With an audience of approximately 25.8 million viewers, this year’s Grammy Awards telecast was the music industry’s biggest night of the year and many of the musical performances were equally huge. Pink’s aerial artistry was over the top, the Black Eyed Peas shook the foundation of the Staples Center, and the 3D tribute to Michael Jackson was in a league all its own. While perhaps at opposite ends of the musical spectrum, the performances of Mary J. Blige and Andrea Bocelli and that of Leon Russell with the Zac Brown Band were both highlights of the evening. Each performance featured striking piano accompaniment and in both cases, the piano sound was captured using the PM40 PianoMic™ System from Earthworks.
As has been the case for the past 16 years, John Harris, Partner in Frenchtown, NJ-based Music Mix Mobile (M3), served as Music Mixer for this year’s Grammy Awards broadcast. Throughout his career, Harris has been awarded two Grammy Awards (for Best Engineered Album and for Album of the Year), along with five Emmy Awards and several TEC Awards. With a track record like this, it comes as no surprise that Harris has some definite opinions about how to mic a piano and why he insists on using the Earthworks PM40.
“The challenge for me in this type of application is almost always external noise,” Harris explained. “In a venue the size of Staples Center, it takes serious volume—both to cover a stage as large as that used at the Grammys and to reach the audience. Because of these SPL levels, the use of conventional mics on an acoustic piano typically results in a situation where you find yourself picking up all sorts of ambient noise, especially low end. With most microphones, it’s very difficult to isolate the instrument. By contrast, the PM40 lets us capture the piano with the lid closed, thus isolating the instrument.”
Achieving the desired instrument level in a high SPL environment is never a problem with the Earthworks PM40. The two 40 kHz High Definition Microphones™ included in the system provide a high level of gain before feedback because the microphones are positioned very close to the sound source and are within the sound field of the piano. The microphones deliver exceptional impulse response and extremely short diaphragm setting times—making them ideally suited to perform within the piano’s highly diffused sound field.
“There have always been a number of ways to mic a piano with the lid closed,” Harris continued, “but prior to the PM40, I never felt any of them sounded particularly good. Regardless of whether I close the lid or leave it open, the Earthworks PM40 has a special quality that is heads above anything else I’ve ever used. If you encounter low end rumble, you can roll it out of the microphone and still get a really natural, musical piano sound.”
Harris also appreciates the PM40’s unique mounting system. “I love the way you can adjust the positioning of the mics,” he said. “I can move the crossbar up or down a few inches and position the capsules right where I need them to be. I like to place the mics right behind the dampers. I position them rather wide on the bar and using the goosenecks, I then curl them in toward the center. Ultimately, the capsules end up positioned roughly an octave and a half on either side of middle C.”
Compared to the traditional practice of using microphone stands and, perhaps, booms, to reach inside the piano, the Earthworks crossbar approach carries additional benefits, as Harris described. “The fact that once the PM40 is placed inside the piano, it stays there, is a big advantage, he said. “On a show like the Grammys, all the sets and instruments are struck once the rehearsals are finished. The pianos get rolled down ramps into adjacent rooms or hallways until they’re needed during the performance. With any kind of conventional miking approach, the stands have to be moved and then repositioned—and this never happens the same way twice. Further, if you place the mics inside the piano and tape them into position, they will likely shake loose and fall onto the strings. By contrast, the PM40 stays set.”
When queried about the sound quality of the PM40, Harris offered this thought. “Simply put, the PM40 sounds great,” he reports. “The Bocelli piece was scheduled to go directly to Apple’s iTunes site if everything went well. Because the piece had such an important artist plus orchestral accompaniment, there was concern that, at the end of the night, we’d have to go back and remix in order for it to be good enough. That, however, was not the case. The performance and the mix both turned out really well and at the end of it, producer Ron Fair stood up and proclaimed ‘Mix approved’ and walked out the door. The Bocelli performance is now on iTunes mixed exactly as it was for broadcast.”
Before re-focusing his attention on forthcoming projects, Harris offered this closing thought about the Earthworks PM40, “Until a year or two ago when the PM40 was introduced, I really wasn’t familiar with Earthworks. I first used their mic system on a Herbie Hancock piece during a Grammy show. For that project, the lids were to be off the piano and I thought, ‘Great, how are we going to pull this off?’ At that point, I had my first encounter with the PM40. The PianoMic™ was so impressive, I’ve been using it ever since. With the PM40, Earthworks has a great product.”