laptop
  • Tascam US-122 $200
  • MXL 990/993 $100
  • Panasonic (monitor) Headphones

Software:

  • Windows
  • Cakewalk Sonar 6 Producer Ed

Tascam connects to a laptop with USB 2, then it has a two standard mic inputs. You plug the mics straight into the board. Windows and Sonar would recognize the board, and record the sound track. This was a few years ago. Today I'd go with a newer version of Tascam with USB 3. I'd also upgrade the mics to Shure SM57].

If you're recording at home then the trick is to isolate the room from noise. Definitely turn off all noisy equipment such as the fridge, AC/Furnace etc. It helps to close all windows. I have window curtains, they help too.

There are sound insulation boards that you can purchase in Home Depot. I didn't need them, but you may, depending on where you live. I have rugs, they help to suppress echos, if your room is hardwood floor, this may mess up your recording, you'll see

Mic position is important, but it depends on your room configuration, so nobody can tell you where to put them. I'd definitely go for stereo recording, i.e. two mics, like SM57. Don't place the mics on the piano, install them on stands. I'd open the grand, and put two mics on two sides from the player, this gives better volume for they will separate the sound coming from lower and higher notes.

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Is this a one-off event, and you wish to re-use the equipment elsewhere, or do you want to do this almost daily in a room that isn't well isolated from outside noise?

For the one-off, get decent microphones. Shure mics are nearly indestructible - we used to annoy the music department by carrying 6 in one hand and deliberately dropping them. AKG breaks rather easily, they went in to a pocket. And invest in a stand-alone D-A box rather than a sound card that you need to re-purchase for every computer. Your laptop might have optical-in hiding in the microphone jack, check the manual. If not, get one with USB output.

If this is a regular event, get a PZM microphone - Crown make good ones (don't drop it). It goes on the underside of the lid a little bit back from the hammers. If there is outside noise you just close the lid. One is enough - a piano is basically a mono sound source. The concert halls I have worked in wired the piano permanently with two PZMs, cable through the structure to a proper plate on the back side. Push into place, plug in, done.

And yes, you should see your tuner often enough to send birthday cards to his kids. Or get a scope and do it yourself - it's not rocket science.

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    Indeed all Shure mics are pretty sturdy, but don't think their recording-suitable condenser models can be called "nearly indestructible". Dynamic mics for recording piano? Not so great. — PZMs are great for many stuff, incuding piano live, but for recording I would hesitate to put them directly in the piano – it does make for a rather uneven response and a strange room sensation. Speaking of room... "piano a mono sound source"?? Beg to disagree. A couple of even cheap condenser mics in a well-setup stereo configuration will give much "greater" sound than anything you can do in mono. – leftaroundabout Oct 9 '14 at 19:25
  • A piano is a single-voice, single-place instrument. Dual mics will usually give you bass+treble which means you can optimize the mics and tracks accordingly. But it is not "stereo". The concert hall I referenced wanted redundancy in case one quits mid-performance, not for the different registers. A decent pipe organ could be considered a stereo source. – paul Oct 23 '14 at 7:14
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    That's not the point. Sure, for a listener more than 20 m away, the direct sound of the piano comes effectively from a single spot. (Yet that's not necessarily a good thing to simulate – for chamber music, I wouldn't simulate a listening position more than 10 m away, where the spatial expansion is notable. And in pop productions, you don't care at all whether the audio space makes any "real world sense", but mix everything "larger than life".) But obviously, in particular in a concert hall, direct sound makes up a rather small part of the total sound. ... – leftaroundabout Oct 23 '14 at 9:33
  • ... And for the reflections you need to consider how the sound emission changes with direction, which is considerable for piano. So even with good digital reverberation, a single-mic'd piano alone will sound rather boring and small. You need to either have an amazing room, then you can use only one direct mic and capture the actual room reflections in stereo (either with a dedicated pair, or though other instruments' mics), or you need to capture at least some of the directionality with some multi-mic setup and feed it to a room simulator. – leftaroundabout Oct 23 '14 at 9:34
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Had you thought of buying studio time rather than studio equipment? Even if you were paying $50/h your $1500 would still buy you extended use of a decent well-maintained grand piano in a nice acoustic space, boutique microphones and, probably most important, someone expert who knows how to get the sounds you're after.

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In my experience in depends on what sound you are aiming for. I have done mostly classical music, and this is the best setup I have achieved.

  • well tuned and adjusted grand piano
  • in a good acoustical environment
  • two omni condenser microphones
  • open lid
  • mics height about 2 meters, about 3 meters from the piano, about 2 meters between the mics.

You will need to spend quite a bit of time in order to find the correct mic position.

In order to record a "pop" sound instead, I would probably use cardioid condenser mics instead. Point them at the strings (no lid) about a 3 decimeters (a foot) from the strings. Again, move around until getting the sound you want.

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