Three years ago, when I wrote my essay in which I proposed a new general name for handpans*, I had a plan to start writing a regular blog about handpans and my thoughts around them. It never happened, but I’ve come back to the idea lately.

Originally I began writing this post some months ago when David Charrier asked on Facebook which recordings of a handpan people consider great, so that the sound engineer of his next album could train his ears before the production. I wrote some notes, but never published them back then. This blog post is based on those notes. Over the summer I forgot my idea for this blog, but remembered it again when David released his new album last week. So, let’s see where this leads. Maybe the time is right for The Cupolist to become active.

The sound of the cupola

A good cupola sounds amazing. The sound is full, warm and resonates deep inside you. But what is the essence, or the soul, of that sound? What makes a good cupola recording? These were all questions that I thought a lot about when I recorded my last album Real Music for Unreal Times.

But before we dive into the question about the recording (which I will publish as a separate text later), we need to acknowledge that not all cupolas are created equal, nor do they sound the same. There are many instruments on the market, that are simply poorly made or otherwise technically restricted. Various builders make different aesthetic choices that define their instruments and the background of the builder also affects the choices he makes. In my experienice, the builders often aim for the sound they fell in love in the first place.

The sound of Sovietsky

Viktor Levinson, the creator of the SPB Pantam has told me that for him the ideal sound was affected largely by the sound of second generation PANArt Hang. Viktor has no background with steelpans, so he would focus on the aspects of the sound that appealed to him the most without considering the traditional steelpan aesthetics too much. He aimed at warm, full-bodied sound with well tuned overtones, no chaotic or ”metallic” partials, good note separation, a strong Helmholtz resonance of the instrument body and a wooden or clay-like click of the material.

When I got my first instrument (SPB ”Kurd 8”) from him in 2011, it was approximately the 40th or 50th instrument he had built. Although it is one of the better instruments he has built (also according to himself), it is still a prototype, and a very different beast than his later instruments. To mention a few differences, it has a deeper body and softer note borders than his later instruments. Also the sound of his instruments changed a lot in the coming years as he focused on his ideals. The later SPBs are tighter, highly focused and extremely stable instruments. The separation of the notes is extraordinary (which means there is very little sound in between the notes) and a beautiful, satisfying click when you play a percussive slap between the notes or next to the rim. While the older SPBs are wilder and more chaotic in many ways, I fell in love with the sound of early SPBs: warm and deep with great dynamics. This is what guides me when I try to define a good sounding instrument.

(A sidenote: good sound doesn’t always mean perfect playability or a beautiful instrument, nor does a beautiful instrument always produce a perfect sound… Maybe here’s an idea for a future blog post…)

Is handpan an inverted steelpan?

Some handpan builders emphasize the instruments connection to the steelpan. Builders who have a long background with the steelpan, such as Eckhart Schultz, tend to create instruments that have strong harmonics and a bright, sonorous tone. They seem to value less the ”woody, clay-like click” or the warm Helmholtz resonance of the body. For them the handpan does seem more like an inverted steelpan, which is played by hands. In my experience, these bright-voiced handpans tend to have an overall harmonic ringing to them, which is highly pleasant to some, but personally I look for less ringing overtones and more control over the sounds that I make.

The components of the sound

In electronic music the focus is often on the sound itself: timbres, textures, colors… A monotonous drone can be exciting if it changes and modulates constantly. The sound might consist of many layers or sonic components and morph over time into something completely else. On acoustic instruments this kind effect is not usually as easily achieved, but a recording can make a huge difference in how we perceive the sound. I will write about this later, but I conclude this writing with the components that I think are essential to a handpan sound.

  1. Notes and the tone
    Every note on the cupola is tuned with at least the fundamental and two harmonics (usually octave and the fifth). The notes should sound stable; they shouldn’t modulate as aggressively as steelpan notes, although I do appreciate a slight change in the tone when played dynamically. Also, the edges of the the notes should produce clear harmonics, so that they can be used as an accent. This is especially necessary on the central note (the apex or the ”ding”), where the playing surface is big, and the main accents (”dum”) are usually played on the dome, while the lesser notes are often played around it. Secondary accents (”tak”) on the other hand are often played on the edge of the note. If the note is poorly built, this kind of variation doesn’t produce a pleasant sound all over the note. Also, all notes should be properly separated from each other, so that the vibrations don’t pass on to the next note and make every other note ring when one is played. (Sympathetic resonance is a different thing, and usually an admired quality in the sound of the handpan… at least to some extent.)
  2. Material
    Cupolas are made of metal, so they sound obviously a bit metallic. However, if the material is too thin, the material produces a lot of higher partials and the sound become overtly metallic. I prefer the sound of the thicker (1,1–1,25 mm) instruments, as there is more vibrating mass on the notes. The nitriding process, which is considered essential in a modern cupola, also affects the sound a lot. This does not only affect the actual ringing/sustain of the notes, but also the attack in the beginning of it. A well nitrided instrument produces usually a softer (woody/clay-like) click and a better slap, while less nitrided instruments tend to sound more metallic, but there are exceptions to this, as the beautiful, snappy click results from the combination of right material and shape of the instrument. The material and the surface defines a huge deal of the instrument’s sound. To demonstrate the material qualities, many builders begin their demo videos with sweeping across the cupola’s surface with their hands. The soft sound that it produces already gives a lot of information of the sound to the potential customer: a clay-like surface is considered to be of higher value than a completely smooth metallic (or even polished) surface — and not least because it usually sounds a lot better.
  3. Helmholtz resonance
    For me the Helmholtz or the body resonance is one of the core elements in the sound of a cupola, which separates it from steelpans (or inverted steelpans). The body of the instrument is a resonator, which produces a low suboctave note, usually tuned an octave below the central note. In higher register cupolas (where center note is G or higher), the Helmholtz resonance is not as strong as in the lower register instruments. In a good sounding instrument the Helmholtz resonance is always in harmonic relation with the instrument’s scale.

A note about space and acoustics

I almost listed acoustics as one of the core elements of the cupola sound, but decided to leave it out as it is not technically a part of the instrument. However, it’s good to note that any instrument can sound horrible in a wrong acoustic setting. The instrument may sound too loud or maybe the space emphasizes wrong frequencies, making it sound out of tune. Also, on the contrary, a poor instrument may sound wonderful in proper acoustics — not to mention what a great musician can do even with the most mundane metal container! 😉

*Since the publication of the essay in 2013, cupola has become a well known alternative name for handpans in the international scene. ’Kupola’ is also how this instument is often referred to in Finland, due to my active use of the name in the media and other public activities.