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The Truth about many "Audiophile" Piano Recordings

pablolie

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I listen to a lot of classical and jazz in general, so when I establish if something sounds "well", piano features very high on the things I'd listen to. As does percussion and human voice - and an entire classical ensemble, too (I do avoid the cannon shot in 1812, though, I think that's the silliest audio cliche).

One thing I find downright funny in audiophile publications is when they declare some recordings audiophile pearls they use as reference... and very often these include piano. I get it and we've all read bout it... capturing the piano is particularly challenging. And most piano players have egos, and probably tell the recording engineer "people buy this record because of ME, yet I sound like I am just in the room on the left" (which is how they sound if you're in a concert hall sitting in the audience, of course).

Recording engineers have debates about to best record a piano, there are several theories out there.

I think it is funny, however, when an audiophile reviewer completely goes into the presentation of a piano recording.... which, when *I* listen to it, suffers from what I call "the 30ft piano" recording problem which is very prevalent: you hear one side of the piano coming more from the right speaker, the other side of the keys from the other. They have miked it so that is sounds waaaaay wider than 58 inches or so. There is zero stage when you do that, but many audiophile recordings (and I have to admit I love them) are such. Many Keith Jarrett recordings have that 30ft piano effect, but it's by far not the only one. My speakers are 7ft apart, so it's ridiculous when the piano is presented spanning that entire width... is it a Terasaur with a 10ft wingspan playing? :-D

I just think it is entertaining that we spend so much time talking about measurements of equipment, and very little talking about the flaws in many recordings that are taken as a reference.

Ironically, sometimes the exact same happens with far more compact percussion instruments. I adore Jack DeJohnette, but in several of his (otherwise very well recorded) tracks, he plays gigantic percussion instruments where one hand plays the one of the two conga or bongo drums on one speaker, the other in your other speaker and you wonder... how long are Jack's arms? :)
 

RickSanchez

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Screen-Shot-2018-06-05-at-09.42.jpg


Reference:
 
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Weeb Labs

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I'm unsure as to whether you have played an acoustic grand or upright in person before but from a player's perspective, placing stereo microphones in close proximity to the hammers produces rather accurate results. That is precisely how the piano sounds to the player and is why many pianists will be dissatisfied with a more distant recording.
 

Everett T

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I'm unsure as to whether you have played an acoustic grand or upright in person before but from a player's perspective, placing stereo microphones in close proximity to the hammers produces rather accurate results. That is precisely how the piano sounds to the player and is why many pianists will be dissatisfied with a more distant recording.
Close micing is the only way with pianos anything else sounds wrong. Organs, that's a little different story.
 

Robin L

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Obviously we're going to get as many answers as people responding. I think close miking of a piano might offer something like the performer's perspective, but it doesn't blend like what an audience would hear, and there's a tendency for close miked piano to gut the middle tones of the instrument. I've had the best results with what is called a "tail shot", at least that's what the experienced engineer called it. The microphones are two omnis, small diaphragms, spaced 20" apart, positioned at the tail of the piano, aimed into the harp, high enough to aim into the harp. Higher means more treble, as I recall. The microphones can be moved in closer or further, but closer usually works better. This will image well over speakers, has a very solid portrayal of the lower octaves, a greater emphasis on the left hand than one would hear with close miking, which tends to present the right hand with a hard focus.
 
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pablolie

pablolie

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One thing is the veracity of the recording - like I said to begin with, capturing the amazing range and true tonality of a piano is challenging.

There is the full range, but there also is the consideration of its placement in a stage to get a truly authentic feel. I know the piano player sits on top of the instrument. As does everybody else in the ensemble with their own instrument. But that's not how I hear it as an audience. I don't want to sit right next to where the piano virtuoso sits, I want to ear the performance.

Listen to Bill Evans' Waltz for Debby... is it a flawed recording? You hear the clinking of cocktail glasses and people chatting and laughing instead of being stunned into silence. Oh, and Bill Evans sounds amazing despite the fact his piano does not play all the way over the bass and drums and dominate the stage end to end. If I had to guess that amazing recording -to me- was simply recording with the good old fashioned 2 microphone approach?

PS: I am not a recording engineer, I am audience and know what I hear in good venues, and compare it to what I hear in good recordings, even thiose that have the 30ft piano and I thoroughly enjoy.
 
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Everett T

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Obviously we're going to get as many answers as people responding. I think close miking of a piano might offer something like the performer's perspective, but it doesn't blend like what an audience would hear, and there's a tendency for close miked piano to gut the middle tones of the instrument. I've had the best results with what is called a "tail shot", at least that's what the experienced engineer called it. The microphones are two omnis, small diaphragms, spaced 20" apart, positioned at the tail of the piano, aimed into the harp, high enough to aim into the harp. Higher means more treble, as I recall. The microphones can be moved in closer or further, but closer usually works better. This will image well over speakers, has a very solid portrayal of the lower octaves, a greater emphasis on the left hand than one would hear with close miking, which tends to present the right hand with a hard focus.
Just to clarify, that is what I consider close micing.
 

Weeb Labs

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Obviously we're going to get as many answers as people responding. I think close miking of a piano might offer something like the performer's perspective, but it doesn't blend like what an audience would hear, and there's a tendency for close miked piano to gut the middle tones of the instrument. I've had the best results with what is called a "tail shot", at least that's what the experienced engineer called it. The microphones are two omnis, small diaphragms, spaced 20" apart, positioned at the tail of the piano, aimed into the harp, high enough to aim into the harp. Higher means more treble, as I recall. The microphones can be moved in closer or further, but closer usually works better. This will image well over speakers, has a very solid portrayal of the lower octaves, a greater emphasis on the left hand than one would hear with close miking, which tends to present the right hand with a hard focus.
It isn't necessarily a matter of close or far. The most flexible approach is typically to place a pair of LDCs close to the hammers at opposite ends of the keybed, a pair of SDCs slightly beyond the player position and omnis much further into the room. One then has the freedom to blend positions within the mix, without sacrificing the spatial characteristics and dry response of the close microphones or the room artifacts of the others.

For clarity, I am referring specifically to solo recordings or those accompanied by cellos or guitars. This isn't particularly applicable to orchestra recordings.
 
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Matias

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It gets even better when they blend the close mics of a piano with the soundstage of an orchestra, so that the piano seems like covering the entire soundstage... What a mess.
 
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pablolie

pablolie

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I just want to say I am not adversarial to any of the responses. I *am* aware of the fundamental challenge and the compromises that may go into it.

I like the fact we got several piano fans involved!
 
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pablolie

pablolie

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It gets even better when they blend the close mics of a piano with the soundstage of an orchestra, so that the piano seems like covering the entire soundstage... What a mess.
That's exactly what I mean. The piano sounds amazing and yet it can dominate the entire stage in a bizarre gigantic way. There is a Yundi recording that I love when I get into it, but it is distracting that the entire orchestra seems to play in the back of a gigantic piano...
 

Roland68

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No, no, you are all completely wrong!

In most recording studios, the near-field monitors are spaced about the width of a piano keyboard.
Of course, he mixes the recording and spatial imaging in a way that is authentic to him.

If you then place your loudspeakers much further apart at home than is the case in the recording studio, then it's your own fault!

Grin, duck and run;)
 

Robin L

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Just to clarify, that is what I consider close micing.
I recorded at the Maybeck Recital Hall in Berkeley California. I generally used the tail shot technique but noticed that Concord Jazz had a big series of recordings, live from Maybeck Hall, with plenty of photos of the recording sessions. They had B & K SDCs close to the strings, close to the hammers. Real up close and personal, with the recordings very close, very direct, a bit surreal, the imaging too big.
 

LuvTheMusic

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First, most of us surely agree with the pablolie (OP) about those 30' wide pianos! Anyone raving about the sound of one of those recordings obviously has never heard a live pianist in any venue whatsoever....

I just want to add that there's also a question of what kind of space the engineer/performer wants to suggest in the recording. That is, the recording *could* aim to sound like a modern concert hall, with the piano rather distant and thus "small", which is indeed what you would hear even in a small hall. Alternatively, the recording could aim to bring the piano into your room, so to speak, i.e., to suggest that the pianist is a very talented neighbor who invited a few friends over to hear a recital. (I confess that I absolutely adore the latter presentation when it is done well.) Still not 30'wide, though!

I have no idea about the best recording technique, and I salute anyone who can make a recording that sounds halfway realistic!
 

Robin L

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First, most of us surely agree with the pablolie (OP) about those 30' wide pianos! Anyone raving about the sound of one of those recordings obviously has never heard a live pianist in any venue whatsoever....

I just want to add that there's also a question of what kind of space the engineer/performer wants to suggest in the recording. That is, the recording *could* aim to sound like a modern concert hall, with the piano rather distant and thus "small", which is indeed what you would hear even in a small hall. Alternatively, the recording could aim to bring the piano into your room, so to speak, i.e., to suggest that the pianist is a very talented neighbor who invited a few friends over to hear a recital. (I confess that I absolutely adore the latter presentation when it is done well.) Still not 30'wide, though!

I have no idea about the best recording technique, and I salute anyone who can make a recording that sounds halfway realistic!
Maybeck Hall wasn't all of 30' feet wide. Concord Jazz made this very close up recording of a Yamaha Grand at Maybeck:


FWIW, Maybeck was the perfect size for piano recitals, a room just big enough to not be overwhelmed by the sound of a big instrument. All seats [50ish?] had good sound.

A recording I made in a very big church of a very nice Yamaha 9' concert grand. I was attempting something like proper perspective, like first row in a big room, but was more concerned with tone:


I was attempting to get a clear, focused sound without too much of the mechanical action audible. I also enjoy the Hank Jones recording, though it's the audio equivalent of a macro photo.
 

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Interesting problem... A piano (like any single instrument) is "mono" and in a concert hall (or most venues) there is a very-narrow angle and you can't hear the directional-difference between the left & right sides of the piano. But, I guess nobody wants to make a mono recording... The reverb comes from all around, but IME a "realistic" amount of reverb doesn't sound natural coming from a pair of speakers in a small room and most recordings have less reverb than you hear in a concert hall.

A live performance in a larger venue will also usually have multiple-mono "sound reinforcement" speakers.

You get the same thing with a drum kit in rock recordings with the drums spread-across the whole soundstage. But rock & roll isn't supposed to be "realistic". ;)
 

Robin L

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Glenn Gould was one of those pianists who wanted his own sonic perspective in his recordings. His first commercial recording [of Bach's Goldberg variations] has a more or less standard vantage point, the pianist was not involved in the production decisions for this recording:


Glenn Gould's last commercial recording [in his lifetime] was also of the Goldberg Variations. This time, he had a much bigger hand in production:


I used to have a promotional, first issue copy of the 1955 Goldbergs, and noticed that it had a significantly different eq than later reissues. That first Glenn Gould LP had a somewhat covered and distant sound compared to the brighter and closer sounding reissues. There were many different remasterings of that record, this recreation being perhaps the most OTT of all. The 1955 recording was used to trigger a new-fangled player piano, the results were recorded in surround:

 

Frgirard

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I listen to a lot of classical and jazz in general, so when I establish if something sounds "well", piano features very high on the things I'd listen to. As does percussion and human voice - and an entire classical ensemble, too (I do avoid the cannon shot in 1812, though, I think that's the silliest audio cliche).

One thing I find downright funny in audiophile publications is when they declare some recordings audiophile pearls they use as reference... and very often these include piano. I get it and we've all read bout it... capturing the piano is particularly challenging. And most piano players have egos, and probably tell the recording engineer "people buy this record because of ME, yet I sound like I am just in the room on the left" (which is how they sound if you're in a concert hall sitting in the audience, of course).

Recording engineers have debates about to best record a piano, there are several theories out there.

I think it is funny, however, when an audiophile reviewer completely goes into the presentation of a piano recording.... which, when *I* listen to it, suffers from what I call "the 30ft piano" recording problem which is very prevalent: you hear one side of the piano coming more from the right speaker, the other side of the keys from the other. They have miked it so that is sounds waaaaay wider than 58 inches or so. There is zero stage when you do that, but many audiophile recordings (and I have to admit I love them) are such. Many Keith Jarrett recordings have that 30ft piano effect, but it's by far not the only one. My speakers are 7ft apart, so it's ridiculous when the piano is presented spanning that entire width... is it a Terasaur with a 10ft wingspan playing? :-D

I just think it is entertaining that we spend so much time talking about measurements of equipment, and very little talking about the flaws in many recordings that are taken as a reference.

Ironically, sometimes the exact same happens with far more compact percussion instruments. I adore Jack DeJohnette, but in several of his (otherwise very well recorded) tracks, he plays gigantic percussion instruments where one hand plays the one of the two conga or bongo drums on one speaker, the other in your other speaker and you wonder... how long are Jack's arms? :)
The good recording of the piano is not yet of this world. It would take hifi speakers capable of transmitting the vibration of the piano to the ground And the physical scale of the piano
 
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