Updated: Jul 20
The handpan is still young which means it is far from being a standardized art form. There are many artisans making their own version of the PANArt Hang using varying materials, tools and techniques. As you can imagine, the results are vastly different.
It is fair to say all handpans look roughly the same: two bowls of steel fastened at their circumference. But looks can be deceiving. So what makes a good handpan?
I am not a handpan maker so this is not meant to be a technical article. But since 2006, I have had the chance to play hundreds of different handpans and I have learned a thing or two about what makes handpans special. Here we go.
1:2:3 Handpan Tuning
The most important quality in a handpan is the tuning of its notes. Each note should be tuned to a specific pitch, within the defined scale of the instrument. In addition to the fundamental, the maker will tune 2 more overtones (or harmonics) into each handpan note based on a 1:2:3 ratio.
For instance, if the fundamental note is 220Hz (A3), the first harmonic is twice that frequency at 440Hz (A4) and the second harmonic is tree times that frequency at 660Hz (E5). In western music theory, that corresponds the octave and the compound fifth of the note: A3, A4, E5.
Felix & Sabina of PANArt sometimes bent that 1:2:3 ratio (fundamental, octave, fifth) by tuning a minor third as the second harmonic. In that case, our A3 fundamental would still have an A4 (octave) as first harmonic but a C#5 (minor third instead of fifth) as second harmonic. Many Hang sound models made between 2000 and 2006 have one or more notes with a minor third harmonic. In fact, it has become a 'sound signature' for those 1st Generation Hanghang (plural of Hang).
Certain handpan makers also tune rim tones (or shoulder tones) into the border of the center note of the handpan. Rim tones are very difficult to control so there is no standard tuning ratio, at least to my knowledge. But realize what this means... A handpan note can contain a total of 5 different pitches, activating harmoniously...
Now, it is one thing to tune a handpan "perfectly" yet it it another to tune it "artfully". Not unlike piano tuners, handpan tuners must master the "art of blending". In order to achieve the best handpan sound, a maker may need to leave certain harmonics a bit flat and others a bit sharp. These are seemingly imperfections but they make all the difference between a good handpan and a great one! If you are interested in learning more, listen to episode 5 of The Handpan Podcast about this topic.
Most handpans are tuned to the standard pitch (A4 = 440Hz) like most western instruments. But it is possible to tune a handpan to 432Hz for instance. As long as your handpan is tuned to itself, it should sound good. This is, by the way, an idea that PANArt explored with the Free Integral Hang which was not set to 440Hz. Please note that handpans tuned to 432Hz cannot be played with most other instruments, tuned to 440Hz.
Finally, handpan makers can also tune the Helmholtz to a note within the scale by controlling the inside depth and width of their handpan. When playing the center note, air is being pushed down the chamber and through the neck of the port. This produces a deep and powerful bass note (ideally the octave below the center note) which can be further modulated by obstructing the port with your knees. Try it!
Absence of Unwanted Cross-Talk
The best handpans feature excellent note isolation, or the absence of cross-talk between the notes. In other words, you should be able to play one note on a handpan without it activating other nearby notes. The "dead space" between notes is called the interstitial. It is needed to get a clear sound out of each note, as it is played. This is particularly important if two nearby note are only a half-step from each other. If there is cross-talk, it will sound dissonant.
Generally speaking, the more notes on a handpan the more interferences between those notes. That is why some of the best makers build handpans with no more than 8 or 9 notes on the top shell of the instrument (such as Pantheon Steel, CFoulke or Symphonic Steel). And while this may seem like a limitation at first, their decision is aligned with the original intent of the Hang. The result: fewer notes but better sound!
There is however a good kind of cross-talk called sympathy. As we saw earlier, each handpan note contains 3 frequencies: the fundamental, the octave and the fifth (or minor third) and several notes across your handpan share that same frequencies. For instance, the E5 note is found both in an A3 note (of which it is the compound fifth) and in an E4 (of which it is the octave). So playing one note might activate the other in a pleasing way.
There are so many other things to consider when looking for a handpan. Here's a short list:
Scale: Major, minor or exotic (more info on scales here)?
Register: High or low-pitched? Deep or lyrical?
Sustain: Long or short? Meditative or percussive?
Timbre: Ceramic-like or more metallic-sounding?
Material: Raw steel, nitrided steel, stainless steel, powder coated?
Diameter: 19", 20" 21" 22"?
Aesthetic: Polished or matte?