PRO STUDIO TIPS: Tucker Martine

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In his Flora Recording & Playback studio, Grammy-nominated producer/engineer Tucker Martine has helped to create seminal indie records for inventive artists including The Decemberists, Neko Case, k.d. lang, Modest Mouse, Laura Veirs and My Morning Jacket.

Known for his thoughtful approach to sound selections and mixes, Martine elevates the sound of every musician he produces. For readers who endeavor to engineer their own keyboard recordings, we asked Martine to share some of his techniques for recording piano and keyboards, and developing varied sounds in the mix.

Do you have a go-to method for recording piano in your studio?

I use Schoeps CMT 56 mics. People might know them, but I love them on piano. They’re small condenser mics, and I put them a foot-and-a-half from the sound board: one around the second lowest octave and one around the second-highest octave, trying to make sure to stay out of the way of the piano player, of course. That usually gives me a nice stereo image and plenty of detail.

I also like to put a ribbon mic in the room somewhere—about eight or ten feet back—and occasionally I’ll blend that in with the close mics. Or sometimes I end up using just that room mic, especially if the music has a bit of space in it; the room mic doesn’t have as much immediacy as the close mics, but it sits in such a great spot in the track. I’m always looking to make sure not everything is trying to sit in the same place in a three-dimensional sound plain, and I find that the piano can sit really nicely in a track if the ribbon room mic is blended in. It can be any ribbon mic, but I tend to use one side of the AEA R88. And occasionally if I want a darker piano sound altogether, I’ll put the R88, which is a stereo mic, closer and forego the Schoeps altogether and not put up a separate room mic, because the ribbon mics tend to pick up a little more room in a flattering way.

What else is typically in your piano-recording chain? Do you have a favorite type of preamp or compression?

I like the Millennia Media mic pre’s a lot for piano because they are so fast and clear-sounding and open. Piano, often, by the time we’re trying to mix it into a full arrangement, can get lost and it’s not cutting; it’s taking up space without really being heard, so I find that the extra clarity I get from the Millennia really helps when it’s time to mix. It might seem a little bit more bright and neutral than what I often go for, but it sounds better when it’s mixed into the track.

I like to compress with the SSL G Series compressor; that sounds flattering on piano whether it’s gentle or a more aggressive sound.

How do you like to capture electronic keyboards?

I often run them direct because I’ll often have the keyboard player in the control room for ease of communication; often it’s an overdub so it’s really easy for everyone to be on the same page that way. But I find that I do also like to do something to take it out of just direct realm. Sometimes that’s re-amping it. Sometimes it’s adding distortion or some kind of saturation by driving the mic pre. I really love using the Capi VP26 mic pre's for direct keyboards. They have immense clarity and punch, and can add some nice saturation if you crank the input gain and turn down the output.

And occasionally, if I end up wanting more later, I can use something like Soundtoys’ Decapitator [plug-in] in the mix to add some saturation and round the sound out. That usually makes it feel more organic—makes it play well with others.

Are there other Soundtoys plug-ins that you like? What are some of your other favorite pieces when you’re mixing keyboards?

I never hesitate to go to [Soundtoys’] Echoboy if I feel like delay is needed. There are so many colors available there, and it’s so quick and convenient. And this very much goes for piano too. Often on piano these days, I like to run the [Roland] Space Echo alongside my clean tracks on the piano because it gives the option of a whole other sound world. It acts more like a synthesizer at that point, because the sound is a little chorused, a little modulated. The way the delay of the tape degrades over the course of the repeats, and the warble—it gives you so many more options of ways to use the instrument other than just a piano.

How about a favorite reverb?

The Space Echo is definitely my first go-to. Mine has reverb and delay: It’s the Chorus Echo SRE-555. These days I hardly track piano without it, and often if I know that kind of coloration is the right thing, I’ll also run a keyboard or synthesizer direct into that; I’ll just go ahead and commit to the sound.