The piano is a big instrument! In terms of frequency range, its 88 keys start lower than a 5-string bass and top out nearly two octaves higher than the highest note on an electric guitar! It truly is an instrument built to fill a room!
A pianist often plays more than one part and is responsible for balancing them so, in some ways, a pianist has to mix their own instrument. This approach works splendidly when the piano is unaccompanied, but doesn’t always hit the mark in a rock band. There, the piano’s wide range can get in the way of other instruments. A pianist skilled at playing in a group navigates this by playing in specific frequency ranges, finding the right spot for the piano to shine amidst the other instruments.
The piano also has an enormous dynamic range – the difference between its quietest and loudest volume. “Piano” is short for “pianoforte” which is a combination of two musical terms: piano and forte (if you skipped Music Theory 101, these mean “quiet” and “loud”, respectively). For classical music fans, “Rachmaninoff’s Concerto #3 in Dm” is a breathtaking display of the dynamic range of a piano in the hands of a master. In pop/rock music … there are no examples. At least not with a full band. The difference between quiet and loud sections are downright laughable compared to classical music. Recent hits by artists like Gavin DeGraw, classics like the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” and even soaring rock operas like “Bohemian Rhapsody” all demonstrate the “compact” dynamic range of a piano in pop/rock music. There is some level adjustment and use of audio compression in the mix, for sure, but the dynamic range is first and foremost in the hands of the musician.
So it’s easy for a piano to conflict with another instrument, take over completely or drop out of the mix all based on how the musician plays! But not all pianos sound the same; there is still a range of tones we can tune into. Because of the expansive range of the instrument it’s hard to give guidelines that stick! I’ll do my best and describe a few different piano sounds you can listen for.
“Warmth” comes from the lower keys and can be very effectively controlled by the player. In a band this range is often shared by the bass guitar. A warm piano sounds big and close but, like the acoustic guitar, a big piano isn’t always what’s needed in a mix.
“Meat” can describe the midrange of the piano. The three octaves starting at middle C are the “meatiest” and most vocal-like which makes them the most likely to compete with vocals in a mix. As an example, Gavin DeGraw pounds out the lead line to “Chariot” in-between verses, but backs away from this range when he sings to make room for his voice. If you’re listening for it, this kind of “backing away” in an arrangement is very common.
“Sparkle” describes the high range of the piano. Its fundamentals – the notes the strings are tuned to – go up to about 5 kHz. The harmonics – overtones that resonate along with the fundamentals – go up at least as high as the human hearing range. There’s a lot of content at 16 kHz and above, even if the highest keys aren’t being played. This range can give clarity to the instrument and bring it out in a range that doesn’t easily interfere with a vocal or an electric guitar.
We often simplify all of this and say a piano is either bright or dark. This describes the natural sound of the instrument, not so much the way it’s been mixed. A bright piano has more “meat” and “sparkle” and less “warmth”. A dark piano is the opposite. Digital pianos usually have a selection of bright, dark and in-between piano samples to choose from. Whether you’re performing live or laying tracks in the studio, it’s worth taking the time to choose the right sound at the source.