“Hey how's it going, Mr. Advice Guy? I'm trying to get a good recording of my acoustic upright piano, which I keep in a small room. What do you think I should do?”
– “Not bad dude. If your recordings stink, you need a better microphone. It's as simple as that.”
“OK, what's the best mic going?”
– “The Neumann U87. It'll cost you though – around $3600. But you won't regret it.”
Some time later…
“Wah! My recordings sound hardly any different than before. They're certainly not any better. I've wasted $3600. I'm putting the mic up for sale on Ebay, and I'm not taking any more of your advice.”
It's a sad, sad story that doubtless has played out many times. The problem is that virtually everything you read in magazines and on the Internet says that the answer to all your recording problems is better gear. Not just better, it has to be more expensive too. Or it has to have an exotic-sounding brand name, or it has to be some piece of vintage kit from the 1960s or earlier – or a copy.
This is just so not true, and I have heard the evidence time and time again. Although microphones do sound different to each other, the differences are tiny compared to other matters that influence the sound of a recording.
In the instance of recording an acoustic piano, an upright piano sounds vastly different (and usually inferior) to a grand. Among newly purchased uprights, there is a HUGE variation in tonal qualities. As a piano ages it often acquires a rather sour and unpleasant tone. Some pianos age better than others.
Then there are the acoustics. Small rooms are always difficult to record in. Put a piano in a small room and even the most experienced engineer might have a hard time getting a decent sound.
Then there is the player. OK, different pianists don't sound as different as as different guitar players. But they can easily sound a lot more different than different microphones. (Is there a prize for the most uses of the word 'different' in a single paragraph?)
You could take the entire catalogue of professional microphones and not find any difference in sound quality anywhere near as significant as moving the same microphone a metre or so (three feet, give or take). In a small room, a difference of a few centimetres can be easily audible.
Finding the right microphone position and orientation doesn't really take more effort than moving the ornaments aroundÂ on your mantlepiece. It also takes careful listening, and good judgment that is learned through experience. But anyone recording an acoustic instrument who finds that the sound doesn't please them has already acquired a critical ear and is in a good position to improve rapidly.
So if you want to record your upright piano that you keep in a small room, firstly move it to a larger room (and have it tuned). Then consider carefully whether the piano you have really is up to the task – money spent here really can be money well invested. Then practise hard or find a good player. Then…
Then take your mic, that need only be of a basic professional quality, and try out every position you can possibly imagine. Some positions that you wouldn't think of listening from yourself can work well for a microphone. If you're recording in stereo, start by getting a good position for one mic, then find a position for the other that gives a good stereo effect.
Finding the best microphone position costs nothing. Magazine advertisers want you to spend money on their products. Magazine writers earn their living from that advertising income. Internet commentators seem largely to want to add to the confusion, and often merely want to brag about the equipment they own.
In summary, if you have a microphone of a basic professional standard, then finding the best position for that mic, on any instrument, vocal or ensemble, costs nothing and will produce FAR better results than buying a more expensive mic and not taking enough care over positioning.