When I listen to recordings of solo piano music featuring extreme dynamic contrasts - like the music of Debussy - the pianissimo passages seem impossibly quiet. Even if I turn up my stereo volume so that the loud passages seem like the volume of a real piano the quiet parts still seem less volume than a real piano would produce.

On the one hand I'm amazed someone can have such incredible touch, but on the other hand as a listener I'm often annoyed, because the piano either disappears in quiet parts, or I have crank the volume to hear it and then the loud parts are much louder than a real piano.

Understanding the connections between performance expression, listener distance, timbre and volume gets confusing, because loud/soft expressive dynamics and listener distance seem more about timbre than simple decibels. Certainly if I turn the stereo volume up or down it doesn't change the perception of whether the player was playing gently/forcefully or whether the mic just above the strings.

A recording engineer could play with volume levels and fade between close or distant mics to accentuate a performance, or maybe it's better to say "represent" a performance in playback. That playback doesn't necessarily need to realistically recreate decibel levels as hear by a single listener in a fixed spot.

Anyway, I don't really know how this kind of music gets recorded, and haven't done something like try to measure decibels of a real piano versus recording playback. I'm hoping someone here has some professional knowledge to share for the non-professional.

Recently I figured out how to use the compression in Audacity and applied something around ratio 3:1 and threshold -40 dB to a recording of Debussy piano music just to see how it would sound. The result was a pretty extreme flattening of the dynamics, and I feel bad desecrating a good recording, but playback all cuts through the background noise of my house now at moderate volume!

All joking aside, when I did that compression I thought: maybe recording engineers do the same in reverse and accentuate the dynamic contrasts?

Do they?

In an ideal setting would the decibel measure of a real piano from the position of the microphones be equal to ideal playback of the final mixed recording?

3 Answers 3


It's more likely that the opposite process would be applied - as you say, a bit of compression to bring the softest sounds UP for more practical audibility in an imperfect listening situation.

It's not impossible a recording engineer might do what you suggest. But it's hardly normal practice.

Piano is a very 'peaky' sound. The strike of a note is way higher than the sustain. Easy to run into overload distortion of both the recording and playback systems.

I think your question is complaining about a recording made WITHOUT compression!

  • I overlooked the obvious. This makes sense and falls in line with an earlier question I have about compressing voice. Re. normal practice, do you mean the typical engineer would apply the compression to get the playback out speakers dBs closest to dBs of the performance? May 6, 2020 at 19:05

There are lots of possibilities in the sound-engineering side of this,but let me suggest something else.

The sound level of an actual grand piano is a lot louder than what people tend to think it is when setting the volume level on their radio or stereo. (Same goes for symphonies, and rather obviously heavy metal rock bands). The psychoacoustic stuff is weird that way. So if you have the chance, try having someone play some of that music on a full-size grand piano and then, in the same room, play a recording & adjust so it "seems right" to your ears. Measure the true SPL (sound pressure level, in dB) for both and compare.


Recorded music with natural dynamics can be uncomfortable for the listener. There are no visual clues and this makes a big difference to the listening experience. Some folks used to be uncomfortable with CD recordings at first due to the extended dynamics, and engineers will use tricks sometimes to even them out.

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