recording piano

How to Record Piano in Your Home Studio

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Jon Marc Weiss is an accomplished recording engineer, studio designer, and musician with over 20 years’ experience. Echoes’ Andre Calilhanna checked in with Jon to discuss the challenges of recording and miking an acoustic piano.

You mentioned that recording a piano is rather difficult as compared to most other instruments. I assumed the opposite. Why is piano such a challenge to record?

There are just so many factors to consider with a piano. Pianos are incredibly dynamic instruments. They also have a wider frequency range than most instruments and there are so many different miking techniques you can use to record them. You just have to determine what kind of tone you’re trying to get and then start experimenting with mic placement around the piano. Many microphones tend to get overdriven when recording piano, especially in dynamic songs, so it’s probably a good idea to start with your microphone pad on. If your mic doesn’t have a pad, then you’ll have to pull it away from the instrument a bit. However, keep in mind this will change the tone pretty dramatically.

Also, weather conditions can really affect a piano – like any acoustic instrument. When humidity is high, the piano is probably going to sway off of A440 Hz. In a pro studio, they’re going to have humidity control – in something less than a pro studio, you’re going to be dealing with something that’s 440 and a half, or 339 or 441. Of course, with pitch control software, you can bring the track up or down a couple of cents to get it right in the track, as long as the piano is still in tune with itself.

Humidity can affect more than just the tuning of the instrument. It can create a darker overall tone, and for some perfectionists, the tone can be affected so much that they may not want to record that day. I had a classical pianist do this to me once.

What about recording a grand or baby grand, having the top open or closed will make a huge difference, right?

Absolutely – a huge difference. When the lid is up, the sound is bouncing off the bottom of the lid and it’s being directed out towards the audience. You’re going to get more articulation and a more defined sound with the top up. Most pianos have at least two options in regard to how open you can have the lid.

When the top’s down the sound being picked up is more indirect, and as a result, the overall tone is much more dark and rounder.

What about in a live setting? I’ve noticed people like Elton John and Billy Joel have the tops down when they’re playing live.

In a live situation where you see someone playing a grand piano on stage with a full band, you’ll probably find that the top’s down. This is mostly because there are so many other sound sources that can get picked up by the mics, along with the potential for feedback. Also, for a rock tone, I think it’s a little more common to have the top down. It softens the sound, makes it a little more round and less pingy, which works better for rock ‘n roll, generally speaking.

A real common method of miking a piano in a live setting is to use a PZM (Pressure Zone Microphone), which is a flat mic that people will tape or velcro to the underside of the lid. You can even use a PZM in a situation where you’re opening the lid as well.

The PZM is omni-directional, it’s going to pick up the sound from everywhere, and there’s a lot of reflectivity going around because the PZM is a plate, maybe 5×5 inches, or 8×8, and there’s a little mic in there that actually picks up the sound that’s reflected off the plate into the diaphragm. So inside a piano, it’s picking up all the resonance and reflections going on.

A lot of times, you’ll also see people using a dynamic mic for a piano in a live setting. There’s almost always enough space in the body of the piano to fit a dynamic mic. Sometimes you’ll see the top cracked just enough to get the mic stand in.

So what about recording a grand or baby grand piano in the studio?

I don’t think I’d use a PZM in a studio because you’re usually trying to get something a little bit more defined than you’re going to get out of a PZM. Though I’ve seen someone use a PZM on the lid and then a matched pair of small diaphragm condensers in a perfect XY pattern pointing to the low and high side of the piano. The PZM, in this case, fills in the missing pieces that the condensers don’t pick up – the very high and low ends that might be missed, plus additional resonance. Another mic technique that works really well is the M-S (middle-sides) technique. This is achieved by using two mics: one that’s bi-directional (like a ribbon or multi-pattern condenser) and one that’s cardiod.

In a pro studio, I’m probably working with up to five microphones. I’ve got a small condenser microphone pair in an XY – in fact, I’ve seen three condensers used, on the high, low, and middle keys. I’ve seen someone take a tube mic and place it right next to the player’s head to get the perspective of the player. How important the track is to the song is a big influencer. If it’s a solo piano piece, and I wanted the biggest, most beautiful piano sound ever, I would also throw a couple of mics out in the room.

Mic placement in a studio environment is everything. If the mic is placed close to the strings, you’re going to get this really articulate sound, where as if you’re further away, it’s going to be more rounded. People sometimes want to go right to EQ, but that’s not always the answer. The answer is use your ears –– you can get more high end out of an instrument just by changing the axis of the mic, the proximity of the microphone to the instrument, or moving the instrument to different parts of the room. Maybe you’re in a part of the room with too much baffling and you need a spot that’s more reflective – maybe near a wood wall or a glass window, each will give you a different sound.

How about with an upright?

There are different techniques for recording an upright. You’re not going to be able to get your mic anywhere near to the strings like you can with the baby grand, not to mention an upright produces a very different tone than a grand. You’ve got a couple of options. You can mic it from up top, you can mic it from the perspective of the player, you can mic it from the back, you can use multiple mics and then decide at the board how they should be combined. Just be careful not to have the mics too close to each other, which can produce phase cancellation!

With any piano, you have to decide, do you want it to sound like the player’s perspective, or the audience’s perspective from 20 ft out? Do you want it to sound like your ear is inches away from the hammer? There’s a place for all of these, and you have to make the decision.

Let’s say you have access to a piano that’s not in your studio, but you want a live piano track, any advice for that?

I’ve seen someone take a laptop with Logic, or some other DAW app on it, a little preamp, and record a piano from someone’s living room. That’s not uncommon, you don’t need much to pull that off. I remember this story of someone going to a music store, and recording some beautiful instrument there, and bringing that track back to their studio.

But if you’re going to use this idea, and go to someone’s living room to record a piano, you’re probably going to find that it’s not in A440. In a pro studio, they literally have guys on call, and if they have a session coming up, or every week, they’ve got these guys coming out to make little tweaks. At someone’s house, they might have that piano tuned once every couple of years – not to mention the humidity and environmental factors.

I know you’re a fan of the DAW piano modules out there these days.

Well, like we’ve said, piano is somewhat difficult to record, but even more so, it can be difficult to find a great piano to record. There are so many factors with a live acoustic piano. If you’re in a situation where you have a DAW and it’s computer driven, you have to go and check out some of these software instruments like Ivory and The Grand and the host of other companies making them these days. You’d be hard-pressed in a home studio situation to get that kind of tone.

If the artist really wants to play a real piano, that might be a good enough reason to use one, but if you’re just trying to add a piano track to an arrangement, a software instrument is really a good way to go. These days, a software instrument will give you a lot of the things we’ve been talking about. You can open the lid, close the lid, half close the lid, put different microphones of choice at different distances from the strings. I think some of the best trained ears in the business will have a hard time deciphering real piano over the latest software instruments that are out there. I had a musician friend over my studio last weekend and I brought up a piano track I was working on. He asked “where did you record that live piano?” I brought up “Steinberg’s The Grand 2” and started hitting the keys. He was blown away, and he’s a classically trained pianist!

Personally, given the choice, I probably would opt for an acoustic piano, but I’m not missing anything in my home studio with the modules I have. I really believe that there are only few studios in Philadelphia that are going to get a better piano sound than I can pull out of my $300 software instrument.

Jon Marc Weiss runs Kiva Productions right outside of Philadelphia in Hollywood, PA to develop local and national acts.

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39 thoughts on “How to Record Piano in Your Home Studio

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  3. The reason for a grand piano lid is to deflect the sound toward an audience.  Unless your recording situation is pristine, you will likely get a lot of unwanted reflections.  After struggling (and suffering disappointment) with sound quality on a prior album, I began removing the lid completely.  This gave much greater control, as sound is no longer bouncing around the room.  I used a matched stereo pair of small condensers about 30 cms above the strings, one pointed toward the bass strings, the other toward the treble.  I also placed a ribbon mic beneath the piano for color.  One note:  even slight adjustment makes a great deal of difference, so this does require some trial and error.  If interested in the results of the above technique, you can listen to the tracks from “Gravity” at

  4. Most live concert situations today are not using microphones on pianos. The channel with a piano microphone on it would contain more drums, bass, etc. than piano! We have sold thousands of Helpinstill pickups to concert artists all over the world, and there’s a pretty good chance when you see a piano with the lid closed that it has one in it. Although we don’t usually recommend using a Helpinstill for recording purposes, it is unexcelled for amplifying pianos live. Having worked with pianos for forty years, we have learned that there’s nothing more difficult to record!

  5. I got pretty good results recording my old Hall and Sons upright piano by opening the front and placing a condensor mic at each end of the piano, one on the high end and one at the low end..about 8 inches out from the strings and angled inward towards the center of the piano. I like having a right and left mic for a subtle bit of stereo to the mix.the tricky part was getting the little sounds of the pedals quieted up and to work some felt in here and there to quiet some of the keys and moving parts. Also I had to wedge a bit here and there on the soundboard as it had a slight buz at some frequencies. A fresh tunning and it all turned out awesome.. The dynamics came out nicely…the frequency range was very wide and the amount of stereo was just enough to tell but all frequencies were present on both sides. It took about 12 hours to prep my piano and to place the mics but well worth every minute.

  6. When a software sample includes realistic subtleties like damper noises and other sounds inherent to a mechanical instrument producing music, then we’re talking! Until then, nothing emulates a grand piano that has just been finely tuned and regulated.

    1.  My favorite setup for organ is a Blumlein bidirectional pair around 12 feet up in the air and right in front of wherever the audience would be.  If you actually have an audience this can pick up too much of the audience’s coughs and noises, so then I’d use an ORTF cardioid pair in the same place.  You have to adjust this depending on how big the hall is, how big the organ is, and where the organ is positioned.  (Some organs are placed in the back of a church, for example, so you’d change the placement and aiming accordingly.)

  7. I’ve never understood the strategy for recording pianos, it always seems to be done from a perspective that is neither that of the audience or the pianist but rather from a position that approximates someone sticking thier head into the openning of a grand piano.  Clean, clear notes but not necessarily what a pianist would hear. 

    Would it not make more sense to locate the mics close to the head of the pianist?  The pianist cannot monitor the sound of their playing from the perspective of the audience in a room or from above and to the right of the piano.  Instead the pianist responds to what they hear from where they sit attempting to make things sound best from his/her perspective.  I think Mark Barnes is has the right idea.

    1. All well and good, especially from an audio purist standpoint. But you get into room acoustics when you try for a realistic perspective. After all, who mics guitars that way? Mics are always found at the hole, true? The real problem is mics are acoustically myopic, and compensations must be made, especially in the face of complex instrumentation in less than ideal acoustics.

    2. I actually find the peterm comment somewhat stupid as much as I’m trying not to be rude to anybody.  And giving the credit of an audio purist does not help the matter either.  Even the most primitive listener knows that to hear any sound well, the best thing to do is to go as close as is most comfortable to the sound source.  The mic is only an instrument that brings you very close to the instrument without sticking your head in it.  The mic is also used as a pickup of the sound from source into a place where it is put together in a reasonable mixture along with other sounds that have also been picked up in likewise manner, to create a more wholesome music.  I would like to see the day when ‘sound purists’ put a mic in the singers ear, considering the fact that that is where he/she hears his/her own voice best, or in the drummers ear instead of over the various pieces of the drum set.  On the other hand I think this was just to create or make fun.  Pls let it be so.

      1.  I’ll disagree with “the best thing to do is to go as close as is most comfortable to the sound source.”  While this may be true in some cases, there are as many cases where it is not.  You even suggest as much when you imply that putting a microphone in the ear of a singer would be a bad idea.  You can’t have it both ways, closest is either best or it isn’t, and you’re saying it’s always better and then you’re implying that it isn’t.  I think we can agree with your implication that it isn’t.  I don’t think any singer is under the illusion that the sound of their own voice in their own ears (and in their own head) is an accurate representation of what the audience in an acoustic hall is hearing.  A pianist’s ears, however, are at least a short distance from the major sound-making parts of the piano, and I think a decent case can be made for making recording from the general direction of the pianist, rather than from the typical position of the audience, especially considering the soundstage positioning of bass -vs- treble notes.

        1. I think you  are disagreeing because it feels good to you rather than the fact that there’s anything to disagree.  I actually said ‘to get as close as is most comfortable’, not ‘as close as possible’.  For instance it is possible to put a mic on the head, or the shell of a tom, but no body does that.  Instead it is placed over the head and to the preferred side, carefully not touching any part of the set.  And tho the singer may want the audience to hear him/her after the voice has been caught and treated in the PA, the most natural sound of the voice is the one heard by the singer – which includes the reverberation of all the cavities and the size and shape of the body of the singer.  But as I said, the mic is placed in front of the face to get the mouth and nose which are the only reasonable outlets to the voice box.  Now if you play the piano – I do, and sing too for a living – you will know that the pianist stomps the floor for beat, steps on squeaky pedals for sustain, talks, sings, moans and grunts to himself, snaps or claps to maintain beat during rests, and moves in his chair, all of which he hears but may not want them to be part of his performance as presented to the audience.  So the sound source which are the strings struck by the hammers, or the sound board which acoustically amplifies the sound of the piano would still be the most appropriate places to place mics as close as most comfortable.  A lot of thought is put into catching good sound, audio purism is not the best concept to follow.  Trust me.  Oh and I hope you never thot I ever implied that placing a mic in the singers ear was being close to the sound source.  I was only mocking the audio purist.  The mouth is still closer any day.

        2. I wasn’t actually thinking of the audio purist point of view in my comment but only the fact that point that a pianist responds to what they hear while they are playing, ultimately attempting to make the sound sound best to them, and of course, this is in the context of the acoustics of the environment the piano is in. They cannot possibly know how their playing sounds a few feet to the right and above them although that sound clearly has some relationship to what they hear.  It was really more a theoretical question and I’m certainly not religious about this one.  I totally accept that the best sounding recordings might be produced in the manner that you describe, I’m just not sure why–the difference is not enought to capture so much of the room acoustics that a recording at the player’s head might be colored by that.  We’re not exactly talking the difference between a dry and live or ambient recording.

          A second point that interest me in this point is that in the last 20 years or so the predomant means of listinging to music has migrated from speakers in a room to headphones (ipods) and near field-like computer-based playback systems.  The two are very different but the former really begs for a binaural style of recording.  Anything else is just special effects and processing, which ultimately might sound better but I’d be very curious with anyones experience in this area.

          If recording close to the strings (and hammers), are better results acheived with the top of a grand removed because the top is really a sound directing mechanism and probably adds little to the tonal quality of the sound.  At best it increases volume, at worst, it degrades the sound through the reverberation and phase cancellation it would create.

      2. Right….I thought it was..stupid also… Basically.. If your record close to the piano..or close to the strings.. Then when you playback the recording it’s like your speakers becom the point where the mic is…to some degree of course…..and then you…the listener place yourself in perspective to that.. Obviosly it’s more complicated than that but you can understand what I’m pointing out??????

  8. Billy Joel and Elton John are using sampled piano sounds in concert, so there are mics needed.  Billy Joel uses a keyboard set into a 9′ shell and Elton John uses an acoustic piano with a midi retrofit.

  9. I have to agree that there’s nothing like the real thing. I do like some of the NI pianos in Kontakt, though. I am currently a Liturgical musician and we have a Vogel Grand piano. I do quite a few demos using my ZOOM H4 hand held recorder and the sound is pretty good. I prefer using the Vogel over the DAW pianos because of the feel. The piece you play comes through much better with your own style and feel and interpretation than with the “canned” pianos. Thanks everyone for the recording tips.

  10. Agree with Greg and Dmmin: nothing replaces a real piano in terms of sound and playing dynamics. While virtual instruments get better, there are subtleties in the real instrument that affect playing and expression, so much so that they can throw off the pianist! (Same goes with virtual guitars, which almost always sound fake to me.)

    When I recorded “Hard To Believe” I had a 2-cans-and-a-string budget but some equipment and access to a real piano. I was not satisfied with digital recreations because I had written the piano part on…my mother’s living room piano. So that’s what I recorded (it actually has a big sound for its spinet size, especially on the low end.) I knew it hadn’t been tuned since it was moved in 1999. As it was nearly in tune with itself, I adapted the writing by simplifying the part so most of the notes I was playing were on the same part of the keyboard. When not recording I took my guitar tuner (which has a listening mic) and played the same pitches a guitar would play, one at a time, and determined by the mean of where the needle fell on the tuner that the piano was about a quarter-tone flat. So after the recording was finished I took the track into an old version of Cubase LE and shifted the pitch of the track up a quarter-tone. It worked like a charm, sounds live and spacious, and sits nicely beside the acoustic guitar in the mix! There is some compression and reverb added later, but not a lot.

    As for mic placement I imitated the A-B placement on my field recorder (on which I had recorded process demos). The lid was open and miked from above, about 2-3 feet above, almost in the center, but vertically staggered so that the bass-end mic was a little closer to the strings than the treble-end mic was. (I must admit it was disconcerting playing with booms on either side of my head!) I do think I lucked out on the space/room (it has a slanted ceiling and the piano was an inch away from an interior wall) because the bigness of the space impacts the bigness of the sound, almost as much as it would with a pipe organ (where the room IS your sound cabinet!) It also helps that I knew the history of the instrument: it had been in stable environments its whole life (unlike most church pianos which are often beaten up hand-me-downs).

    The bottom line is that, while I might buy something like Native Instrument’s Upright Piano for demo purposes, if I’m going to do a finished recording I just have to do it on the real thing!

  11. You can’t use auto tune on a soloist’s piano. A grand piano for solos or with a singer only, usually is “stretch tuned”. The piano is tuned to be ever so slightly stretch tuned from middle C flatter to sharper as you move away from middle C.. That way it sounds MUCH “fatter” than A440. A pro tuner that shows CENTS (100ths of a HZ freq.) is needed or a person with perfect pitch to tune it. A Conn or Peterson analog is the standard. I bought my Conn used back 30 years ago for $150. So you know those babies are expensive. 

  12. If your piano is not at A440 but in tune with itself, wouldn’t it be a lot easier and cheaper to tune the other instruments to it, even though it’s “wrong”, rather than undertake the expense and delay of having a technician tune the piano? We can’t all record in a humidity and temperature controlled studio!

    BTW, a pair of good PZM’s, one to the right on the soundboard, and one to the left on the tail, both mounted on foam rubber, will do the job nicely, leaving enough stereo image and balance between the two channels to place the piano just about anywhere you want in the mix. Just make sure you use preamps with a lot of headroom…

  13. I have a Yamaha keyboard.  I have recorded all of my songs onto the keyboard, and then onto a disc.  Because Yamaha has an authentic sound, it records really nicely.  I then take my disc and keyboard, etc. to a recording studion and have them master it.  It saves a lot of money, because I make sure my songs are OK before I take it to the studio.  I have recorded 4 CDs like this.  The only problem I have ever had was with the man at my first studio who clearly did not know what he was doing.

  14. There’s nothing like the real thing!  Even though the digital sample is great, there’s no way to compete with the real sound … for overtones … and lasting sustain power with a real acoustic grand!! 

    1. My first CD was recorded at a recording studio, on a nine foot Baldwin Grand – three mic setup.
      It came out great.

      My second CD was recorded on a Roland VS880 digital studio. I used a C1000S AKG pair on a 6’4″ Yamaha Grand Piano. Then had it mastered at a professional studio.

      Their’s nothing like the sound of a real piano.

  15. Jon might be spending too much time warning us about humidity and tuning to A440, and whether to record a real piano or a DAW piano module.  Most of these decisions are taken care of before you’re involved, and if not, they should be relatively simple decisions:  Know what and where you’re recording.  Find a good piano.  Have it tuned.  You wouldn’t record a guitarist or a violinist without them tuning the instrument first.  In my opinion the piano is no different.  If your recording is important, have the piano tuned.  Indeed, if humidity out of your control has affected the tone of the piano unacceptably, then find another day to record or find another piano.  Whether you’re recording a real piano or a DAW module should be obvious from the context of the recording you’re making.  No self-respecting classical pianist is going to record a DAW module.  A piano backing track in a pop song may be perfectly acceptable with a DAW module.  Don’t record an out of tune piano.  If the whole instrument is uniformly off A440, you can bring it back digitally, but this may not be necessary if the recording is just a solo performance.

    I agree however, that mic placement is everything.  As both a recording engineer and a pianist, I find my most realistic sound is a an X-Y pair behind and looking over the performer’s right shoulder.  This sound is considerably different from the sound of miking the room with a pair of spaced omni or X-Y pair out front and center of the piano.  At the keyboard, bass notes emanate to the performer’s left, and treble notes emanate from the performer’s right, corresponding to the pin-block and string arrangements from the position of the keyboard.  In the room, bass notes emanate from the right, and treble notes emanate from the left, corresponding to the positions of the treble and bass bridges on the grand piano’s soundboard.  That perspective always strikes me as sounding backwards, and I don’t personally care for it.  Your choice really will depend on what perspective you’re wanting to capture.  -The audience position, or the player’s position?  If you have the ability, record from both positions and compare the two for an ear and eye opening experience.

  16. Good article , good basics thank you for the information and the sharing of your experience.
    PS: The classically trained pianist didn’t work very hard on his ear training …

  17. As a solo pianist, the search for the process that works for me has been a very long one. Bottom line – find an instrument that has the sound quality you are looking for in the environment that will work, and experiment with mic placement, mics, preamps, everything you can think of – until you get the results you are looking for. I played with mic placement for two months worth of evenings until finding placement that worked for me. Also, the piano should be worked on by a registered piano technician, one who will work with you to tweak the piano to your project. Tuning alone can slip in a day or two.

    The physics of a real piano are still too complicated for software instruments. If you are doing to bury the sound in a mix, that may work, but for solo recordings, NOTHING will replace the real sound of a real grand.

  18. Most people (including engineers) don’t take the physical accoustics of a piano into effect when recording.  A piano primarily “speaks” from the sound board.  The connection from the strings to the sound board are the bridges.  The purest direct sound from a piano is to mic the bridges.  I usually place one condenser generally pointed down the high side of the “tenor” bridge, usually right at the break for the brace near where the dampers stop.  I place a second at the upper end of the bass bridge pointed down the bridge.  If I don’t have to worry about bleed from other instruments, I’ll use an omni condenser on the low end.  I recently did solo classical piano recording with 8 mics: two in the instrument, a pair (ORTF-ish) about 3 feet from the instrument (in the crook), a spaced pair of omni’s about 10 feet out and a pair under the piano – one near the peddle lyre and one near the bass end.  We ended up using all 4 pair in the final mix.

  19. This answered several questions for me and opened my eyes about using software instruments. I had no idea software instruments like Ivory and the Grand could be so effective and never considered using them before. I also wondered how it would be possible to record an upright piano, which is an affordable choice for some budding musicians.

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