I went over to Christian Seiffert's sound studio one morning to talk with him about different aspects of recording the piano. Apart from being a composer, Christian is very well known among classical musicians in the Basel region looking to make a recording with a sound technician who is also a musician himself.
Pianoways: Christian, could you describe the journey of a piece for us, from being played by the pianist to the sound track?
Christian: We are speaking about recording acoustic instruments now, not pop, where we work mostly with electronic and sampled sounds.
A pianist coming to the sound studio has to be very well prepared. I find playing for a recording more demanding than playing for a live audience. Many little imperfections in the rhythm and the sound are not audible in a live situation but you notice them in a recording. Since you will listen to the recording more than once you'll know after a while when to expect the little problem, and the" little problem" will grow each time you hear the recording. So a recording requires more perfection than a live situation.
The most important work of the sound engineer is to decide which microphones to use and where to place them according to the room, the instrument, the requests of the artist and the producer and so on. Some technicians use only two microphones, others use more and mix them in the editing process.
During the recording session the pianist plays the whole piece or parts of it many times. Every so often the musician will come over to the control room to hear the recordings and decide with the recording manager which parts should be recorded again. It is the sound engineer's responsibility that by the end of the recording session they are left with a good recording of each section.
The next step is cutting and editing the recordings. You can use the first few bars from one recording, the next bars from another and so on. Sometimes it is better though to clean up little mistakes rather than to exchange whole phrases. This prevents the recording from turning into a patch work without any musical line. When cutting you need to make the sound fade out. If you just chop between two samples you will hear a click, because the sound wave form makes a sudden jump.
P: Is there anything special about recording piano?
C: Recordings of singers and melody instruments have little gaps where it is unproblematic to cut. Piano (and deep string instruments) have very long resonances. If you stop a note the string continues to sound. This makes it difficult to make cuts. The pedal is another issue: the pianist doesn't always use the pedal evenly so you could have more pedal before the cut location and less after the cut which results in an uneven sound. The piano also has mechanical noises that can disturb the recording.
P: Who makes the final decision regarding which takes to use and how to put it all together ? is it you alone or you with the pianist?
C: This can be a bit tricky. Sitting beside the technician for long hours comparing takes can be very boring and tiring for the musician. After the initial sorting I present the player with the possible alternatives. The musicians tend to think it should be their own artistic decision but I tell them it is better if a neutral person makes the decision.
P: Can you make a mediocre player sound amazing?
C: It is not possible to make a mediocre player sound like a master. I can remove wrong notes but I can't create the musical flow. There are limits to how much a sound technician can do . It is important that pianists only record pieces that are on their playing level and are not too difficult for them to play well.
P: How do you set up for making a professional piano recording?
C:To make a professional recording you need a good grand piano in a large room with optimal acoustic conditions like a sound studio, church or concert hall. You also need a piano tuner in the control room during the recording who can intervene when a problem comes up.
P: Why do you need the piano tuner to be present the whole time?
C: In addition to the intonation fluctuations , you may notice a certain key being louder than the rest that needs to be regulated. This isn't an issue in live music but in a recording it is crucial. So we stop the recording and the technician tunes and fixes the instrument whenever necessary. The tuning of the piano has to be controlled and readjusted after one or two hours. In a recorded live concert the piano will be tuned in the intermission. Other instruments are constantly tuned by their players but pianists need a piano tuner.
P: Do you have any tips for non professionals who would like to record themselves?
C: I’m sure you will find an engineer who is prepared to make a simple recording for you at your home or in a school aula etc using a reasonable amount of cuts and a simple mixing. You can get satisfactory results even on a limited budget.
People who are comfortable with technology can make their own recordings. The simplest method is to use portable recorders or to film with a video camera. (Smart phones and tablets are not sensitive enough). Make sure not to place these devices too far from the musicians (which will result in a blurry recording) .
You'll need two microphones and an audio interface to connect the microphones to the computer, (the price range of these goes from almost free to incredibly expensive.). Free music editing programs can be found on the internet. The final mixing requires a bit of experience. Once you have your edited recording you can burn it onto an audio CD, upload the files to YouTube, insert them into your home page, send them to friends by e-Mail etc.
P:You were a piano teacher for many years and used to record your students.
C: I recorded my students for several reasons. First, like all teachers, I would tell them to play evenly or watch out with the pedal, correct wrong rhythms, and so on. They couldn't listen to themselves while they were playing and kept on doing it the way they were used to. The raw recordings were good for showing them how they sound from the outside. They would say "Oh, this is awful, now I understand what you mean!" .The edited recordings got them feeling proud and motivated and were good presents for friends and relatives.
I tried to do it with some professional touches. We would go to the tuned grand piano in the school aula, I took my high quality microphones from home and we made some good recordings . We needed some sessions after that for cutting and editing. They could choose the takes they liked best and would say: "Ah, if only I knew how long it takes to do the cutting and editing I would have practiced more so we wouldn't have to work so hard at the computer!"
P: What does it take to be a sound technician?
C:It is very good if you are a combination of musician and technician. Producing pop music requires different abilities than recording classical music . For recording contemporary music you have to be able to read and work with the complex scores. If you are recording Jazz you should be familiar with the jazz genre.
P: Thank you Christian for all those explanations!
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