There are plenty of unique and realistic sample libraries available from Spitfire, EastWest, Synthogy, and others that aim to create piano sounds that are incredibly lifelike.
However, there's something special about capturing the sound of a real piano, especially if it's your own. When you hear it up close through microphones, it can even improve your playing.
Choosing the right microphones to capture the best possible piano sound is crucial. Just like there are many different sounding piano brands out there, there's also a vast array of fantastic microphones to choose from.
As a pianist, I've spent a lot of time trying out different microphones to achieve that elusive sound that's always been in my head. No matter how many times I've attempted to declare that one mic is superior to all others, I keep discovering the magic in different types of microphones.
Fortunately, I've narrowed it down over the years. Here are some of the best piano microphones available today that you can get your hands on.
The Best Microphones for Recording Piano
Table of Contents
- The Best Microphones for Recording Piano
- Choosing the Best Mics to Record Piano
- Final Thoughts
1. Rode M5
Rode has been making quality microphones for decades. Their NT2-A microphone even won the prestigious world's best studio microphone award from Musikmesse in Frankfurt, Germany. It used to be like the European version of the American AES show, so it's pretty well-respected.
Personally, I have three pairs of Rode mics and use them all the time.
What I love most about the M5 is that it comes as a matched pair. If you're recording a piano, you need to do it in stereo and I'm super picky about using consecutive matched serial number microphones when I mic anything in stereo.
I especially love its size because it's easy to place it under the lid of either upright or grand pianos without worrying about its weight shifting the mic stand. I use these a lot for close-miking the hammer and felt part of pianos.
They give you that intimate modern sound that you hear a lot from neo-classical composers like Max Richter and Olafur Arnalds.
The M5 also has a fantastic frequency range from 20 Hz to 20 kHz, making it a super versatile microphone. In fact, whenever I've used it to record choirs in churches, it's one of my absolute favorites for capturing the full sound of a choir.
For that reason, I would say it's probably the best microphone for capturing church piano too. And because of its lightweight design and really high signal-to-noise ratio, having a few of these matched pairs at a church is really all you need.
2. Audix SCX25A-PS
Wow, Audix really knocked it out of the park with their SCX25A-PS piano mic kit. These are what they call lollipop mics that are specifically useful for grand pianos. But don't let that fool you; they're versatile enough to use for many other instruments too, like guitars, orchestras, and drum overheads.
What makes these mics especially great for pianos is that the kit includes clips that attach directly to the piano soundboard rails. So you can easily place them in sweet spots that capture a wide range of the piano body, giving you a full and beautiful piano sound.
The kit also includes 20-foot XLR cables, which come in handy if you need to run longer cables because the piano is in the middle of the room. I've used these before on our studio's Steinway B grand piano, and they really live up to the hype.
At first, I was a little worried about the price tag, but these mics are worth every penny. They have a neutral sound that's very detailed, almost like a ribbon mic.
The only downside to these lollipop-style mics is that they work best for grand pianos where it's easy to attach the mic to the rails. They're not quite as appealing for that cinematic close-mic sound for upright pianos.
Artists like Ludovico Einaudi and Dustin O'Halloran get amazing tones by capturing the felt piano sound of an upright. I feel like these mics are a little limited in their overall use because of their lollipop wide-capsule shape.
3. Behringer C-2
Lately, I have been doing a lot of testing for roundups, and Behringer is consistently shining as a brand that produces amazing professional gear. The C-2 is a studio staple when it comes to miking acoustic instruments like nylon guitar and percussion.
Recently, I have been using these budget microphones on an upright piano, and they have quickly become one of my favorites.
When miking an upright piano, you want to capture the cool hammer motion when you take off the lid and put the mics very close to the hammers and strings.
But you have to be careful about the microphone's self-noise floor. You also need microphones that have a good SPL response.
These mics have both in spades. Because they have a transformerless FET ultra-low noise design, they output an extremely clean and precise sound with very little distortion in the low frequency.
That's important when miking both upright and grand pianos because you want to capture the full range of dynamics when you're getting a nice intimate sound. Low-frequency distortion is a problem of many piano microphones. So, using this type of design was a good call.
The only thing I didn't like about these was that the overall pickup pattern seemed narrow to me. It works great on acoustic guitar, but at times it can be a little too narrow for pianos.
Also, even though these come with a high-pass filter option to reduce rumble, I feel like the cut is a bit too steep, which can lead to thinning out some of the low end on grand pianos.
4. SE Electronics SE7
So, the SE Electronics SE7 is undoubtedly the cleanest and most natural-sounding pair of the bunch. These small diaphragm condenser mics have high-quality circuitry that significantly reduces any static or interference that might otherwise ruin a great piano signal path.
Also, they use transformers in the path, which helps these mics capture a super clean and full low end. And the fact that they are sold as a matching pair is exactly what you want.
I have used these mics on acoustic guitar countless times and recently started using them to capture a middle or mid-sound on my grand piano. “Mid” sound is a technique where you keep the lid open and capture a more distant image of the main middle of a piano. You could also achieve this by having the mic further away, but not too far from the soundboard.
Thanks to their high SPL specs, they are perfect for up-tempo and very percussive piano sounds. They also perform exceptionally well when I use them on the hammers of the piano without a lid.
I love using these to capture transient-heavy piano takes. And one more thing, the polar pattern is excellent!
The only thing that had me scratching my head is why a mic that has such a great clean low end has a high-pass filter option that cuts all the way up to 80 Hz. When I tried to eliminate some rumble, it instantly thinned out the sound. That's a bummer because I really dig these for their low end.
5. DPA Core 4099P
The DPA Core 4099P is a killer set of stereo mics designed specifically for grand pianos. These gooseneck-style mics can be clipped to any rail in the body of your piano, making it a big deal, especially for grand pianos.
I purchased these mics because they allowed me to record the inside of my piano with the lid closed, giving me a whole new dimension of sound, like sticking a mic inside an acoustic guitar, perfect for recording those resonant pianos you hear in movie soundtracks.
These mics are gooseneck-style, so you can place them super close to the strings to create some awesome ambient sounds. I've made some really cool loops playing around with this technique, especially for electronic music.
However, if you're planning to place the mics close to the soundboard, you need a mic that can handle some serious pressure. Luckily, these mics can handle SPLs up to 142db, with incredibly low THD (Total Harmonic Distortion).
That means they won't get all fuzzy and distorted when you're recording those extreme resonances.
One downside is that the XLR cables included in this mic package are kind of short, just shy of 6 feet. This can make it tough to place the mics inside a grand piano housed in a large live room.
Another issue is that if you want to get different mic perspectives, you have to buy optional mounts, which should be included at this price point.
All things considered though, these mics are a total game-changer for recording grand pianos. They provide an amazing stereo image and work together exceptionally well.
6. Lewitt LCT 040
These small pencil-style microphones are direct competitors of the Behringer C-2. The LCT040 has been perfectly matched as a stereo pair, which is great when recording a piano’s full sonic range.
Just like the Behringer, they're super light and easy to place in funky corners of the piano for cool sounds. When I use pencil mics on my piano, I like to have them a bit off-axis with the lid slightly closed. That way, I can capture some of the naturally occurring reverb within a piano soundboard.
You can get some really cool pad-type sounds when you start thinking outside the box with mics like these.
Also, since they're so tiny and super lightweight, more so than any of the others in this roundup, they're the perfect mics for live performances and touring. They're made in Austria, so their build quality is extremely rugged and can withstand the bumps and bruises of going on tour.
I also find that German and Austrian mics have a beautiful high-end sizzle. These actually remind me a bit of AKG mics, which I love when I'm going for a pop piano sound.
The transient response of brighter mics like these is more natural. These aren't as bright as AKG mics, but they do sound more modern.
That being said, I still wish they had included a high-pass filter option to reduce rumble. When you have small mics capturing a lot of the resonance of a grand piano under the lid, it's always a good idea to have that option.
7. Earthworks PM40
Earthworks was one of the first companies to develop a gooseneck piano microphone system, which makes it easier to record a piano in phase-free stereo, a tricky task. The PM40 system uses a rod that stretches perfectly across the width of the grand piano, to which two omnidirectional condenser microphones are attached beforehand.
You might be wondering whether those omnidirectional microphones will pick up a lot of reverb and unwanted resonance from the piano soundboard.
Earthworks incorporates a unique design called high-definition random incidence microphone pickups. These are used to filter out all the random chaos that naturally happens inside the piano, so that only the most important sounds, such as hammers, strings, and sympathetic resonances, are captured.
I tested this system on a Steinway B, placing the microphones about 2 inches from the strings at nearly opposite ends. The stereo image was beautiful, with clear lows and natural, warm highs without any harsh harmonics. The response design really does work.
Another feature I appreciated was the extended highs, which go up to 40kHz. This enables you to hear all the extra harmonic overtones that really make the piano sound richer. I played "Spain" by Chick Corea through these microphones, and they picked up the high octaves beautifully.
The transients were amazing, especially when playing such a loud and challenging piano piece.
However, it should be noted that these microphones only work for recording pianos. For something more versatile, consider Audix. But if you want Hi-Fi sound for your piano, Earthworks is the way to go!
8. Warm Audio WA-84
If you're looking for the classic Neumann KM84 sound but can't afford it or are having trouble finding a decent used one, check out Warm Audio's WA-84. They're probably even closer to the original Neumanns than Neumann's own remake, the KM184.
I think Warm Audio has been doing a great job with their reproductions lately, especially since they're making their own capsules to be as close as possible to the vintage tributes they're going for. The capsule on the WA-84 is legitimate, and they've paired it with Cinemag transformers to give it that vintage vibe.
I use these microphones as room mics for my piano all the time. I'm a fan of vintage mics in small rooms. Since small rooms can have some pretty fast reflections, warmer and darker vintage-style mics can help dampen that nasal quality that can come from early reflections.
But, believe it or not, they're pretty versatile too, and I love them on upright pianos because the transformer adds a bit more weight in the lows. Sometimes I place them in an X/Y configuration on the front of the upright with the lid off and capture some of that cool Beatles-like vintage upright sound.
I have to say, I think transformers are great for that vintage quality, but I've noticed that the quality of Cinemag isn't all that. I know Warm Audio loves using them, but I'm not convinced they're that great.
They also add a bit of self-noise, which I've also noticed on other Cinemag-enhanced products.
9. Samson C02
The Samson C02 is an excellent microphone for recording pianos, similar to the Behringer C-2 and Rode M5. These mics come matched in pairs. However, what sets them apart is their sturdy build and slightly taller body.
Typically, I prefer not to use long pencil mics for studio recordings, but for live show recordings, they are ideal due to their weight distribution and extended polar pattern. Additionally, they have Gold XLR connectors and virtually no self-noise.
When setting up on stage, you do not want to worry about these mics adding hiss to an already noisy environment. That is why I appreciate that they naturally cut off at 50 Hz.
It may limit them in the studio, but for live shows, it is a fantastic cutoff frequency. Trust me, piano mics can get muddy with bleed from kick drums and bass.
Another great application for these mics is for recording electric pianos, such as a Fender Rhodes speaker piano. I love miking the suitcase speaker!
They hit the sweet spot where they are clean but not too bright. They do not have that vintage sound like the Warm Audio mics, but they are more like the newer Neumann KM184 mics.
The only area where I wish these mics were a little better is their SPL handling. It maxes out at 134 dB, which is not as high as some other mics. However, since I mostly use them for live shows, it is not a big deal.
Choosing the Best Mics to Record Piano
So, when it comes to capturing a great piano recording, there are three main things to keep in mind: the piano itself, the room where you record, and the microphone you use.
And honestly, the microphone is the most important part of the equation. That's because newer mics are designed to pick up all the little details of the piano, even when it's close up.
This is a big improvement from the old days when people thought they needed huge fancy studios to make good recordings. Now, it's all about choosing the right piano microphone for your situation.
Want some tips on what separates the good from the great? I've got you covered!
Grand vs. Upright
If you're trying to figure out which microphones to use for your recordings, the main thing to consider is whether you'll be recording an upright or a grand piano. For grand pianos with the soundboard out in the open, go for microphone systems like Audix, DPA, or Earthworks.
As for uprights, pencil-style microphones like Warm Audio or sE Electronics should do the trick. Personally, I think vintage-style mics are perfect for capturing the percussive and tight sound of uprights. The Warm Audio mic has worked wonders for me in this regard.
Microphone System vs. Matched Pairs
So, there's no doubt that rail-based microphone systems, like the ones from Earthworks and DPA, can give you a gorgeous piano sound. But the real question is: how flexible and versatile do you need your microphones to be?
Are you going to leave them inside the piano permanently and stick with one basic sound? If so, then they're perfect for your needs.
But if you're looking to experiment with the sound of your piano and try out different room perspectives, then you're better off with matched pencil-style microphones like the Rode M5 and Behringer C-2. They'll give you more options to play with and help you achieve the sound you're looking for.
Vintage vs. Modern Sound
The color range of these microphones varies greatly. Some have a warmer, vintage tone, while others are super crisp and bright. It all depends on the type and brand of piano you own.
If you have an older, European piano with a darker, more subdued tone, then you might want to go for a brighter mic like the Audix or Lewitt.
On the other hand, if you have a brighter, more modern Japanese piano like a Yamaha or Kawai, then go for a vintage-sounding mic like the Warm Audio or sE Electronics.
It's interesting to think about the contrast between the mic and piano brands, and I've experimented a lot with different combinations in the past. The general rule of thumb is to contrast your existing sound with its opposite.
The piano is a challenging instrument to record correctly because the way you mic it depends a lot on the style of music you're aiming for. The other day, while listening to the great neo-classical pianist Max Richter, I thought, "Hey, I want to record my piano like that!"
To get started, I used a technique that my old Berklee engineering mentor, Rob Jaczko, taught me: Capture three perspectives of the piano every time: "Close," "Mid," and "Far."
The "Close" perspective will be inches from the hammers themselves and parallel to each other. The "Mid" perspective will be an X/Y configuration near the center of the soundboard, and the "Far" perspective is about 3-4 feet from the soundboard, slightly outside of the lid, and facing in and down at a 45-degree angle.
If you have all these options, you'll have the flexibility to get any sound you want. Whether you use the same brand of mic or mix and match, it's up to you. But to this day, I live by this technique.
Try it out for yourself!