The Art of Blending with Josh Rivera

Voltaire wrote "perfect is the enemy of good". In this episode dedicated to handpan tuning, Josh Rivera explains why a perfectly tuned instrument may actually lack something good. It's a reminder of the free and artful work that goes into the making and tuning of handpans.

Podcast Transcription

Sylvain: Hey, it's Sylvain and this is the handpan podcast.

Sylvain: Joining me in this episode is my good friend and longtime Hang in handpan player Josh Rivera. Josh is from North Dakota and he and his wife moved to North Carolina a few years ago to join the Saraz handpans team founded by Mark Garner in Asheville. There is so much to Josh's passion for music that we will have to cover some of these other areas in future episodes, like how josh's live performances on the handpan are actually always real, authentic and refreshing improvisations or the story of how Josh learned to tune handpans and joined mark on the Saraz team, but in this episode we tap into Josh's wealth of knowledge around the tuning of our instruments, so lean in because there's going to be a lot of insights into the physics of sound and music theory and I think it'll give us a greater appreciation of our instrument, how unique and special and artful it is. So let's jump right in to a conversation with Josh Rivera.

Sylvain: Hey Josh. Thanks for joining me for this episode.

Josh: Hey Sylvain, thanks for having me on.

Sylvain: Yeah, my pleasure. So we actually got to hang out at a handpan gathering in Colorado about a month ago and during that time you actually retuned one of my handpans and uh, it sounds so great. I mean there's nothing like the joy of playing a handpan that's back in tune and it's also a really good reminder of what goes into the making and the tuning of these instruments. And one of the things that you mentioned when returning my handpan was this concept of blending and I was wondering if you could tell me more about that.

Josh: Yeah, yeah. Blending, blending. As I've mentioned a couple times, that's been a topic that's come up quite a bit in life lately as far as tuning goes. Um, when we sat together, we tuned your instrument, which was a beautiful instrument and um, while we were tuning it, it was kind of fun to listen to the difference of what, you know, if we were. I think we were tuning that center note when, uh, when we both kind of had that little, like a Aha moment of stepping back, like, man, it's crazy how different, um, you know, three to four cents can make in the tuning stage and what it can do to the sound. And we tuned the center note I think it was maybe two cents sharp on the fundamental and just dropping it to minus three cents flat completely opened up this whole bloom.

Josh: And this, you know, this really nice characteristic that I had and you know, a really soft tone. Um, and, you know, in a, in a tuning standard zero census, you know, I guess that's about what you consider about perfect, uh, in the, in the digital realm or the, you know, and how, um, how the standard works is basically zero sentences about a perfect note if you would. And, um, but then from there you can start kind of tweaking, tweaking the sound a bit. Uh, I used to do actually a lot of, uh, I went to school for audio engineering and recorded bands and do a lot of mixing and mastering and stuff. So, um, subtleties, subtleties in sound and active listening have been quite a, quite a big part of my life in the last 15 years. And I'm starting to find that with, in the tuning realm.

Josh: I, you know, it was a lot of us tuners are, you know, we, we go from learning how to just, you know, we're just trying to get those lines green on the tuner, you know, uh, you just want to see those three lines light up green and then you've got your note at least sounding like a note. And then, um, and then as we get deeper into it, we start trying to get really, really tight. At least I did. You know, my experience was I wanted all zeros. And so, you know, most, uh, for people that don't know a lot of handpan notes in general, the standard is to have a fundamental, an octave and a fifth. And, um, they all tune, um, you know, the, uh, as you're tuning the note, they all move around and so the big game of trying to tune and just getting all these frequencies just to kind of fall into place together because you can't tune one and not the other.

Josh: They all tune at the same time. So, so you know, the next goal is to try to get everything at zero. You know, when I was learning to tune in and say, man, I want to get them all perfect. I want them all zeros completely. And uh, I think it's an important skill to have to be able to tune tightly because then you can start manipulating the frequencies a little bit later on. But, um, I started finding I don't really like a completely zeroed out instrument if every single note on that instrument is that zero cents, it actually actually kind of drives me crazy, you know, I think it's, um, it's almost like this too pristine... I always, you know, I always kinda dumb it down to like the difference between say a, an old analog record that was mixed and mastered really well versus a perfectly digitalized cd that's like too perfect.

Josh: You know what I mean? There is this love that our ears have for subtleties and differences change and it's really easy for our ears to fatigue. Fatiguing ears is a big thing and audio mastering and engineering where a lot of times if things are to perfect your ears actually kind of react funny and it's hard to listen to a CD that's 100 percent digital perfect levels for too long. There's a. So a lot of times the digital music, they'll add, you know, sometimes we'll even just add room noise, just something that's an actual air element to the sound and the frequencies is the kind of break everything up from this perfect zeroes and ones sort of thing. And so, um, yeah, so, so I kind of, you know, from my personal taste and you know, in my tuning experience with working with people, um, I've gotten a lot of good feedback with getting to that point where once, once you have the skill, I think it's very important to have a skill as a tuner to be able to tune all zeros and it'd be able to, you know, move frequencies around so that fine level.

Josh: But then after awhile I think it's really nice to use that skill in a more creative way because eventually if you tune enough, you start getting to the point where you start feeling kinda like a robot in a way of. It's just like all your, your one goal is just to make everything zero and that doesn't feel very creative. And uh, and honestly my ears just personally don't like it. And um, so I've gotten to this point now where I'm starting to get the notes into a place that is in tune, but then allow myself the freedom to where if I really liked the timbre of the sound, I'm not gonna, ignore that. And then try to make a perfect zero or, you know, a perfect line on the tuner. It's um, it's, it is something I think that, you know, Felix did get into at some point when he, when he started doing free free tuning and, you know, I could understand that was a very, um, there was a very deep level he went with that and I didn't understand it.

Josh: And to a point I couldn't see where he was going with that because if you do lock yourselves into too much of this perfection stage in the tuning realm, I do think there's some, uh, there's some art and there's some creativity lost and how far you want to go with that is obviously a personal choice. Um, I, I, I tend to, I tend to have a realm I state within, you know, um, and then let the freedom kind of take over. Um, but I also try not to let that lock me in too much either. So like, like with your note when we were tuning it, you know, I mean, I, I personally tend to really enjoy having like a low notes, kind of like a piano tuning. Um, is the way I like to, is actually what kind of got me started on blending a little bit more was when you look at piano tuning, you know, a lot of times it's, what the fourth, the fourth register roughly on a piano was tuned almost perfectly with a, with a strobe tuner.

Josh: And then everything below it and above it is somewhat free tune by ear, um, because if you perfectly match that they just, it kind of clashed with each other. And so you want, you might want to go flatter as you go lower and a little sharper as you go higher or you just want to deviate the frequency so that way everything kind of sits in its own place. And that's Kinda what I did with your instrument when we tuned it. Um, that the center note, you know, usually it's a third octave and I tend to really enjoy having a sorta third octave about three to five cents flat and we really kind of got to see what that does with your note. And we had it about two cents sharp, you know, which is perfectly fine. And tuning anything within two cents to me is, that's pretty well tuned, but it sounded so much better at minus three than it did it plus to like to me it was a world of a difference. And um, so those little subtleties are where I think it's really important for someone that's tuning when they're one of the thinking about blending to kind of allow their ears to say like, do I like this? Even though the stroke tuner is telling me, it's perfectly tuned.

Sylvain: That's really fascinating because I think as you mentioned, with the example of the piano tuning and even with digital music, that's, that's a conflict that happens in a lot of different ways. This opposition between perfection on, on one end and on the other end, maybe a desirable sound quality of coming alive, whether it's these old analog recordings from the 1950 before autotune or even like that piano example, I've always heard that a keyboard, a digital keyboard lacks that "coming alive", um, feel because it is perfectly tuned arbitrarily, if I understand based on the science and the physics of sound that we were just kind of like normalizing. It's not an equal division of these frequencies. We're normalizing it and arbitrarily. And it's amazing to me that the Handpan that is perfectly in tune may still lack that desirable sound quality. And then how fun it is that you have a certain level of creative freedom as you said, you don't want to go too much out of the tuning. So I wonder like is it satisfying to, to retune some of these instruments?

Josh: Oh yeah. I find incredibly satisfying. And, uh, you know, it became, it actually became more satisfying when I started allowing myself some creative freedom into tuning, uh, as far as blending goes because, you know, once, uh, once I read, and once you realize that, you know