Recording Studio Skillset: How to Choose (and Care for) Your Studio Piano

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Until the home piano was overtaken by the home stereo (and now the home studio), it stood as one of the most complex, engaging and rewarding musical devices ever made. Get to know more about their care and construction in this installment of Studio Skillset.

A good recording engineer should know at least a bit about the form and function of all instruments. To that end, we’ve explored drum tuning and guitar setups in prior segments of Studio Skillset, and today we turn to the care, repair, and selection of a good studio piano.

Many studios get by without having an acoustic piano at all these days; And there are certainly times when sample-based software pianos can sound nearly as good as the real thing – or perhaps even better, in the case of a rickety old spinet.

But beyond the inimitable sound of a truly great instrument, there’s something about the tactile and immersive link to our music that a real piano provides. A piano in a room can be a great motivator – even for one-finger piano dabblers. And now with the advent of integrated MIDI outputs like those found in Yamaha’s Silent Piano system, an acoustic piano can also double as the ideal digital interface.

A true concert grand can cost about as much as the best mixing boards out there, and may be overkill for most studios. But for many mid-level rooms and hobbyists, a good recording piano can be well within reach. Often, a decent piano for the studio can be bought or rebuilt for a price comparable to a channel or two of boutique microphone preamps.

Yamaha C-5 Grand Piano at Dubway Studios, NYC

Types of Pianos

There’s some confusion – even among longtime pianists – over the various types of pianos, and what we can expect of them.

Some of that confusion is understandable. There’s long been a glut of cheap pianos (by some estimates there are over 10 million functional pianos in the U.S. alone) which means there are far more instruments on the market than there is expertise.

The two basic types of pianos are verticals and grands, either of which can make for a great studio instrument. There are even many cases where a vertical can be a far better choice for the studio than a traditional grand.

Verticals

The very smallest vertical pianos on the market are the verticals known as spinets, which stand around 36” tall. After that are the consoles, which range from 40” – 43” in height.

These petite pianos became popular in the 1930s due to both the economic squeeze of the Great Depression, and the new post-Victorian fashion for furniture with a more compact footprint.

Their tone tends to be poor, especially in the lower registers, due to their limited string length, and manufacturers at times even intentionally degraded the sound of the mid-register to make the timbre more even throughout the instruments’ range.

But despite their compromised sound, this style of piano stayed popular through the mid-20th century and today, they’re among the most abundant on generic classifieds like Craigslist and Freecycle. And increasingly, prospective sellers are happy to give them away.

Generally, I wouldn’t recommend either a console or spinet as a studio piano. They will never have the tone of a larger vertical or even a small grand, and are not suitable for recording piano-centric music.

But with that said, I’ve had some great luck coaxing eerie, rickety or honky-tonkin’ good sounds out of beat-up old console pianos and spinets. In dense, rollicking americana mixes or in intimate and unusual indie rock records, there are times when a good console can take the song to a whole new plain.

1966 Steinway 1098 Studio Upright Piano at Grand Street Studios in Williamsburg

If you’re bargain-hunting, and a piano is a desire but not a high priority, this kind of piano can be good value on the private used market. But bear in mind that you’ll also want to set aside a few hundred dollars for piano movers, as well as another few hundred to take care of a retune and minor repairs such as securing loose pins.

If major work is needed (more on that later) almost no spinet or console is worthy of it. Sadly and inevitably, an increasing number of these old an untended instruments are ending up in dumpsters all over the country.

Next are the studio and professional verticals, which run about 44” – 47” and 48” – 52” tall respectively.

These are the best types of verticals you’ll find on the market today, and in many cases, they can easily outperform small grands in both tone and value. A good studio vertical can sound better than a baby grand in the 5′ – 5′ 7” range, and great 52” professional models can give grands of up to 6′ a run for their money.

High-quality verticals may not offer the same bragging rights and client wow-factor of a true grand, but for recording all manner of popular music, they can be a perfect choice.

A high quality professional model from a brand like Yamaha or Kawai might carry a suggested list price of around $10,000 – $15,000 new with some room to negotiate, and fetch about half that on the used market.

A Steinway might run more in the $20,000-$40,000 range, while a lower-end brand like Baldwin or Samick might go for closer to the $5,000 new, and be a real steal on the used market; which is another strike against the prospects of a rickety old spinet being worth much of anything.

The one true drawback – aside from a potential lack of client wow factor – is that the action of even the best verticals can be slightly stiffer and more sluggish than on a true grand. This generally is not a limiting factor in popular music, but for virtuoso-style players in jazz and especially classical, a grand is generally the way to go.

Lastly, the term “upright” tends to be reserved for vintage vertical pianos that stand a full 55” – 60” tall.

These pianos, sometimes misleadingly referred to as “upright grands” were the dominant variety of vertical pianos at the beginning of the century, but fell out of favor in the 1930s and have not been mass-produced since.

It’s rare that you will find a vertical of this size in good working order, and if you do, chances are the person who has taken care of it (and likely restored it) over the course of a century knows a thing or two about its value and history.

If you find one with serious problems, such as a cracked pin block or soundboard, there’s a chance it could be worth a rebuild, depending on the brand and the extent of the repairs needed. Although the work may cost thousands, it could be a winning investment, depending on the instrument.

Grands

Studio owners who take the idea of owning a piano seriously are likely to get their hearts set on a horizontal grand piano. But on the lower-end of the price-and-size equation, they’re not always the best choice where raw sound quality and bang-for-buck is concerned.

The Hamburg Steinway D 9’ concert grand at Oktaven Audio in Yonkers

Baby grands”, a name now given to any piano that falls under the 5’7” mark, tend to offer less tone for more money than a professional vertical of similar build quality.

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  • kl

    Great overview !