Digital pianos are great for worship services, but your church may already have a nice acoustic piano that you would like to put to use. In that case, it’s important to understand the basic sound-reinforcement techniques that will let you get the most out of your instrument.
First, find a location for your piano that isn’t too close to any particular seating area. That way, no part of the congregation is overwhelmed by the piano’s natural volume. Once you’ve done that, you can start experimenting with microphone placement.
Grand and Baby Grand Pianos
There is no single correct way to mic up a piano. You can use a variety of techniques to capture your instrument’s wide range of tones. Probably the most popular microphone technique for grand piano involves positioning a pair of small-diaphragm omnidirectional mics directly over the strings, just past the hammers. This technique is illustrated by the red circles in the first diagram (the grey bar represents the hammers). Place the microphones 6″ to 9″ above the strings and about 18″ to 27″ apart. There are even specialty piano microphones that sound amazing and greatly simplify this technique.
One of the best things about this technique is that, by blending the microphone over the treble strings with the microphone over the bass strings into a single mono mix, you get excellent control over your piano’s tone. Also, because the microphones are close to the hammers, they capture the “attack” of the sound, which naturally adds brightness to the overall sound. This quality allows the piano to take a defined role in the mix and is excellent for modern worship songs.
A small-diaphragm omnidirectional microphone in the position indicated by the green circle (directly over the center of the harp) gives you a well-balanced tone, one with slightly less presence in the mix than a tone captured by mics in the red position. Though great for most styles of music, this tone is not as easy to fine-tune as is the tone captured by the red-position mics. A variation of this technique uses a boundary microphone affixed to the lid, in this same position. This allows you to close the piano’s lid for better isolation.
A third technique calls for a large-diaphragm cardioid microphone to be placed just inside of the lid (blue circle on the grand piano diagram). This spot is the apex of the rounded end of the piano’s body, so you will capture the piano’s richest and smoothest sound, and little of its attack. This dramatic tone sits back in the mix and is wonderful on its own for accompanying vocals.
Instead of absolute positions, the colored circles in the upright piano diagram represent tonal extremes. A single small-diaphragm cardioid condenser microphone pointing straight down in the red position (at lid height) will capture the brilliance of the treble strings and the attack of the hammers as they hit the strings, but little bass. Alternatively, in the green position, the mic will capture bass but almost no treble. Move the microphone down to the pink and the blue positions (past the hammers), and the tones are similar to those captured at lid height, minus the attack.
Although you can mic an upright piano with only a single microphone, most engineers prefer placing two microphones at similar depths on opposite sides of the piano. A pair of microphones spread out in the higher position produces a balanced tone that’s similar to that of the grand piano’s green position. At the lowest point, past the hammers, the tone mellows, resembling that of the grand’s blue position. And in the middle, just above where the hammers strike the strings, you get a bright and brilliant tone that resembles that of the grand’s red position.
Most importantly, as you strive to capture the piano tone that best meets your needs, be sure to take your time. Experimentation is the key to fine-tuning your sound, regardless of the microphones you use or where you place them initially.