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Why take a chance? Use redundant miking!

7:25 am Home Recording

If you needed to make a recording of, say, a person playing the piano, one possibility would be to locate a recording studio with a piano and have the recording made there. Chances are the studio staff has already experimented extensively with microphone selection and placement, and can quickly set up for any kind of sound you might need from that piano.

But what if you have to make a recording of an unfamiliar player playing an unfamiliar piano (or other instrument) in an unfamiliar place? That is the problem I faced when I set up my own on-location recording company. The whole point is that “we bring the recording studio to you.” The trouble is, instead of having months of experimentation to get familiar with the instrument and the layout, I typically would have mere minutes to set up and start recording!

I must admit, I felt pretty nervous about the first few piano recordings I made on location. What if I set the mikes up wrong and end up with a mediocre recording? What if it sounds OK in the headphones on-site but fatal flaws appear when I hear it through the monitors in the mixing studio?

I read up on miking techniques on the Internet, but in a way this made me even more nervous. One knowledgable writer would say to always do some particular thing, the next would say to never do that! I printed out conflicting diagrams of optimal microphone placement for piano. Meanwhile, some writers said to use omnis, some recommended cardioids. Near, far, high, low - it seemed like all of these were approaches that had worked at least once for somebody. But would any of them work for me?

An “Aha” Moment

It took awhile, but I finally figured out a way to ease my angst. The recorder I use (a Korg D16XD) is a 16-track unit that can record up to eight tracks at once. Most of the mike placement recommendations I had seen used “stereo pairs” of microphones in various positions. Aha! Why not set up two to four separate, independent stereo miking arrangements and record all of them at once? Then when I get back to the mixing studio I can determine whether this or that approach turned out to be better, or whether a blend of the stereo pairs works best.

Although in my case I am usually driving across town to record, the same approach would work at home if you needed to lug your gear from the basement studio up to where the piano is and didn’t want to have to do it twice!

I used this “redundant miking” idea in a recording I made recently featuring Bill Figley on piano, recorded at Graves Piano Recital Hall in Columbus. For this recording, I set up two separate mike arrangements. First, I had two cardioid mikes inside the piano, pointing down at the treble and bass strings. These were the “near” mikes. Second, I had a pair of omnidirectional mikes about five feet in front of the piano, spaced about eight feet apart. These were the “far” mikes. All of the microphones used were medium-priced small-diaphragm condenser types.

I got lucky this time, and the results proved to be satisfactory with both methods! As expected, the “near” mikes delivered more detail and crispness, whereas the “far” mikes picked up a lot of room reverb and had an overall darker, mellower sound.

The Proof Of the Pudding

You can hear the results for yourself! Listen through headphones if possible, as the differences between the mike placements are subtle. Here is “Precious Memories” as recorded through the “near” mikes (mp3). (Enable popups for this site if the mp3 player does not appear here.)

I have panned the mikes full left and right here for clarity, but in a real mix I would “pull them in” quite a bit to avoid having high and low notes spread across the stereo stage. (Nothing about the mix should take one iota of the listener’s attention away from the music, in my opinion.)

OK, now here is the same performance as recorded through the “far” mikes (mp3).

I have again panned the two tracks full left and right, which I might actually do in a final mix since the stereo effect is much less dramatic and obvious with this mike placement. You can hear the room reverberation fairly clearly here.

In the end, I used a blend of the two approaches in my final mix (mp3).

The mix is mostly the “near” mikes, panned just a little bit left and right. I added in the “far” mikes at about half the level of the “near” mikes, panned full left and right. This combines detail and clarity with a sense of the room itself. I did not use any artificial reverb on any of these tracks as both the piano itself and the room were providing plenty of reverb!

Of course, when you start combining a lot of mike signals like this, you need to think about possible phase cancellations, the dreaded “comb filter” effect, and so on. At least that’s what the Internet writers said. Well, I don’t hear any phase effects in this particular mix, and it isn’t something that I have had any issues with so far (knock on wood?). Anyway, even if blending the stereo pairs does cause some kind of problem, you still have the individual pairs to choose from!

Precious Memories (J.B.F. Wright)
Bill Figley: piano

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