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 mor