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The imperfect venue: Piano miking (Guest blog by Jim Kumorek)

I volunteer both in the band as well as on the audio team at Green Level Baptist Church (GLBC) in Cary, North Carolina. A few years before we started attending, GLBC added a contemporary service with a praise band as an alternative to their traditional service with choir and piano.

The previous sound recording equipment setup

It's a small venue, and designed in the days where a band would have never been thought of. The congregation was established in 1870 and the current sanctuary was built in 1907, over 100 years ago. Being of a smaller stature, and until recently a congregation with a very traditional approach, miking a band wasn't their priority. A PZM (also known as a boundary mic) was used on the floor near the drum kit to get some percussion into the two-track CD recording of the service, and a spare lavalier mic was taped under the piano lid to get some of its sound in there as well.

The piano can be a tricky instrument to mic, so experimenting with your sound equipment is key.The piano can be a tricky instrument to mic, so experimenting with your sound equipment is key.

Higher sound pressure levels (SPL) for music and the ability to capture multiple tracks via our recently added Allen and Heath Qu-32 digital audio recording device has caused us to improve our miking of these two instrument without going overboard on meeting our needs. We didn't want either the expense or complication of attaching a mic to every individual drum and cymbal.

Upgrading the gear

My experience to date with RØDE studio microphones has impressed me with the sonic performance, build quality and pricing, so they were my first consideration for investing in new equipment for improving our sound reinforcement and quality.

My experience to date with RØDE studio microphones has impressed me with the sonic performance, build quality and pricing.

In our small sanctuary, we need to turn the platform from the contemporary service to the traditional service in less than an hour, which greatly limits how we can place the praise team's musicians. In fact, we can't be together as a group, and have to spread out between two locations.

The worship leader (with acoustic guitar), vocalists, electric guitar and keyboardist are placed up front on the platform, with the grand piano, drum kit and bass player wedged into the front-left corner of the seating area. There's pretty much no other place to put them in the room.

This is a less-than-optimal situation for a band, and certainly for a mic test. While a studio environment might give you 'better' results, few churches are ideal, so this, in my opinion, makes for a far more interesting evaluation - what works well in a downright awful miking environment?

I'd like to express my thanks to Roger Hobbs Jr and Joe D'Ambrosio, pianist and drummer at GLBC, for their assistance in this project. Both are talented musicians and it's a privilege to serve with them.

Let's start with the piano

As you can imagine, miking the piano next to an acoustic drum kit was going to be a challenge.The ad hoc technique of using a lav mic actually picked up more drum noise than piano!

Repositioning the instruments to improve separation is pretty much a non-starter in our venue. So, we needed to make the best of the situation and experiment with recording mic placement for the piano alone that would reduce drum spillover, while getting the best tone for the instrument.

Because of the proximity to the drums, we stayed with cardioid pickup patterns, and thus eliminated from consideration the more expensive models that have switchable polar patterns.

Quality microphones will give you the best dynamic range when it comes to recording the piano.Quality microphones will give you the best dynamic range when it comes to recording the piano.

Dual large-diaphragm RØDE NT1s

We started out with trying two RØDE NT1 mics, one centred over the low-end strings and one over the high-end. Most discussions of piano miking that I've read suggest angling the mics towards the hammers to pick up both the vibration of the strings as well as the transients of the hammer striking them. In our situation, that also meant pointing the mics towards the drum kit, and we wanted to reduce the bleed-through as much as possible. Therefore, in all our trials, we angled our recording equipment towards the back of the case and away from the hammers.

Not surprisingly, the sound quality was a night and day difference from our lav. What did surprise me, however, was the degree of isolation from the drums. While there was still noise spilling in, it was significantly lower than expected.

In post production, I panned the low end 75 per cent left and the high end 75 per cent right, which gave it a nice stereo image. I also thought it would be a good idea to drop some highs out of the low-end mic and lows out of the high-end mic to try a crossover approach, but this did not work so well. You see, the low-end strings themselves still have higher-frequency harmonics that got cut when I did this, resulting in a muddy sound. So, I equalised for tonal quality from each NT1 instead. Though this would result in phase interference between them, I did not notice any negative ramifications from this approach.

The mic on the lower end had a nice, resonant thickness to it. Conversely, the NT1 at the highs also sounded very good, but lacked a little brightness - I wanted to hear more sparkle in the upper keys. This is to be expected from a large-diaphragm mic, as the additional mass of the diaphragm would not respond as quickly to these higher frequencies and mellow them out a little.

The single mic did well in capturing the entire piano sound, however with the increased distance also came greater spill from the nearby drums.

Single large-diaphragm NT1

Next, we tried to see if a more minimalist approach would be equally effective. We positioned on NT1 over the centre of the entire string area, and raised it up to let the cardioid pattern pick up a wider range.

The single mic did well in capturing the entire piano sound, however with the increased distance also came greater spill from the nearby drums. In addition, as with our previous setup, the single studio mic lacked the sparkle I was after.

Matched pair of small-diaphragm RØDE NT55s

After this we tried moving to a matched pair of small-diaphragm RØDE NT55s - placed in the same way as our dual NT1 mics.

These brought in that sparkle I was looking for, with the smaller diaphragm having a faster reaction time to the upper frequencies. However, the low-end lacked some of the richness that the NT1 brought out, and I heard more higher-pitched bleed from the drum kit - cymbals came through, though there was less of the kick drum than I heard with the NT1s.

NT1/NT55 combination

You can probably predict our last miking configuration. We placed an NT1 over the lower strings, and an NT55 above the upper ones.

This provided us the richer low-end and the lovely sparkly in the highs. We got a little more bleed from the percussion from the NT55, but it gave us the best overall piano sound, which is still significantly louder than the drums. This is the setup we plan to stay with.

In summary

Despite a pretty terrible miking situation, RØDE's microphone options provided a variety of tonal characteristics to choose from with very good isolation from surrounding instruments - at a very reasonable cost.

Another option for an even more restricted budget would be a small-diaphragm M5 on the high end. It won't provide the same sparkle, but still has excellent tonality and good rear rejection.

In my next article, we'll discuss the drum kit side of the test session.

About the author

Jim Kumorek is the owner of Spreading Flames Media, providing video production, photography and writing services. He has also been an editor at Church Production Magazine, and a church technical director responsible for audio, video and lighting systems. He can be contacted at james@spreadingflamesmedia.com.