Whether you are a performer or a composer, there comes a time in most pianists’ lives when they need to record themselves playing. Maybe for an exam, or for an audition, or maybe you just want to hear what your playing sounds like.
There are a number of ways you can record your piano, and not all of them will give you a particularly good result. In this article we’re going to go through the best ways to record your playing, the equipment you’ll need and how to set it up.
Acoustic vs Digital
Firstly, before you do anything, your recording method will depend heavily on the type of piano you want to record. If it’s a digital, it’s actually considerably easier to make a recording than with an acoustic, although if you record an acoustic piano properly, you’ll likely get a better result.
Digital pianos by their very nature are pretty easy to take recordings from. In terms of equipment, you probably have everything you need (within reason) in your home at the moment. You aren’t going to have to worry about going out and buying microphones or sound dampening equipment like you will with an acoustic piano. However, it’s worth saying that where you save money on the equipment, you’ll likely spend it on the software required to either capture a recording or edit the recording in post production.
The same can’t be said for an acoustic piano, but in theory you don’t need a whole lot of software to make an acoustic piano recording; you’ll only need it if you want to make edits to the recording afterwards (which, I might add, is probably not going to be allowed if you want to submit your recording for an exam or audition.)
It goes without saying that different recording methods are going to yield different results. Of course, it’s unlikely that in most situations you’re going to need professional studio-quality recordings. It might even transpire that using your phone, if you have a modern smartphone, is enough. For example, look at the kind of quality you can get with an iPhone 11:
However, in some cases this isn’t going to be enough, especially if you want to record a digital piano. As a result, I’m going to cover numerous different types of recording equipment and situations, to ensure that whatever you need to record, this article will be helpful to you.
Let’s go through the recording requirements for each type of instrument to see what you’ll need to buy and what you can make do with at home.
Note: I’m focussing on audio recording in this article. Video recording is a whole different kettle of fish and while some of the concepts are transferable, there are a different set of requirements.
By far the easiest way to record a digital piano is directly to your computer. In my opinion it’s pointless worrying about microphones when it comes to a digital piano; unless there’s no conceivable way to connect your digital piano to your computer (and for pretty much every digital piano made within the last 30 years, there will be) recording directly to your computer is by far the better option.
There are a number of reasons for this:
- No loss of sound quality compared to using a microphone.
- You can record directly into whichever software you require, making it easier to layer sounds and apply other post-production effects
- Very easy to change the voice of your piano, especially if you’re using something like a VST
That being said, is it as simple as plugging in one end of a cable into your piano and the other into your computer? In short, it can be, but not always. Let’s go through a few of the different methods by which you can record your digital piano to your computer.
Recording through MIDI
MIDI is one of the most important tools for music and musicians. Essentially MIDI is a language; a communications standard that allows your all digital music equipment to speak with other pieces of equipment.
MIDI doesn’t actually send any audio signals. It sends information, which can then be read by a programme, so the programme knows how the music should sound. Think of MIDI like digital sheet music; in the same way that a piece of sheet music conveys musical information without any audio; it’s up to you to interpret the sheet music and make sound.
Common MIDI setups include a MIDI controller and a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW.) Your MIDI controller in this case would be your digital piano, and your DAW would be your computer. However, if you want to get more complex, you can include a MIDI interface, a computer with a dedicated sound card, a MIDI sequencer; the possibilities are endless depending on the scope of your project and the budget you have.
In this article I’m focussing on home recording, so we’ll stick to the basic setup; a DAW and a digital piano. It’s perfectly possible to get great recording quality with this setup.
Finding suitable software
You’ll need to invest in some software in order to make a MIDI recording to your computer, as it’s unlikely to have the necessary software to handle MIDI built-in (unless you’ve got a Mac, in which case you can use Garageband without having to invest in anything else.)
Some of this software is good, and some of it is not so good. There’s also a mixture of free and paid software out there, and as expected the free options have their limitations. Some of the paid options get very expensive, but in my opinion if you’re in any way serious about making a recording, you should look into investing in some of this software.
I have listed some of the most popular software below, the price you might expect to pay and my rating after testing it. (I am in the process of reviewing some of these products, so you may want to check back here soon in order to look at a more detailed individual reviews.)
However, buy what you need; there’s no real need for you to buy a $600 industry standard piece of software if it’s way overkill for your needs.
PreSonus Studio One 4 Artist
Again, these ratings are completely subjective based on my experience with some of this software. You’ll need to try software out, read reviews and do your due diligence before you make a decision as to which one is best for you. I’d usually recommend trying with the free options first, but unfortunately you might find the free options pretty limiting in this case.
Now that you’ve got your software installed, let’s look at hooking up your digital piano to your computer.
Connecting your piano to your computer
This is generally pretty easy if you’re recording your piano at home. Depending on the type of piano have, you essentially have three options:
- Connecting via MIDI to USB
- Connecting via USB-to-Host to USB
- Connecting via Bluetooth
MIDI to USB
If your piano has traditional MIDI ports, you will need to buy a special MIDI to USB adapter. This is as simple as it sounds; one end contains two MIDI jacks and the other end contains a USB plug. The MIDI jacks are plugged into your piano, and the USB plug goes into your computer.
You may need to install drivers for this; that will depend on the model of piano that you have. Usually you’ll be able to find what you need from the manufacturer’s website.
USB-to-Host to USB
This works in exactly the same way as MIDI to USB, except instead of MIDI you have a USB Type B adapter in your piano. This looks like a little square with the top corners rounded off (it’s the same jack that you might find on a printer or a scanner.) Again, all you’ll need is the right adapter; one end goes in the piano and the other end goes in your PC.
The point about drivers still stands; you may need to peruse the manufacturer’s site in order to get your piano working properly.
This is a real lifesaver, and it’s a feature I’m seeing more and more on digital pianos these days although it is still pretty rare. Some pianos give you the option to send MIDI over bluetooth. This is especially useful if you plan to connect to an iPad or other portable device instead of a computer.
However, if your computer has bluetooth, or you have a bluetooth adapter, you can very easily pair your piano via bluetooth and start recording music this way.
Using a VST
Now, if you’re a little confused by all the software I’ve mentioned above, there is a simpler solution. You can use a VST.
VST stands for Virtual Studio Technology, and it essentially processes the MIDI signal received from your piano and converts it into audio on the fly. You can also choose to record this audio, meaning you won’t have to worry about learning complex software and audio production techniques; you essentially have a piece of software that will change the sound of your piano, and will also allow you to make a recording to your computer.
This is generally the easiest way to record your digital piano, it’s basically plug and play. There are a wide range of VSTs out there, some good and some not so good. Most of the good ones will contain actual samples from real, high end concert grand pianos and other instruments. Others don’t include any samples at all, and contain sophisticated sound modelling technology that literally generates the sound as you’re playing it.
Keep an eye out for the ultimate guide to VSTs, coming soon.
Making your first recording
And yes, it really is that simple; you have your piano hooked up to your PC, and as long as you’ve chosen and learned how to use a piece of software, you can record to your heart’s content.
But what if you want to record an acoustic piano? Well, that’s a whole different kettle of fish, and one we’ll get into now.
Now, let’s talk about recording an acoustic. This requires a little more of the traditional recording technique, but in my opinion the quality of the recording you get (if you need a piano sound) is far, far greater and more organic than anything a VST or DAW can give you.
Let’s dive in to what’s needed to record your acoustic piano like a pro.
Upright vs Grand; Room Placement
Firstly, your recording technique will change depending on the type of piano you have, although the principles are generally the same. An upright piano is by its very nature harder to record than a grand piano. The reason for this is that generally upright pianos are kept against a wall; the idea being that the sound bounces off the wall and reflects back at the player.
However, if you want to get a decent recording of an upright piano, you might consider moving the piano away from a wall and putting microphones behind it, near the soundboard. The downside to this is that the piano will likely sound very different in this position than it will against the wall, and it will almost certainly sound very different in your recording than it will to you as you’re playing, due to the fact that you and the microphone are in different places.
You’ll need to experiment with placement of your microphones and your piano in order to get the best results. Ultimately if you’re doing this in a studio, the sound engineer will have done a lot of this prep work for you and will already know where to place the microphones to get the best sound, but if you’re doing it at home, you will need to do a little trial and error.
The same can be said for a grand piano, but really a grand piano is much easier; all you really need to do is open the lid fully and place up to three microphones over the soundboard. One will generally be enough for a home recording, but if you’re interested in a studio-quality recording without the studio, you may wish to experiment with more than one.
You can try moving your grand piano around, but ultimately it probably won’t make much difference to the overall sound, seeing as a grand projects its sound into the room, while an upright projects it away from the room. Be aware that the type of piano that you have will determine how you’ll need to set your workspace up.
Types of Microphone
We won’t get into the numerous different categories and sub-categories of microphone you can buy in this article; it’s a little beyond the scope. However, what’s worth noting is that there are two main types of microphone on the market today that you can buy. They are:
- Dynamic microphones
- Condenser microphones
Condenser microphones are preferred for recording the piano. The reason for this is because they work better on instruments producing higher frequencies. The piano can produce lower frequencies as well, but a dynamic microphone just won’t capture the middle and treble ranges of your piano as well as a condenser will.
What separates these two microphones can become very complex, but it’s generally down to a few things; condenser mics use a smaller and lighter diaphragm to capture sound. High frequencies don’t contain as much energy as lower frequencies, so it takes less energy for a higher frequency to move the diaphragm of a microphone as it does a lower frequency. As a result, because dynamic mics have a heavier diaphragm, they are less responsive to higher frequencies because higher frequencies aren’t able to move the diaphragm very much.
Because dynamic mics are heavier, they also tend to be more durable. This goes for the diaphragm as well as general durability; you’re likely to be able to beat up a dynamic microphone and have it survive without issue. A condenser mic is much more fragile; drop it on the floor, and it will probably shatter into a million pieces.
Good quality condenser microphones tend to be VERY expensive. Often above $5k. This isn’t really feasible for a home recording studio, so if you’re on a budget, you will probably need to look at a USB microphone.
You’ll never find a USB microphone in a professional studio. However, if you buy the right one, you can get a great quality recording at home for minimal outlay. It won’t be professional quality, but if you get the right one, it won’t be far off.
What’s more, you won’t require any additional amplification or interface; a USB microphone will plug right into your laptop or computer.
Here’s my top picks for microphones available for recording an acoustic piano. I’ve included a mix of all three types here; condenser, dynamic and USB, for all price ranges.
AKG Pro Audio C214 Condenser Mic
Blue Yeti Crimson Red USB Mic
USB Microphone Kit 192KHZ/24 BIT MAONO AU-PM420
Sennheiser e935 Cardioid Dynamic Mic
Audio Technica ATR2100x Cardioid Dynamic Mic
It’s worth testing these out and seeing which one works best for you. However, I’d only really recommend this if you need a very high quality recording but don’t want to pay for the studio time. For many applications, your iPhone or Android phone will be enough to get half-decent quality.
You may have already tried this and want the next step up; getting a dedicated mic and hooking it up to your PC is the next step up.
Let’s talk about where to put your microphones. This is not a difficult subject, but you could spend hours trying different placements and testing a slightly different sound. My advice would be to stick to these main principles that I’m about to show you, and tweak depending on your circumstances and preferences.
Upright Piano Mic Placement
First of all (and we’ll get onto this in more detail a bit later) the type of room you're recording in will really affect an upright piano recording in particular. Try not to record your piano in a tiny little room where the sound has no space to resonate. Your recording will sound exceptionally dry and flat.
However, if you’re at home, you may not have a choice. For a slightly improved sound even if you are in a tiny room, pull the piano away from the wall to allow for at least six feet of space. This allows good microphone placement, and allows the sound to resonate.
You’ll also want to remove any panels or woodwork that you can. Most modern pianos allow you to at least take the front panel and the fallboard off, and this can provide for a more resonant, fuller sound. Make sure you research how to do this, however; otherwise you might find you’ve taken the panels off and can’t get them back on again.
Let’s get into where we place our microphones for different effects and sounds.
For a brighter sound
If you want a bright, pop-like sound, you’ll need to place the microphones behind the piano (adjacent to the soundboard) at around waist height. The further away the microphones, the mellower the sound will be. If you’ve got two microphones, I recommend the following setup:
If you’ve just got one microphone, place it in the middle.
For a mellower, more natural sound
Again, if you’re recording classical music this is probably what you’ll want to do. For a more natural solo piano sound, you may wish to place the microphones behind you as you’re playing. The sound you get here will be more similar to what you hear when you’re playing, and you’ll get much more of a feel of the acoustic of the room in this position.
Again, if you have just one microphone, place it directly behind you.
The one drawback of this position is that if you have a creaky bench or squeaky pedals, they may get picked up on the recording. If this is the case, switch to the other method, as this is less likely to be heard when the microphones are placed behind the piano.
Again, this is just a guide; experiment, experiment, experiment until you get what you believe to be the best sound.
Grand Piano Mic Placement
Recording a grand piano is easier. Let’s stick with one or two microphones for now; if you have more, then you can experiment with a few of these positions and see the kind of sound you get.
Inside the piano
If you’re looking for a very bright, pop-like sound, positioning your mic(s) inside the piano is the way to go. However, be aware that if you’re playing classical or jazz music with a huge dynamic range, this won’t be suitable for you, as you invite distortion and compression whereby the microphone is unable to accurately pick up the dynamic range of your playing.
One microphone positioned inside the piano is best in this position:
And two microphones (ideally a stereo pair) is best in this position.
If you only have one microphone, I really recommend keeping it outside the piano. This is because the sound picked up inside the piano by one microphone is likely to be too bright and too intense.
Let’s look at positioning your mics outside the piano.
Outside the piano
This is my preferred option as it gives a much more natural, organic solo piano sound. Ideally you want to place one microphone just outside the instrument, like this:
Although if you have two microphones, you can position them like this:
If you’ve got two microphones, keep them at around shoulder-height from the ground, and at least 1.5 metres away from the instrument. The diagram above is a guide; you will want to experiment with different placements depending on what sounds good to you. For this, it may be better to get a friend in to help position your microphones for you, or to play while you position the mics for your preferred sound.
It’s worth mentioning that any time you have more than one microphone, you must keep them at least three times further away from one another than they are from the sound source. This means that if your microphones are two feet away from the instrument, they need to be six feet apart from each other. This allows you to maintain correct phase alignment.
Adjusting the character of the sound
If you find your sound is too bright or too mellow, there’s a number of things you can do. If you want a brighter sound, your best bet is to move your microphones closer to the hammers, or further in towards the instrument.
Don’t put your microphones too close to the instrument; you risk having the notes that the microphone is closest to overemphasised on your recording, and they’ll stick out like a sore thumb.
If you find the sound is too dry, move your microphones away from the piano. If the sound is too roomy, move them closer. Experiment; trial and test a few different microphone placements to suit your preferences.
Finally, let’s talk about the room you’re in and how to soundproof it, as well as how to dampen the sound. If it’s a big room, you might find a lot of resonance, and as a result your recording is very “boomy” with a lack of definition and clarity. Also, for example, if you’re recording in a school or college, or you have some other source of external noise that you want to isolate, you’ll need to look at dampening the sound.
Ultimately this is about mass; if your walls are thin, sound will pass through them. What you’ll need to do to make the sound drier or soundproof is add mass to your walls. In a home environment this is a difficult task without paying thousands of dollars to a contractor, so let’s look at the easiest way you can dampen the sound; sound panels.
You’ll recognise these; they’re used in recording studios. Buying a half-dozen of these and temporarily affixing them to the walls will go a long way to improving the quality of your recording environment.
However, there are other things you can do as well. Is there a creaking noise in your room from the floorboards? You can either fix this, or you can apply some kind of damping material to add weight to the area, so the vibrations from your piano don’t travel through the floor and cause excess noise.
If you have gaps where excess noise is getting in, fill them with foam gaskets. If you don’t want to buy some, an old pillow will do. Get creative!
Ultimately, you may find that despite your best efforts, your local recording studio is the only thing that will provide a high enough quality of recording. However, given modern technology and advancements in recording capability, you can produce an exceptional quality recording from the comfort of your own home that’s good enough for YouTube, exam submissions, auditions and more.