How to Mix Piano Keyboard- Panning, EQ and Compression techniques

Audio Compression Techniques for Piano

It is important to examine how you are going to use compression to get the desired sound for your piano. I received a user inquiry about compressing piano in the mix. Let’s talk about that here.

First, you need to determine the genre of the music where the piano is used. Different compression settings are often applied depending on the genre. For example, in classical piano music recordings; it is highly important that the dynamic range (difference between loud and soft) is high so this means that you will only apply very little or even no compression at all. This is common in classical piano pieces.

The truth is that the more you be applying compression, the lesser will be the difference between “loud” and “soft” parts in your recorded music. This significantly affects the dynamics of the piano recording which can be important.

A “smooth” compression setting (you can experiment this depending on your mix, so use your ear) in piano can be:

Threshold= -8.0dB
Compression ratio: 3.5:1
Attack time=10ms
Release time=1,000ms
Output gain= 0dB

This smooth setting is ideal if you need to apply only a little compression to the piano or keyboard tracks. However if you want a more aggressive compression (minimizing the difference between loud and soft in the piano tracks), which is common in pop, country and rock piano solos:

Threshold = -20dB
Compression ratio: 2:1
Attack time: 1ms
Release time: 25ms
Output gain=0dB

An even more “compressed” setting for piano is using the compression settings for the guitar:

Threshold= -20dB
Compression Ratio: 5:1
Attack time: 15ms
Release time: 15ms
Output gain= -6dB

This is a very useful setting if you are using the piano as a rhythm track which needs it to have a consistent and steady beat. This is commonly used in pop and new wave music.

Reverb in the mix

Reverb is a tricky matter. You might be tempted to apply a big reverb to all of your piano tracks regardless of the genre; simply because the piano sounds would sound good with it. This is not the correct method of applying reverb.

In this tutorial on how to apply reverb to a mix properly, there a lot of factors that could influence the reverb setting. Below are the situations:

1.) Piano placed on the far left and right of the stereo field will have more reverb that placed near the center.

2.) A middle and high range of the piano is more appropriate with high reverb setting than the bass notes of the piano.

3.) A fast tempo piano rhythm is appropriate with lower reverb settings.

The good news is that most piano recordings are made on big or spacious live rooms that naturally capture the reverberations. This is a common recording technique for classical piano. With this method implemented, you will not be needing to apply a reverb in your mix using plugins.

How to pan piano in the mix

Like most instrument such as drums, vocals and guitars, you also need to properly pan piano in the mix to be more effective.

Bear in mind that panning settings for piano in the mix is different for each intended use of piano, such that:

a.) If the piano is used as an accompaniment with other instruments playing along it (like guitars), then it is much advisable to pan piano around

Left: -45 to -55
Right: 45 to 55 units

Or in percent: 45% to 55% or -45% to -55%.

By panning it farther from the center, the piano will shine as an accompanying instrument and will not cause mud with other instruments near the center particularly the drums, bass guitar and vocals.

For high notes of the piano or in middle range, you can experiment panning it somewhere 65% to 75% for both left and right.

b.) If the piano is used as a solo instrument with no other instruments playing along it, it is much better to pan the entire piano tracks in the center (center =0).

c.) If the piano is used as a solo background instrument playing along with vocals, it is much better to pan the piano slightly off center (5 or units). This is applicable if the pianist wishes to play high notes along with vocals. If the piano background is purely chord based (no arpeggio playing), then it can be pan in the center.

Below are some very useful tutorials related to panning piano in the mix:

a.) Panning Instruments in a Mix-Getting Great Stereo Image using Reverb

b.) The Art of Two-Dimensional Audio Mixing: Front & Back

Content last updated on June 22, 2012