Songzap for Pianists Blog Series – Part I

Understanding and capturing the sound of the piano

> Microphone technique > Setup optimization > Acoustic properties > Registers

In this first part of the blog series on Songzap for Pianists, we’ll come to terms with the sound of the upright piano and the techniques that will help us capture its glorious sonic footprint. Why the upright piano? It sounds great, it’s cheaper (than a grand), many more pianists have one in their home, and … if you can do it on the upright, you can also extend your knowledge to capturing a baby grand, or grand piano.

Microphone technique and placement (plus, gadgets that help and stylistic considerations)

There are many different ways to capture an upright piano, and a lot of it depends on personal preference and the style of music being performed. Think about famous piano recordings that you like or resonate with… Beatles anyone, blues recordings, honky-tonk tunes, ragtime, reggae, avant-garde or prepared piano? Close your eyes and listen… Does the sound of the piano in your favourite recordings feel really close to you, or is it mellow and far away?

Now listen to the sound of your piano in the room where it’s placed. As a player, it is likely that you’re accustomed to the sound of your piano in the position of the player (you!) That is a valuable (sonic) perspective and one that you may be intrigued to capture (especially for analysis purposes, as it’s the closest perspective to how you normally hear your performances acoustically). So, think of your ears as microphones, something we can replicate with recording techniques. How does it sound when you come really close to the piano, or bring your head right over the actual keys (like a sonic microscope, er, microphone)?

Now think of how a relative or friend of yours hears your piano performance (or practice) sitting on a nearby sofa or chair. The sound of the piano reaching their ears will sound softer, quieter and more blended with the reflections of the piano bouncing off the walls and nearby surfaces. That is also a useful sonic perspective, which we could replicate with our recording choices, and one that might be worth capturing (for experimental, stylistic or narrative purposes – this is something we call “staging” in production parlance, borrowing from theatre terminology). Of course, it is possible to place our imaginary ears (the microphone) anywhere on the spectrum of possibilities (room positions), and even blend multiple perspectives, as we do when we track with multiple mics in higher-end studio scenarios.

Optimising your piano setup for recording on a phone (uncovering the piano)

Ok, now let’s look at the piano instrument/construction itself. With most upright pianos, you can open up their enclosure, to let more sound escape. This makes the sound louder, brighter and more direct. It can also inspire ideas about where to place microphones. Recording with Songzap, we want to keep things simple and easy, so we’ll be using the mobile phone’s microphone to capture the sound of the piano. Let’s try three different approaches:

  • record with the piano completely closed;
  • record with the piano slightly open at the top;
  • and get the piano completely exposed, so we can look at its sounding mechanism and open up (pun intended!) a world of sonic possibilities by placing the phone/mic over the area where the piano hammers hit the strings; or where the bass and treble strings come together at the bottom.

Musical style and genre can be great guides in our decision-making; welcome to the world of recording craft (a bit like a camera deployed in a documentary, pointing at the piece of sonic reality we want to expose ourselves or the listener to with what will be recorded)!

Now you could just position your phone on top of the piano, on a nearby stool, chair or sofa, your thigh, even the floor. But I know many of you have all sorts of gadgets that can hold your phone (helping you make those TikTok videos). I’ll be using a gooseneck phone holder that only costs about $15, which brings the added benefit of being able to angle your phone’s mic to an optimum distance and position. Your iPhone’s microphone is positioned at the bottom of the device as you hold it vertically, so when you’re ready to record with Songzap, this is the part of the phone you will want to point towards the chosen area of the piano. Check out the video below for a detailed walk through all these recording scenarios.

Recording the Upright Piano

Considering the acoustic properties of the piano (hammers, strings, listening, positioning)

The piano is considered by many the boss of all instruments (yes!), due to its huge sonic range, enabling us to think of musical arrangement and composition in a very holistic way. Its bottom keys go lower in frequency than a typical bass guitar, and its top strings can sound like supersonic plucks, belonging to a dreamscape (or horror film). For a solo piece, you may want to sweep your fingers across its entire range, dramatically exploring the extremes of its spectrum and everything in between. But for ensemble purposes, and specific stylistic (particularly contemporary) applications, you may want to think about staying out of the way of other instruments. There are many considerations affecting these decisions, but (as this is not a course on piano arrangement and composition) for the purposes of our performance-recording experiments, let’s split up the piano range in three basic registers: bass, rhythm and solo (this is not gospel).

Left and right hand parts, and useful registers in piano arrangement and performance (bass, rhythm and solo)

I’ll play a basic blues-jazz idea to demonstrate how a little knowledge about deploying the correct registers in your piano playing can really help your song-craft and performance; but also how this can affect our recording choices. Let’s consider this little vamp going around a I-ii-vi-V chord progression. The range between F3 and E4 is a great area to play your chords, because the sound (frequencies) you will be producing, tend to compliment rhythm parts, staying away from the range of bass instruments (or where your left hand can play basslines – below F3), and soloing instruments (above E4 – or where your right hand can wow audiences with your wild solo improvisations). Pianists tend to practise every imaginable chord inversion with their left and their right hands, both for economy of movement and as a way to stay within this ‘safe’ range with rhythm parts.

Now, we could add a bassline to this with the left hand and start “comping” with the right, or comp with the left freeing up the right hand for soloing. You guessed it! These decisions will be shaped by context and who else might be in the band. Watch the video below for a ‘hands-on’ demonstration of these concepts.

Piano Registers

If there’s a bass player kicking about, let them play the bass part, and just comp away and solo with your two hands. If there’s a soloist around (sax, trumpet or synth player) switch back to bass with your left hand and comp with your right. Of course all this ain’t gospel, and rules are meant to be broken (often for stylistic reasons, too), but it’s a good rule of thumb (ooh, another pun) to keep you playing (and switching) in all the right places. It’s often the case that you may switch positions during the same piece, depending on what other players are doing (a bass player soloing? – crazy!) and the dynamic evolution (developing instrumentation and arrangement) of the piece of music being performed. In the next video, watch me layer some synth and electric bass to these piano ideas, demonstrating how it all comes together.

Piano Registers and Other Instruments

What about playing all three registers at the same time? Well, you’d need three hands… Or wait a minute, could you layer multiple recordings? Now that’s an idea. The craft of record production has allowed us to create hyper-real performances that could not possibly have been played by one person in real time. Have a listen to “Conversations With Myself” by Bill Evans for a prime example of this (purists hated it at first, now it’s considered a Jazz classic). But let’s expand more on layering in the forthcoming Part II of the blog series..

Alright, so how does all this affect our recording experiments? Well, it’s simple… We may want to think of our mic-positioning in relation to register. Place the mic in the middle of the bass and rhythm registers, if that’s where all the action is. Place it between the rhythm and solo registers, if that’s where all the action is. Play back the recordings and reflect on the sound: do certain notes or chords stand out, or is there an even blend? Go back and play any notes or chords that stand out (or get lost) in the recording, and look at the piano hammers hitting the strings. Where are they hitting with regard to the phone/mic position? Move the phone around (left/right, closer/farther) for a better result. Record again. Analyse.

Well done! You have entered the world of performance for recording.

Of course, when it comes to layering, we may want to consider experimenting even further with distance (a ‘conversation’ between different piano parts, some of which are close to us and some of which are farther away); and there are post-production techniques (mixing) that allow us to play with depth and image perspectives after we have committed our performances to recording as well. For a quick demonstration and rough mix of the three-hand piano layer, watch the video below. But these concepts will be analysed in more detail in the next few parts of the Songzap for Pianists blog series.

Layered Performances and Post Production

In the meantime, have fun recording and experimenting. Make sure you listen back to the sound and the notes of what you’ve captured. You’re on your way to becoming a better recording artist!

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