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What's up with classical piano recordings these days? Condenser Microphones
Old 10th October 2008
  #1
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Talking What's up with classical piano recordings these days?

I'm very curious to hear some other forum members’ insights about this. What are the techniques that people are using these days to record classical piano, and how do they differ from 30 or 40 years ago?

One thing I often notice about very recent recordings is that they sound, for lack of a better word, "processed." There's a certain haze to the sound, there is absolutely no extraneous noise, there are no errant overtones or reverberations, and there a strange sense of distance even while the music fills the sound stage.

I play piano for a living and I've been to plenty of concerts, and I can honestly say that I've never heard a piano sound like this in real life. Compare discs by Perahia (his recent Chopin Etudes is a great example), Hamelin and Angela Hewitt to some of the fantastic recordings by Gould, Horowitz and Arrau from the 60s and 70s.

With the latter I'm always able to indentify the piano in space and feel a sense of intimacy and immediacy in the music. There are numerous "flaws" though: hiss, occasional overly resonant overtones, clear differences in voicing across the range of the piano, pedal and hammer noise, etc. None of this is found in more recent stuff, and to be honest, I miss it. With new recordings I often feel like I'm listening to the music coming from a featureless void, rather than a connection to a specific person, time and place.

So, what are engineers doing to make piano recordings sound so supernaturally perfect? Is it just that they have fantastically ideal setups to work in? Or is there some kind of post-processing that is commonly done to make things all glossy and smooth (musical airbrushing, if you will)? Any insights are welcome!
Old 10th October 2008
  #2
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Well, if Vernier were reading this, he'd say "Tubes and tape."

But we've had this food fight at nauseating length. No point in starting up again.

If you're really a glutton for punishment, search through last summer's headings in this subforum. Look for the threads with 9000 posts.

3rd&4thT
Old 10th October 2008
  #3
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Larry Elliott's Avatar
Quote:
Originally Posted by BrianHanke View Post
I play piano for a living and I've been to plenty of concerts, and I can honestly say that I've never heard a piano sound like this in real life. Compare discs by Perahia (his recent Chopin Etudes is a great example), Hamelin and Angela Hewitt to some of the fantastic recordings by Gould, Horowitz and Arrau from the 60s and 70s.
I have sat in on a session for Hamelin - and this was a very simple set up using a technique that was regularly used by the engineer, Simon Eadon, when he was at Decca. A lot of attention was given to the piano by the tech to minimise any extraneous noises.

I haven’t heard the final CD of this session - but I do not expect that any airbrushing - other than editing, would have been applied.

I look forward to other comments...

Larry
Old 10th October 2008
  #4
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Interesting to hear about what went on at an actual Hamelin session!

I should say right away that I don't think the aesthetic difference I'm talking about is due to technological advances. After all, digital audio can sound plenty warm and intimate, and I think it offers many benefits over analog.

What I am curious about is the recording techniques that lead to the unusual sound of many recent piano recordings. Gould and Horowitz always have a bit of an edge to them; beautiful, but sonically imperfect. Even when Horowitz was recorded live, it emphatically does not sound like contemporary recordings made in big halls.

So, as a result of hearing this difference I start thinking there must be something "done" to new recordings. Why does a live recording of Horowitz sound raw and edgy, while Hamelin (not to pick on him, but just for example) sounds incredibly smooth and without a single blemish. Why is it that when Gould uses a distant microphone (like in his Sibelius Sonatinas) it sounds legitimately like you’re standing far away from the piano, whereas with Perahia I don’t know where the piano is in relation to me as I listen? The mics are clearly far away in the latter case, but they’re not distant in an acoustically recognizable sense. At least to me, the distance sounds artificial. Where does that artificiality come from?

Perhaps this is all is a simple matter of impeccable attention to detail, but perhaps there are more techniques involved as well? I don't know, but I'd love to learn more!

Quote:
Originally Posted by Larry Elliott View Post
I have sat in on a session for Hamelin - and this was a very simple set up using a technique that was regularly used by the engineer, Simon Eadon, when he was at Decca. A lot of attention was given to the piano by the tech to minimise any extraneous noises.

I haven’t heard the final CD of this session - but I do not expect that any airbrushing - other than editing, would have been applied.
Old 10th October 2008
  #5
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Quote:
Originally Posted by 3rd&4thT View Post
Well, if Vernier were reading this, he'd say "Tubes and tape."

But we've had this food fight at nauseating length. No point in starting up again.

If you're really a glutton for punishment, search through last summer's headings in this subforum. Look for the threads with 9000 posts.

3rd&4thT
I've done a few searches for this older thread but can't find anything with loads of posts. Any chance you could give a link please? Cheers!
Old 10th October 2008
  #6
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Recording David View Post
I've done a few searches for this older thread but can't find anything with loads of posts. Any chance you could give a link please? Cheers!
I don't particularly recommend this.

https://www.gearslutz.com/board/remote-possibilities-acoustic-music-location-recording/201451-coloration-classical-orchestra.html

208 posts and inconclusive. Wear a truss.

3rd&4thT
Old 10th October 2008
  #7
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I know there've been arguments over close-miking versus distance-miking. I like close miking, just inside the crook of the piano, with a blend of some room mics.

A sample of what you are discribing would be great, I'm interested to hear what a piano player thinks is a "good" recording. I'd be happy to post a sample of my latest solo piano recording if you want.
Old 10th October 2008
  #8
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Corran View Post
I know there've been arguments over close-miking versus distance-miking. I like close miking, just inside the crook of the piano, with a blend of some room mics.

.
I agree that perspective is probably the biggest change in the way most classical recordings are made today. The older recordings I've heard sound like a concert from the second or third row of a hall. I understand the concept that in our multimedia times, we have to make recorded performances sound as exciting as possible because you can't see it. The result being a closer perspective that brings the audience closer to the artist. Maybe because I'm an (ex) professional musician, I equate the excitment of what's happening on stage as an exciting place for the listener to be.

Whenever I agree to record a pianist, I ask them to bring a favorite recording. This is always helpful when you know in advance which perspective or classic sound they like. If that isn't possible, I'll use multiple pairs to give options in post. To give an example, starting closest to the piano about 2 or 3 feet will be an M-S pair with spaced omni a little further back, then an ORTF with a couple omnis in the hall for ambience. This covers lots of bases!
Old 10th October 2008
  #9
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Plush's Avatar
Usually with piano classic recording techniques are used.
This usually is the classic combo plate of mics close, mid and far.

I am not exactly sure what the OP is referring to about the sound. I suppose that
using a "wash" of reverb and fogging over the sound (so it sounds perfumed) is one possibility.

Other posters are correct. Nowadays a tuner and technician are part of the recording team. The best instruments don't have any mechanical noises to prevent using mics in close.

There is sometimes an aesthetic choice to provide the listener with an overly elegant sound that uses reverb to blend and fog over. Sometimes it is an odd effect since close mics with reverb will indeed obscure the position of the piano on stage.

Then again, a piano recording is a document and art form standing on its own. A recording is an art form subject to manipulation to where the final presentation is not supposed to be particularly realistic.

Nevertheless, the excitement can be captured simply. Just hear DG sound with Pogorelich or Zimerman or Hyperion sound with Hamelin or Hough.
Old 10th October 2008
  #10
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Smile

Quote:
Originally Posted by BrianHanke View Post
I'm very curious to hear some other forum members’ insights about this. What are the techniques that people are using these days to record classical piano, and how do they differ from 30 or 40 years ago?
To be honest, I have no idea of how people record piano.

I only know how I record piano (which is what I seem to do most).

Most important is the pianist, the piano and the room.

Next is getting the right mics in the right place.

Then it's allowing the pianist to PERFORM - get the adrenaline going and play a performance.

Ideally to capture the performance in the acoustic - but the mic. distance will vary as to the piano, the room and the music being played to get the best balance.

Try to do as little patching as possible - and where it's necessary, to allow the pianist to get into the performance.

Then you get a recording with live and verve and you will listen to again and again.

That's how I do it.


I think that because it's so easy nowadays to patch single notes any mistakes are edited out to make it perfect - the trouble is that the musician is not playing music anymore, he/she is playing notes - probably quite bored and the result is a recording with no life that's listened to once and then never see the light of day again.


The old hisses and noise were the old analogue tape and circuits - I have no problem in getting rid of this - but I don't like getting rid of the life and performance.


My last recording session was in The Menuhin Hall with a Bluethner Concert Grand - a superb acoustic and we allowed the pianist to perform. There was a top piano technician on hand every day who tweaked the piano as required. Then there was the producer and me.
Old 10th October 2008
  #11
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It's a great idea to upload some samples of what I'm talking about! Here's a link to a zip file containing 3 samples each of classic and newer recordings: Send big files the easy way. Files too large for email attachments? No problem! . I've removed the names from each MP3 to help with objectivity, but some of you might recognize the performances anyway! There are 5 classical tracks and one jazz.

Plush, your description about a wash of reverb, perfuming the sound, is definitely an element of what I'm talking about. I agree that it's not a matter of "real" necessarily always equals good, but for me I find an intimate, characterful sound much more affecting than something distant and overly polished.

Don and Corran, I agree that the change in perspective is one of the biggest differences, and it's especially apparent in the files I've uploaded.

John, the Bach track of yours that I heard sounds quite "real" in my opinion. The piano sounds natural and the room reverberation sounds like a real room that I can place myself into. Still, it must be admitted there is a big difference between what you have achieved and especially the "recentA" file I uploaded. Both your recording and the sample are recorded from a distance and have lots of room sound. However, yours sounds authentic and puts me into the room, while the sample sounds veiled, distant and artificial. Why? What are the technical reasons behind the difference?
Old 10th October 2008
  #12
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All of the classic files have what I would consider an "up-front" sound, obviously close to the stage in terms of perspective. All of the recent files have a much more verby sound, especially recent C. It seems to me that the more recent recordings tend to be more distant, not the older ones! I also don't like the lack of bass in the more recent recordings compared to the classics.
Old 10th October 2008
  #13
Gear addict
 

Interesting point about the bass ~ I agree with you. I wonder if it's digital or hardware reverb, especially in recentA and recentC. It just sounds so much unlike anything I've heard in real life that I question where that kind of sound comes from. If it's achieved acoustically I'd love to know what they did, just for the sake of satisfying my own curiosity!

Quote:
Originally Posted by Corran View Post
All of the classic files have what I would consider an "up-front" sound, obviously close to the stage in terms of perspective. All of the recent files have a much more verby sound, especially recent C. It seems to me that the more recent recordings tend to be more distant, not the older ones! I also don't like the lack of bass in the more recent recordings compared to the classics.
Old 10th October 2008
  #14
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Cool

Quote:
Originally Posted by BrianHanke View Post
John, the Bach track of yours that I heard sounds quite "real" in my opinion. The piano sounds natural and the room reverberation sounds like a real room that I can place myself into. Still, it must be admitted there is a big difference between what you have achieved and especially the "recentA" file I uploaded. Both your recording and the sample are recorded from a distance and have lots of room sound. However, yours sounds authentic and puts me into the room, while the sample sounds veiled, distant and artificial. Why? What are the technical reasons behind the difference?
Thank you - I haven't had a chance to download and listen to your tracks yet.

But the Bach I sent you was recorded naturally - two Neumann KM 183-D about 20cm apart, about 2-metres from the piano at approx. ear height (and vertical as they were in the nearfield).

There was very little editing done, just a little patching where necessary, no EQ or compression at all, just a little level adjustment at the end so the highest peak on the CD was within -4dBFS.

I tried to keep it as natural as possible.

If you click on the picture above it will link you to the pianist's website and he has loaded a few tracks I recorded from the new CDs I recorded to listen to - I am not sure how compressed they are, though (the one I sent you was a CD quality 16/44.1wav).

Of the other four CDs pictured on his site, I also recorded the Chopin Nocturnes and the Chelsea CDs for him.

I will try and listen to your samples later.
Attached Thumbnails
What's up with classical piano recordings these days?-rm2020kmd20piano20for20.jpg  
Old 10th October 2008
  #15
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Here's a related question: I've read that Gould used his own U87s in at least some of his sessions. Did U87s in the 60s and 70s have switchable patterns as they do now, or were they cardioid only? Perhaps the stronger bass in the classic samples I uploaded has to do with using cardioid pattern mics closer to the piano?
Old 10th October 2008
  #16
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Quote:
Originally Posted by BrianHanke View Post
Interesting point about the bass ~ I agree with you. I wonder if it's digital or hardware reverb, especially in recentA and recentC. It just sounds so much unlike anything I've heard in real life that I question where that kind of sound comes from. If it's achieved acoustically I'd love to know what they did, just for the sake of satisfying my own curiosity!
Acoustically, I assume that simply the distance causes the bass loss. Alternatively they were recorded with on ORTF array with cardioids, which don't record bass at a distance well.

Just for curiosity, what do you think of this recording? You'll know the piece I'm sure. I recorded this for a grad recital last semester:

https://www.gearslutz.com/board/attac...rch-chopin.mp3
Old 10th October 2008
  #17
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Sounds really excellent! I love the full sound and the way you can hear all the details even within the overall warmth. What mics and recording techniques did you use?

Quote:
Originally Posted by Corran View Post
Just for curiosity, what do you think of this recording? You'll know the piece I'm sure. I recorded this for a grad recital last semester:
Old 10th October 2008
  #18
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I should have taken pictures!

The mics were a pair of Oktava MK-012's into the M-audio DMP3, into a Korg D-888 digital recorder at 44/16. The mics were in an ORTF array (cardioids), equidistant from the piano strings and open lid, just inside the crook of the piano.

I also had an M-S array in the hall, about 15 feet from the piano, consisting of an Earthworks QTC-1 and an Oktava ML-52 ribbon for ambience.

Thanks for the compliments.
Old 10th October 2008
  #19
Gear addict
 

Nice! I can definitely hear the darker quality of the Oktavas.

I think one conclusion I can draw from this thread already is that the older recordings I posted (and Corran's) all use very close micing of the piano, perhaps with some reverb or room sound mixed in to give depth. Just purely as a matter of taste I definitely prefer this approach.

What is still unclear for me is what causes the "artificial" quality on the newer clips that I posted. I'm pretty sure if I moved my mics all the way across the room I still wouldn't get anything that sounded like Hamelin or Perahia. It would sound more distant, sure, but it would just sound like a mic that's far from a piano, which is not what I'm hearing in the linked samples. They are generally very present and full, but at the same time the sound is glossed over as if heard from a distance. I find it very unusual... Anyway, more thoughts are welcome!

Quote:
Originally Posted by Corran View Post
The mics were a pair of Oktava MK-012's into the M-audio DMP3, into a Korg D-888 digital recorder at 44/16. The mics were in an ORTF array (cardioids), equidistant from the piano strings and open lid, just inside the crook of the piano.

I also had an M-S array in the hall, about 15 feet from the piano, consisting of an Earthworks QTC-1 and an Oktava ML-52 ribbon for ambience.
Old 10th October 2008
  #20
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I'm semi-retired these days, but I used to think that I had more classical piano CDs being sold than anyone on the planet at one time - we were recording, editing and mastering one every two weeks for months at a time and these were being sold in huge numbers in Brazil via a magazine publisher, who packaged each of them with an accompanying publication about the music. Crazy project that nearly killed me (and the pianist). Whatever happened, we had to meet the publication date.

Anyway, the recording technique was simple - a Sennheiser MS pair only. No reverb, no eq. The recorded sound however varied significantly according to the location. The pianist became dissatisfied with each London location in turn and each time we (and the piano) moved, we had to work out how to get the best sound from the next church. Distant techniques and ambient mics tended to get ruled out by the impossible-to-avoid London traffic and aircraft noise. I suspect increasing noise may have had some influence on piano recording techniques over the last 30 years - perhaps those lucky enough to be working in good studios have subconsciously adapted their sound to match that being put out by those recording on location?

My personal opinion is that a piano recording should portray the scale of the instrument - it's not a point source. You should be able to visualise from the sound which way round the piano is. (I hate the occasional recording which sounds like it was recorded from the pianist's perspective, not that of the audience). The piano should sound like you could step across the room and touch it (in terms of spatial realism), but at the same time it should be placed in a reverberant frame, scaled to taste and to the type of music being performed. What sort of room / hall did the composer perhaps have in his head when he wrote the piece? Is the pianist and instrument good enough for close focus, or is there a need for a little courteous veiling of the sound (!)? The "frame" should be a little separated from the instrument so that it does not become a distraction - not unlike the frame of a painting, which should complement but not compete.

As for recording procedure and post production - I used to try to pretend to the pianist that I wasn't there - no red lights, no take numbers, just a quiet "ok, ready when you are". Backup on most of my recordings in the DAT era was to minidisc, would you believe, and more than once the ability to start the MD recording six seconds before the button was pushed helped grab the start of a take that, due to the laid back procedure, began unexpectedly. My CDs were normally well reviewed and nobody spotted the odd tiny bit of MD backup which I sometimes used! Editing - well, 600 edits per CD seemed to be typical. An indifferent performer needed that much rescuing, and a good performer tended to be that fussy. But I recall one early CD where we had no budget to go along to HHB's then garage-located editing suite, so it was pause-edited between two DAT machines, the few cuts being entirely between pieces or in musical pauses. Good discipline, that!
Old 11th October 2008
  #21
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Smile

Quote:
Originally Posted by Ozpeter View Post
I'm semi-retired these days, but I used to think that I had more classical piano CDs being sold than anyone on the planet at one time -
Very interesting Ozpeter.

Actually, my first digital editing was using PCM-F1 recorders and HHB's "CLUE" system.

Then I went to two Fostex D-10 DATs which had a 10-second memory and you could set them to but-edit. It worked very well until I could afford a PC and "Fast Eddie".

I edit on Sequoia now.

I agree with pretty well all you say about piano recording - but in the London Area The Menuhin Hall is absolutely a superb venue for piano recording nowadays (they have a Steinway and Fazzoli on site - we bought in a Blüthner for our sessions) - it's next to the M25, but so well insulated, you don't hear any outside noise at all.
Old 11th October 2008
  #22
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Dear Brian,

Tomorrow (Sunday) night I will record piano in a small church in Paris, I will ask the artist if he allows me to post a small audio sample here on Gearslutz and would like that you listen to it and give some comments.

Regards,

Gaston
Old 12th October 2008
  #23
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"The piano should sound like you could step across the room and touch it (in terms of spatial realism), but at the same time it should be placed in a reverberant frame, scaled to taste and to the type of music being performed. What sort of room / hall did the composer perhaps have in his head when he wrote the piece? Is the pianist and instrument good enough for close focus, or is there a need for a little courteous veiling of the sound (!)? The "frame" should be a little separated from the instrument so that it does not become a distraction - not unlike the frame of a painting, which should complement but not compete. "


For me, a seasoned listener and tyro recordist, Ozpeter says it all. I prefer to hear a recording of a piano which sounds as it would in concert, not in the studio. Even if it is not "in concert" I still like the sound from a sort of distant piano to give it the depth and whatever (hate this term) "bloom" there is to the hall. I want the piano to sound like it is in a hall, not a studio, to sound like it is a live recording whether it is or not. And as straight through as possible. Small blems are fine, or at least better than the patched perfection which sounds like it came out of a computer.

As a teenager I listened to live concerts every night on FM. Yeah, back when FM was little used except for classical broadcasts. I would check the NY Times listings and plan an evening of live concerts from symphonic orchestras across the country. That and live opera, Texaco and in person, formed my ideas of how piano and classical in general should sound.

I do not think the medium is as important as is the technique.

Thats my small contribution.

Cheers
Old 12th October 2008
  #24
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I agree strongly that music takes place in space, and that the recording should reflect that.

My personal taste is to dislike orchestral recordings that provide only podium perspective and no clue about what kind of hall the performance took place in.

I feel similarly about piano recordings in principle, but I also wonder if close-miking a piano isn't much less of a problem.

Music lovers of all kinds will buy an orchestral CD, and almost all usually hear live performances from auditorium distance. But is that always true of solo piano recordings?

How many classical music generalists will buy a new recording of the "Davidsbundlertanze?" No, most purchasers will be pianists and would-be pianists, and they hear things from the keyboard perspective.

For them, close is fine as long as it isn't jangly. What they really hate is schwimbad perspective, with the piano small, distant and smeared.

So miking too close for realism and from the wrong angle on a solo piano may offend your ears and mine, but perhaps it is a victimless crime.

3rd&4thT
Old 12th October 2008
  #25
Gear addict
 

It seems to me that we're getting into matters of aesthetic opinion here. The debate about the virtues of close micing versus distant isn't really what I'm trying to get at.

The issue that I've observed, especially apparent in the clips I posted, is that modern recordings sound distant, but in an odd way. What are the techniques used to get this particular far-away-yet-very-present-yet-awash-in-reverb-yet-strangely-crisp sound? I'm skeptical that it's simply a matter of good mics in a good room on a good piano with a good pianist, mostly because I've heard very realistic older recordings that were recorded from a distance and that sound nothing like modern stuff. Does anybody have any experience with big-budget, recent, commercial classical piano recordings, and especially with the post-production and mixing techniques that might be used?
Old 12th October 2008
  #26
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There is no magic in post production that leads to the sounds you have described.

Different recording labels and engineering teams present different aesthetic choices in their recordings.

I still fail to see what the problem is.

Compare one excellent recording to another and all one hears is different choices. I'm talking about choices as far as how much room to include, whether to totally minimize the room and add a convolution reverb or to record in a studio like Teldex in Berlin or at the Herculesaal in Munich. ( a beautiful piano recording room)

Much of the sound differences are because of the room/auditorium the recording is made in.

There is no magic and there is no artificial creation in most piano recordings. Some engineers favor a soft focus sound and some a close sound. Usually this is done with many more mics than just two or four. Room mics play a large role in pleasing modern
piano sound.
Old 12th October 2008
  #27
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Thanks for your valuable contribution Plush. I've only really used a single pair of mics for piano. Could you share any info about multiple mic setups to achieve the pleasing modern piano sound you describe?

Thanks!
Old 12th October 2008
  #28
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I, too, would love to know specifics about how certain contemporary great recordings were made. This might be the subject of a good book (or electronic book or website since the audience would be narrow) on recording practicalities and would be much more in line with learning another craft: orchestration. To learn orchestration these days, you can easily (but expensively in the case of modern works) buy scores and study them along with the recording.

It would be great for someone to do a book sort of like an architectural "case study" survey on various recordings.

I'd love to know, for example, how the piano sound on the Murray Perahia CD of Handel and Scarlatti (recommended on another thread by David Spearritt) was achieved. Another one that has a totally different feel (that distant but clear thing) is the Pierre-Laurent Aimard recording of Debussy's Images and Etudes. Besides being in that great room, was there anything else the engineers did on that one?
Old 12th October 2008
  #29
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As promissed yesterday.

I just got back from the recording gig and couldn't wait to post a little audio sample in order to get some feedback from you guys.

Because I have recorded this in a Onno setup with DPA4060 and my brand-new Painpot recorded on a Korg MR-1000 24 bit 44.1khz.

The Mic stand was approx 80cm from the piano and on a height of 160cm, distance between the DPA4060 = 38cm.

Piano = Yamaha

Recorded in live concert, small church in Paris France

Let me know if you like what you hear.

Gaston
Attached Files

Piano Sample.mp3 (4.12 MB, 5893 views)

Old 12th October 2008
  #30
Gear addict
 

Yes, this is exactly what I had in mind! :o) It's pretty clear from older recordings how the sound was achieved. There's something about newer releases that is harder to identify though, perhaps because of the increased complexity of the techniques being used?

Quote:
Originally Posted by newyorker42 View Post
I, too, would love to know specifics about how certain contemporary great recordings were made. This might be the subject of a good book (or electronic book or website since the audience would be narrow) on recording practicalities and would be much more in line with learning another craft: orchestration. To learn orchestration these days, you can easily (but expensively in the case of modern works) buy scores and study them along with the recording.

It would be great for someone to do a book sort of like an architectural "case study" survey on various recordings.

I'd love to know, for example, how the piano sound on the Murray Perahia CD of Handel and Scarlatti (recommended on another thread by David Spearritt) was achieved. Another one that has a totally different feel (that distant but clear thing) is the Pierre-Laurent Aimard recording of Debussy's Images and Etudes. Besides being in that great room, was there anything else the engineers did on that one?
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