Making better quality piano video recordings on a small budget

I’ve been asked numerous times how I manage to get my solo piano recordings to sound so crisp and clear on my YouTube videos.  It wasn’t long ago that a home setup of audio and video gear yielded very poor results for pianists wishing to record their music.  When I look back at some of my videos from 2008, I’m reminded of this and surprised at just how far technology has improved in this regard.  With a modern smartphone and an investment of about $100, you can make impressive looking and sounding music videos. The most important way to improve the quality of your videos is to not use the audio that was recorded by the camcorder or smartphone— use a digital audio recorder. Once you have a solid take of a performance, you just need to know what to do with it once you have that sound file.  So, let me discuss the gear and software that I use to turn that audio file into something impressive.

Digital Audio Recorder: Tascam DR-05

 

This is the most important investment for a HUGE improvement in quality.  The Tascam DR-05 is the least expensive digital audio recorder on the market and will do what you need it to.  Any extra money thrown on a higher model within the Tascam family of recorders will yield only slight improvements for what you NEED compared to the improvement over the audio from the video recorder.  What you need is a way of adjusting the gain in your  recording and a way to produce a high bitrate wav file.   Let me go through my settings on the device so you can achieve similar results.

When using a portable digital audio recorder like the Tascam DR-05 to record piano music, it is best to consider placement first. Don’t set the recorder on the piano itself, as distortion through vibration will occur.  If you have a grand piano, like I do, you should open the lid and point the recorder into the piano.  I’ve used this device to record on upright pianos as well and I place the recorder behind the upright piano pointing toward the soundboard. The recorder should not be touching the piano, so I use a tripod.  The Tascam DR-05 has a screw mount for a tripod.  You should experiment with different placements as this makes a really big difference in the sound of the recording. Here is a photo of my usual setup:

Digital Audio Recorder piano setup

Next, I’m going to go through the settings within the Tascam DR-05 that I have found to provide the best results for recording acoustic piano music. I record using the highest settings available on the device:

Format: WAV 24bit
Sample: 96k
Level control: off
Recording level (Gain) : 5

The Format and Sample settings can be found in the menu and adjusted from there.  The quick button allows you to control the level align, just leave it off.  This feature causes the gain to adjust based on the volume of sound that the mic is picking up.  I find this to be distracting and ultimately unnecessary for recording acoustic piano music.  The gain can be set after hitting REC one time ( the red REC light will begin blinking).  Using the right or left arrows you can set the gain.  I choose a very low gain setting because I don’t want to pick up unwanted ambient sound, i.e. breathing, pedal mechanics, airplanes, the refrigerator.  Using this placement and settings, you can get a really good wav file to bring to your computer and make some big improvements.

RAW

Before

HDR

After 

Take a close look at my photos above that I took from a recent trip to the mountains and compare the photo right out of the camera to the same photo with adjustments made through the use of software.  Think of this WAV file like a RAW photo right out of the camera— it may not be great yet, but it has all the data to become a great finished product.  I use Audacity, which is a free audio editor with a lot of power giving it results close to that of a professional recording studio.

Software: 

AUDACITY®

In Audacity, I only use a very small fraction of its features.
1. Open the wav file in Audacity.

2. Trim any unwanted sound before and after the music recording.

3. Select the audio and go to Effect in the menu and select Reverb.

4. Set the Reverb Room Size to 45% and the Reverberance to 45%. Try tweaking these adjustments to find the right reverb for your taste, these are the settings I like for my setup and piano.

5. Select the audio and go to Effect in the menu and select Normalize using Audacity’s generic settings for Normalize.

6. Finally, Export the audio.  This is your finished audio file!

If you just want an audio recording, congratulations, you’re done. If you also shot video during your recording session, you need to remove the audio from the video recording and simply replace it with this vastly improved new WAV file.  I’m a Mac user so I use iMovie to produce the video and replace the audio of the original video recording with the WAV file.  Once imported into iMovie, simply select the audio portion of the video and delete it.  Upload the new WAV file and sync it to the video.  Don’t try to sync the audio by estimating.  Make sure the sound file from the video is visible as a waveform and match the finished audio to the one from the camera.  During your recording session, sometimes it helps to clap once after you hit record because a clap is very visible in this waveform and easy to sync. Using iMovie is very simple, but getting into the details of video production is beyond the scope of this article.

Lastly, you can produce great videos with a smartphone, but I like to use a DSLR because of the quality of lenses they offer.  Plus, having a DSLR around gives me the opportunity to add another camera angle should I choose to use multiple angles to my video in addition to my smartphone.  I like the Canon Rebels as they are very affordable and offer a lot of flexibility with all those lenses.  But, as you know, just like your smartphone, the audio recorded with these is TERRIBLE.

Video recorder: Canon Rebel DSLR

 

Lastly, I’d like to compare different recording techniques I’ve used over the years, from straight out of the camera to the method above all the way to a professional recording studio.

The Worst Scenario:

Let me begin with the worst— a video from 2008 in my home using a 2004 video tape recorder with the audio straight out of the camera.  While, at the time, I was fairly happy with the way I played, the recording didn’t provide a good way for me to critique the details because of the distorted sound.  Maybe I was using too much pedal, maybe I wasn’t, who knows?

 

A HUGE improvement with the Tascam DR-05:

In these two videos, I use the exact setup as I illustrated from above.  Also, it is the same piano as the above video (Steinway O, 1909).


The Professional Route:

Sometimes I need to take the extra step and use a professional.  Whether I am recording an album or recording music like the John Cage prepared piano works which demand a greater quality to capture all the nuances, I sometimes need to use the expertise of a professional engineer and their equipment.

Have you found other methods of recording that work well for you? Did you try my method? If so, please comment and let me know!

2 Comments

  1. Great primer post! I ageee,ost musicians would be well served to make an investment in specific equipemt and tonkering w settings a wee bit either before and or after.
    I have been really pleased with tue quality, versatility, flexibility, of the now sadly discontinued Olympus LS 20M pcm and hd video recorder. I. Addition to all the features found in mon entey level recorders, it allows editing right on the device (still learning about how to do it myself), but it can also do up tp 1080p 30fps video as well! I was heartbroken to learn it was discontinued as it was feared towards musicians and professionals (journalists etc that interview and similar).
    It Lso has the ability to creatw a sound filter at thw move common wavelengths to deal with background ambient noise like am air conditioner, fourecent lughting etc
    It can be manually turned off to capture everything however as in controlled recording conditions

    It can still be found used/refurbished for about 200 to 250 usd. And for what one gets in terms of imaging and sound, ita a bargain.

    Here is an example of a shoot I did w just basic settings and no editiing, just sound at 96kbs processing and 720p hd resolution for video is the small room in my home I repurposed as an office/practice room.

    https://youtu.be/0c348WAYTuE

    I think new the now aging still produced Sony HDR-MV1 is a solid all in one. The ability to link to it via the mobile app to view what is being recorded is really great for solo projects.

    On the mobile phone side, Samsung is winning that game and I have been blown away by the hd up to 4k high res capabilities of the S7 line for video. I have not seen heard a lot in the way of sound recording that it captures but suspect not as good as a basic pcm or the olympus and sony due to those having separate highher quality and sensitivity separate left and right microphones.

    • Thanks for the comment, DDP, I appreciate the input on other devices. The mics on that camcorder do seem to be better than the standard camcorders. Have you tried using a different audio source from the mics on the video recorder? When I bring the audio from the DAR to the computer and listen to the 2 versions side-by-side with the audio from the video recorder, I’m always really struck by how different they are. I feel that getting the mics closer to the soundboard produces much better results.

      When I am in a professional recording environment there is always a “room” mic that is a few feet away from the piano but the other mics are closer. Using a mic on the video camera is essentially like this “room” mic. Blended with other mics provides a nice depth but on its own there is too much ambient sound and too much echo and room size.

      Thinking about other mics, I suppose it would be even better to get a second DAR and place it further from the piano and blend it with the closer DAR in post processing. If I do that, it is a slippery slope to getting hooked on expensive gear and turning into a recording engineer. On second thought, I’ll stick with one DAR, hah.

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