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Tips and Tricks

Mixing Piano: 13 tips for a striking sound every time

Discover how to control this most full-range of instruments, and find its perfect place in your mix

The versatility of the piano is one of its greatest strengths, but when it comes to mixing the instrument you’ll often find that there are plenty of decisions to make. One size doesn’t fit all, so we’ve decided to take a look at some mixing tips that can point you in the right direction in most scenarios. We’ll talk about how to EQ, compress, and pan a piano in the mix, along with plenty more helpful tips for specific mixing situations. Of course, a good mix requires good material, so if you’re serious about getting a great sound try Ratio, our free grand piano VST.

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How to EQ piano when mixing

A piano can be recorded in many different ways, in many different rooms, with many different microphones, which all end up contributing to a unique frequency profile. There will be some frequency ranges in your piano that contribute to the overall sound of the track in a good way, and some that don’t. You need to listen to where your piano has its character, and where other instruments are active, as you want to avoid pitting them against each other as they struggle for space in the mix. EQ decisions are never usually made in isolation—they should always be offset against the entire mixture of instruments in the track and the music itself.

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With such a wide range of notes, the piano can pretty much cover any given frequency. Your job is to identify which ranges are most relevant, based on:

– The notes the piano is playing (high, low, mid, or a mixture of all)

– What notes the other instruments in the song are playing

– The overall feel of the song and the role the piano plays in it (intimate, powerful, fun, sad?)

Is your piano competing with another bass instrument? If so, you’ll probably have to curb one of the two sounds with EQ. Or perhaps the piano is alone in the bass range but competing with a vocal in the mids; in this case, your entire song could benefit from reducing the piano’s midrange frequencies.


High-passing piano with a filter
On boomier or close-mic’d piano recordings, try cutting the extreme lows (below 40Hz) with a high-pass filter to clear the sound, as is often the case in mixing. Similarly, if your piano doesn’t play any notes below C3, your high-pass filter cutoff could extend much higher.

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EQing piano in a simple mix
With fewer elements in a mix there’s more space for the full range of the piano to transmit. In a simple mix a piano should really only need subtle EQing to enhance its character and allow the other sounds to flourish. Use a spectrum analyser to help determine which frequencies are giving the mix’s other instruments their character, and try lowering these on the piano.

Once you’ve identified the frequencies that need adjustment, you can begin EQing. Let’s take a simple piano ballad as an example, with just piano and vocals, and look at some EQ decisions that will help the two elements to blend together.

Generally, unprocessed vocals occupy the mid and high frequency ranges, whereas pianos occupy all three. Without some EQ reduction and loudness balancing, piano can overpower vocals, so it can be a good idea to cut the piano in the vocal range. Subtle reduction in the piano’s highs and mids can create more room for the accompanying vocals, allowing it to sit above the piano’s lows. As you can see from the image below, a slight duck in the 3kHz zone is all it takes.

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EQing piano for a dense mix
On the other hand, if there’s a lot going on in a mix, you might be forced to make harsher decisions on the piano EQ. Again, what to cut and what to leave depends entirely on the other instruments and where they don’t have power, so these will be different decisions each time. A densely populated mix means less room and more need for tight EQing, so try to trim off excess frequencies on each element of the track to avoid masking and clutter.

There are no hard and fast rules of thumb, but what we can say is that there are definitely some areas that are better to focus on than others. Acoustic piano recordings often contain lots of low frequency harmonics (less than 250Hz) which can clog up the low end by competing with bass and drums, especially at fast tempos. If this applies to your mix, use a shelving EQ to reduce the low end of the piano.

A boost around the 3kHz mark can be another good place to start, as it will add some presence to the piano and help it stand out. Remember though, you should look at the same frequency area in the other instruments in the track and offset this boost with a cut as needed.

How to pan piano in the mix

It often seems like there are a million and one ways to pan piano in the mix. Depending on how the piano has been recorded, and whether you’re using a virtual instrument such as our free grand piano, Ratio, there could be different decisions to make as to where you want the instrument to sit. Your panning options are largely as follows:


1. Don’t touch it!
Put simply, your piano VST or other software instrument should have been recorded using stereo microphone techniques. This means that the left channel should predominantly cover the left side of the piano and vice versa, so you could well have a great stereo image that fits naturally in your mix without doing anything else. Of course, different software and recording techniques mean this is not always the case...


2. Pan it out of the way
If you’re mixing a stereo recording of piano and there are other instruments in the mix, a common mix move would be to pan the piano into an exact area of the stereo field, say 45% right. By folding it into a more pinpointed location like this you allow the piano to have its own space, without it bullying other instruments. You might have to be a little more attentive to your EQ in order to carve out said space, but a good result will feel like you’re listening to a performance where the piano has been allocated its own place on the stage.

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3. Take the edge off
When mixing piano it’s not uncommon to become too attached to the idea of width, and try too hard to pan for realism. Oftentimes it’s actually better to find what sounds pleasing to the ears. A piano that was recorded with multiple mics can sometimes take up too much of the stereo field in a mix, and this can be troublesome, especially if you want to fit it in with other elements and keep it in stereo at the same time. A good tip in this scenario is to use a stereo width plug-in to tame your piano, by actually narrowing instead of widening the stereo image.


How to fit a lush, stereo piano into a mix
A piano is by nature a stereo instrument, with the higher pitched notes occupying the right channel and the lower notes occupying the left. Preserving this width is often very important in a mix, especially if your piano is a core element of the track.

"People make the mistake of assuming that panning all the way left or right is the best way of creating a wide mix, when in fact this can work against your stereo field and make it sound unnatural."

If you’re using a piano which has been recorded with multiple mic positions, you can accentuate the natural width of the instrument by panning the left and right channels independently. Pan the left and right mics about 50% away from centre on their respective sides. Often, people make the mistake of assuming that panning all the way left or right is the best way of creating a wide mix, when in fact this can work against your stereo field and make it sound unnatural.

For a different approach that doesn’t attempt to locate the notes in their natural stereo positions, but still creates tight low end with a wide mid/high image, try placing the low notes more towards the center and the high notes more towards the sides. If you know how to use a mid/side-capable EQ, reduce the strength of the signal below a certain frequency in the sides signal; and apply a complementary reduction above that frequency for the mids signal only.


How to fit a mono piano into a mix
If you’re working with a complex mix with multiple instruments, you might not want your piano to dominate the mix by being panned left and right. In modern styles like pop or R&B the stereo image of the piano isn’t always so important; sometimes it just needs to be flat and loud!

Make things a little neater by simply panning one side to match the other and going mono. This will put the piano in a defined location in the mix, thus making it more audible and simultaneously carving out room for the rest of the elements in the track.

Using reverb while mixing piano

A sense of space is an important factor in the overall character of a piano in a mix. Acoustic pianos interact with the room they are recorded in, as well as the way that the microphones are placed in relation to the instrument. Careful reverb choice is important to get a realistic tone and blend pianos in with the rest of the track.

Again, the musical style and arrangement of the track will shape your choices. A sparser mix leaves plenty of space for trailing reverb tails, while a dense mix will have less room for a piano with a lot of reverb. Brighter reverbs suit busy, layered tracks where you need your piano to cut through, but won’t work so well in a moody jazz track. Often, a touch of the same reverb that you’re using on your vocal or lead instrument track is needed to give the piano some supporting ambience.

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Selecting and mixing microphone sources for ambience
Switch between the close mics and the ambient or room mics to find the right sound that works in relation to your overall mix. If you need more of the room, add more of the room mic, and do the same with the close mic if you want a dryer sound. If the natural ambience that was recorded in the room isn’t doing it for you, it's easy enough to replace it with a new reverb.


Replacing or adding reverb while mixing piano
You can always use reverb plug-ins to gain extra control of your instrument’s space, outside the natural ambience that it was recorded in. Using acoustic based reverbs will result in a more natural sound for pianos, so think rooms, halls, and chambers. Springs, plates and other electromechanical or artificial reverbs are still viable choices, but they have a more artificial sounding tone which won’t really work as ambience.

"If you have a choice of microphone positions, it’s best to feed the roomier microphones into the reverb plug-in for a more natural-sounding decay"

If you have a choice of microphone positions, it’s best to feed the roomier microphones into the reverb plug-in for a more natural-sounding decay. This way you can build upon the natural ambience of the room in which the piano was recorded.

Use the reverb plug-in’s parameters to adjust your room size and pre-delay. Keep your track’s tempo in mind when setting your reverb tail: faster tempos won’t easily support longer tails with lots of pre-delay, while ballads or tracks with slower tempos will. Remember that pre-delay makes your reverb more dominant in the track by leaving a ‘dry’ space before the reflections kick in. This parameter works especially well with piano because of the percussive nature of the instrument, giving it a unique and dramatic soundstage.


Top reverb plug-ins for piano (including free ones)
There are many options out there when it comes to reverb plug-ins for piano. In general, convolution reverbs are a good place to start as they simulate real spaces using impulse capturing technology. This way, a piano sound can be treated with the acoustics of famous studios, halls, and more.

Here’s a range of good reverb software options for piano…


1. FabFilter Pro-R: A high-grade and natural-sounding reverb for adding well sculpted space and character to dry recordings.

2. OrilRiver: A free algorithmic reverb that yields decent sounding results, with five reverb types and a flexible interface.

3. Michael Willis Dragonfly Reverbs: A bundle of free reverb plug-ins containing classic acoustic styles (halls, chambers, studios, rooms) and electromechanical reverbs.

4. Waves Abbey Road Chambers: Creates a realistic roomy sound that adds a distinctive sense of space, and an analog saturated tone.

5. Convology XT: With a free version that contains some high-quality convolution reverbs mimicking acoustic spaces and hardware devices, this is a quick and easy fix.

Compression settings for piano

As with EQ and panning, the use of compression when mixing depends on the context of the track. The style and components of the music will necessitate different approaches; a more classical or jazzy piece of music will probably benefit from trying to preserve more of the dynamic range of the piano recording, while pop and country tracks generally tend to require more compression. To figure out the best compression settings for your piano It can be helpful to think of the dynamic of your mix in three ‘performance’ categories:


Loud
When it comes to rock music, pop, or any other style which we might generally consider as being ‘loud’, piano parts tend to be more rhythmic and aggressive. Dance music often uses heavily compressed short piano stabs to create percussive elements.

With these types of piano parts, slower attack times are usually applied. Faster attack times will make your piano sound more punchy and present, which in turn will complement bass and drums parts. Move the release time around based on the song tempo and density of the mix; you want the compressor to prevent the piano part from popping out and obscuring other ingredients in the mix.

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Soft
For quieter mixes, or tracks where there are only one or two elements, try not to over compress the piano as it can negatively affect the dynamics within the performance. With fewer competing instruments involved, the piano can take center stage showing off all of its dynamic range.

A ‘lazier’ compression setting will be a lot more suitable for more intimate piano recordings than for faster and more aggressive pieces. Experiment with slower attack and release times, and play around with how the piano sound responds to that. Attack controls the character of the transients, while Release controls the character of the body.


Moderate
On tracks that fall somewhere between loud and soft, or that fluctuate between the two, compression is useful to keep the sound of the instrument at a consistent level. Acoustic pianos can be very dynamic instruments, so attention needs to be paid to the loudness to ensure every note is heard as intended. The aim is to keep the quiet notes audible whilst keeping the impact of the louder sections.

Ratio settings will depend on the recorded and desired sounds, but as a rule of thumb, lower ratios of 3:1 will lead to subtler compression, anything higher will come off sounding more heavy handed.

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