How to start recording today (or next week)

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I often get requests from musicians that want to know how to record on a professional level so today, I am going to give you a primer and equipment list geared especially at piano. This will get your foot in the door though obviously results will vary based on all kinds of factors.

The question that I have to answer first is whether this is even viable or do you need to just bite the bullet and record in a studio. I think it is safe to say the answer is an unqualified yes assuming you have your bases covered which I will discuss in a second. I think you would be amazed if you knew how much professional music is recorded piece by piece in houses around the world. For example, while I might record a song in my studio, I can get cello added to it by a friend I have in Greenville, SC that just records in her home. I send her my audio and she adds (overdubs) her cello on top of it. Some of the best musicians in the world do overdubs in their spare bedrooms.

Piano is no different. You can get a professional piano sound in a spare bedroom as long as the equipment is up to par and the piano itself is good. I suppose I should park there for a second because we all know that good pianos are expensive in themselves and maintaining them is not cheap either. All the little problems in a piano will stick out on a recording if you close mic (which I recommend) so you need to make sure the squeaks and rubbing sounds are cleaned up when you get it tuned.

I have showed you my studio before. It is soundproof and treated with acoustic panels to deaden the sound. However, very frankly, neither of those things are necessary assuming your recording area is fairly quiet. Today’s mix engineers are adept at pulling out whatever noise might find its way into your recordings assuming it is not too overbearing. I am not saying they can pull out a ringing telephone but if it is something like a creak of the floor above you as someone walks over it, it probably can be pulled out. If you use the miking strategy I am about to share, those kinds of sounds will likely never even make it into the recording in the first place.

The key to recording when you don’t have a great control of the environment is close miking, which simply means keeping the microphones close to the strings. I should warn you that microphone placement is important and yet there are as many opinions about how to mic a piano as there are engineers that record piano. However, the bottom line is that wherever you position the microphones, they have to be close. This ensures that the piano sound will be predominant in the recording and any environment sounds will be at a much lower volume level and (hopefully) easily removed.

Once you have the piano and environment covered, what else do you need? Basically three things: microphones, a preamp, and a digital workstation (a computer with recording software on it). Let’s talk about each of these in more detail.

My microphones are Earthworks QTC40s. I could talk about microphones for a while but let’s just say that you don’t have to spend quite as much as I did to get a great sound. There are Shure microphones in the $400 range that are used in many piano studios (I can’t remember the model but you can check online). I like the sound to be as natural as possible which is why I like Earthworks. You do need two microphones to get a stereo sound. I recommend that you spend some money on boom stands that are heavy and solid because once you get the microphones placed, you want them to stay there. You will regret it if you buy $20 stands that tip over whenever someone walks by.

The preamp is arguably more important than the microphones. A preamp in this setup does two things: converts the sound from acoustic to digital and boosts/strengthens the sound. There are other things that happen as well that I won’t cover here but suffice it to say that you can pay thousands of dollars for a preamp or you can pay maybe $30. I use and recommend a fairly inexpensive option: the Apogee Duet. This only works for Mac I think so you will need to find another option if you are not recording with a Mac. I have brought in much more expensive preamps to test them but in the end of the day like the Duet as much or better.

By the way, the microphones connect to the preamp via typical XLR cables (don’t skimp on these) and the preamp will probably connect to your workstation via a USB cable.

So that brings me to the workstation. I use a typical iMac like this. It is up towards the top of the iMac line but it is nothing crazy either. You could easily do with less when recording piano because you are only working with a track or two at a time. A sub-$1000 PC will likely be just fine.

The recording software I use is Logic Pro which costs all of $300 through Apple. I can’t imagine that you need anything better but Nuendo and ProTools are competitors if you want to check them out. ProTools is top of the heap but overkill for this kind of thing. Reaper is a very inexpensive option for PC.

That is really it. Microphones go to the preamp and the preamp goes to the workstation. That is by the way pretty much exactly how things flow in an expensive recording studio too.

If you have ways to save money on this configuration, please post them below. I want to know about the microphones, preamps and even software you have found that can save money.

That pretty much covers up the setup. I will write another post next week talking about the process.

Greg Howlett

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