Best Microphones For Miking Upright Piano

The upright piano is a beautiful instrument and its size makes it a much more practical instrument than the larger grand piano. Its wide range and shorter strings provide a full sound and rich timbre that sound slightly sharper than its grand cousin. The vast dynamic range of the upright piano allows for soft passages and huge climaxes.

When it comes to either recording or reinforcing the sound of the upright piano, it all starts with the microphone(s). A strong microphone is the first step in a strong signal chain. So which microphones are the best on upright piano? Here are my recommendations:

  • AKG C414 XLS: The AKG C414 XLS (link to check the price on Amazon) is a multi-pattern large diaphragm condenser. The high sound quality and versatility of this microphone make it a top recommendation for an upright piano. With 9 selectable polar patterns, 3 high-pass filters, and 3 attenuation pads, this microphone is a top choice for any mic configuration around an upright piano.
  • Neumann U 87 AI: The Neumann U 87 AI (link to check the price on Amazon) is also a multi-pattern large diaphragm condenser microphone. The U 87 is a legendary microphone with beautiful clarity and amazing accuracy. Whether we use a single U 87, a stereo pair, a mid-side configuration, or any other miking technique, the Neumann U 87 is a near-perfect choice for the upright piano.
  • Rode NT1-A: The Rode NT1-A (link to check the price on Amazon) is a large diaphragm cardioid condenser microphone. It’s an extremely quiet and reactive microphone that provides pristine clarity and accuracy when used on upright piano. The NT1-A is my top recommendation for a “budget” upright piano microphone.

Microphone(s) play a big role in capturing the essence of an upright piano’s sound and shouldn’t be overlooked in any studio or live environment.

Before we get into the details of the recommended upright piano microphones, let’s discuss the sound of an upright piano.


Disclaimer:

“Best” is a dangerous word. There is really no such thing as a “best microphone” for any situation. The microphone(s) listed in my Recommended Microphones And Accessories” page are simply my recommendations. These recommendations are based on my own experience and are mindful of budget. It would be easy to suggest an ELA M 251 or U47 for most scenarios. However, these tube mics are very expensive, putting them out of a hobbyist’s price range and making it difficult for professionals to make their money back on the gear.

Another important note is that the microphone or equipment you choose is not the most important part of recording audio. In fact, there are many factors that are arguably more important than the choice of microphone. These include:

  • Performer (whether a musician, speaker, or otherwise)
  • Instrument
  • Microphone technique/placement
  • Number of microphones used
  • Natural sound of the room
  • Content (whether that’s the song, discussion, or otherwise)
  • Signal chain (including mic cable, preamplifier, console, and/or interface/computer)

With that being said, some microphones and gear suit some instruments better than others, prompting this series of articles under “Recommended Microphones And Accessories.”


What Does An Upright Piano Sound Like?

When choosing a microphone for any application, it’s to our great advantage to know the characteristics of the sound source. So what does an upright piano sound like?

The upright piano, with its 88 keys, boasts a huge range from A0 to C8.

Because the strings create the harmonic sound of the upright piano, the instrument’s notes contain a great number of both even and odd-numbered harmonics. The upright piano has short strings (relative to the grand piano) and therefore has more inharmonicity and a slightly harsher sound.

Of course, the sound of the piano is not limited to the vibrating strings. The soundboard and indeed the entire body of the piano helps to resonate its sound. Additionally, there is a lot of mechanical noise when playing the piano (from the pedals, rods, hammers, bars, keys, and pianist movement).

A Note On Miking The Upright Piano

The upright piano is a fairly big instrument. It’s relatively difficult to capture all the sounds of the piano with a single microphone (when compared to a ukulele, for example). For the fullest capture of the piano’s sound with one microphone, place an omnidirectional mic several feet above the piano with an open top. Of course, this is a gross generality. Mic positioning must be experimented with to find the “sweet spot” that suits the upright piano, the room, and the tastes of the musicians and producers.

What I mean to say here is that the capture of the upright piano depends more on the piano, its position, the microphone position, and the room than it does on the microphone used. This is true for all instruments, but particularly true for the upright piano due to its wide range and dispersed mechanics of action.

However, conditions for recording or reinforcing the upright piano are often less than ideal. On top of that, high-quality equipment does, in fact, play a big role on the quality of the upright piano recording/live reinforcement. In terms of equipment, the signal chain, of course, starts with the microphone.

For more information on microphone placement, check out my article Top 23 Tips For Better Microphone Placement.

Frequency Range Of Upright Piano

  • Overall Range: 27.5 Hz ~ 20,000 Hz
  • Fundamentals range: 27.5 Hz – 4,186 Hz (A0-C8)
  • Harmonics range: 55 Hz ~ 20,000 Hz

So we want a microphone that will accurately capture the true sound of the upright piano. Knowing the fundamental frequencies and the harmonics of the upright piano is a great place to start. On top of this, there are a few more criteria to keep in mind when choosing the best microphone for upright piano.


What Makes An Ideal Upright Piano Microphone?

Let’s discuss a short list of the critical criteria that make up an ideal upright piano microphone:

  • Versatility: The upright piano is a fairly large instrument (the standard dimensions are about 5′ wide, 2½” deep, and over 4′ tall). There are countless ways to mic an upright piano. This is due to the size of the instrument, the rooms the instrument would find itself in, and the mechanics that go into producing its sound. Choose a microphone that works well with the many upright piano miking techniques.
  • Flat/extended frequency response: Choose a microphone with a flat frequency response to accurately capture the sound of an upright piano. Not only does the upright piano have a massive range from A0-C8 (27.5 Hz – 4186 Hz), but the instrument also has meaningful harmonic content up to the upper ranges of human hearing (20,000 Hz).
  • Sensitivity: A sensitive microphone will record more subtleties in the upright piano performance than a less sensitive mic. Sensitivity also applies to the strength of the mic signal, which is an important value to consider when recording quiet upright piano passages.
  • Accurate transient response: It’s always preferable to have a pronounced transient response when miking stringed instruments. There is a lot of information in the transients of the upright piano strings that should be captured accurately.
  • Low self-noise: Large diaphragm condenser microphones are usually considered the best bet for miking upright piano. These mics are active and therefore have self-noise. Choosing a quieter active microphone will help to further capture the subtle nuances in the sound of an upright piano and better reproduce the quiet moments of an upright piano’s performance.
  • Directionality: Select a directional microphone to better suit the various miking techniques used in recording upright pianos.

Let’s now discuss the recommended upright piano microphones according to the above criteria:


The AKG C414 XLS

AKG C414 XLS

The AKG C414 is an engineering feat in the microphone world. It gets the top recommendation as an upright piano microphone due to its astonishing versatility, wide frequency response, low self-noise, accurate diaphragms, and unbeatable price (for the quality). Let’s talk more about this multi-pattern large diaphragm condenser and why it’s so amazing on upright piano.

Versatility Of The AKG C414 XLS

The AKG C414 is perhaps the most versatile large diaphragm condenser on the market today. With 9 selectable polar patterns, 3 different high-pass filters, and 3 different pads, the C414 will work with and sound superb on the upright piano in nearly any situation. Whether we’re using a single mic or using multiples in a stereo configuration, the C414 is my top choice.

Let’s quickly list out the AKG C414’s switchable options:

9 Selectable Polar Patterns

  • Omnidirectional
  • Omnidirectional/Wide Cardioid (intermediate)
  • Wide Cardioid
  • Wide Cardioid/Cardioid (intermediate)
  • Cardioid
  • Cardioid/Hypercardioid (intermediate)
  • Hypercardioid
  • Hypercardioid/Bidirectional (intermediate)
  • Bidirectional (Figure-8)

For more information on microphone polar patterns, check out my article The Complete Guide To Microphone Polar Patterns.

3 Selectable High-Pass Filters

  • No HPF
  • 12 dB/octave HPF @ 40 Hz
  • 12 dB/octave HPF @ 80 Hz
  • 6 dB/octave HPF @ 160 Hz

For more information on microphone high-pass filters, check out my article What Is A Microphone High-Pass Filter And Why Use One?

3 Selectable Passive-Attenuation-Devices (PADs)

  • Default
  • -6 dB Pad
  • -12 dB Pad
  • -18 dB Pad

For more information on passive attenuation devices, check out my article What Is A Microphone Attenuation Pad And What Does It Do?

I think it goes without saying that the AKG C414 fills any roll in any microphone array/configuration when miking an upright piano.

Frequency Response Of The AKG C414 XLS

The frequency response of the AKG C414 XLS is given as 20 Hz – 20,000 Hz. The C414 XLS (omnidirectional position) frequency response graph is as follows:

Image from the AKG C414 XLS/XLII User Manual

I chose to show the frequency response of the C414’s omnidirectional polar pattern (of the 9 polar pattern options). This is because omni microphones often yield the most natural sound when miking the upright piano. If we were tasked with capturing the sound of an upright piano with a single microphone, my first thought would be to place an AKG C414 a few feet above the top of the piano with the top open. You can check out the other polar patterns and frequency response graphs in the manual here.

The C414 has a very flat frequency response. This means the microphone will reproduce sound (in the form of a mic signal) with pristine accuracy.

A flat frequency response is critical when miking an upright piano. This is due not only to the instrument’s great range (A0 27.5 Hz – C8 4,186 Hz) but also because of the vast harmonic content of the upright piano (ranging upward to 20,000 Hz)

The slight boost of the upper-frequency range helps enhance the “brilliance” or “air” of the upright piano and the space the upright piano is in.

As for the high-pass filters (HPFs), the C414 will capture the entire upright piano’s range beautifully with no filters engaged. However, if you’re finding the piano is muddy a mix (perhaps it’s competing with a double bass or bass drum), simply engage one of the HPFs on the C414 to help thin out the sound a bit (or EQ the signal after the microphone).

For more information on microphone frequency response, check out my article Complete Guide To Microphone Frequency Response (With Mic Examples).

Sensitivity Of The AKG C414 XLS

The open circuit sensitivity rating of the AKG C414 XLS is given as 23 mV/Pa (-33 dBV ± 0.5 dB). This means the microphone will output a strong signal when subjected to exterior sound pressure. This ensures a usable signal even in the quietest moments of a piano’s performance.

For more information on microphone sensitivity, check out my article What Is Microphone Sensitivity? An In-Depth Description.

However, the microphone output isn’t the only way to talk about sensitivity.

Transient Response Of The AKG C414 XLS

The light-weight large diaphragms of the C414 are very reactive and the microphone has a very accurate transient response.

Self-Noise Of The AKG C414 XLS

Because the C414 XLS is an active condenser microphone, it has interior electronics that cause self-noise. These electronics are there, in part, to help boost the mic signal for a better sensitivity rating. They also work by altering the pattern, PAD, or HPF depending on the user input.

Fortunately, though, the self-noise rating of the C414 is only 6 dBA, which is barely noticeable even in the quietest iso-booths. This allows the C414 to capture the slightest amount of sound pressure variation and, therefore, the little nuances of the upright piano sound.

For more information on microphone self-noise, check out my article What Is Microphone Self-Noise? (Equivalent Noise Level).

Directionality Of The AKG C414 XLS

As mentioned, the AKG C414 XLS has a whopping 9 selectable polar patterns. A common choice for recording the natural sound of the upright piano is the omnidirectional mode. The C414 omnidirectional pattern graph is shown below:

I chose to show you the graph the coincides with the omnidirectional mode polar pattern since it’s a common pattern for upright piano studio recordings. That being said, please experiment with the 8 other patterns the C414 has to offer. You can check out the other graphs in the manual here.

As we can see here, the C414 does become more directional at higher frequencies in the omnidirectional mode. This is typical of microphones. When using the C414 in omni mode, I’d still suggest pointing the microphone at the piano for the best capture of the high-end frequencies.

For more information on the omnidirectional microphone polar pattern, check out my article What Is An Omnidirectional Microphone? (Polar Pattern + Mic Examples).

But this is just the omnidirectional mode. As discussed earlier, the C414 has a whopping 9 different selectable polar patterns. Getting back to versatility, the AKG C414 will work in any position or miking technique.


The Neumann U87AI

Neumann U87AI

The Neumann U87AI microphone is modelled after the legendary vintage U87. The AI model sounds slightly brighter and “hifi” while the original U87 sounds slightly darker and “vintage.”

The Neumann U87s are multi-pattern large diaphragm condenser microphones. They are recommended as upright piano microphones due to their great versatility, wide frequency response, and accurate diaphragms.

These microphones are both excellent choices on upright piano. I’ll discuss the U87AI here since it is currently in production.

Versatility Of The Neumann U87AI

Though not as versatile as the aforementioned AKG C414 XLS, the Neumann U87AI has various settings to choose from. The U87AI can play a role in any kind of microphone array or position required when miking an upright piano. Let’s quickly run through the switchable options of the Neumann U87:

3 Selectable Polar Patterns

  • Omnidirectional
  • Cardioid
  • Bidirectional (Figure-8)

1 Selectable High-Pass Filters

  • No HPF
  • 3 dB/octave HPF @ 1000 Hz

1 Selectable Passive-Attenuation-Device (PAD)

  • Default
  • -10 dB Pad

Having all the above options available in the U87 makes it an ideal microphone for many of the upright piano miking techniques.

Frequency Response Of The Neumann U87AI

The frequency response of the Neumann U87 is listed as 20 Hz – 20,000 Hz. Here is the frequency response graph of the U87 in cardioid mode:

Image from Neumann U87 Specification Sheet

As we can see, the Neumann U87AI has an incredibly flat frequency response from roughly 60 Hz to 5,000 Hz. This is where the bulk of the upright piano’s sound and tone will come from, and so the Neumann U87AI is exceptionally accurate at capturing and reproducing the character and music of the upright piano.

We’ll notice the increased bump in the upper frequencies. This helps to accentuate the upper frequencies of the upright piano. An enrichment of these frequencies helps to enhance the character of the upright piano and add brightness to the piano signal.

Another important note is that at the very upper range of the U87AI frequency response there is actually a roll-off. The roll-off protects the microphone from yielding an overly bright and harsh sound. This is critical in the days of digital recording, where the high-end is often over emphasized.

Note that one of the biggest differences between the U87AI and the vintage U87 is that the newer AI edition sounds slightly brighter than the original.

The high-pass filter of the U87AI is designed mostly to counteract the proximity effect when used in close-miking situations. If we are to use the U87 in a close-mic array on an upright piano, try engaging the HPF and listen to which version of the signal sounds best to you.

Sensitivity Of The Neumann U87AI

The sensitivity ratings of the U87AI vary depending on the selected polar pattern:

  • 20 mV/Pa in omnidirectional mode.
  • 28 mV/Pa in cardioid mode.
  • 22 mV/Pa in bidirectional mode.

These are typical ranges for a condenser microphone. The U87AI will output a usable signal if it’s positioned correctly. Even when the pianist is playing a quiet piece on the upright piano.

But once again, there are different ways to think about microphone “sensitivity,” including transient response and self-noise.

Transient Response Of The Neumann U87AI

There’s no explicit measurement for a transient response specification, but if there was, the U87AI would have a great one. The light-weight large diaphragms of the U87AI are very reactive to changing sound pressure levels, giving the microphone an accurate transient response. This helps to capture a true sound of the individual notes of the upright piano.

Self-Noise Of The Neumann U87AI

Electronics are needed in order to have multiple settings within one mic and because the Neumann U87AI is an active “true” condenser. These electronics inherently produce some noise, which is known as a microphone’s self-noise. The self-noise ratings of the Neumann U87AI depend on the selected polar pattern:

  • 15 dBA in omnidirectional mode.
  • 12 dBA in cardioid mode.
  • 14 dBA in bidirectional mode.

The U87AI is by no means the quietest microphone on the market, but it’s definitely quiet enough to not deprive an upright piano performance of its beauty.

The self-noise of the U87AI would barely be noticeable unless the upright piano was in a soundproof room. This scenario is only sometimes the case.

Directionality Of The Neumann U87AI

A common microphone choice for recording the natural sound of the upright piano is an omnidirectional mic. The U87AI omnidirectional pattern graph is shown below:

I chose to show you the graph the coincides with the omnidirectional mode polar pattern since it’s a common pattern for grand piano studio recordings. That being said, please experiment with the 2 other patterns the U87AI has to offer. You can check out the other graphs in the specification shee here.

As we can see here, the U87AI does become more directional (bidirectional to be specific) at higher frequencies in the omnidirectional mode. This is typical of omnidirectional microphones. When using the U87AI in omni mode, I’d still suggest pointing the microphone at the piano for the best capture of the high-end frequencies.

But this is just the omnidirectional mode. The cardioid and bidrectional modes of the U87AI are also excellent choice depending on microphone placement technique around the upright piano.


The Rode NT1-A

Rode NT1-A

The Rode NT1-A is my top recommended “budget” microphone for the upright piano. The Rode NT1-A is a large diaphragm electret condenser microphone with a cardioid polar pattern.

Though this microphone is not nearly as versatile as the other two mics on this list, it does sound awesome on upright piano. The quality of the Rode NT1-A far surpasses its price in my opinion. Let’s talk about how it sounds with the upright piano.

Versatility Of The Rode NT1-A

The NT1-A is not a versatile microphone. It has no selectable options.

That being said, the mic does sound pretty great in many common mic positions around the upright piano (in front, over the open top, etc.).

Frequency Response Of The Rode NT1-A

The frequency response of the Rode NT1-A is listed as 20 Hz – 20,000 Hz. Here is the frequency response graph of the NT1-A:

Image from Rode NT1-A Data Sheet

The frequency response of the NT1-A tells us the microphone is fairly consistent at picking up sound across the audible frequency spectrum (20 Hz – 20,000 Hz). This is what we want in an upright piano mic since the upright piano’s sound nearly fills this entire frequency range.

We see slight boosts in sensitivity in the presence range (3-6 kHz) and in the upper frequencies (around 12 kHz).

The presence boost helps the upright piano cut through in mixes by enhancing its upper range and harmonic content. Too much presence could potentially cause competition between the upright piano and vocals, but the slight boost of the NT1-A should not cause problems. This boost should modestly enhance the character of the upright piano in the slightest fashion.

The boost in the high frequencies will add brightness and brilliance to the sound of the upright piano and the room the piano and mic find themselves in. The high-end roll-off of the NT1-A makes it so that the microphone is not overly bright and harsh (a negative quality in nearly any situation).

Sensitivity Of The Rode NT1-A

The sensitivity rating of the Rode NT1-A is given as -32 dBV or 25 mV/Pa. This is a great sensitivity rating that is typical of condenser microphones. The Rode NT1-A will deliver a strong mic signal of the upright piano to whatever preamplifier it’s connected to.

Transient Response Of The Rode NT1-A

The large 1″ gold plated diaphragm of the NT1-A is light-weight and very sensitive to changing sound pressure levels. The transient response is accurate and will capture the true sound of the piano notes.

Self-Noise Of The Rode NT1-A

The Rode NT1-A is marketed as one of the quietest condenser microphones on the market. Its ultra low noise, transformerless surface mount circuitry gives off only 5 dBA worth of self-noise. That’s incredibly quiet! There’s virtually no risk of self-noise being a factor when recording the upright piano with an NT1-A.

Directionality Of The Rode NT1-A

Unlike the two other recommendations, the Rode NT1-A has only one polar pattern: Cardioid. Here is the cardioid pattern graph of the NT1-A:

Image from Rode NT1-A Data Sheet

When miking an upright piano with the NT1-A, ensure the microphone is pointed at the upright piano for the cleanest results.

A favourite miking technique of mine for the upright piano is to have a spaced pair of NT1-A (or other cardioid mics) pointed down at the open top at either side of the open top. This setup captures a fuller sound of the piano with an opportunity for a stereo image in the mix that has a frequency component (lower frequencies on the left, higher frequencies of the right, for example).

The cardioid pattern of the Rode NT1-A works excellently in close-miking positions and in live situations. The microphone provides effective isolation of the close source. This helps to spot mic specific piece of the upright piano. It also provides isolation for the upright piano when recorded alongside other instruments.

For more information on the cardioid microphone polar pattern, check out my article What Is A Cardioid Microphone? (Polar Pattern + Mic Examples).


The Recap

So these are the three top microphones for capturing the sound of an upright piano. Of course, there are many microphones that sound amazing on upright piano, but in considering price and setting, these are my top 3. Let’s recap:

  • AKG C414 XLS: Best sounding/most versatile mic on upright piano.
  • Neumann U87AI: Most accurate sounding mic on upright piano.
  • Rode NT1-A: Best “budget” microphone on upright piano.

Honourable mentions:

  • Telefunken U47
  • Soundelux U99
  • Neumann TLM102
  • Rode K2

For all the My New Microphone mic/gear recommendations, please check out my page Recommended Microphones And Accessories.