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 Intricacies of Steel Band Tuning    

At the heart of the steel drum band musical revolution is the remarkable way in which steel band pans are tuned.   Rather than just adjust fundamental pitches like most every other major instrument, steel band tuners achieve the shimmering and buoyant sound of the instruments in a steel drum band by careful tuning of the fundamental plus the harmonic overtone partials (high pitches that sound very lightly as bell like tones above each note).   They must do this while maintaining the proper shape, height and tension of a note to very exacting tolerances or the sound quality of that note will suffer dramatically.   In a broader sense, the steel band instrument is being tuned during much of the crafting process, since the principles and some of the tuning techniques are applied at different stages of the process. 

Most often, a steel band pan is made from a 55 gallon steel drum barrel.   The top of the barrel is sunk to create a concave playing surface.   It then goes through a series of steps, each of which must be executed in just the right way if the steel drum band instrument is to have excellent sound.   Some of the main steps and processes are; grooving or engraving the note shapes into the playing surface, backing and the hammering of the metal at various stages to knead, adjust height, acoustically separate and harden specific areas of the note playing surface, cutting the skirt to the proper length for the steel band instrument being made, firing the steel pan in a fire pit but sometimes with a bunson burner or by baking in a stove, lifting the notes with a wedge to a proper height, rough tuning, applying a finish to the metal and then fine tuning.   Tuning is done with a ball peen hammer with a shortened handle.  This is just to give you a sense of how steel drum band pans are made.   There are many in between steps to this handcrafted process that require specific techniques.   

Here, we will give just a small insight into the intricacies of the final tuning process after the steel band pan has been crafted. Understanding and developing the ability to hear the harmonic overtone partials that are present in musical notes is essential if a person is going to eventually learn to tune a steel drum band instrument.  We can use the example of a guitar string to help explain this.   When we pluck the string in normal fashion, we hear the fundamental or the main pitch of the note.   If we lightly place a finger on the octave or 12th fret and pluck the same string, we hear a pitch with bell like tone and less volume one octave up or twice as high as the fundamental.   This is because the 12th fret divides the guitar string exactly in half and makes it easier to hear the octave harmonic overtone that is within the fundamental pitch.  If we then place our finger lightly on the 7th fret and pluck, this divides the string into one third and creates a bell like pitch with even less volume that is an interval of a fifth above the octave.  In the same way, placing a finger on the 5th fret divides the string in one fourth and creates a very small pitch 2 octaves above the fundamental or twice as high as the fundamental pitch.   The next harmonic overtone is an interval of a  third and so on.  

The harmonic overtones appear in the same order on all instruments including on steel drum band pans.   When tuning the Low C note on a lead or tenor steel band pan, the tuner will tune at a minimum the fundamental, the octave harmonic overtone and the interval of a fifth harmonic overtone.   Although the techniques are many and often sophisticated, anything done to make a steel band pan note smaller will raise the fundamental pitch (squeezing the note).   Anything done to expand the steel band pan note or make it bigger will lower the pitch.   The octave harmonic overtone is tuned in its simplest sense by lengthening or shortening the vertical length of the note.   The vertical length is an imaginary line starting on the steel band pan rim and cutting towards the center of the playing surface while dividing the Low C note in half.  The interval of a fifth harmonic overtone on a lead steel drum band instrument is tuned by lengthening and shortening the horizontal length of the note.   The horizontal is an imaginary line that runs parallel to the steel drum rim and divides the Low C note in half that way.  If you were to draw an "X" through the note, the points at which the X intersects with the edge of the Low C note allow adjustment of the fundamental with the least impact on the pitch of the octave harmonic and also the interval of a fifth harmonic overtone.   The steel drum band tuner must "trick" the three pitches just mentioned to all be in tune at the same time for a steel band pan note to have good sound and be in pitch.    

 To illustrate the complexities involved in steel drum band tuning, just the horizontal has 14 main and distinct points at which pitches can be adjusted.  This includes tuning from the underside of the steel band pan and tuning "outside the note", but these 14 points are only a part of the techniques used to adjust the interval of a fifth harmonic.   Further, each of the 14 points will simultaneously raise/lower the harmonic and raise/lower the fundamental in various combinations and the tuner must take this into consideration before each adjustment.  Metal tension, note height and differing hammering techniques must also be chosen for each tuning hit.  Learning steel drum band tuning requires a sharp ear and intellect, persistent dedication and years of training by way of demonstration and then practice.   Access to enough steel band instruments is also important.

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.