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Getting a superior piano recording

Piano recording blog #1

By Paul Vastola - July 18, 2016

Getting a Superior Piano Recording
     At Southernview Sound and Music, we love pianos and pianists and making great sounding recordings of them. There are a lot of exceptional, talented, semi-talented, aspiring, beginning, aging, and not-so-talented pianists out there.  And there are a lot of reasons to record any or all of them. For the young, it may be a chance to document the early stages of their playing. For the older, perhaps it’s a last chance to capture that special skill, as a gift to them and as a legacy for their friends and relatives. For the exceptionally talented, it could be time to produce a professional CD of original compositions or famous pieces. (One of our favorite piano artists has produced such a wonderful solo album that she is in contention for a Grammy Nomination this year.) And for those that fall somewhere in between, recording can be a chance to enjoy the awesome environment of the professional studio, play on a wonderful instrument, and sound as good (or better) than you ever have before. Here are a few tips on achieving your best recording:
  • Select a program you can manage. Whether it is 2 or 15 selections pick music you love and that others will enjoy hearing.  Feature pieces you perform well that are at or near the top of your playing ability. Try to include music that will show off the sound of the piano - powerful bass notes and brilliant high passages. This thrills the listeners.
  • Work on your technique. Make the piano sing! Don’t be afraid to go from pp to ff as a grand piano has a huge dynamic range.  Try not to overuse the sustain pedal as this can make passages and transitions sound “muddy”. Learn to “nurse” the pedals to decrease the “thump” from releasing a pedal quickly. Some players will remove their shoes to minimize pedal noises. You are moving a lot of parts in the action with those pedals, and the sensitive microphones pick up everything; including loud breathing!
  • Practice the heck out of your program. This is a no-brainer. The better prepared you are, the faster the session(s) will go and the less money you will spend.  While practicing, be aware of keeping your time constant, especially on passages that have obvious rhythm to them. If you are reading the music, copy all the pages and spread them across the music stand to avoid the noises and pauses of page turning.
  • Find a great instrument. The better the piano, the better you will sound.  Seek out a studio that has a grand piano that is over 6’ long.  At SVS&M, we feature a 7’6” Yamaha C7 conservatory grand. (Watch for a future blog post on specifics about pianos themselves.) The piano should reside in a quiet, sonically well-designed space; you want to feel comfortable at that piano. This may require visiting a number of studios and trying out the instruments. Don’t be shy about this.  Any professional recording studio should be happy to have you check out their piano before you commit to recording there. While you’re in this process, you’ll get a sense of your comfort level with the facility and the engineers with whom you will be working very closely. Be sure to ask about the care that the piano receives. It should be well maintained, evenly “voiced” and serviced (tuned) before you begin your recording on it. A really good tuning is crucial to the integrity of the final product.
  • Be confident that the recording personnel are experienced at capturing the best performance that the instrument and you can put out. Ask to hear other recordings that have been done on that piano and discuss your goals regarding how you want your performances to sound. It helps to have musically oriented engineers recording you, as they are best able to help you evaluate a performance and are better equipped to edit musically, as well as “mix and match” sections from different takes.
  • Don’t freak about playing everything perfectly! A skilled editor can combine sections and fix mistakes to make your final performance nearly perfect. It is good practice to have multiple takes of each piece for this purpose.  Ask any pianist who has recorded with Paul Vastola about miracles he has performed to enhance their performances.
  • Plan on having fun! This should be a joyous experience. Sure, there will be some nervousness - this is like a concert that will live on… and that’s so great!
  • Finally, think beyond the music itself. When you are done with your project, you will want it to look good too. Even a beginner’s recording should be packaged nicely with either photos of the performer or other art work and a description of the project from the artist’s or patron’s point of view. Seek professional help at any point in this final part of the process if you can afford it. Your studio can likely guide you to some extent on packaging and duplication.
A professional piano recording can become a treasure for years to come and should be something you and your listeners will enjoy hearing again and again.