The acoustic piano is one of the most popular instruments found in homes and recording studios. It is not only a beautiful piece of furniture, but also an incredibly expressive instrument with a rich history.
As its Italian name “Pianoforte” suggests, the instrument can go from very soft to thunderingly loud in no time.
However, this can also be a downside. The perceived sound of the piano can vary greatly depending on its placement in a room, whether for recording or playing at home.
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Different Types of Pianos
Pianos are available in various types and brands, each with unique characteristics that set them apart from others. The most commonly known types are upright and grand pianos.
Upright pianos, also known as vertical pianos, are more compact and designed to fit snugly against a wall or in a corner, making them a great choice for smaller spaces.
On the other hand, grand pianos are larger and more majestic in appearance, with curved bodies and long strings that produce a rich and full sound.
Upright Pianos at Home
An upright piano, such as the Yamaha P22, is considered a mid-sized acoustic piano. It is perfect for home use because it delivers nearly the same sound as a grand piano in a smaller space.
For both recording and home use, Yamaha is the generally accepted leading brand on the market.
For a small to regular-sized living room, the ideal location for an upright piano is against an interior wall. This not only contains the sound and prevents it from disturbing neighbors, but also projects the sound better for guests.
Avoid placing the piano near fireplaces, windows, or direct sunlight. Vibrations from playing the piano near these locations can be very annoying and distracting. Direct sunlight can also bleach the wood over time and overheat the instrument, causing it to go out of tune.
Recording Upright Pianos
Whether you are recording in a professional studio or at home, the placement of the microphones for an upright piano depends on the type of sound you want to achieve.
The main difference between an upright and a grand piano is that the soundboard is vertical instead of horizontal. Therefore, to capture a full signal, it’s best to use at least two microphones: one near the player facing the hammers and one behind the piano capturing the soundboard.
The piano should be placed either in the middle of the room to avoid wall reflections or about two feet from a wall to allow plenty of space for the microphone.
An X/Y-style condenser microphone, such as the Rode NT4, could be an ideal choice for capturing an upright piano in a small room.
Another great option is to use a ribbon microphone, such as the Royer R-121, to capture the front of the piano in gorgeous detail. The placement of the piano from the player’s perspective will depend on whether you’re opening the top lid or keeping it closed.
If you want a brighter, louder sound and have the lid open, avoid walls or shelving areas that could bounce the sound back too quickly.
Grand Pianos at Home
When it comes to grand pianos, it’s hard to beat the Yamaha GB1K. It is the most affordable piano in the Yamaha lineup, but it doesn’t sacrifice any of the quality build or sound.
Grand pianos are easier to place in most homes because their soundboard is horizontal, which means it doesn’t reflect off walls or windows as easily as an upright one.
However, the lid on a grand is much bigger and opens taller, so it could be hazardous to have it near any kind of shelving unit.
The best placement for a grand piano at home is for the straight edge to be along an inner wall, away from windows and direct sunlight. If you have hardwood floors, it’s a good idea to add an area rug under the piano to help dampen the sound a bit.
Recording Grand Pianos
Grand pianos are more versatile than uprights when it comes to microphone placement. Additionally, since their soundboard points towards the ceiling, the sound is distributed much more evenly throughout a room.
Your choice of room is a crucial factor in your sound. If you have a large room with more reverb, you may want to place vintage-style condenser microphones like the Warm Audio WA-47 as far away from the piano as possible to capture the ambiance.
If you have a smaller, tighter room and desire a more intimate, dry sound, you could try a small condenser mic like the Shure KSM141 inside the lid, about 8 inches from the strings.
Alternatives: Digital Pianos
The complexity of acoustic issues, combined with the need for microphones to properly capture sound, has led to the popularity of digital pianos.
For example, the Yamaha Clavinova blends the best of both worlds and includes features such as headphone output, USB, effects, and even audio recording on the piano itself. It also includes professional-quality outputs to connect to an amplifier for live performances.
As it looks and feels like a real piano, this is a great alternative, especially for those living in smaller dwellings.
As someone who has played the piano for over 20 years, I recommend centering the piano in the room where it will be featured. If it’s an upright piano, place it against an inner wall. If it’s a grand piano, position it so that the player’s point of view faces the entrance of the room.
I believe this arrangement creates the ideal sweet spot by distributing the sound and enhancing the listener’s experience. Remember, the player always hears a close sound; it’s the audience and listener we need to keep in mind.