Recording Piano

Recording Piano

Recording piano constantly challenges audio engineers.  Consider the factors and options involved. The style of music performed can dictate microphone choice and position. The physical playing style of the pianist impacts the recording technique choice. The condition of the instrument itself plays a role in deciding the recording method.

Piano Physics 101

Let’s begin with the physical structure of a piano. With hundreds of pounds of moving, vibrating parts, expect extraneous and undesirable noises. A shot of WD-40 can eliminate pedal squeaks. A good piano technician can fix sticky dampers and eliminate or minimize other mechanical problems the piano might have.

But when 60+ pedal-controlled dampers all drop onto the strings at once, they make noise. This noise, in terms of volume, remains fairly consistent every time the damper pedal’s released. Therefore, the volume of the notes being played by the pianist is important. The louder or harder the piano is played, then the quieter the damper noise is in relation to the note sounds. Remember, damper noise was never a problem with Jerry Lee Lewis records.

The music dictates the piano’s volume and intensity. When a pianist plays softly and delicately, damper noise becomes more noticeable. When the mechanical noise becomes an audible distraction, switching microphone positions can lessen its volume.

Piano Recording Example

Recording piano - Thomas Pandolfi Into The Night CD
“Into The Night” CD by Thomas Pandolfi

I recorded internationally acclaimed concert pianist Thomas Pandolfi  in a church in McLean, Virginia. These two excerpts are from a collection of Gershwin pieces performed on a beautiful Falcone piano. Since the sound of the church was so lush and wonderful, no artificial ambience was used for these recordings.

Microphone Decisions

When recording piano, your only microphone limitations are the number of mics in your collection. I’ve pianos using a single omni pattern mic, a single cardioid mic, a pair of cardioid mics in an “XY” pattern, two pairs of cardioid mics (1 pair close – 1 pair for room ambience,) or two cardioids in “XY” with an additional dynamic mic pointed at the lower strings to beef up the low end.

When recording piano for most contemporary music styles, I prefer two small-diaphragm condensor mics. Usually placing them in an “XY” pattern, about a foot back from the hammers, 6-8 inches above the strings. This captures a nice stereo image, with good punch and presence. For a softly played piano, I move the mics toward the far end, away from the hammers and dampers. The stereo imaging diminishes when the mics are down there. But that microphone position lessens the distraction of the damper noise. To my ear, noises that are distractions defeat audio quality every time.

Classical Piano Recording

For solo classical piano recording, I prefer using 4 microphones. The two “close” mics are  about a foot or so outside the piano body, near the inward curve. The size and shape of room itself determines the positioning of the two “ambient” mics. Generally, they are 20-30 feet away from the instrument, and spaced apart from each other.

If the piano is part of an orchestra, I might move the mics inside the piano, using the short stick to get more acoustic isolation. Whenever the piano is a featured instrument, two mics would be preferred. Using a single microphone would work fine when the piano is just part of the ensemble.

Recording Piano at Home

Every piano is a unique instrument. Compare them to guitars in the sense that every one of them is different. Take 5 brand new Fender Telecasters out of their boxes. An accomplished guitarist can play them all and describe the differences in each one.

Pianists are, of course, more comfortable with their personal instrument. Recording in a studio on an unfamiliar piano can have a negative impact on their performance. I have clients who prefer recording piano at home. My mobile recording system easily handles that type of project with excellent results. When using the same high-quality microphones and mic pre’s everywhere, I can produce studio quality recording in the comfort of your home.

Dave Anderson & Mike Wingo – “Conversations”

Recording piano at home with Dave Anderson
Dave Anderson & Mike Wingo – “Conversations” CD

Recording piano in Dave’s living room, with Mike playing percussion about 15 feet away, was a fun couple of days. We recorded each song 3 – 5 times, chose the best take, then did a few edits to polish things up. For a couple of tunes, we tried a few takes the first day, and then gave it another try the next day. But everything was live – no overdubs. Everybody was more relaxed doing home recording.





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Starting An Audio Engineer Career Part 2

The previous part is Audio Engineer Career Part 1.

Audio Engineer Career Decisions

Now that you’ve started your audio engineer career and gained some experience working in live situations, it’s time to make some life path decisions.

First of all, do you want to continue trying to do this? It’s an important question. You’re about to spend several years establishing yourself in this business, working a lot of hours for not much money, climbing your way up the ladder. I’m telling you this because it’s what I experienced. It’s what just about everyone I know in this business experienced. And it’s what everyone trying to become an audio engineer should expect to go through.

How did I persevere through this for over 3 decades? It’s simple. An audio engineer career is the ONLY career I’ve ever wanted to have. I’d rather do it for cheap, or even free, (and I’ve done both,) and be happy. If you have that kind of attitude, then you have a good chance of being successful.

Doing Live Audio

Maybe you’ve discovered that doing live sound is what you want your career path to be. Some folks like the adrenaline rush that mixing a live show gives them. I still do live shows, and I’m very tense for the initial 30 seconds or so until the first vocal comes cleanly out of the PA. Then I settle in and get to work. At the end of the gig, I feel the effects of the slow adrenaline drip that kept me on edge for the length of the show.

If live audio engineering is what you really enjoy, congrats! You found a calling. Just remember to think about where you’ll be in 10 years. It’s not easy to continue to work in clubs into your late 30’s. Some do it, but not many.

Audio Engineering School

If you want to pursue a studio career, you should consider enrolling in an audio engineering school. These schools will teach you lots of techniques and tricks, and expose you to current technology, audio gear, and software. Prices and time commitments vary, so lots of research is required to decide about which school to choose.

Which engineering school did I go to? When I started out, there were no audio engineering training programs. I studied Radio and Television Production at the University of Maryland because it was the only program that allowed me to mess around with microphones and tape decks. Sponsored by the university, I spent a summer interning at a recording studio as part of my curriculum. There I started to meet people in the music business and started to build my network. I still work with some folks I met there in 1976, and I can trace lots of my clients back through those initial connections.

audio engineer career RHL Audio
Tracking rhythm section, Cue Recording, Falls Church, Va.

What Type of School?

Do an online search for “recording engineering school” and you’ll get a long list.

There are many colleges and universities that have 4-year programs for audio engineering. Going through a program like this allows a student to get a degree in their chosen field. But they also take part in the usual varied classes that a 4-year college program includes, exposing them to more than just audio. Maybe a minor in business would help them in the future if them build their own studio. Or another field of study so they have something to fall back on should the engineering track prove unsuccessful.

There are also several trade schools whose entire curriculum is just audio engineering. Full Sail University, located in Florida is very popular. Their entire curriculum is entertainment, media, arts, and technology, so it’s not a general studies 4-year program. I’ve met lots of engineers and interns who graduated from Full Sail, and their comments have mostly been positive.

After You’ve Finished School…..

But here is the reality. When you graduate and contact a studio looking for a job, you will be offered an internship, and most of these positions are unpaid. The big advantage an audio engineering school certificate gives you is it demonstrates that you have a serious conviction to become an engineer. You’ve put in the time and money to advance yourself in this field. Which puts you ahead of the folks who just walked in off the street.

Here’s what to expect while you are an intern at a recording studio.

Starting An Audio Engineer Career Part 1

Getting Started

Fairly often I get emails or phone calls from people asking, “How do I get started in my audio engineer career?” These are some thoughts, experiences, and suggestions that I pass along to them.

Becoming a successful (earning a living) audio engineer is very much the same as a successful (earning a living) musician. A large majority of successful recording engineers are those who do it because it’s the only thing they’ve ever really wanted to do.

An extremely small percentage of engineers become wildly successful, earning big bucks and working with famous artists. A small percentage, like myself, have a successful career path. It moves from job to job, with a regular client base. There are additional clients that drift into my sphere of work, and then drift out again. Some audio engineers end up doing it as a hobby or side-job. They enjoy the creativity and technical aspects of it, but don’t depend on it to pay the bills. Many who start out on this path become frustrated by the lack of advancement or financial reward, so they find other jobs or careers.

I have earned my living in this business for over 30 years, with much support from my family. I worked as a staff engineer at 4 different studios in the Washington DC area. I’ve done live shows in countless clubs and venues all over the east coast. And now I’m a free-lance music recording engineer. Here’s my advice to those who want to get into this business.

Start By Doing Live Sound

Live audio engineer Chris Murphy
Chris Murphy mixing The Slickee Boys, Sylvan Theater, Washington DC, October 1983

Yeah, that’s me, in the white baseball cap, mixing a show in front of the Washington Monument, in October 1983. By this time, I was working full time as a live audio engineer. I began my career by mixing bands for live shows, and I recommend this to anybody trying to become an audio engineer. You’ll get exposed to a variety of acoustic environments, gain experience on different types of mixers and outboard gear, and start to develop a network of music business people.

Join The Band

Start off by finding a regular working band that doesn’t have a sound engineer and join them. By regular, I mean at least 4 gigs per month on average. If they don’t work that often, then see if you can find several bands that have spotty schedules.

Here’s how you can gain their trust and confidence and become a valuable part of their team. Show up before everyone else, help move in the gear, set-up, tear-down, move out the gear, and leave last. Out-work them. Out-working everyone else develops your image as a leader, and the band’s confidence in you will increase. As a studio engineer, I need to establish that confidence connection within 10 – 20 minutes after starting a session with a band I have never met before. Developing this attitude will greatly increase your chances of success in this business. Your clients must trust you.

The clubs and venues you’ll work in will have acoustics ranging from good to awful, and you’ll start to learn how to work within these varied spaces. When working in a bad sounding venue, you’ll learn to adjust and adapt. There might be some EQ adjustments that can improve the situation, proper speaker placement might minimize feedback problems, and a good-sized crowd almost always helps tighten up an overly ambient space. 

The important fact is YOU ARE WORKING with a band, being exposed to different acoustic environments, working with lots of different gear, and meeting people. Hopefully, you are learning at every performance.

Learning The Gear

Audio engineer Chris Murphy with Dead Men's Hollow
Doing a live show with Dead Men’s Hollow, Vienna, Va. July 2016

The band most likely has a PA system, and you’ll become comfortable working with it. But many clubs have sound systems permanently installed, and often require acts to use them instead of the own. You’ll start to learn how to work on different mixers and outboard gear. These clubs have a staff engineer who hopefully assist you.

Someday I’ll do a post consisting of stories about house sound engineers, ranging from excellent to worthless. Once I was greeted at a club by the house engineer who said…”You do sound for the band? Great! That means I can get drunk tonight!”

An excellent example of how to NOT have a successfule audio engineer career.

Expanding Your Network

Working different venues will provide you with the opportunity develop your network of music business people. In addition to meeting the tech staff, you’ll be able to develop relationships with musicians and engineers from other bands. Perhaps someday the engineer from another band might not be able to make it to a gig. If that band remembers and liked you, you might get a call to come work for them for that show. If you do a good job (arrive first, leave last,) you might get more work from them.

Another option is to start to work at a club that has a house PA system. You’ll probably start off as a stagehand, but again, by out-working everyone else (first to arrive, last to leave) you’ll have the opportunity to work your way up through the tech staff. You’ll start mixing some acts that don’t have a band audio engineer. Working at a club gives you opportunities to expand your network because you’ll meet and work with all the bands that appear there. Some acts may make regular appearances there, so you’ll get to know them quite well. The larger your network is, the better the chances are of you finding more work and advancing your career.

Churches have PA systems, and often there are small bands performing at the “contemporary” services, and that’s an opportunity for a regular job as an engineer. I have worked at many churches to provide training for their audio staff, and also do trouble shooting for their PA systems.

The result of this hands-on experience and networking will help prepare you for doing sessions in a recording studio. Now it’s time to think about school.





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