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Author Topic: Is There A 'Correct' Approach To Recording Acoustic Instruments?  (Read 13495 times)

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Is There A 'Correct' Approach To Recording Acoustic Instruments?
« on: February 05, 2006, 06:00:18 am »

Hi everyone, I would like to challenge a couple of things about recording the acoustic piano, and invite comments.

Most people seem to place their microphones close to the strings.  This will give a different sound from what someone hears standing in front of the piano.  I can see why rock musicians do this as they want a tinkling sound rather than a real piano, and I can see why people do it in a concert hall to filter out other sounds.  But it seems to be the preference for recording classical piano in a studio too, which is paradoxical.  If the sound next to the hammers is superior to the sound a listener experiences then the piano manufacturer has surely failed.  (However, it may just be an inescapable fact of science that piano sounds lose something as they blur together in the air)  Or perhaps microphones just aren?t good enough to pick up the nuances from a distance?  

Even with two or three mics inside a piano I don?t see how you can possibly get an even dynamic across the whole range.  Some strings will be a dozen times further from the mic than others (Although much of the sound comes from the sound board, the sound is stronger near the string).  The use of directional mics will surely exacerbate this.

Cardioids seem to be almost universal but for solo piano there is no need to filter out other sounds so an omni placed a few feet from the piano would seem better.  

I profess no expertise and would be delighted to hear the experts? comments.
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Yannick Willox

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Re: Piano - challenging assumptions
« Reply #1 on: February 05, 2006, 07:56:34 am »

Ultimately it depends on the music-pianist-piano-hall combination.

I agree 100% with your view: they have been building piano's for about 200 years, to sound good 90deg sideways, at a distance, and with the audience often sitting lower than the soundboard.

We are lucky to have one 'magical' chamber music/piano solo hall (concert hall of the Royal Conservatory in Brussels). It is a mid size shoebox (660 seats), with the back of the hall curved, probably a bit higher than it is wide. All wooden construction, with a glass ceiling (daylight !). It was constructed around 1870-80.

Whatever we do, wherever we go, there is no way to get a piano sound as good as here (even when the instrument itself is in fact superior): in this hall the 'audience' approach works great. The mic will be on axis, from 1m to 3-4m from the instrument, distance and height depending on the music and pianist. (and directivity of the M mic - yes we always do this in MS). On axis means the mic is at 90deg to the piano, and aimed almost exactly at where the curb starts at the right hand side. Height can be as low as the soundboard to 2.5m up.

But, then we get into different conditions, eg a large chamber, with 1/2 Bechstein, built in 1910. All of a sudden, there is a mic inside the instrument, and a AB couple 2m out. In this case it was the most convincing piano sound.

The point is, a piano is big. It radiates sound in all directions. Some engineers solve this by putting mics all around the instrument, which seems valid but does not work for me. Either you get enough distance to get more of the sound of the piano (which comes back as room sound) -which means a great sounding room- or you try to fake it. While not ideal, we regularly have cases where the latter approach gives better results than the former. You can' win them all ...

What I would like to challenge is the use of LD mics, or any condenser mic for that matter: for me the attack is never clean, always artificial (compared to the real thing). A good ribbon like the SF12 seems to solve a lot.

Unfortunately, a Blumlein approach does not work at all in our magical hall. We are waiting for a cardioid or omni SF1 !
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Yannick Willox
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Gunnar Hellquist

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Re: Piano - challenging assumptions
« Reply #2 on: February 05, 2006, 01:21:29 pm »

Very good answer from Yannick.

I agree with most of what he says (not that it makes any difference, me beeing a rather beginner in this). You need to look at all the factors, from instrument to room to music to select the best (or even least bad) position for the mics.

I do believe though that true pressure condensor omnis can do a great job on a piano, say DPA 4003 or perhaps Microtech Gefell M296. Have not really loved any usage of cardoids though for classical music.

Gunnar
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Barry Hufker

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Re: Piano - challenging assumptions
« Reply #3 on: February 05, 2006, 01:48:46 pm »

To me the difference between close micing and "audience" micing is "bloom."  Acoustic instruments were meant to project their sound.  For me, there is a point where the sound become full -- and that is at a distance from the instrument.

The piano lid has one purpose -- to radiate the sound into the audience.  For me, the lid is optional, depending on the music, player, etc.  

Barry
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DavidSpearritt

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Re: Piano - challenging assumptions
« Reply #4 on: February 05, 2006, 03:25:48 pm »

I find the most useful rule is stay at least one characteristic dimension away from the instrument to make sure acoustic mixing of all freqs radiated by the various parts of the soundboard has occurred most completely. In the piano, the characteristic dimension is the long dimension of the sound board, some 2-3m in a concert grand.

This is also a useful guide when miking an acoustic guitar. If one examines sound intensity plots of the radiation of soundboards, you can see that in some places and for some frequencies, sound energy is actually travelling back into the soundboard. Placing mikes there will make a very ugly sound.

Close miking of pianos and guitars is a very silly idea in general, and I can often hear the lumpiest, most unattractive results from such practices. One hears only resonant, narrow frequency radiation from just under the mike and this is always dissappointing. Listen to jazz piano recordings when there is a rare couple of octave "run", and you will be able to tell above which hammers the mics are, the notes stick out like ....

The other fact that has great influence on the sound is the volume of the playing. Most jazz and pop piano technique and music rarely gets above mp or mf at the most. This means close miking is more tolerable. For most classical performances on concert instruments the playing is often above f and sometimes fff.

I recorded a CD recently of the Bach Busoni Chaconne and other VERY LOUD piano playing. For this you need to be at least 3m away or it's a disaster on many fronts.

Klaus Heyne

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Re: Piano - challenging assumptions
« Reply #5 on: February 05, 2006, 04:48:46 pm »

David Spearritt wrote on Sun, 05 February 2006 12:25

Close miking of pianos and guitars is a very silly idea in general, and I can often hear the lumpiest, most unattractive results from such practices.


The traditional assumption by critics of close miking is that the listener has an idea how an acoustic instrument sounds in a hall, and so he will be able to compare that to the recorded version and judge the recorded results accordingly.

This assumption is less and less valid, as fewer and fewer people venture out to listen to an orchestra, string quartet, classical guitar performance, and so on.

So then, the sonic aesthetic of a recorded acoustic instrument needs to be critiqued anew and by itself:
Is a close-miked acoustic instrument pleasant to listen to on a recording, regardless whether it was originally designed and perfected for distant listening?

For violin, the answer is easy for me: You need to go through extraordinary efforts in the recording process to tamp down the stridency of a close-miked violin, cello, or similar bowed instruments. It simply hurts my ears, and that is all the argument I need.

The same easy answer comes for me when listening to recorded flute or sax: I detest the sound of the valve action. It does not add anything to my listening pleasure.

Similarly, steel string guitar: the strident string screeches, when the player changes fingerings, especially over wound strings, is not nice to hear.

Finally, I judge any instrument as being recorded to closely when I can hear the player breathe.

Other than that, I truly think it's time to revisit the aesthetics of miking acoustic instruments in the absence of the traditional "hall experience" as a yardstick for what is "right".
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Klaus Heyne
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I would question the statement made in the original post "Most people seem to place their microphones close to the strings." How was this conclusion made?

I think it's very true that in rock, pianos (even overdubbed) are often recorded with close mics. In my opinion, there are two reasons other than the "brighter" tone: 1. within a rock or pop mix, it may be slightly to completely unnecessary to get a full tonal and dynamic range from the piano - neither the playing nor the mix (with drums, guitars, etc) require them. 2. The sound of a distant mic'd piano mixed with close mic'd drums, guitars and vocals may sound strange and out of place.

In jazz, the piano may be close mic'd if there are other instruments tracking at the same time, in the same room. To mic the piano from any distance, the mics would simply become ambient or "room" mics, and there would be no individual control over the piano level or tone in the mix.

However, in classical and solo piano recording, from what I have read and those who I have spoken with, mics "close to the strings" seems to be the exception rather than the rule.

Obviously, the instrument itself, the music, the room and the pianist all influence how the instrument should be mic'd. I would think that in recording a piano, as well as any other sound, an engineer should place the mics where they sound the best, rather than where they "should" be placed. I assume that in any of these "close mic'd" recordings, that the producer and/or artist at least approved of the sound, if they didn't specifically request the close mics as well.

I am not specifically a classical music engineer, nor do I subscribe to some of the classical purist concepts. I have generally looked at live performance and recordings as two separate experiences. I have worked with some classical and folk artists who love the intimacy and detail of close miking.
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natpub

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Re: Piano - challenging assumptions
« Reply #7 on: February 05, 2006, 09:13:27 pm »

Klaus Heyne wrote on Sun, 05 February 2006 15:48

This assumption is less and less valid, as fewer and fewer people venture out to listen to an orchestra, string quartet, classical guitar performance, and so on.


This thinking is less applicable to musics like Bluegrass, traditional Country, folk, Celtic, etc., that are characterized by smaller, closer audiences on a frequent basis in an intimate setting, hearing the instruments and players in all their corporeality.

Quote:

The same easy answer comes for me when listening to recorded flute or sax: I detest the sound of the valve action. It does not add anything to my listening pleasure.

Similarly, steel string guitar: the strident string screeches, when the player changes fingerings, especially over wound strings, is not nice to hear.

Finally, I judge any instrument as being recorded to closely when I can hear the player breathe.


I couldn't disagree more! The sweat, huffing and puffing, and fingers flying are all part of the organic intimacy and (to borrow a Klaus word)"sense"-uality of natural music.

However, for those who want neutered music, we certainly have samples and samplers that can nicely provide pure tones stripped of their human operators Smile

Then again, understanding, selecting, and applying the most graceful or desirable of those living human sounds is the challenge. Balancing and mixing them with the tones of the whole is the art.



.
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Kurt Thompson
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Klaus Heyne

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Re: Piano - challenging assumptions
« Reply #8 on: February 05, 2006, 09:32:50 pm »

natpub wrote on Sun, 05 February 2006 18:13


The sweat, huffing and puffing, and fingers flying are all part of the organic intimacy and (to borrow a Klaus word)"sense"-uality of natural music.

However, for those who want neutered music, we certainly have samples and samplers that can nicely provide pure tones stripped of their human operators Smile.



I think we can disagree about preferred methods of recording without disparaging those with differing opinions.

The clicking of flute valves- part of "organic intimacy"?
Why then not also appreciate the player chewing gum, burping or farting - or is that not part of huffing and puffing?
I am simply not getting 'added value' when these noises are included in the music.

Keith Jarret's or Ramsey Lewis's (in)famous vocalizing during their piano improvisations are about as much distraction from their music as I am willing to take.
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Klaus Heyne
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Re: Piano - challenging assumptions
« Reply #9 on: February 05, 2006, 11:54:10 pm »

[quote title=Klaus Heyne wrote on Sun, 05 February 2006 20:32]
natpub wrote on Sun, 05 February 2006 18:13


burping or farting

Keith Jarret's or Ramsey Lewis's (in)famous vocalizing during their piano improvisations are about as much distraction from their music as I am willing to take.


These types of noises (as opposed to breathing or string/valve noise) might be worse with distant miking than close, especially on a piano. Interesting as I had a Jarret-esque bata drummer today, whose mumbling/singing was documented in the recording. In this case, with the mics close to the drumheads, I think it would have been more noticeable with a distant stereo pair (which we started with and abandoned).
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DavidSpearritt

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Re: Is There A 'Correct' Approach To Recording Acoustic Instruments?
« Reply #10 on: February 06, 2006, 04:01:08 am »

When you close mike an acoustic instrument, you are recording some of its frequency magnitude response and some of its phase response, in other words you are getting a fraction of the acoustic information.

Now if this is what is desired so be it. But luthiers and piano makers all over the world and of all different cultural backgrounds must be pretty annnoyed that all the effort they go to in creating a fine radiating musical source, is only being partially captured, because of "tradition" or "that's what we did last time without listening" etc.

Yannick Willox

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Re: Is There A 'Correct' Approach To Recording Acoustic Instruments?
« Reply #11 on: February 06, 2006, 05:43:26 am »

Klaus,

"Finally, I judge any instrument as being recorded to closely when I can hear the player breathe."

Well, this would exclude some of the finest Belgian (soloist) classical string players from being recorded. Their nose or mouth breathing noises are sometimes louder than the instrument (especially when playing a very expressive pp part).

Furthermore, you are excluding contemporary classical music. What about prepared piano, or a flute solo piece, based on breathing sound, key noises etc. ?

They are disturbing noises for you, for me (and a lot of composers or musicians) they are an integral part of the music.

Of course, in a lot of music genres you strive to have less artefacts, but still, eg in a Bach cello suite, once in a while you leave a breathing sound or a finger being placed with a quite loud 'tok' to prepare the next note in the editing - because it is the best take AND because it sounds less natural without those sounds.

I'm sorry, but you are clearly missing a lot of great music, that has been recorded magnificently, based on your quote ?

PS. I once worked with a composer on the sound for a bassclarinet/piano piece. Each played only the 4 lowest notes of their instrument. The clarinet player was contact miced with a stethoscope (in his nec) to amplify his instrument though his body - also amplifying his lungs (his breathing was even written down). Great piece by the way, the clarinet player always was on the edge of hyperventilating ...
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Yannick Willox
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Klaus Heyne

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Re: Is There A 'Correct' Approach To Recording Acoustic Instruments?
« Reply #12 on: February 06, 2006, 01:51:06 pm »

Yannick Willox wrote on Mon, 06 February 2006 02:43

Klaus,
[recording breathing sounds of players] would exclude some of the finest Belgian (soloist) classical string players from being recorded. Their nose or mouth breathing noises are sometimes louder than the instrument (especially when playing a very expressive pp part).


You are saying "If your don't change your aesthetics, you will miss some great performances".
Fine. You can listen to Breathing CDs. I 'll pass. There are enough offerings of fine performances to go around to satisfy you and me both.


Quote:

Furthermore, you are excluding contemporary classical music. What about prepared piano, or a flute solo piece, based on breathing sound, key noises etc. ?

Bad example. If extraneous noises are an intentional part of a composition and performance, I'll listen and figure out whether I like it or not.


Quote:

They are disturbing noises for you; for me (and a lot of composers or musicians) they are an integral part of the music.

I'm sorry, but you are clearly missing a lot of great music, that has been recorded magnificently..

I assume you got from the opinion I expressed this much: I made up my own mind  about what I like and what I don't in recorded music.  What may be a great performance to your ears may be annoying to mine. So "missing out" is the wrong term here, and feels condescending.

Best regards,
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Klaus Heyne
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rodabod

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Re: Is There A 'Correct' Approach To Recording Acoustic Instruments?
« Reply #13 on: February 06, 2006, 02:22:34 pm »

In response to the thread title: No.

This is all a matter of taste.

Use more classical techniques if you want to maintain a more realistic reproduction.

I have mic'ed a grand piano using close mic techniques, but I balanced this direct sound with a stereo ambient setup to avoid this "head inside the instrument" sound. Careful attention needs to be paid to hammer noise and string balance, but this is easily achieved.

As for "breathing noises", again this is preference. I like string squeaks.... When they are suitable, or if it is part of the performance.

I just think the whole matter is very subjective. Some of my favourite recordings are un-natural sounding, and I almost appreciate this is some respects, whereas other material I can respect for its realism.

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Andres Gonzalez

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Re: Is There A 'Correct' Approach To Recording Acoustic Instruments?
« Reply #14 on: February 06, 2006, 11:17:11 pm »

I hope a comment on "vocal" breath noise is not out of place in this thread.

I recall reading (I think it was on one of these forms) some time ago about an engineer spending allot of time removing the vocal breath (inhaling) sounds from a Barbra Streisand session. When Barbra came in the next day and heard it, she said that she hated the sound without the breath noise and told him to put all of her breath noises back.

I must admit, that just this week I was listening to a Kelly Clarkson tune on the radio, and for the first time, really noticed her breath noises. In some way it kind of detracted for what I think is an otherwise tremendous performance.

-Andres
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