Updated: Mar 23
With handpans, it's all about the sound. Of course, handpans look cool but how to tell apart a great handpan from an average one? That's a great question because over the short history of this art form, looks have been deceiving.
Now, I'm not a handpan maker so this isn't a technical article. But over the past 10+ years, I've had the chance to play hundreds of different handpans and I've learned a thing or two about what makes handpans special. Ok, let's start with the obvious:
One of the most important qualities in a handpan is the tuning of the notes. Each note should be tuned to a specific note of the defined scale. From there, the best makers will tune at least 2 overtones on each note. That's typically the octave and the fifth of the note. You can identify the overtones by muting the axis and activating the other part of the note.
The best makers also tune rim tones (or shoulder tones) into the center note and the lowest notes of the tone circle. That means a note can have a total of 5 frequencies... These high-pitched frequencies compliment the scale and add great contrast to the rest of the notes.
It is one thing to tune a handpan perfectly... Yet it is another to tune it artfully. Just like piano tuners, handpan tuners must master the art of blending. If you are interested in learning more, listen to episode 5 of The Handpan Podcast about this topic.
The notes used on a handpan are often tuned to standard pitch of 440 hertz for the A4 note, like most western instruments. Some makers tune handpans to a non-standard pitch or frequency like 432 hertz and its supposed mystical properties. As long as the handpan is in tune with itself, it should still sound good (that was the whole idea with the Free Integral Hang). However, if your handpan is not tuned to 440 hertz, you won't be able to play with other instruments in standard tuning.
To expand on tuning, makers can also tune the port (the hole on the bottom shell) to a note within the scale. That said, most of us players don't use the port much because it's hard to reach down there. More importantly though, the best makers will tune the volume of air inside the instrument to match the scale, ideally to the octave below the center note. That creates a very deep and powerful bass note called the Helmholtz resonator. By blocking a part of the hole with your knees, you can even change the tuning of that deep bass note. Try it!
Absence of Unwanted Cross-Talk
The best handpans also 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 (called interstitial) is needed to get a clean 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 there, it will sound dissonant.
Generally speaking, the more notes a handpan has, the more interferences between the notes there will be. It is a matter of physics. That's why some of the best handpan makers have decided to only build handpans with 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: less notes, better sound.
Some makers will occasionally introduce wanted interferences between the notes (called sympathy). This creates a harmonious resonance between two notes that go together. To me, that is a very desirable sound quality in a handpan. But generally, most makers tend to avoid cross-talk altogether to achieve a cleaner sound.
There are so many other things to consider when looking for a handpan. Here's a short list:
Sustain: Long or short? Meditative or percussive?
Scale: Major, minor or exotic (more info on scales here)?
Register: High-pitched (like a 1st gen Hang) or low-pitched (like a Halo handpan)
Timbre: Ceramic-like or metallic-sounding?
Material: Raw steel, nitrided steel, stainless steel, steel coated, etc...?
Diameter: Small handpans are more transportable. Larger handpans are lower-pitched.
Color: Polished or matte?
Geometry: Apex (outward) or inpex (inward) center note?
For more on this, I recommend reading PANArt's book which talks about the 7 sources of richness of sound.
Well, I hope these recommendations will help you find a great handpan. In fact, I'm proud to partner with great handpan makers to offer their instruments for sale directly on this website. Click here to view the instruments available right now, starting at $1,199. Multiple handpan scales available! (happy, melancholic & exotic)