By Jim Aikin and Robbie Gennet
Getting clear, musical sound from an acoustic piano in a loud environment is one of the trickiest feats in sound reinforcement. There’s no magic bullet, but the DPA 4099 instrument mics come closer than anything we’ve yet tried. The new “P” model is specifically for piano, and while it’s marketed as a live mic, it’s also more than up to the task of great studio recordings. Jim Aikin tested a pair in his home studio and Robbie Gennet subjected them to the raucous environment of a ragtime piano meet-up.
In the Studio
Until I plugged in the DPA 4099P mics, I had no idea how good my piano, a six-foot Yamaha C3 grand, really sounded. The mics come as a pair, already mounted on their goosenecks and equipped with windscreens. Minor assembly was required: First, I fitted each gooseneck itself into the U-shaped rubber groove in the triangular magnetic base. A little metal sleeve, which is already on the gooseneck, slides down over the joint to keep the gooseneck steady. Then, I attached the thin cables, which are hardwired to the goosenecks, to the included XLR adapters.
You can mount the magnetic bases wherever you like on the piano’s iron frame. They have a rubberized surface, so you needn’t worry about scratching anything. I pointed one mic at the treble strings and the other at the lower register. The mics have a supercardioid pickup pattern, which is to say they’re quite directional, so you’ll need to try a few different positions and angles to find what works best for your piano. Moving the mounts and bending the goosenecks is a breeze. The super-thin cables have two advantages: They’re lightweight enough not to buzz against the piano’s frame, and they won’t pull the gooseneck out of position due to their own weight.
As I started to record a take, a plane was passing overhead, but the directional response of the 4099Ps is robust enough that the plane didn’t really register in the recording. Engineers call this “off-axis rejection,” meaning you don’t hear what you don’t point the mic at. The 4099Ps’ excellent rejection is due to two factors: the pickup pattern, and an “interference tube” design similar to the shotgun mics used in film production. Essentially, these are tiny shotguns.
For home recording, for live sound, or even for a close-mic setup in a pro studio, the DPA 4099P pair is a great choice. Assuming you have a decent acoustic piano, you could absolutely record a professional-sounding piano CD with them.
I brought the DPA 4099P mics to the Valley Ragtime Stomp, a regular gathering of ragtime and boogie-woogie piano enthusiasts in California’s San Fernando Valley. This let me test how they handled a range of dynamics, from soft and gentle to outright pounding. The club’s grand piano was tuned and in fair shape, but after years of use, the damper pedal was noisy, and one or two strings had odd sympathetic frequencies. Point being, these mics are so sensitive that they’ll pick up everything from what you point them at, warts and all. My usual quick-and-dirty solution, a Barcus-Berry transducer on the soundboard and a Shure SM58 in one of the soundholes, hides the piano’s imperfections better, but isn’t even in the same universe as the DPAs when it comes to accuracy and detail. Given how the piano was positioned onstage, the mics also couldn’t help but pick up some audience noise—clinking silverware, conversations— but no more than you’d hear on the average live club recording.
After trying a variety of positions, I settled on X-Y placement about a foot downstring from the hammers. This gave me the high definition and crisp bite that’s great for boogie piano, but I still wanted more body. Putting one mic at the far end of the bass strings and leaving the other where it was did the trick, at the cost of panning them more or less in mono. To get the full sound spectrum and stereo, two pair of 4099Ps would be ideal.
Using the DPAs as opposed to dynamic mics, boundary (PZM) mics, or soundboard pickups is like taking a blanket off the piano. This can also be said for using studio condenser mics, but the DPAs design rejects unwanted sounds (like your bass player’s 8 x 12 cab) far more readily. That means the piano will be heard without you turning up the gain to feedback-tempting levels. “Closing the lid with mics in the piano usually meant instant feedback,” remarked editor Stephen Fortner. “Not so with the DPAs, so I can now do so for isolation purposes. Frankly, though, the 4099Ps are directional enough that I haven’t had to.” If you frequently find yourself wistfully eyeing that covered-up baby grand in the corner of the club as you set up your digital piano, the DPA 4099Ps are the first investment we’d recommend.
PROS Captures beautiful, detailed, crisp piano sound. Excellent off-axis rejection. Tiny size and magnetic bases make any placement easy. Highly resistant to feedback.
CONS High directionality means they’re strictly for close-miking.
PRICE List: $1,199 per pair
Approx. street: TBD