Portable recorder

If you’re recording a harpsichord at home using a portable recorder with
built-in microphones, where do you place it and in what position to get
the best results? What do you think of the following suggestion?


As with recording piano, there’s no single correct place. It entirely depends on your taste. I personally prefer a very close miked approach, but that’s because I am a player and I like to hear the sound as I hear it, loud and up front. But I know some listeners prefer to hear the instrument from further away, with more air. As in a studio setting, if you have the resources three or four mikes is best, mixed subtly. But I presume your portable Zoom etc has the mics fixed in place, and only two, so that limits you somewhat. The position in the photo looks fine, but just listen to playback to check you don’t get too much action noise and plectrum click, which can be very disturbing, I think. I’d tend to put the mics at about ear height, not too low down to the soundboard.

Just for interest, re recording solo keyboard, here’s a shot of the recording session for sampling the Hammersmith grand piano for Soniccouture’s VST virtual instrument. In the VST you get a choice of six mix types and positions, again illustrating that it’s a very personal matter.

The photo does not show how far above the ground the microphones are. Also, where is the lid?


Le 05/03/2023 10:58, David Pickett via The Jackrail écrit :

The photo does not show how far above the ground the microphones are.
Also, where is the lid?

The lid is wide open, apparently (see the prop stick’s shadow). As for
the height, I guess somewhere above the case rim and below the lid edge.

Together with the greatest modern harpsichordists, guess we all agree that an appropriate and varied articulation is paramount for an historically faithful and also expressive performance. Therefore, let me just say how much I hate all those too-many recordings where the microphones are too far, or else the room too reverberant or echo added in mixing, that one cannot tell a legato articulation from a detached one.

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Some people spend their whole life to questions like yours, but some thinking and listening helps.
There is no such thing as a perfect position. Trying different positions and listening and evaluating the result is key. If you are happy: fine. If not the challenge is to make explicit what aspect of your recording could be improved.
A listener (and a microphone) will pick-up two things: the direct sound from the instrument and the reflections making up the acoustics if the room. So if you like a dry, direct sound the mics could be aimed at the soundboard. Give it a try as a starting point, it will not convince because the sound lacks warmth. A larger distance will allow the mics to pick up more reflections from the room. As sound takes time to travel, individual tones will sound longer, and articulation a bit more legato. This effect is small in a dry room, could become devastating in a gothic cathedral.
Other thing is focus: if you direct the mics right into the instrument you wille hear more harpsichord and less ambient. If you turn the mics in an angle, reflection from the side will become more dominant. This is especially important if you like a broad stereo effect. All sort of microphones do exist: some have a strong focus, others are made to pick up sound from all directions.
What do we see on your picture? It looks like the mics are directed to the extremes of the soundboard (or the lid, we cant discern) and quite close to the instrument. I am bit concerned how well these mics will pick up the middle section, which is most used, and how the acoustics of the room is taken into account. One mic is focused on the jackrail, emphasizing plucking noise. I am afraid this will become a very direct recording and echo will be applied later by electronic means.
My personal preference: choose a place in the room where you like the sound best, and put there you two microphones. It’s the old French radio (ORTF) ideal from the '60 but still works.
Good luck with trying and listening.

PS: yes the lid is on the photo, you can see the split between the two parts. The lid is absolutely essential for projection of your sound. A few weeks ago we did some experiments with the lid fully open, as on the photo. Amazing to hear how much better the projection was in a small hall compared to a lid which is folded.

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Very interesting your comment, Pieter.

I can’t help commenting that the player in the photo is doing a good impression of an X-Y stereo mic configuration. :slight_smile: [Sorry!]

One can generally judge the accuracy of a harpsichord recording by noting whether the bass notes image toward the right and the treble notes to the left. In the OP’s photo, I would move the microphone stand about four feet to the right and about one foot farther away.

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Le 05/03/2023 16:59, James R McCarty via The Jackrail écrit :

One can generally judge the accuracy of a harpsichord recording by noting whether the bass notes image toward the right and the treble notes to the left. In the OP’s photo, I would move the microphone stand about four feet to the right and about one foot farther away.

Assuming the instrument is about 7.5 or 8 feet long, moving the stand 4
feet to the right would put it right at the tip of tail. Is that what
you meant? I think I’d move it only about 2 feet to the right.

One technique I saw used in the '70’s by Decca to mic pianos was to use two omni-directional mics, Neumann KM-83s, about 12" apart, on a stand about five and a half feet off the floor. In a large hall, with a two and a half second reverb time, and the piano in its normal performance position, the stand was placed about a foot past the tail end of the instrument, and about one-third from the treble end of the keyboard toward the spine. One mic was aimed at the treble strings above the curve of the crook, and the other at the dampers about an octave up from the spine. One could then regulate the ratio of the direct sound to the ambient by simply moving the stand further from the end of the piano, and re-aiming the mics. The company won a number of Grammys and Grand Prix du Disque awards with this procedure, so it was apparently liked by the critics. This may not work as well with all pressure transducer omni mics, because the KM-83 was truly omni-directional at low frequencies, but became increasingly directional, like a cardioid mic, with increasing frequency, above 3 kHz. Additionally, it had a a 6db “hump” at 10 KHz, leveling out an octave each way. In my limited experience, the acoustic properties of the microphone play a significant part in the recorded sound.

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Dennis wrote: … only about 2 feet to the right.
Fully agree, it would be the position I use personally.

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Dear all

An interesting thread with relevance far beyond Dennis’s original request for recommended home recording setup.

As has been pointed out, the proof is in the pudding. A professional recording engineer is likely to spend considerable time experimenting with mic choice and placement to get the best sound before wasting recording time and being stuck with a disappointing final result.

Here is some detail of the 2017 Handel Great Suites recording by ABC Classic, with Erin Helyard on my original 1773 Kirckman single-manual:



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Yes, the studies I have seen show that the sound of wing-shaped keyboard instruments projects most strongly from the tail. I would start there and move toward the player only if the image is unsatisfactory. A nice benefit of this is that one need not show up early to get the best seat at a harpsichord concert.

That’s the Decca Tree, and you can see that in the photo I posted. But the OP says he has a portable recorder (and the title of this topic), presumably with builtin mics, doesn’t he? So perhaps that is not directly relevant here. As an aside, I find the Decca Tree recordings by Decca that I know truly superb. It’s a great configuration.

That is one of the most phenomenal solo harpsichord recordings I know – on all accounts! Performance, instrument, and sound quality/recording.

I apparently don’t know much about microphones, but how does one aim an omni-directional mic?

Andrew, I, too, am partial to Decca recordings. What I attempted to describe, was the placement of two nearly coincident microphones, about a foot apart, maybe a bit farther apart than those in Dennis’ recording device, that is known to produce an agreeable sound. The list of variables between this endeavor, and a professional remote recording session is far too long to enumerate, and my suggestion may or may not produce acceptable results. However, the effort required to evaluate them is small, so, as I see it, nothing ventured, nothing lost. Another purpose of all of the details, was to try to set expectations. The original question is not as simple as it seems.

Since you mention it, I was not attempting to describe the Decca tree. Your photo indeed shows it, as the large boom in the foreground with the three large mics. However I never saw, nor heard of Decca using it to record a solo instrument, just orchestras and other large ensembles. It was suspended slightly behind the conductors podium, about a chair’s distance toward the audience from the players, and hung such the the mic capsules were ten to eleven feet off the floor depending on the hall. One mic pointed at the center of an imaginary square defined by the f-holes of the first four stands of 1st violins, the second at a similar point among the first eight cellists (who were in two swaths to the conductors right), and the third at the center point of the two stands each of 2nd violins and violas, that were directly in front of the conductor. The pan-pots of the console were full left, full right, and center, generating what legendary Decca engineer Kenneth Wilkinson once explained as two stereo pairs. The microphones, as you show, were Neumann M-50s, large diaphragm, pressure transducing condenser mics, with valve preamplifiers, and an omni directional characteristic that became increasing directional at higher frequencies. One important electrical, not acoustical, property of this microphone is that because of triode valve preamp, any distortion produced by the mic was warm sounding 2nd harmonic distortion, not the harsh sounding 3rd harmonic that other common (though not FET) mic preamplifier designs exhibit. Finally, the remote mixing console that Decca used well into the ‘70s did not have any equalizers. All sonic adjustments were made by moving microphones or performers.

I agree with Pieter about the forest of mics nearly touching the piano, and am not fond of the sound produced by the far-away pair of U-67s (one being adjusted in the photo) as they are pressure gradient mics, and in my opinion in the wrong place. Dennis, you have a plethora of input, please let us know your results.

Bach’s gigue in Partita I? I love that.

I think there’re too many pages on the music rack for Bach’s gigue in Partita I, unless it’s in Very Large Print, or maybe with the repeats written out on separate pages {which seems pretty useless}.