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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, to tune to 440hz, we're still, when it comes to the way the frequencies are mathematically constructed, we're actually rounding off numbers to make 440hz. I'm a tuning spectrum of, oh, that's why you hear about pythagorean theory about how to tune that way. There's all these different ways to tune because the frequencies, you know, don't, don't perfectly double each other. And so we're, you know, when you're tuning before for a year already technically tuning to a rounded off number and it can get really deep from there. But once I realized that even tuning at 440 hz and having a perfect, it's still technically not perfect, uh, in the, in the actual mathematical scheme of a wave form.

Josh: So this, this, you know, this knowledge kind of allowed me to trust my ears a little bit more. And granted, I've had lots of your training through, um, audio work that I've done in the past and I never really, I never really thought it'd be able to transfer over to tuning. And once I kind of started diving into that realm and trusting that years and allowing myself that freedom, it was incredibly. So now it's incredibly satisfying to see him for a while. It kind of drove me crazy because you're just trying to get the zeroes and ones and whether you like it or not, that's what you go for. And I think that's a hard thing to, when you're retuning someone's instrument and say the customer's watching you, um, it's really, you almost kinda want them to see all these perfectly green lines because you know, in their eyes they, if they see some deviations, it might, they might think like maybe you're being a lazy tuner or maybe if another tuners sees that I left some frequencies at like five cents flat, it might look like I was being lazy when in fact it's not that I couldn't get it to zero.

Josh: It's just that once it fell into this place, I really enjoyed that timbre and I just kind of decided, you know, that's sounds great. I just want to leave it right there and it. And if I played the whole instrument and it still works, I'm going to leave it there. If it doesn't work, if it sounds out, I might go back and readjust it.

Sylvain: I like that you mentioned that throughout the tuning process and I really wanted to be a part of it when you retuned my instrument because it's so fascinating. Now. A quick word of caution for people who may not have been there when their handpan was made or retuned. It's intense. Like you're, you're hammering, um, the crap out of that, that handpan, but that's what it takes. And um, yeah,

Josh: yeah, we're doing all the things you're not supposed to do to the instrument, we do all those to make them in tune and, and then, and then no one's allowed to do that again until it gets tuned,

Sylvain: you know, it's funny, I thought that like an image that comes to mind is watching your handpan get retuned. It's Kinda like when you're donating blood and you look at the needle entering your vein and you know, it's uh, it's, it's, it's painful, it's uncomfortable to watch, um, but obviously you knew what you're doing and um, and then having these explanations around, "I'm not being lazy". It just, it could sound better if it was just a little bit off and to actually hear that because you're right, like, we could hear the bloom of the Ding and it really made a difference and um, yeah, it's really fascinating.

Sylvain: So you must have over the years retune some handpans that were in really, really bad shape. Do you have any stories about that?

Josh: Oh man. Um, I, I've had some humbling experiences in tuning and I've had some just, I have had lots of experiences in tuning. But um, as far as a tuning really bad stuff I have, yeah, I've tuned, in ways, I will say this in ways it's almost easier to tune a really poor, poorly built instrument just because I have a less attachment to the overall sound. If it was already kind of slapped together, it's, you know, no matter what I do in the tuning stage, I mean tuning, tuning is a fine art in itself, but so is so is building and constructing the instrument as you can imagine. So if, if there wasn't, if there wasn't a fine level of detail that goes into the shaping and building up the instrument, it's really hard to really put that level into the tuning as well because you're already being handed something that you can't really do a whole lot with.

Josh: And so in ways it's actually a lot less stressful for me to tune something that's pretty, pretty poorly built and way out of shape because, um, you know, basically that's, that's the time I just make the lines green and everybody walks away happy. This thing is just in tune. Yay. We can go play again. Um, it gets, it gets much scarier as you start working on things like first Gen, Han, because first gen Hang, you have to, you have to make a lot of, a lot of skilled decisions on whether you want to. They leave a lot of frequencies in some places that we're not used to in today's standard tuning. So you know, there might be seconds or thirds or fourths or six or you know, there might be some really oddball frequencies and it used to be very, very tempting to change those and dial them into like a fifth or something like that.

Josh: And when it comes to the first gen Hang, you've, once you've done that, you, I, you know, I used to, um, I used to, you know, get in little, not really spats but a little, you know, like conversations online about what should be done about this sort of thing. And some people are very passionate about, you know, "you're being lazy if you don't dial it in". And some people are like really passionate about you don't touch it. It's a Hang and my personal experiences kind of fall into this place where I like to leave a lot of those imperfections in a Hang that we consider imperfections because like you know, that iconic first gen sound comes from a lot of oddball frequencies. And so when it comes to experiences, you know, I've, I've tuned in the past, I've tuned both ways and I've had people get mad at me for both ways, you know, like one person was really upset that I didn't put fifths on and just left them.

Josh: And they're like, well, what I paid to tune for like, well this is kind of where I'm at. And I've had other people, you know, before that I had tuned in to do a fifth until people got really upset. They're like, well, now it doesn't sound like my Hang. And so these experiences know they're very, very necessary to go through as we develop what should be done. You know, at times I was really devastated about that sort of thing happen. You never obviously want to walk away with someone being unhappy about your tuning work because it's very, very personal and emotional thing for both the person that owns the instrument and for my work. And um, so, you know, as, as we go through these things and have these experiences, it's really kind of fascinating, kind of see which side of the fence people are falling into and the only way to do that and to push forward is by, you know, kind of throwing yourself in the deep end and just experiencing these things.

Josh: And it's um, and it was really terrifying. I, I can't, I can say that. So, you know, as an experience as um, I've had some terrifying moments when I first started learning because there's not a lot of ways to practice tuning a first Gen Hang and there's, it's not like you gets to just have one every single day and you know, practice and play around with it. You can't hit these things any more than necessary because it's metal, you know, it eventually every hammer strikes going to affect the sound. And so you kinda just have to sometimes you know, just just pray that, you're doing this for the right reason and you're going into it with no ego and you're just truly trying to learn. And if things go, if people are upset, if you walk away in these different situations, it's kind of like it's all part of the learning process.

Sylvain: yeah, and I can totally attest to how thorough and just how respectful towards, you know, my instrument you were and I appreciate that. And I recommend that everyone would go check out your work if they need to retune and actually where can people find more information about your retuning services, Josh?

Josh: Yeah. Well, A, thank you for that. It really that, again, I always appreciate the trust especially, I mean you're, you're, you're one of the, the old school players of this and ambassadors of this instrument. So I, the trust that you had to let me tune your instrument. I can't thank you enough. Um, but uh, as far as finding out, um, I do have a website and it's And on there I have kind of some basic information. Um, I would like to expand the website more as I get going. Um, but right now it's um, kind of as the instructions on, you know, what I look for as far as, you know, like if you want me to tune it, I would love to have a video so I can give you a good accurate idea of what kind of work's going to go into it. Um, stuff like that. I also, I post on Instagram, you know, randomly I'll put up some before and after videos. Um, I used to be obsessed with those kinds of videos before actually when I first started tuning, before I started tuning, those were always my favorite. I loved hearing transformations. So on instagram and Youtube I have a youtube channel and they're all also rivera steel tuning and so, um, the standard mediums you can find me on there.

Sylvain: Yeah, that's awesome. Well, Josh, thanks so much for taking the time and uh, I have no doubt that this will be helpful to someone out there who has maybe an instrument that slightly out of tune and who's not getting as much joy with it. Um, so folks listening, if you need returning services, contact josh at Rivera Steel Tuning and he will help you out. But thanks again Josh. Um, what are you off to today?

Josh: Um, I actually have to first Gen Hang, sitting downstairs for me to find fine tuning, so that will be my day. Wow, that's awesome. Yeah, so I'm a very fortunate to be able to, you know that's one of the benefits of the job. I get to play a lot of these beautiful instruments. Lucky you. Well, good luck with those. I'm sure they will turn out great. And I'll keep an eye out for these before and after videos on your website and channels. Yeah. Thank you so much, Sylvain.

Sylvain: There is so much to unpack from this conversation with Josh. First folks, the handpan is not a mass produced commodity and on the podcast you'll hear me refer to this instrument and its community of players and makers as the handpan art form. Sure. It's a market and it might even be called an industry at some point, but josh's insights. Remind us that there is creativity in art involved in the very making of these instruments. All right. One more thing. Remember when Josh mentions that an instrument that's perfectly in tune drives him crazy because it lacks character and originality? Well, what if we applied this to how we write music, play gigs, build instruments, put together events and all other kinds of projects. What if we gave ourselves creative freedom like josh does when tuning handpans to actually create something original and meaningful.

Sylvain: That's it for this episode of the handpan podcast. If you want to experience the simple joy of creating, join our community on the handpan podcast facebook group. It's a safe place to share your video and audio recordings, your thoughts and photos about your own creative journey. There's no competition or ego trip and it doesn't need to be perfect. Remember, perfect is kind of overrated. It's just a safe place for us to connect in a meaningful way, so if that resonates with you, hope to see you soon. On the handpan podcast facebook group, thanks for listening to the handpan podcast and see you in the next episode.

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