Earthworks PM40 mic system – Road test

So I’ve just unboxed and finished road testing my new Earthworks PM40 mic system. I’ve longed for the ability to record the grand piano in our home studio. Mic’ing a grand piano well can be a challenge for even experienced audio engineers. Not only do you need to have great mics, their placement greatly contributes to the quality of the sound. In a home studio environment this can be a daunting or near impossible task.

Earlier this year I happened to hear a demo of the PM40 system at NAMM 2012 and was floored by how good it sounded. After researching these mics and communicating with the company, we finally ended up buying one for our studio. Not only does it sound incredible, but you don’t need to be an audio engineer to install and use one! There is virtually no bleed from peripheral sounds outside of the piano and recordings can be done with the piano lid open or completely closed. I like that it is made in the USA (Earthworks is located in Milford, NH) and for a neat freak like me, the minimalist set up allows for boom and cable-free clutter with the visual focus remaining on my grand. In this video I show what I did to install this in my Estonia L190 grand piano.

Here, I road test the mics by playing my composition “One Of Us”. I recorded the Estonia at full stick, completely dry. The recording was done with Cakewalk SONAR X1 with no EQ or effects applied.

The audio was recorded at  24 bit, 96 KHz to capture the full resolution of these high definition mics. Though this video is high definition, there could be some audio quality loss due to YouTube compression. Here are links to the original stereo audio file as well a couple of others from my earlier CD’s for comparison. These are all raw stereo wave files with no effects or EQ applied.

–  One Of Us – Estonia L-190 at full stick, miced with PM-40, 24 bit/96KHz.
–  One Of Us (from CD) – Steinway-D at full stick, X/Y mic configuration, 24 bit/96KHz.
–  A New Leaf – Kawai closed lid, under lid close micing, 16 bit/44.1KHz.

I would be happy to hear any comments you may have about the sound of these recordings. Thanks to Noel Borthwick for filming and recording this. And to the great folks at Earthworks for an amazing product that will enable me to create and record more music than ever – with ease, and at high quality right here in my studio!

3 Comments

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  1. Thanks Noel!!!
    Sorry for the late response- we were in the middle of moving up north and so things were a bit crazy- but getting back to normal. Thank you so much for your detailed response!!! Many things to think about-
    My room is quite a bit smaller than yours- 12 x 14 with 8ft high ceilings- thick wall to wall carpet though- basically a small living room- I think a piano in here really has the potential to “overdominate” the room- but I really need one for practicing and especially for recording. The only reason I haven’t jumped on the Estonia 190 at least for now is it seems (at least to my ear) to be a little more “echoey” than other pianos- I’m just worried in such a small space that the sound might be compromised. BUT I am thinking the PM40’s would help with compensating for small room size, and you mentioned that the bass on the Estonia comes across nicely with the PM 40’s. However, I also tend to play loudly in general and when I record. I was just curious if you had any more advice regarding this.
    thanks!
    Jason

  2. Hi Jason,

    Thanks for writing. This is Noel – Ramona asked me to reply to some of your tech queries. I’m the tech around these parts 🙂

    We are so far pretty happy with the recordings we are getting from the Estonia. The bottom line is unless you are really hip with micing techniques and own really high end mics it is extremely difficult to get comparable results with traditional micing especially in a home studio environment. The biggest problem with classic X/Y micing etc is that you need to be really careful with mic placement and it requires a lot of experimentation to get the right sound – move the mic’s a foot and it sounds completely different. Unless you plan on setting up the mics and leaving them permanently wired, it is a very cumbersome process to set up again. Another huge problem is that if you revisit a recording later the chances are that it will sound very different since the mic position has changed.

    So the PM-40 gets rid of the mic placement issue since its literally a simple drop in to the piano – once you set up you can simply mark the positions of the rod and even if you take the mic out you can put it back in exactly the same place the next time in a minute. To me this is a huge advantage since you can spend your time playing rather than messing with mic placement.

    Regarding your other questions:

    >>Are you completely happy with the recordings you do on the Estonia 190? Since it is not a full 7′ grand, for example, and a bit smaller, have you noticed any muddiness in the bass register in your recordings?

    Generally yes, mainly because the results I get are light years better than anything I can do with traditional micing. Since the PM-40 is a close micing solution the mics are placed very close to the soundboard so they tend to pick up exactly whats coming out of the soundboard. As such there is a fair amount of bass and detail in the sound. I wouldn’t call the bass sound muddy since the Estonia actually has a much nicer bass and warmer sound than comparably sized Yamahas, Kawais and even Steinways, which is one of the big reasons Ramona chose it. That said, a larger piano will obviously give you a more resonant bass.

    >>Do you also record it with lid fully closed?

    Only if playing with other instruments in the same room when we need isolation of the piano track. Otherwise for solo piano recordings I have found that the half open lid position to be ideal for a more natural sound. With the lid fully closed you tend to get more reflections off the soundboard in the mix.

    >>Is there anything you DON’T like about the PM40 mics?

    Yes but it has more to do with close micing limitations than the PM-40 itself. The PM-40 is very unforgiving since the mic’s are so close to the piano. Even if the sound of the piano from a listener perspective is nice, you really need to make sure that the piano is voiced and tuned really well. Otherwise you tend to hear the slightest flaws in the recording. This is more applicable to solo recording since its less noticeable when the recording is used in a mix. I have sometimes found the upper end to be a bit too bright for my taste so you might want to voice the piano accordingly. In soft recordings you can sometimes hear hammer and pedal noise which is inevitable with close micing. Some of these can be corrected with post processing and EQ.

    >>I’m also curious as to the size of the room your piano is

    The room is about 12 x 24 x 8 with another attached open 10×10 area where I have all the recording and mixing equipment. The room is carpeted. The space sounds pretty nice and is pretty isolated since its in the basement, so I haven’t bothered with soundproofing or any acoustic treatment. The nice thing about the PM-40 is that it is immune to room artifacts since its a close micing system. So it should sound pretty close in any room.

    Regarding the piano size, with the lid open this piano is really *loud* even in my space so that’s potentially one consideration for you if you are planning on getting something bigger …

  3. HI Ramona!

    I found your video here on the web-
    very nice! I’m wondering if you can offer some advice-
    I’m looking to record some of my piano playing as well in my home studio-
    I’m looking into purchasing an Estonia 190 actually as well, (or possibly something a bit larger if I can afford it 🙂 and the PM40 mic system for recording- so practically identical to your setup!

    The questions I have for you are:
    Are you completely happy with the recordings you do on the Estonia 190? Since it is not a full 7′ grand, for example, and a bit smaller, have you noticed any muddiness in the bass register in your recordings?
    Do you also record it with lid fully closed?
    Is there anything you DON’T like about the PM40 mics?

    I’m also curious as to the size of the room your piano is in-
    my room is a bit smaller- 14 X 12 (8 ft tall)- BUT it does have thick carpet on the entire floor, and I didn’t know if room size would be a factor in the quality of the recordings- since the PM40 mics are more advanced than traditional ones.
    Do you have any wall treatments in your room (acoustic paneling, foam, etc)?
    Any advice you can offer would be appreciated-

    Thanks!

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