Recording the piano at home – Part 1: Introduction

One of the things that many pianists do when learning a piece is to listen to recorded versions of pieces that they are working on to get ideas and tips on interpretation and technique. At some point it is also useful (though not absolutely essential) for the pianist to also listen to himself or herself play. But not from the piano bench, because that is probably the worst seat in the house for that. What the pianist hears at the piano bench is definitely not what the piano really sounds like to anyone who is in the same room or out in the audience. Also, while you are playing it’s very difficult to hear nuances and detail because your mind is preoccupied with what you are doing on the keyboard at the moment.

That’s why many pianists, ranging from enthusiastic amateurs to professional musicians, are recording themselves on gear that ranges from the relatively inexpensive to near pro-audio quality. I assume in this post that the audio will be captured digitally, either uncompressed or compressed. I mean, who records to analogue tape any more?

Ultimately the quality of the recording depends on several factors:

  • The condition the piano is in;
  • The acoustics of the room in which the recording will be done;
  • The type and quality of microphones used;
  • The microphone technique used;
  • The quality of the digital recording signal chain; and
  • How well the recording is edited then mastered to its final form.

If it’s starting to look complicated to you, well, it is. What makes it worse is that the acoustic piano is arguably the most difficult acoustic instrument to record well.

But wait! It turns out that the level of difficulty is directly related to how fussy you are about the quality of the final result. The Law of Diminishing Returns applies here: Beyond a certain point, the amount of money, time and effort required to get a better-quality recording increases sharply. It is actually possible to get something at least half-decent with just a little bit of homework and effort.

In the series of posts ‘Recording the piano at home‘ I will attempt to point you to various sources of information that will help you successfully record your piano at home. I will, as much as possible, cover all the factors I listed above that contribute to a good recording. I’m not sure how far I’ll get, but let’s see!

In a past life as an academic at a local university I had the pleasure of looking after an ‘electronic music’ student group for about eight years. One of the sub-groups specialised in studio recording and live sound reinforcement. What I have never done before is record a classical grand piano.

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