That might seem the same difficult as choosing what to take in a good buffet. Salad, sandwich, or maybe a ragout, and that cheesecake also looks so great! And we even haven’t moved to drinks yet. This is how you may feel (a little bit lost, actually) when trying to choose a handpan. The variety of instruments is huge, so here’s a map that will help you to navigate in this boundless sea.
But first, theory
What is handpan? Even if you have already read a lot about it and even decided to get one for you, you may still be confused about the concept.
Handpan is a common name for a big group of instruments that all belong to idiophone family. They all grew up from one that stood at the very beginning in early 2000s – Hang created by PANart. The hearts of many were quickly fascinated by its majestic sounds and handpan artisans started ripening like so many cherries on a tree. While PANart Hang is not in production anymore, the name rests comprising many different steel pan drums. Music makers were searching to create an instrument with the tonal qualities that will be similar to hang and succeeded. After a while, these experiments evolved to stand on their own instruments that you can find today under various names like steel pans, tank drums, metal tongue drums and etc.
What are they called?
Although named so, steel pans are not drums in the true sense of the term, even considering they are still percussive instruments. The sound is sustainable and soft and reminds more of a harp. Some can also call it as “music of spheres” due to its ethereal sound and a UFO-look. Handpans usually have a shape of 2 joined spheres with the dimples, ding and tone field around. Tongue drums that became highly popular, usually have smaller dimensions and don’t have dimples, but the tongues or petals instead. The tongues vibrate while being tapped and this is how the noise is made. Tongue drums are presented in many outer and petal shapes and designs (and the sound is different too, of course). All these instruments were created inspired by the sound of Hang, but do they sound the same? Remember Shakespeare’s “any other rose would smell just as sweet”? It does not work in the case of handpan drums. They vary greatly in tone and sound quality.
What’s the difference between them?
Like in a buffet, your choice depends on your tastes and budget. Take a sandwich – a cheaper tank drum, or a juicy steak with grilled vegetables and fresh leafy salad with a good glass of wine - a handpan. RAV Vast drum stands out in this whole variety of music instruments being metal tongue drums but having the same mellifluous sound like expensive handpans (brand also creates handpans for the classical Hang sound lovers).
Here’s your check list of few but important factors for choosing an instrument:
The size matters. The bigger the instrument is, the more resonance it has, the richer is the sound. Tank drums can be no bigger than your hand palm while the average size of a handpan is 58 cm. RAV Vast’s dimension is 51 cm. Choose for the bigger instrument size if sound quality is your priority.
Pay attention to the material and shell thickness. Сrudely built cheaper instruments with a thicker shell will never have the same clean and melodious sound. The average thickness of shell for handpans is 1- 1.2 mm and for tongue drums it can be up to 3 mm. RAV Vast shell is never thicker than 1.5-2mm and that what provides its clear velvety sound.
Some birds can fly high like falcons and some – only run like kiwis. Each handpan has its own capabilities and sound diapason. Pay attention to the number of overtones an instrument creates. If you don’t know what overtone is, just consider it a factor that makes the sound greater, the more overtones exist. Tank drums usually have only 1 or 2 overtones. While RAV has from 3 to 7 overtones on each tongue. Tank drums usually have the sound reminding more of a xylophone, while RAV sound is much more complicated and harmonious.
What sound do you want to get at the end? It depends on tuning, and it is kind of an art to set it up. And instrument can be tuned in D major, B minor etc. If you have some basic music knowledge – you might already know which tuning you like most. RAVs go in different tunings so you can be sure you will find the one for you. If you want to get deeper into the matter, we highly recommend you to check out handpan professionals both local and international big players like Yuki Koshimoto. You can also surf around RAV Blog (or simply watch the videos on our Youtube channel) to get more about each model in particular.
If you have no idea what this D major tuning gobbledygook means, just listen to each instrument and choose the one which sounds more pleasantly for you.
The last but not the least, is the player. The great perk of idiophones is that you can play good music without many hours of training and even if you have never played any music instrument before. However, handpans are generally considered to be used at a more professional level, when you already get the technique of playing and the quality of sounds becomes more important for you. Metal tongue drums and tank drums are a good try for the first-time players, as they are cheaper and easier to deal with. However, the sound will of course differ. RAV Vast is a great compromise between these two options as it provides the full handpan sound at an affordable price. If you already feel quite confident in playing, check out RAV Pan section for a handpan.