Updated: Feb 24, 2020
Want to learn how to tell a good handpan from a great one? Or just want to know how to spot a clunker? Below are my top ten traits to look for in a truly top shelf handpan. Enjoy!
Need the cliff-notes? Here’s the whole list!
No Cross Talk
Quality and number of percussive sounds
Bloom / Sympathetic Resonance
The Port / Gu is not an afterthought
Metal Treatment / Rust resistance
Trait #1: Precise tuning
This trait is a no brainer for the number one spot because the very essence of a handpan comes from its delicate tuning process. If a handpan is not tuned properly it will sound raucous and unpleasing. Generally speaking, each note on a handpan should be tuned with a fundamental, octave, and compound fifth pitches. It’s the combination of these three pitches that creates the other-worldly sound of the handpan. As you listen to more handpans your ear will be able to pick up on when something is not right. To hear the difference between an in-tune and out-of-tune handpan, check out the video below by Josh Rivera of Rivera Steel Tuning.
Trait #2: Note stability
Note stability is the ability of a note to stay in tune despite outside factors such as heavy strikes, changes in temperature, or just time. If a handpan is unstable it can detune easily from these forces, causing time consuming and costly repairs. A well built handpan should be able to maintain its tuning integrity through appropriate usage.
Trait #3: No crosstalk
Crosstalk is the dissonant sympathetic interaction that occurs between two or more notes on a handpan when one tonefield is struck.
Simplified, think of it this way: when you strike a tonefield on a handpan the vibration it creates affects every note of the handpan since it is all one piece of steel. Some of these interactions can be good (we’ll get to that) and some not so much. Crosstalk is what we call the bad interactions. This could look something like two pitches a half step apart interacting with each other. Trust me this won’t sound good. (Imagine playing a cluster of notes on a piano.) A small amount of crosstalk can be forgivable and sometime is unavoidable on certain scales that are half-step heavy but excessive crosstalk can ruin an otherwise good handpan. The best way to avoid crosstalk is to avoid handpans with several half-steps, especially with half-steps that are positioned spatially close to each other. As always, trust your ears.
Trait #4: No impedance
Impedance. This one can be a little tricky to understand but don’t worry I’ll break it down as simple as possible. Impedance is a phenomenon occurring in handpans where, due to the diameter or depth of the shell, certain pitches can sound stifled or dissonant. This is caused by sound waves/frequencies that do not properly align when travelling through the shell.
In short, impedance can make certain notes not sound great. Most handpan builders will either avoid impeded pitches entirely or take certain preventative measures to minimize their effects such as note placement, internal foam, or baffling.
Trait #5: Good sustain
One of the distinct characteristics of the handpan is it smooth voice like sustaining sound that distinguishes it from other percussion instruments. Sustain can be a bit of a matter of personal taste as not everyone likes handpans with immense amounts of sustain, but in general all handpans should have enough sustain to make them sound, well, like a handpan. Have a listen to many kinds of handpans to determine how much sustain fits your personal taste.
Trait #6: Tone consistency
Having an instrument that is well balanced can make a world of difference in the quality of the instrument. Playing up and down your handpan scale each note should have the same tone, tuning integrity, sustain time, volume, and clearness. If even one tonefield sounds different than the rest (better or worse) playing evenly around the instrument can be extremely difficult.
Trait #7: Quality and number of percussive sounds
Not only can we play the tonefields of our handpan, but we also have a whole range of various percussive sounds at our fingertips. Weather it’s taks, slaps, or pitch bends the best handpan makers account for these sounds just as they would the tuning of the tonefields. These extra sounds can add a whole new world to your playing, so they are definitely something to keep an eye out for in your next handpan.
Trait #8: Bloom / sympathetic resonance
Sympathetic Resonance is the activation of one or more tonefields simultaneously on an instrument caused by the striking of a separate, complementary pitch.
Put simply, sometimes when you strike a note on a handpan the vibrations caused by this can in turn make other notes simultaneously create sound. This most often happens with the central note activating one or more of the surrounding tonefields. The resulting sound is rich, full, and chorus like. Not everyone likes this effect and on some handpans it can sound nicer than others. If you are looking for a handpan with a larger than life sound, then keep an eye out for this special trait.
Trait #9: The port / gu is not an afterthought
If you’re a big fan of playing the bottom shell of the handpan then looking for a pan with a tuned gu/port is a must. Unfortunately, not all handpans have a tuned gu/port as some choose to leave it untuned or simply fold the metal of the port/gu cut-out over, rather than hammer it into a long cylinder shape. While there is no standard protocol for what fundamental pitch and overtones to tune the port/gu, most handpan builders will tune it to a related pitch to the scale of the instrument with one or more overtones. Additionally, the best gus/ports will be able to create a deep and bass heavy tone when struck with the palm. This is desirable for not only percussive playing on the bottom shell, but this added bass can actually give some added depth to the striking of the central note as well as numerous percussive sounds. Generally speaking, the deeper the neck of the gu/port, the deeper and fuller this tone (the helmholtz resonance) will be.
Trait #10: Metal treatment / rust resistance
Fortunately, this trait is not nearly as big of an issue as it once was. Bottom line is this-- handpans can be expensive so you want to make sure your instrument doesn’t rust into a heap of scrap metal. Luckily there are many ways around this such as more corrosion resistant metals like stainless steel, metal treatments like nitration, or even some off the wall things like clear coating. It’s worth noting that this doesn’t mean raw steel instruments are useless, it just means you will have to be extra careful with keeping them clean and lubricated especially if you live in a more humid climate.
Hey! You made it to the end! Here’s a bonus trait for those of you that stuck it out.
Playability, now what do I mean by that? To me it’s simple; a great handpan should be easy to make it sound good. As a handpan player of several years I have learned a few tricks on how to make not so good handpans sound pretty decent when I play them, weather that means moving my striking position slightly, utilizing a different part of my finger, or playing certain notes different than the rest to achieve a more cohesive sound. These things all work but the problem is this, when I play this way, I feel like I’m walking on eggshells! A slight misstep and the sound of the instrument will change dramatically. For me, the truly great handpan is the complete opposite of this. Rather than forcing me to adapt to it, it adapts to me! If I slightly miss the sweet spot of a note or strike not quite how I wanted to the handpan is forgiving and still will produce a great sound. This trait not only makes the handpan more relaxing and enjoyable to play but also significantly more approachable for beginning players who sometime get discouraged by not being able to create the sound they want. Rather than blaming their sub-par handpan, they wrongly blame themselves. Playability can’t be quantified into one or two physical traits but rather is the sum of all of the traits above, if you find a handpan that just feels natural in your hands then chances are it has checked off many of the boxes listed here.
Still worried about finding a great handpan that you’ll be satisfied with? Don’t worry I have done the leg work for you! Head on over to the “Handpans for Sale” tab in my store section. I’ve personally vetted every handpan available to assure of quality and all are guaranteed by me, Mark!