Steel Drum Band

Steel Drum Band Tropical Beat Steel Band | Steel Band | Caribbean Band | Steel Drum Band

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Tropical Beat Steel Drum Band performs in the Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states and for major events nationwide.

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The Steel Band Instrument Family     

The steel drum band instrument family is comprised of different instruments in different ranges. In the soprano range, there is a Lead pan (also called a Tenor pan). This is similar to a flute, trumpet, or soprano sax, with its lowest note at middle C and rising chromatically two and one half octaves. The Lead pan is the main melody voice of the steel band orchestra. They are tuned in the cycle of fifths, which is a consistent arrangement of notes that places notes that are most consonant to each other next to each other.   This makes chord and scale patterns the same for the player in all 12 keys.   

With a range like an alto saxophone, the Double Second is a steel drum band instrument in the alto range.  They are two and a half to three octaves chromatic and it takes two barrels to hold all of the notes of a Double Second.   Each barrel of this steel band instrument is tuned to a whole tone scale. The six notes of each whole tone scale make up the twelve notes found in a chromatic scale.  While still an effective melody instrument in a steel drum band, the Double Second is more capable of playing harmony and chords than a Lead pan due to its lower notes. 

 In the baritone range, there are quite a few steel drum band instruments called Cello pans, or Guitar pans.   For the purpose of illustration, we will discuss the Triple Cello.   This steel band pan is in the baritone range and has the tonal characteristics associated with a trombone, baritone sax, or the cello string instrument.  It’s warm, full sound is perfect for stating chords in rhythm.  In steel drum band music, this is called “strumming.”   Cello pans are also referred to as Guitar pans since the 6 string guitar is often strummed.   Some Cello pans will have a longer skirt length on the barrel than a Guitar pan, giving them a somewhat deeper tone in the steel drum band ensemble.    A Triple Cello usually starts from B note, slightly more than an octave below middle C, and has two octaves chromatically.  Each of its three barrels is tuned to a diminished seventh arpeggio.  While "strumming" is its main function, the Cello is very effective in a steel band for playing chord arpeggios.   

In the bass range, the most popular steel drum band instrument is the Six Bass pan. The Six Bass consists of six barrels and provides a deep rich sound.  Each barrel has three notes for a range of one and a half octaves starting just over two octaves below middle C.   It can be compared to the tonal and sustain characteristics of an acoustic string bass that is plucked, but can produce a louder and more vibrant sound that can be thrilling when standing close.

The Lead pan, the Double Second, the Triple Cello, and the Six Bass are sometimes used as the only instruments to start a steel band.  To create an effective balance between these instruments, there might be four to five Lead pans, three Double Second, two Triple Cello and one Six Bass pan. This is called “four-voice” and is similar to a string quartet or a vocal choir in that four distinct voices are used. For a steel drum band being taught by an instructor new to steel pans, this is easier, since it’s similar to other types of ensembles they may teach, and there are only four different steel band instruments to learn.   Next, we will discuss adding the color instruments, such as Double Tenor and Tenor Bass, which expand the timbral expressiveness of a steel band to make it a “full-voice” ensemble. 

The Full Voice Steel Band Orchestra     

In a full
voice steel drum band, more steel band instrument types are utilized to maximize the expressive capabilities of the ensemble.   The four voice steel band has Leads (also known as Tenors), Double Seconds, Cellos/Guitars and Basses.   The most common additions to a four voice steel drum band to make it full voice are the Double Tenors and Tenor Bass steel band  pans.   The Double Tenor is in the same range as a Double Second since it most often has F below middle C as the lowest note.   While it also has all the notes on two steel drum barrels,  it has a different note pattern and a distinct sound as compared to the Double Second steel band pan.  The outer rim notes on the steel drum are grooved with a more square shape rather than the oval shape seen on most steel drum band instrument notes.   This was an innovation of Bertie Marshall of Trinidad, who is a great master tuner and the most important creator of the modern harmonically rich sound of  steel drum band instruments.   The squaring off of the note shapes gives the Double Tenor a more bell like sound, which adds a different timbre to the palette of sounds available to a steel drum band arranger.  This might be compared to the use of  an oboe in a symphony orchestra.  While the oboe is a reed instrument like a clarinet, it is often used to bring a different color to an orchestral arrangement since it's more edgy sound contrasts so nicely with the warmer sound of a clarinet.  The Double Tenor steel band instrument is used to create this contrast to the Double Seconds.   It is also very effective in doubling the melody parts played by the Lead steel pans but at an interval of one third lower in pitch.   Because of it's range, it can be used for both chordal playing, known as "strumming" and for melody.  This is partly why it is a favorite steel band instrument for many solo artists in small ensembles.  The other reason is the unique tone of this steel pan.   It is preferred by some players as an ideal voice for groups where there is only one steel drum player paired up with rhythm section instruments like piano, electric bass and drum set and also by steel pan jazz players.     The hard to define sound of a Double Tenor steel pan can be said to be both warmer and more ringing or bell like.  

The Tenor Bass steel drum is a high bass instrument comprised of four barrels that is used as a lower color instrument and to add a punchier sound to bass parts also being played by the Six Bass steel band instrument.  They can also be used to play higher syncopated parts in conjunction with the bass line played by the Six Bass, something like when an electric bassist plays "slap" bass. The range starts about an octave and a half below middle C and runs chromatically to middle C.   Some have used the Tenor Bass in small bands as a more portable alternative to the larger steel drum band Six  Bass instrument.   The trade off is that you lose about one half octave from the lower bass range.   Now that there is a very effective Short Skirt Six Bass steel band instrument that matches the depth and power of a Six Bass, this much more easily transportable steel band instrument is becoming an important alternative for those needing easy portability without sacrificing sound quality and range.

The Care of a Steel Band Instrument      

The most important thing is to keep your steel drum band instrument dry.  You should be diligent about preventing rust formation which can eventually ruin your steel pan.    Many musicians wipe the instrument dry with a soft cloth following every steel band practice or performance, removing moisture from rain, condensation, perspiration,etc.  Many steel drum bands have pans with a chrome finish for their melody pans.   A steel pan with a chrome finish should be cleaned once or twice yearly with chrome polish.  The application should be a thin layer of polish on the notes and skirt.  Lightly buff after a few minutes (after haze forms). Take care as rubbing very hard can detune a note on your steel band pan or even remove some of the chrome finish.   

Have your steel pan tuned annually by a professional steel band tuner.    It can be tuned more often depending on how much it is played and your personal sound requirements, but too much tuning will decrease the life expectancy of your steel pan.   For this reason, many individuals and steel drum bands wait for one year, as a rule of thumb, to tune their steel pans.   Unless you are a steel band  tuner, you cannot tune your own steel pan as you do not have the expertise or the unique hearing ability that must be developed to perform this delicate, precise procedure.   Attempting to tune a steel drum band instrument without the proper training will often do great harm.   A steel band tuner is tuning the fundamental pitch (the basic note) plus harmonic overtones or partials on each and every note.  Unlike other musical instruments, these harmonic overtones do not occur naturally on a steel drum band pan.   Bertie Marshall of Trinidad first pioneered this approach, which is unique in music and brought us the modern steel drum band sound we now enjoy.   This requires a very specialized hearing ability and is essential to achieving the modern steel band sound.   Successive tunings will improve the overall sound of the steel drum band instrument.    If your pan is new, you are in the "pounding in" phase, during which your playing of the steel pan compresses the metal in a way that is not achieved during the making of the instrument.  "Pounding in" improves the tone and takes maybe 3 or 4 months if the steel drum band is playing or practicing every day.   After the first two tunings in particular, you often will notice a distinctly better tone.    If there are pitch or tonal inconsistencies that you would like a steel band tuner to address, it is better if you can wait until the "pounding in" period is over, since you will benefit from the better sound that the tuner can achieve after the "pounding in" of your steel drum band instrument.      

Do Not Drop!  This will usually detunes a steel band pan and can distort its shape.  When hanging your steel pan, get a firm grip on the rim and position the each hanging loop onto the stand with your thumb.   Keep mallets away from non-players and out of view or away from your steel band instrument.   You may want to use steel pan covers for your unattended pans, which will discourage unwanted “playing” of them and prevent potential damage to the steel drum band instruments.        

Many people write the letter names of each note on the steel band pans for players beginning to learn an instrument.  You may choose not to label the notes, as the steel drum band musicians will be forced to remember the note names more quickly if they are not placed on the notes.  However, you may use a Sharpie marker to label a chrome steel band pan.  The markings can be removed with chrome polish later.   If you wish to label the notes on a Hi-Gloss Black or painted steel pan, paper stickers will work, such as pricing dots found in stationary stores.