Mixing Piano: 6 Pro Tips for a Perfect Tone

Mixing Piano: 6 Pro Tips for a Perfect Tone Mixing Piano: 6 Pro Tips for a Perfect Tone

With its wide range and incredible dynamic capabilities, piano is one of the most difficult instruments to record and mix.

If you're not mixing a solo piano, it can be even harder to get your piano recording to play nicely with all the other instruments in your mix, such as your guitars, vocals, or bass. Thanks to the fact that it exists in almost every part of the frequency spectrum, you have a greater potential for clashing and masking.

That all goes without mentioning compression, which is key for making sure your piano doesn't jump out of the mix with uncontrolled transients.

While there isn't any one-size-fits-all approach to mixing piano, there are a few tried and true tips and techniques that you can use in your piano mixing process.

1. Get the Right Sound

There are many different styles of pianos, and the way in which you mix yours will depend entirely on its unique tonal characteristics. You might choose to use a popular piano VST, such as Keyscape or Vienna Imperial, or track a live piano in your studio.

Before we dive into the mixing portion of this guide, I want to quickly talk about the importance of getting the sound right in either of these situations, as it'll save you a ton of mixing frustration down the line.

Live Piano

Recording a killer piano sound requires the right equipment and a nuanced approach.

Remember, the piano is a wildly dynamic instrument, so you need to decide what it is that you want to capture for your particular track.

The first step is knowing what kind of piano you want to record. Grand pianos, upright pianos, and electric pianos require distinct recording techniques and setups to truly showcase their unique sounds.

For grand pianos , the lid plays a large role in shaping the sound.

Open the lid fully and you get a brighter, more resonant tone. I often place a pair of microphones (a stereo pair) inside the piano, above the strings. XY configurations are great for getting a balanced stereo image. I highly recommend small diaphragm condenser microphones like the Neumann KM 184s or the AKG C414s , which can handle the wide dynamic range and capture the detailed nuances of the piano.

Then, we have upright pianos , which project sound from the back. Recording these requires a different approach. Start by positioning your microphone on both the top and bottom of the piano to help capture a full range of sounds.

For this setup, I like a combination of a large diaphragm condenser, like the Rode NT1-A , at the bottom to capture the bass notes, and a small diaphragm condenser for the higher notes at the top.

Key Factors to Watch Out For

Regardless of the piano you record, there are a few things to look out for:

  • Room Acoustics: The space you record in can have a huge impact on the sound of your piano. Ideally, record in a room with good acoustics or use acoustic treatments to minimize unwanted reflections, unless a large, natural reverb is what you're going for.
  • Mic Placement: Experiment with the distance and angles of your mics to find the best balance between clarity, tonal balance, and stereo image.

Piano VST

If you don't have access to a live piano or the ability to record one, there are hundreds of great piano VSTs out there that can give you the sound and texture you're looking for. As with any other instrument, picking the right one for your track is key.

Different genres often call for different piano styles. In a classical or jazz piece, you might want a grand piano VST with a detailed sound and a dynamic range, while a pop or rock track might benefit from a brighter, more processed sound, such as an ultra-compressed upright piano.

Here are a few tips for mixing VST pianos that I've kept with me over the years:

  • Cut Mud: Most piano VSTs come with lots of additional low-end so that they sound full on their own. Keep in mind as you start integrating them into your mix that you may need to roll off that low-end with a high-pass filter.
  • Add Your Own Reverb: If your piano VST has built-in reverb, mute it and use your own reverb for better control and a more cohesive sound with the other instruments in your mix.
  • Layering for Texture: If you can't get the exact sound you're looking for with one virtual piano, don't be afraid to layer multiple instruments up and EQ them so they work together as one unit.

2. Dealing with Phase Cancellation

Phase cancellation is a super common issue engineers deal with when mixing multi-miked pianos. The end result of phase cancellation is usually a thin, hollow, or weak piano sound.

The issues arises when multiple microphones are used to capture different parts of the piano, or when layering different piano tracks, and their signals are combined.

Since sound waves consist of peaks and troughs, when two waves are out of phase - meaning the peak of one wave aligns with the trough of another - they can cancel each other out, reducing certain frequencies or the fullness of the sound.

This misalignment can be due to the difference in distance from the sound source to each microphone (time-based phase differences) or the interaction of similar frequency components from different sources.

While the best way to tackle this problem is with strategic microphone placement at the source, there are a few other ways to mitigate phase issues:

  • Use Delay : If you notice phase issues on your multi-miked tracks, you can slightly adjust the timing of one track relative to another using a delay plugin. A small delay (a few milliseconds) can align the tracks more closely and reduce phase cancellation.
  • Invert the Phase : Sometimes, simply flipping the phase of one track can bring it into phase with another. Most DAWs have a phase inversion button or plugin that you can use to test this out.
  • Employ Phase Alignment Tools : There are several dedicated plugins designed to analyze and correct phase issues automatically between multiple tracks. InPhase from Waves is one of my absolute favorites!
  • Selective EQ : You can use EQ to carve out space in competing frequency ranges to reduce phase issues by minimizing the overlap between tracks.

If you're unsure whether your mix is being affected by phase issues, you can check it in mono. I frequently check my mixes in mono to reveal any issues that might be less apparent in stereo.

3. EQ Piano

If you're working on a busy mix, chances are you don't need the entire frequency range the piano provides, unless it's the main focal point. This is where EQ comes in. While the EQ process will depend entirely on the piano recording and the instrument's role in the process, there are a few general guidelines I like to follow.

Find the Role of the Piano In the Mix

Before you make any EQ adjustments, determine what role the piano is playing in your track.

If it's the main element, you'll want to make sure it's bright and present in the mix. If it's playing a supporting role, however, you might need to carve out some frequencies to make space for more important instruments.

Common Piano EQ Moves

Unless it's a solo piano track, the first thing I usually like to start with is a high-pass filter to get rid of low-frequency rumble and noise that aren't essential to the sound. I'll usually bring it up anywhere between 20Hz and 100Hz, depending on how it sounds. From there, I'll approach the rest of the range:

  • Low-End: While I love nothing more than the warmth and fullness from a grand piano, it's often a huge culprit for bass and kick clash. Look in the 200-250Hz range if your mix is lacking clarity.
  • Mid-Range: The mid-range is where the real tone and body of your piano lie. In dense mixes, however, just about every instrument wants to live here. By cutting around 300-500Hz , you can reduce mud. If your piano is getting in the way of your leads or vocals, you can cut between 1kHz and 3kHz .
  • Clarity and Presence: Around 2kHz to 6kHz is where the clarity and presence of the piano live. If you need it to cut through the mix, a gentle boost here can do you good. Just approach these kinds of boosts with caution, as you can easily get into harsh territory.
  • Air: A little high-shelf boost from 8kHz to 12kHz is the best way to bring out articulation and air in a recording, especially for solo piano pieces. Pultec-style EQs are my favorite for this kind of move.

The key, no matter what kind of piano you're working with, is to adjust in context with the rest of the mix. Don't make the above adjustments blindly and hope that they'll work.

4. Compressing Piano

The best way to control an unruly piano in a mix is with compression .

At its essence, a compressor is a tool that can even out the softest and loudest passages in a track to narrow the dynamic range of the overall sound. The way in which you compress piano will depend on the role of the piano in the mix and the genre. Like EQ, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. However, there are a few common approaches I like to take when compressing.

Natural Piano

If you're mixing solo piano or acoustic piano that's the lead in a mix, a natural sound might be exactly what you're going for. For this approach, you'll want gentle compression.

Aim for a light ratio (around 2:1 to 3:1) and set the threshold so that compression only engages during the louder passages. Keep your attack times relatively slow (30ms to 50ms) to let the initial transients pass through and use medium release times (40ms to 100ms) to maintain piano's natural decay.

For a softer, more gradual compression style, I like to use a soft knee if the compressor plugin I'm using allows for it.

Pop and Rock Piano

In a pop or rock song, you'll want to use more aggressive compression to help it cut through the mix.

Use higher ratios between 4:1 and 6:1 with a lower threshold for more consistency. Faster attack times from 1ms to 10ms can help tame transients, while quicker release times between 20ms to 50ms give it the punch and energy it needs to sit atop a busy mix.

Using Parallel Compression

If your piano has such a wide range that regular compression isn't cutting it, you can try using parallel compression . The idea here is mixing your uncompressed piano signal with a heavily compressed version of the same signal.

Best Compressors for Piano

There are a few compressors plugins I often find myself reverting back to when mixing piano, many of which are better for certain genres than others.

For heavier compression in pop, rock, or EDM, I'll typically reach for an 1176 compressor emulation, such as the Universal Audio 1176LN . It's renowned for its fast attack and release times, making it perfect for managing the dynamic peaks of a piano without squashing its natural expression. Plus, it adds a nice bit of color, perfect for when a piano needs more grit. You can also go for another colorful compressor like the Empirical Labs Distressor .

If I want a piano sound that's a bit more natural and musical, I'll go for an LA-2A emulation instead, such as the Waves CLA-2A . This optical compressor offers a smooth, natural compression that's great for gentle piano. For something more transparent, I'd recommend the FabFilter Pro-C2. It has a colorless sound with plenty of detailed parameters and excellent visual feedback.

5. Dial-In the Stereo Width

The best way to get a sense of width when mixing piano is to make sure your piano mics were set up to capture a wide stereo recording in the first place. Some of the most common setups include XY, ORTF, spaced pair, and Blumlein, each of which are unique in their own right.

However, since this guide is more about mixing piano, I'll let you do research on mic setups elsewhere. For now, let's look at a few ways you can get width during the mix phase.

Panning is going to be your key player here. If you have a spaced pair, for example, you can pan your piano across the stereo field with one mic panned hard right and one panned hard left. Just make sure that the piano sounds even on both sides for balance across the stereo field. Make sure to do this in context with the rest of your mix so that it doesn't feel disconnected.

Another great widening technique is mid-side processing . With an EQ like FabFilter Pro-Q3, you can split a stereo recording into mid (mono) and side (stereo) elements to process them separately. From there, you can boost the level of the sides to enhance the stereo imaging without impacting the center.

If you have a mono piano that you want to spread across the stereo field, consider using a stereo widening plugin , such as Brainworx bx_stereomaker. By manipulating phase, you can make your piano sound fuller and wider. Just check your mix in mono to make sure any excessive widening doesn't cause phase cancellation.

6. Choosing the Right Reverb

As someone who has been mixing for more than a decade, I can tell you with certainty that the biggest mix mistake I see in amateur piano mixes is poor reverb choice.

While it's okay to get experimental, more often than not, you want to make sure your reverb complements the music's style and the role of the piano within it.

A classical or solo piano piece, such as Ludovico Einaudi's "Nuvole Bianche," would benefit beautifully from the grandeur of a hall reverb.

On the other hand, a more intimate song like John Legend's "All of Me" benefits better from a room reverb. With it, you get the natural acoustics of a small space to complement the personal lyrics in the song.

Adjusting Reverb Parameters

No matter the reverb you choose, you'll likely have to make adjustments to get it to fit in your mix.

First, dial-in the pre-delay on your reverb to separate the direct sound from the rest of the wet signal. In doing so, you get all the clarity and articulation of the piano while still benefiting from the spatial effect.

You'll also want to adjust the decay time , which is how long the reverb lasts. A short decay time is great for adding a sense of space without muddying the mix, while a long decay can create a more dramatic, atmospheric effect.

Mixing Piano Confidently

Mixing piano isn't easy. It's an instrument we all know deeply, so when it's mixed poorly, it doesn't take long for people to realize something is off.

A successful piano mix is about listening carefully to the natural sound you're getting and using EQ, compression, reverb, and stereo placement to enhance that sound rather than reshape it.

Of course, as I've said again and again, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to mixing piano. Though I often find that taking a respectful approach results in a piano that retains a distinct voice yet expresses itself beautifully in the context of a mix.

Listen to how other producers and engineers are using pianos in their mixes. A band-passed mono piano drenched in vintage chamber reverb might be a better choice for your mix than a high-fidelity stereo piano with a glorious hall reverb.

With the above strategies in your arsenal, I wish you the best in amping up your piano mixing skills!

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