Adventures In Audio

I see your 1940s Neumann microphone and raise you an 1851 grand piano [with audio]

by David Mellor
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Technology moves on, doesn't it? Surely with all the benefits the 21st century can offer we can design and build a better microphone than the Neumann U47 which dates back to the 1940s.

Er, no we don't seem to be able to do that. Yet.

Aside from that and the odd vintage compressor though, I'm sure that everything we use today in audio is better than it ever was in the past. Lucky us indeed.

But with musical instruments things seem to be different. An antique violin is likely to be held in higher regard than a modern one. You could easily pay $20,000 or $50,000 for a violin made by someone 200 years ago you've never even heard of.

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But that's understandable - maybe the ageing of the wood mellows the sound over time (like the ageing of a 1940s microphone's diaphragm perhaps - What's the emoji for sarcasm again?).

But a piano - now that must be different?

A piano is an intensely mechanical device with thousands of moving components. And surely the metal strings are not going to improve over time?

Well no. But a piano can be maintained. It might end up being a little like the Ship of Theseus, but a piano can be maintained almost indefinitely.

The evidence I present is an Erard grand piano dating from 1851. At the time of writing that is 167 years ago. To gain a sense of perspective this is the year that the Yale lock was invented, Moby Dick was first published, and Canada adopted the decimal currency system. A long time ago indeed.

Erard grand piano

The photo is courtesy of cellist Steven Isserlis who has recently recorded an album of Chopin and Schubert on his 1726 Stradivarius instrument kitted out with old-style gut strings, accompanied by Dénes Várjon on this fascinating keyboard instrument.

Normally I'm not a fan of old pianos, even the best-maintained of them. Piano making really has progressed enormously over the course of the 20th century and beyond and, to me, a modern piano sounds like a piano should - even when performing music dating back as far as Bach and Scarlatti (Bach never wrote directly for the piano, and what Scarlatti knew as a piano was very different to today's instrument).

This one however sounds amazing - it is most definitely piano-like, but it doesn't sound old or inadequate, it is a different interpretation of how a piano can sound. There may be just a hint of sourness, but who doesn't like a splash of balsamic vinegar in their recipe now and then?

Time for an audio clip...

/a9/i-see-your-1940s-neumann-microphone-and-raise-you-an-1851-grand-piano-with-audio/chopin.wav

Details are available at the Hyperion website...

I like it.

Session notes

I always like looking at photos of recording sessions so that I can link what I see with what I hear.

What I see here is of course the magnificent Erard piano. But I also see a rather large microphone pointing directly at the strings.

Normally this is not my favorite position because no-one ever listens to a piano in this way. If you wanted to capture an accurate representation of the sound of a piano the way it would be heard in recital or concert, then clearly a microphone position that is closer to a real-life listener's perspective would be the way to go.

But accuracy is not the be-all-and-end-all of recording. Ultimately it's what sounds good that counts. And I don't think anyone could say that this recording sounds anything less than first class.

The microphone by the way is an AEA R88, perhaps in its Mk2 version, which will cost you somewhere around $1999 if you fancy it. Fortunately it's stereo so you don't have to buy two!

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Since this is a crossed pair of figure-of-eight microphones, it is insensitive to the sides - exactly where the cello is positioned, so the mic only picks up the direct sound from the piano and hardly any direct sound from the cello.

I can see another microphone just to the left of the R88, but I can't work out what it is. It is an unusual blend of microphone positions so I'm tempted to think that it was for a recording made in parallel, perhaps as an alternative or for a different purpose. There are also two tall microphone stands presumably for ambience mics. There is another microphone in the bottom right corner of the photo, but it doesn't seem to be in position.

Another point worth noting is that from what we can see, the cellist is positioned facing the pianist. You can see this from the positions of the stool and the music stand. (They are possibly not exactly where they were during the recording but they are likely to be close.) This is of course contrary to what is normally expected in performance, but in recording it's possible to do whatever you like to get the best result, and visual communication between performers is incredibly useful.

There's another look at the R88 here. The photo is courtesy of Jonathan Allen Recording, which is another link worth looking up.

Erard piano, AEA microphone

I normally like to end my articles with a summary or conclusion, but really all I can say here is that I didn't expect to like this recording but in fact I like it a lot. Here's another clip, this time from the Schubert...

/a9/i-see-your-1940s-neumann-microphone-and-raise-you-an-1851-grand-piano-with-audio/schubert.wav

One more photo, of performers Steven Isserlis and Dénes Várjon...

Steven Isserlis and Dénes Várjon

Saturday December 15, 2018

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David Mellor

David Mellor

David Mellor is CEO and Course Director of Audio Masterclass. David has designed courses in audio education and training since 1986 and is the publisher and principal writer of Adventures In Audio.

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