Advice on miking and recording a grand piano+vocals together
uvray
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#1
27th February 2012
Old 27th February 2012
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Advice on miking and recording a grand piano+vocals together

Hi folks,
I'm a music producer about to record and mix a new EP for a cool London based duo called Penniless Cove. They consist of a singer/pianist and a cellist. I will record them in a decent studio with a beautiful grand piano.
I've recorded that piano already and it sounds great. The thing is I'm thinking of recording the pianist singing at the same time so to keep the natural feel of her songs and not to separate the recording process, which could end up making it sound synthetic.

1. Have any of you had any experience with doing that?
2. How would you mic it all up?
3. How hard would it be to mix?
4. how much would the spill affect the mixing possibilities?

Any advice would be appreciated, if you know what you're talking about of course.

Cheers,
UV
#2
27th February 2012
Old 27th February 2012
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king2070lplaya's Avatar
This is something that is pretty common for good pianist/singers, and there are some good tried-and-true methods

One good way is to put the piano on full-stick, mic it how you would like to on the inside or just-outside the lid, then carefully drape a large thick blanket (like a moving blanket or quilt) over the lid to the ground, covering the angle in front of the player and the microphones. Be careful not to disturb your mic placement! Then mic the pianist/vocalist with a cardioid set to reject the piano sound from behind it, and voila! good isolation.

Some studios even have big foam inserts custom-made to fit into the angled opening in front of the pianist for just this reason. This is, according to interviews, how Diana Krall records most of her studio records.
uvray
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27th February 2012
Old 27th February 2012
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Thanks for your quick response Playa,
That sounds like a great idea. I wonder what the blanket does to the piano sound, if it's contained within it, but that sounds like a good idea to try.
If it's good for Krall...who am I to argue?

Also, what would you do with the front of the piano? cover it with the same blanket as well so it effectively becomes a sort of "casket"?
#4
27th February 2012
Old 27th February 2012
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Put the vocalist in the piano knee and record with a central MS/Spaced array overhead
Its simple.
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27th February 2012
Old 27th February 2012
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Rolo 46 View Post
Put the vocalist in the piano knee and record with a central MS/Spaced array overhead
Its simple.
I think the vocalist is also the pianist...might be hard to play from the knee position?
#6
28th February 2012
Old 28th February 2012
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I would try to cover over the curve as much as possible. Leave the curve open if you find the sound too stuffy and don't notice or mind the bleed, or want a bit more room sound in the piano pickup.

These are the tools, but how you do it is up to you and your tastes. If you have bleed from one into the other, you may have problems if you want/need to overdub certain parts. As long as the bleed is kept to a minimum, so that the mics are mostly picking up their respective sources with hints of the other, you shouldn't have much trouble come mix time. Just listen well and get the sounds you want before you hit "record"
#7
28th February 2012
Old 28th February 2012
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Mic patterns!

If you've got a good studio, you've probably got good mics.

I would record the piano with figure 8s. Point the nulls directly towards the singer's mouth. This could even be done with Blumlein, or something like the Royer SF12 (Roonsbane taught me that one). With the SF12 I can almost completely cancel out the singer's voice - sounds like she is in the next room.

That null is your friend.

Same principle carries over to the singer's mic. Use the null to zero-out the piano. If you have a mic with a continuously-variable mic pattern, that's the way to go. One capsule of a SM69 or C24, M269, etc. That way you can place the mic with the null facing the open piano, go in the studio, solo the vocal mic, and have an assistant slowly adjust the pattern box. Be sure to jump back and forth between soloing and the piano.

Another option for the voice a mentor once taught me is to use a figure 8 mic (U87 can work), with the null pointed towards the keys of the piano. It feels a little awkward for the singer, as the mic will be slanted (with the bottom of the capsule pointed away from them, towards the keys), but it can work very effectively.

Both techniques will need a sturdy mic stand with a heavy base. You can bring the mic in from the top if you have a very beefy stand - large Atlas or Starbird. If you are stuck with normal boom stands, you can come in from the side.

I like these options as opposed to bagging or blocking off the keys from the singer for a number of reasons. It's more natural for the singer... she might get away without headphones if she doesn't need verb. But it also keeps the piano from getting "boxed in" and keeps it natural-sounding.
uvray
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28th February 2012
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Thanks for the tips and ideas Robobo and Playa.
The studio has two lovely U87's and a few other vintage mics. I will try to experiment with the different approaches you guys suggested, so thanks again. The thing is session time is limited, so I'll have to trust my ears and try to reach a good sound as quickly as possible. In a perfect world, I'd take a few hours just to experiment with mic techniques for isolating the two..
I also found this interesting yet more general article about piano recording.
#9
28th February 2012
Old 28th February 2012
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I have done several piano vocal singer songwriter CD'd over the years. After many tried approaches over the years, I think the biggest mistake you can make is wrapping up the piano, closing the lid with mics inside or using gobos between the vocal mic and piano. If you do this what piano sound that leaks into the back of the vocal mic will be the darkest thickest nastiest sound you could possibly imagine. This will ruin your recording! Instead leave the lid wide open and use microphone pattern to your advantage. The controled leakage will not be a problem if you have used good mics/ clever patern nulling and keep the distance short between vocal and piano mics. One of the best recent recordings of this type that I heard was Dr. John on a public TV program benefit for New Orleans. Three telefunkin 251's. Two on Piano, one on vocal. Incredible! I used to love to have my client play away while I would try different approaches, mics and patterns for hours upon hours in the days leading up to our sessions. Bli****ll.
Have fun!
Cameron
uvray
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29th February 2012
Old 29th February 2012
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Quote:
Originally Posted by roonsbane View Post
I have done several piano vocal singer songwriter CD'd over the years. After many tried approaches over the years, I think the biggest mistake you can make is wrapping up the piano, closing the lid with mics inside or using gobos between the vocal mic and piano. If you do this what piano sound that leaks into the back of the vocal mic will be the darkest thickest nastiest sound you could possibly imagine. This will ruin your recording! Instead leave the lid wide open and use microphone pattern to your advantage. The controled leakage will not be a problem if you have used good mics/ clever patern nulling and keep the distance short between vocal and piano mics. One of the best recent recordings of this type that I heard was Dr. John on a public TV program benefit for New Orleans. Three telefunkin 251's. Two on Piano, one on vocal. Incredible! I used to love to have my client play away while I would try different approaches, mics and patterns for hours upon hours in the days leading up to our sessions. Bli****ll.
Have fun!
Cameron
Thank you Cameron,
With your help and the help of other posts here, I'm starting to realize that using great mics and understanding their pickup patters is the key to a great recording. I might experiment with using a blanket but eventually it's all about the ears and what I'll have to trust them on this one.
uvray
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4th March 2012
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4th March 2012
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Uvray,

It sounds like you had fun, though I didn't get a sense of what else you tried and ultimately how you liked the final product. What you liked about what you tried and what you didn't like?

I will say in looking at the placement that you ended with, I am fairly certain that sticking those 87's in figure of eight, null to the voice, would have given you far more isolation then that music stand began to give you. Ribbons would have given you an even tighter pattern. Of course it changes the mic tonally which may or may not work. Did you try it?

Also, since you were recording a disklavier, (a very powerful tool) did you consider recording a piano MIDI file, and re-recording the piano afterwords, with the absolute optimum piano mic placement, then possibly sliding that piano recording forward to time align the two parts?

I have wondered if any of the big money DVD productions, Elton John, Billy Joel, etc, when the back line is probably extremely loud on stage making leakage such a problem, have any of those engineers tried this? This would allow them to work on getting that important piano sound on a potentially great piano, using better mics, piano lid open and all.

I am glad you did not try and isolate too much with blankets and gobos. Obviously, when you have other instruments in the room sometimes it is necessary. But, when you think about it, we spend all this money on great mics that have beautiful sounding off axis response, and what do we do, we stick blankets between or close the lid guaranteeing that what the mic hears off axis will sound terrible! The sound will be all bass, boxy, muffled, and no clarity. Once mixed back together there will be no way to make this sound "right" again.

Where I work, we do have an incredibly heavy piano wrap with openings to stick mics in to. I try and avoid using it, but if I had a full band in the room thats what I would have to use. The thing seems lead lined. It weighs probably 60 pounds. It is a bear to put on and off. It's the only one I have ever seen. It isolates much more "flatly" than most other gobo's or blankets due to its mass and tight seals.
Cameron
uvray
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4th March 2012
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Hi Cameron,
Some replies..
Well, I didn't have time to experiment too much because the whole session was only three and a half hours long including setup.
I knew I wanted to use the Neumans close at about 30 cm above the strings and they do sound great that way. The other idea was to get the D112 for that low end below the piano. I found it to be a great solution for getting a nice low end and when the rest of the channels are panned hard left/right and the D112 is in the middle, it sound incredibly balance to me. The only pair I was playing around with for each song was the AKG's. I used them as a 'coloring' type of sound and depending on the song, I put them closer or farther from the piano (always from the outside).
Regarding the diklavier, I have experimented in the past with recording the MIDI information from it and works well. The problem is to send back the Midi after the session player has gone. The disklavier is just not good enough in translating the information back and the performance doesn't sound the same at all.

I guess it's a matter of technical issues, such as the speed of translation from midi to the mechanics of the piano etc. and it's hard to explain exactly why but it just isn't the same thing.
Also for fast passages the disklavier just can't get them right in a lot of cases. However, it sounds like a great way to experiment with mics and learning the best placements for them in the studio. I just wouldn't use it for the real thing. I'm taking a guess here that the big boys don't do it as well due to those reasons.
Luckily I didn't have a whole band in the room so it was only the singer playing the piano and singing at the same time. The isolation worked quite well and her perfect or near perfect performance helped the whole thing work because punching in was almost impossible, unless there was a piano break, which actually happened once.

We have another session next week so I might try other options, like a condenser below the piano and maybe use the Neuman's as a spaced pair outside the piano, then the AKG's inside it.
I'll come back and report my experiences after that's done.
Cheers and thanks for the help. It's much appreciated.
#14
4th March 2012
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Hey Uvray,

I understand your thoughts on the Disklavier. You are certainly not the first to say this. At this point don't we now have super MIDI versions with much higher resolution than the original disklavier? Obviously, most folks don't have access to this later technology, but the big names would.

Another option is to splice her performances the way we do in classical music all of the time. You certainly don't need a break to make a splice after th fact. Piano accents with the right crossfade are of course completely transparent and the bigger issue just becomes have we changed the musical phrase for the worst. I always explain to clients when asked what is possible with editing I tell them that if the musical phrase is played exactly the same I could edit between on a note by note basis if asked to. Man, I hate doing this kind of work on so many levels so I say to them make music instead. Play in the biggest chunks possible. Of course the better the musician, the pickier they can be, and the more they may abuse this power. Suck!
Cameron
#15
5th March 2012
Old 5th March 2012
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Isolate Piano and vocals

Here's how i use to do this job.

I have a very nice isolation of the Voice, so the Piano Mics are completly clean withou vocals, and with a lot of air around. As for the Vocal mic, it has a bit of piano low end in there. Its ok if you will not do lots of overdubs.

I think the only way to reduce the leaking from the piano its to isolate the piano on the lower part, near the pedals. Its where almost of the sound is coming from with this setup.

Hope it helps!
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uvray
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5th March 2012
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Miramar_sessions View Post
Here's how i use to do this job.

I have a very nice isolation of the Voice, so the Piano Mics are completly clean withou vocals, and with a lot of air around. As for the Vocal mic, it has a bit of piano low end in there. Its ok if you will not do lots of overdubs.

I think the only way to reduce the leaking from the piano its to isolate the piano on the lower part, near the pedals. Its where almost of the sound is coming from with this setup.

Hope it helps!
Wow João, this is quite a creative setup you got there. It probably takes some time to construct those barriers. A great idea though.
And also the studio looks amazing. One of the best websites I've ever seen for a studio.
Well done.
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5th March 2012
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I will second that Wow! João. That studio is quite gorgeous! I like the site lines among the booths. I am also impressed by your piano gobo. I have tried a similar setup with C12, 149, Manley Reference C and others on the voice back in a Boston studio. I found mics like a KMS105 or even an SM58 worked better because of their better backside rejection. I am sure your gobo setup is a bit tighter João. For the Boston setup I used, the piano sound coming through the back side of the microphone, even from mostly under the piano around the players feet, just sounded terrible! The voice was kept out of the piano fairly well except when the singer totally belted but not the other way. That was with a full band mostly in the same room. Sonically, I feel I have made much better recordings with the same musicians since then in great rooms, leaving things open, but just using polar pattern and placement and a few gobos to better advantage. You certainly can't replace a vocal though.
I believe in the DVD for the making of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road there is a picture of a huge box on a swinging arm that sat over Elton's piano in one of the shots. It's hard to see it well. I wish there was a better shot of it.
Cameron
#18
5th March 2012
Old 5th March 2012
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Pretty much in complete agreement with Cameron on this one.

To mirror some of the earlier comments, my personal favorite setup for piano/vocal (usually jazz), is a pair of 121's or Fatheads with the nulls facing the vocalist, either spaced or in blumlein - been having recent luck with an AEA R88 as well. My Sennheiser MKH8040s also work since their smaller bodies allow for much tighter placement options if needed, especially if there are additional musicians in the room.

On voice, I usually reach for our M147, positioned with the null facing the opening of the piano. Ribbons (especially the R84) or our U89 in Fig 8 are other options. If there's just too much bleed - usually with louder pianists in pop sessions, I'll reach for an SM7 (popping that sucker through a Cloudlifter and into my Great River pre's are where it's at).

In general though, I rarely, if ever isolate the piano with blankets. I've done piano, bass, vocal trios (with the vocalist NOT playing piano) and have had everything wide open in the room...excellent control, great off-axis tone, and most importantly, fantastic performances.

As Cameron mentioned, I'm usually cutting between takes as I would with a classical group. If tempo and dynamics are similar enough across the board, I pretty much cut between anything - piano attacks are your friend.
#19
5th March 2012
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Watch some Ray Charles video's on youtube
#20
6th March 2012
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stgaudio said:
Quote:
Watch some Ray Charles video's on youtube
I am not really sure what videos you are referring to. I did try a few searches and did not find anything from any sessions. I do suspect that you will usually find no gobos and the lid open when it is just Ray and a piano and more gobos when he is among a band. I also suspect that there are variances that break those rules as well. More to the point, which sounds more natural and open?

When I stick a spot mic on a harp in an orchestra, I don't worry that it may pick up a bit of the violins playing next to her. I use great mics where the leakage in the back side of the mic facing the violins will sound "correct". Every time you add a gobo that does not completely block sound in a flat manner across all frequencies meaning something with substantial mass, you are bringing garbage into the recording. Of course, you are also doing this with a lot of open mics cumulatively. Especially L.D. condensers.
Cameron
#21
10th March 2012
Old 10th March 2012
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Just to chime in with an image - this was taken from a live studio clip/interview with John Legend and The Roots. Everything was tracked live - ?uestlove's kit was baffled with some clear blast shields - not my ideal baffle from a sonic standpoint, but visually, it works.

Granted, the 414s on the piano will yield a much brighter tone that's suitable for pop stuff, but they left the lid open on this - the key was to have the lid open AWAY from the kit and any horns.
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