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6 Ways to Mix Piano

May 12, 2024

It’s one of the most versatile and dynamic instruments out there, which makes it a compelling one to mix. Here are tactics to keep your piano sounding fresh in any given mix.

How to mix piano tracks

Having been around for over 300 years, pianos are one of the most widely used instruments in contemporary music. Their complex timbre and huge tonal range make them one of the most versatile and usable melodic instruments there is, but these characteristics are also their downfall. With 88 possible notes and a hammer, string and resonance component, their broadband frequency range and variable combination of transient and tonal portions can make them a challenge to mix.

Because of their breadth, pianos work well and are frequently used as solo instruments in a range of musical styles. It’s when trying to mix pianos with other melodic elements such as guitars, mallets, synths or even vocals that you can run into problems. In this article, we’ll look at a number of ways you can mix piano to be a more cohesive instrument in your productions.

How to Mix Piano

1. Apply EQ according to the context of your mix

While we are exploring some general advice for mixing piano, it’s important for each of these mix approaches that you consider the overall context of the mix before applying any processing. This is particularly true for the first technique.

As highlighted above, pianos tend to contain a lot of frequency information, and while that may be a positive thing in very minimalistic compositions, it can cause issues in more complex productions. Before applying EQ, ask yourself what you’re trying to achieve. Are there some low piano notes that are taking up valuable space in the low end of your mix? Or perhaps the higher frequency transient information is lacking prominence due to an acoustic guitar occupying the same frequency range.

In this case, the lower register piano notes are clashing with our bassline and creating a great deal of mud below 200Hz. We’re using the Magma Tube Channel Strip to attenuate this frequency range by around 5dB using a low-shelf filter.

Mixing pianos with EQ

You can also use automation, or a technique called ‘multing’ to apply different equalization throughout the arrangement. For example, you may wish to attenuate some of your piano’s low end to make room for other instruments during busy chorus sections, but reintroduce the low end again during a bridge to give it more impact.

Automate your piano EQ in different sections

2. Layer with another instrument to reinforce transients

Pianos with softer, lighter hammers, or that have been performed more gently may be lacking in transient information. Again, this may not be a problem in less complex compositions, but bolstering out your piano’s transients can help to give it presence in your mix, particularly on smaller playback devices such as earphones or Bluetooth speakers.

Blend piano with other instruments for better impact

Subtly layering your piano with another, more transient-rich instrument is a great way of achieving this without impacting the original tone and character of your piano recording. Mallets, bells or even a synthesizer with a simple sine wave are all suitable candidates for this task.

In order to ensure that the newly layered instruments sound natural and cohesive in the mix, try applying buss processing in the form of glue compression or saturation. This can help to gel the two instruments together, creating the impression that they’re actually just one instrument. The SSL G-Master Buss Compressor plugin is an ideal tool for this job.

3. Use a transient shaper to adjust your piano’s transient properties

If layering your piano with another instrument isn’t an option due to equipment or time constraints, a transient shaper plugin can take care of much of the hard work on your behalf. Provided your piano recording contains some kind of transient information, a dedicated transient shaper plugin like Smack Attack can help to bring those transients out, however subtle they may be in the original recording.

We’ve applied Smack Attack’s Emotional Piano preset, and tweaked the Attack, Sensitivity and Duration values to work with the contour of our piano amplitude as well as the mix as a whole. The result is a piano with a much more pronounced transient portion.

Smack attack piano

4. Try serial compression for highly dynamic pianos

As we touched on in the last technique, pianos can have a huge dynamic range. Soft, slow performances result in more legato audio that is made up of predominantly tonal information. Harder, faster piano performances on the other hand will give you a more staccato style of audio. And of course some performances will contain a combination of both.

While that can help to create contrast in a mix, you may wish to slightly tame the dynamic range if that gives the mix a more cohesive feel, and ultimately sounds more pleasing to the listener. To do that, we can use serial compression, an approach that can control even the most dynamic piano recordings in a natural and musical way.

Start with an extremely fast compressor such as the CLA-76, and set a relatively high ratio. The job of this compressor is to tackle the piano’s biggest peaks, which occur during the transient portions of the recording.

Tame those piano peaks with fast compression

We’ve then used a second compressor with a slower attack time and a lower ratio. The second compressor’s job is to control the overall level of the signal, making it sound more full and robust. In this case, the transparent sound and high level of control you get with the Renaissance Compressor plugin make it ideal for the task at hand.

Using serial compression on pianos

5. Consider your piano’s stereo image

As well as consuming lots of space in the frequency spectrum, pianos can take up a considerable amount of room in your mix’s stereo image too. This is due to the way pianos are commonly recorded. If you look at a piano’s key bed as if you’re playing it, the lower keys are to the left while the upper keys are on the right. When recording a piano with a spaced-pair microphone technique, this translates to the stereo image of the resulting audio signal.

Waves Grand Rhapsody Piano Plugin

This might not be an issue in your mix, but there may be circumstances where you want to alter your piano’s stereo image on a broadband or frequency-dependent basis, or collapse it entirely to mono using a stereo-width plugin such as S1 Stereo Imager. If you opt for the latter option, be cautious of potential phase issues that may arise from combining multiple microphone signals into a single signal.

Get the width of your pianos set right

If you want to keep your piano recording in stereo but just want to adjust the stereo information according to frequency, a mid/side capable EQ plugin such as F6 Dynamic EQ lets you do just that. Set up a low and high shelf, and set them both to Sides mode. Now apply attenuation in the relevant frequency ranges, and you will start to hear the sides of the signal at the top and bottom of the frequency spectrum begin to move towards the center of the mix.

Using mid/side EQ to shape pianos

6. Do you even need reverb?

As with the contextual EQ tip further up this article, try to listen to your piano recording and consider what you’re trying to achieve before blindly applying reverb as a default practice. Often, pianos are recorded with a room mic which picks up the sound of the space within which a piano is being recorded. In this case, the recording should already have a natural sense of space, and therefore applying more reverb may be an unnecessary practice that could do more harm than good.

On the other hand, there are a multitude of piano recording techniques, and many of them do not incorporate the use of room mics. Instead, specific parts of the piano are recorded close-up to create recordings with a sense of proximity and presence. A piano’s keys, hammers, soundboard or body may be recorded and mixed in with recordings of its strings in order to capture a drier piano character. In this instance, you may choose to apply some reverb to create space or depth, or to add unique and creative reverb effects to your piano.

If your piano contains unwanted reverb or room noise, you can use an AI room noise and reverb removal tool such as Clarity Vx DeReverb to achieve a drier, tighter sounding piano recording. While this plugin is primarily intended for working on vocals and dialogue, the three Neural Network modes, Analysis and Presence settings give you plenty of control over the processing being applied. As such, Clarity Vx DeReverb and Clarity Vx DeReverb Pro are both well worth adding to your piano mixing toolbox.

Make piano tracks sound tighter

Taking your piano mix further with StudioVerse

Discover a world of mix chains for keyboards and pianos

Besides what we’ve covered in this article, the simplest way to get any piano mixed into any style of production is with our ever expanding library of StudioVerse mix chains.

Simply load StudioVerse across any track, and with the powerful AI search, discover a world of production ready piano chains that you can hot switch between in real-time. All the chains in StudioVerse are completely editable. If you find a chain that almost fits to bill, use the macros to dial in the perfect feel or the powerful plugin chainer to add, edit or remove plugins as you wish.

Explore StudioVerse today.

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