The piano is an incredibly complex instrument. Capable of a huge dynamic and frequency range, it can sometimes be the monster in the room during a mixdown session. In these instances, you’ll likely find yourself bringing up the piano tracks, and then listening, tweaking, and listening some more. You’ll continue to tweak, and yet you won’t be able to get the piano to sit properly in the mix. Eventually, you’ll want to tear your hair out, and run screaming from the studio—actions that will not inspire confidence in your abilities from your band mates or clients.
Luckily, there are some techniques that can save you from scalp damage and a ruined reputation. Just try out a few of these tips, and in no time you’ll have that piano singing right in the sweet spot.
If your mix is fairly dense—say, with guitars and vocals taking up the majority of the sonic spectrum—you may be struggling to hear the piano part. But using the parallel compression technique can get the level of the piano up, without resorting to compression settings that might cause the piano tracks to sound overly squished. I have used this technique most often on drums and percussion, but it applies equally to the piano—which is, after all, a percussion instrument at heart.
Start by assigning the stereo piano track to bus 1 and bus 2 in your DAW. Next, open up three stereo auxiliary tracks, using bus 1/2 as the inputs to those aux tracks. Route all three aux outputs to the stereo bus.
Now, insert a compressor plug-in on the first stereo aux track, and dial in a compression ratio of 6:1 or greater, and with the threshold low enough that you are getting 6dB to 8dB of compression. Set the gain to +6dB.
On the second stereo aux channel, set up a different compressor plug-in at a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio. Set a slightly higher threshold, so that you are only getting around 2dB of compression.
Leave the last stereo aux channel alone.
What happens at this point, is that the uncompressed stereo-aux track can provide the attack of the piano sound as it was originally recorded. The two compressed aux tracks offer varying degrees of body and volume to the piano sound. As you balance the three aux tracks, you should be able to raise the average level of the piano in the mix, while still retaining the “natural” dynamics of the original piano performance. It may take a few tries to discover the best balance of natural piano, lightly compressed piano, and aggressively compressed piano that delivers enough volume and impact, but you should look like a genius almost as soon as you start moving the faders. Yeah—this trick can work that good!
There are those times when what seemed like a good idea during the tracking session turns out to be a big problem at the mix. I’m talking about over-compressing the piano during recording. If you fall victim to this miscue, and find that your piano track lacks the dynamic range you want, you can simply “reverse” the compression somewhat by applying an expander.
Start with the same bus arrangement we used in the parallel compression technique, but, instead of compressors, set up a pair of aux tracks with an expander plug-in assigned to one of them. Set the expansion ratio to 1:2, with the threshold fairly high, so that the gain reduction is pulling some of the signal down to create greater dynamic range. Vary the hold and decay times so that the expander isn’t staying open (or “off”) too long.
Now, mix the expanded aux track in with the non-expanded aux track until the balance between the two sounds natural, and the piano’s dynamics are as wide open as you desire. This technique can be very effective in blowing the minds of any cynics who were betting the piano track in question would sound squashed and awful forever.
A subtle amount of distortion mixed in with the original track can give the sound of a piano some real ear-catching vibe. I personally like Bomb Factory’s SansAmp plug-in for this technique, because you have individual control over how much distortion is applied to each major frequency band. However, this trick will work with any guitar-amp emulation plug-in, distortion or overdrive effects, or even guitar stompboxes.
This is another technique that works best if you “mult” the piano signal, and only apply the amp simulation or distortion to the mult, leaving the original piano track clean and natural. For the distorted track, I typically hit the mids heaviest, and go light on the low and high frequencies. It’s also fun messing around with different amp emulations (Fender, Marshall, Vox, Mesa/Boogie, etc.), different amounts of drive, different tone settings, and even different speaker-cabinet simulations (if you’re using an amp plug-in, rather than a pure distortion or overdrive effect). The idea is to add some sizzle and impact to the piano without making it sound too muddy or indistinct.
When you blend the clean and distorted piano tracks together, go for a sound that “owns” its space in the mix without your having to push up the faders too much. The piano should command attention because of its tone—even if its volume level is actually pretty low.
I recently mixed a project where, on several songs, the piano was recorded with the drums playing in the same room. The intention was to re-record the piano tracks all by themselves, but we decided to keep the original performances because they really fit the feel of the songs. Unfortunately, there was a substantial amount of drum leakage into the piano tracks, and bringing up the piano in the mix brought up the drums, as well.
Happily, the piano parts were not in a low register, so I was able to EQ a majority of the boominess of the drums out of the piano track. The downside was that this move left the piano sounding flat and lifeless.
To give the now-neutered piano some of its sparkle back, I inserted a chorus plug-in on the piano track, post EQ. I selected a sine wave, set the modulation rate to about 0.4Hz, and dialed in a very low amount of feedback. As I listened to the piano in the mix, I slowly brought up the wet/dry mix percentage from 0 percent, until I liked the result. A 20-percent blend of chorus effect to source sound did the trick. The resulting effect gave the piano a bit of movement and impact that nicely disguised the fact I had EQ’d the life out of the piano sound. And even though this treatment was very subtle, any time I muted the chorus plug-in, the mix just didn’t sound right at all—proof that little things can make a big difference.
One of my favorite tools for adding vibe and interest to vocals and instruments is the Phoenix suite of TDM, tape-emulation plug-ins by Crane Song. (Similar tape-emulation plug-ins can do the trick, as well.) Phoenix not only simulates the coloration and natural compression of analog tape, it also replicates how tape interacts with the record and playback electronics. You get three frequency-response buttons—Gold (flat), Sapphire (bright), and Opal (warm)—and a big knob that increases or decreases the emulation effect. That’s it.
To transform a limp piano track into something marvelous, I’ll typically position the big knob between –6dB and –3dB—which is almost full emulation. My frequency-response option will depend on the sound of the original piano track, and whether it needs to be brighter or warmer to fit into the overall mix. I have yet to find a sound that this plug-in can’t help. For less-thanstellar piano tracks, it’s one heck of a life preserver.