It is my intent on this site to explore piano recording techniques, piano music, and theremin designs – an odd mix I know, but with some common elements.
Please bear with me as I undertake to explain myself while constructing this site.
The Piano recording paradox
Professional recordings of classical pianists are good at capturing the performer’s musical and technical mastery of a piece, but they tend to create, for the listener, the sense of being a member of the audience in a recital hall. This is akin to looking at 16 colour print of fine art as opposed to actually seeing the real painting up close.
A great piano has an incredibly rich palette of colours, overtones, and vibrations heard, felt, and controlled by the performer, which are mostly hidden from the audience by the distance of the listener from the piano. Sound essentially follows the inverse square rule. If you double the distance from the sound source, you reduce the sound intensity level to one-quarter its amplitude. The performer is approximately 1/2 metre from the strings, but the audience is usually from 4 to 30 metres away. Even at 4 metres, the sound is now 1/64th as intense. Much of the low amplitude sound heard by the performer will not be heard by the audience.
A composer generally, but not always, writes music for a particular instrument. The composer does not just write notes and/or melodies without regard for the sound of the instrument, but uses the unique range, capabilities, sonorities and resonances that are available to enhance the music. In some cases, those sonorities and resonances become the actual music. If the audience cannot hear these sounds, the essence of the music is lost, or, at the very least, compromised. And yet, the audience is, for the most part, blissfully unaware that they are ‘staring at a 16 colour print’ and not the real painting. If the audience could sit on the bench with the performer, they would be astonished at the nearly unlimited palette of colours, the mixing and swirling of overtones, the vibration of the floor beneath the piano, the ethereal essence of the music.
So why do classical pianists and classical recording engineers generally insist on recreating the ‘best seat in the house’ recording without knowing or without admitting that the ‘best seat in the house’ is the piano bench?
I have found, at this point, only one recording that captures the piano as it is heard by the performer. It is a binaural recording of Rachmaninoff pieces played on a grand piano outfitted to reproduce the equilvalent of piano rolls, but which are in fact derived from Rachmaninoff’s actual performance recordings. The piano was recorded with the binaural ‘head’ placed at the normal head height and location of a performer at the piano bench. The recording engineers also simultaneously recorded the piano using mics placed at the traditional ‘best seat in the house’. Both recordings are on the same disc and the difference is amazing.
Since I am playing the piano while the recordings are being made, it is not practical to place mics where my head is. I have found an alternative and the results can be heard on the recordings page.