Recording the detail – Choir and Piano

Piano and music

When we are recording choirs, the question of accompaniment will usually form a key part of the initial discussion.  A majority of choirs that we record, will sing with a piano or keyboard accompaniment.  From our perspective, it doesn’t make a lot of difference whether you choose to use an acoustic piano (upright or grand) or a digital keyboard.   There are advantages and disadvantages of both from a recording perspective.  Before we get into that, it’s worth considering the origins of the pianoforte.

Who invented the piano?

The man credited with investing the piano is Bartolomeo Cristofori. He was born in Padua in 1655.  At the age of 33,  he started working for Prince Ferdinando de Medici.

By this time, he was already a musical instrument maker and technician. Ferdinando took on Cristofori to look after his musical instruments – he would also have known of his reputation as an inventor.

The Early Piano

The very first mention of a piano is in an inventory of Ferdinando’s instruments from 1700.

An “Arpicembalo” by Bartolomeo Cristofori, of new invention that produces soft and loud, with two sets of strings at unison pitch, with soundboard of cypress without rose…”

How did the piano get its name?

The piano is often confused with the Harpsichord or Cembalo, both of which are early keyboard instruments which were prevailing during the 17th and 18th centuries.  Giving the instrument its full title of pianoforte, we find two Italian words which have been brought together.  The phrase ‘produces soft and loud’ in the Italian is ‘che fa’ il piano, e il forte’. And this is the quality of the instrument from which it derives its name.

Which is best for recording?

The obvious answer to this question is that the best instrument to record with is the one which you have available.  Some choirs we work with do everything with a digital piano / stage piano and amplifier.  Others will only ever perform and rehearse with an acoustic instrument.  This is none more apparent than with my own choirs. I run a ladies jazz group which rehearses in a church where there is a digital piano.  My Male Voice Choir by comparison, rehearses in a church which has a full size relatively new Yamaha Grand Piano.

Acoustic Pianos

Most pianists and even keyboard players are likely to prefer playing an acoustic piano – they have a fullness of tone and a touch which is rarely if ever achieved by their digital counterpart.  It’s not really a disadvantage, but something to factor in when using an acoustic piano is that you will need to ensure it is in tune, or has been tuned prior to the recording session.

From a recording perspective one of the challenges of using an acoustic instrument is finding the best location for it alongside your choir.   Too close and the piano may dominate the choir microphones making post production and questions of balance tricky.  Moving it further away is often the answer – we put separate microphones on the piano anyway so it will not be lost, but it does still need to be part of the performance.  There are also then practical considerations such as the accompanist seeing the musical director – conductors are always very keen on people watching them!

The exact location of a piano during a recording session will largely be determined by listening to it in context with the choir singing – most pianos can be moved relatively easily.  The only constraint is usually the venue.  Ultimately, it’s a case of listening before the final location is determined to find somewhere which gives detail of the piano but without creating a chorusing effect or sounding too distant.

Digital Pianos

If you were recording in a traditional studio environment then a digital piano would have significant advantages. Firstly they are far more readily available.  Additionally modern stage pianos (Nord, Clavinova etc) are becoming increasingly faithful to the true piano sound with little if any discernible differences in some cases.

A studio would typically take a direct feed from the digital piano (taking its sound via a cable rather than using a microphone.  To isolate the choir from the piano, they would then issue everyone with headphones and record the choir without the piano ‘bleeding’ onto the choir mics.    Practically, however, this is a big challenge on location particularly with larger choirs.

We do take a digital feed from electronic pianos which can be very useful in post production, but the choir also has to be able to hear the piano.  Usually by putting speakers in amongst the choir with the volume turned down we can minimise the ‘chorusing’ or digital delay which might occur.  This is also something which can now be manipulated in post production to get some very pleasing results.

On the plus side, a digital piano does not suffer from issues of tuning and the ‘digital’ sound via the cable removes noise from sustain pedals being released.

In Summary

Without wishing to look as if this is a cop out, there is not really a conclusion in favour of one option or another. Both have advantages and disadvantages.   From our perspective we can deal quite happily with both.  Ultimately the best instrument is firstly the one which is available to you, and secondly the one which your accompanist prefers to play.   Our role as a recording company is to capture your choir and piano in the very best way we can.

Author: Jules Addison is a Choir leader, Pianist and Organist.  Some choirs he conducts, others he directs from the keyboard.

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