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 Unique Sound of the Steel Drum Band

Around the world, people are fascinated with the unique character of the sound that a steel drum band produces. The creation of the steel band family of instruments, beginning in the middle of the 20th century in Trinidad, is a major musical achievement. New acoustic sounds that have enough appeal to be adopted usefully into many musical forms are very rare. To find proof of the stature that the steel drum band has claimed in such a relatively short period of time, one has only to look at the dedication of the countless musicians who have enthusiastically embraced steel band instruments and learned to play them. Steel band tuners, builders, composers, arrangers and steel drum band leaders continue the hard work to bring their art to higher and higher levels. Their vitality and resourcefulness in establishing steel band music have helped it to take its place amongst the other important musics internationally.

When steel band instruments were first made and played as pitched instruments, the notes had a sound that might be described as metal woodblocks. At that time, the steel drum band sound lacked the complex harmonic nature associated with the sound of other major and important musical instrument families, such as brass, woodwinds and strings. As such, the steel band might never have reached much farther than the Caribbean except as a curiosity. Soon, however, something remarkable happened that might have been considered impossible. The hardworking steel band innovators in Trinidad took the interesting but non-complex sound of the steel pan and added the missing harmonic structure to its sound to make it a full fledged musical instrument on a par with the great instruments of the world. Before steel bands, this had never been done before. Instruments other than steel band instruments naturally have this harmonic content in their notes, so it is not necessary to add it.

The pitch that we hear as a "C" note when a violinist plays or a singer sings, is called the fundamental. This fundamental excites higher pitches of sound that are within that one note. These are called harmonic overtones or partials. These naturally occurring harmonic overtones sound as a series of specific pitches above the fundamental pitch whenever a note is played, although few people can clearly hear them separately from the main fundamental pitch. These "extra" pitches give a note its complex and enjoyable tone. Because it is a piece of steel, a note from a steel drum band instrument does not naturally have these extra harmonic overtones. Through careful observation and exhaustive experimentation, Trinidadian steel band tuners found ways to add the extra overtones into each note by working the shape, height and tension of steel drum notes in very clever ways. This amazing innovation is what has made the steel drum band sound so fascinating to all who hear it. When we listen to a string being plucked or a horn being blown, the sound may be wonderful but it is not beyond the normal range of what we have come to expect. When people first hear a steel drum band, it seems impossible to them that the sound could be coming from nothing more than the metal of the steel band instruments. They peer inside to see if there are strings. or they look underneath to see if maybe something else is making the sounds they are hearing. Of course, they cannot have an idea of the complex ways each note of the steel has been worked so it has the magnificent sound of a true musical instrument while maintaining the unique timbre and sound of a steel band pan

Describing the Steel Pan Sound

Describing the sound of the steel pan musical instrument is both difficult and seemingly fraught with contradictions.   Much easier to articulate is the dramatic effect steel drum sound has on so many listeners.   Even though they are comparatively new, it seems surprising that steel pans could have the wide appeal they enjoy worldwide and so easily induce such a high level of listening pleasure.   Some hear it as soothing and cheerful, while others characterize steel drums as exciting and brash.   Since there are so many styles of music performed on steel pans and so many styles of playing steel drums, maybe this is to be expected.  

Not lost in this discussion is the "vacation effect" that steel drums have for North American tourists and others.   After spending time in the Caribbean and hearing the beckoning music of steel pans every day, that sound seeps into their subconscious and becomes associated with the free and easy vacation time spent on their island excursions.  Time passes and then when they hear steel drum music again in a setting far from the island culture that produced it, they respond in the carefree manner of the tropical vacation they are being reminded of.   This means that steel drum bands can almost instantly induce a positive atmosphere on listeners and are unparalleled in elevating the mood of a party, cocktail hour or corporate event.  In addition to the power of the  "vacation effect", the music played by steel bands is brighter, happier and more upbeat than most any other musical style.   Even the island songs that express some melancholy in their lyrics are often played with a joyous abandon.   

In comparison to most other instruments, steel pan has a very broad sound.   A simple melody played on a melody steel drum (such as a Lead, Double Second or Double Tenor), is more impactful than on a piano or guitar, due to the rich buoyancy of tone that is produced. This very satisfying sound has a unique set of attack, decay and sustain characteristics.   The attack (initial sound) of a steel drum note being played is quite fast and almost punchy.   The decay is not too long lasting but is very wide, as if the sound is exploding forth.   The sustain is long and has a very pretty sound to it very like that of the reverb effect on electric guitar amplifiers that makes it sound as if the instrument is in a large acoustically desirable hall even if it's being played in a small basement room.  The shape of the steel pan sound is somewhat like that of a banjo, but with more body, decay and fullness.   Good steel pan tone has what can be described as a broader sound than most other instruments -full yet shimmering with an edginess that excites and a sustain that soothes.   

Steel pan players often use rolls, which are a rapid fire playing of the same note many times to create a more continuous sound.   Musically, this allows for the simulated playing of longer notes that maintain their strength rather than decaying such as a single hit would produce.  The rolling technique on steel drums can be very warmly beautiful and is part of what many react to as they hear these instruments played.   The bass steel pan has a sound very like that of an acoustic bass, but with more power, punchiness and strength of tone.   The sound can be thrilling when up close to a bass steel pan.  Some consider the sound of steel drum cello pans to be the most interesting.   The tone is so warm and full that they produce a blanket of sound much like that of a large string orchestra when playing sustained chordal passages.   Each different steel pan instrument has it's own sound within the overall steel pan tonal palette.  Hearing all of them together in a large steel drum band is a truly unforgettable musical experience.