Handpan tuning - Part 1 (Steel & Nitriding)

We get a lot of questions about our handpan building process from customers and workshop guests. “How do you tune it?” is common, as is “How long does it take to make one?” The answers we often give are “Magic!” and “Around five years.” But all joking aside, as professional handpan builders, we’d like to answer the question “How is it tuned?” by broadening the scope of our response. We don’t “just tune”. We are actively invested in expanding our set of best practices and processes to build the highest quality instruments possible.

In the diagram below, tuning is at the top of our building quality pyramid. The diagram also describes important elements that underly tuning and which are inevitably linked. Other aspiring builders may find this framework useful in thinking through the variables in the tuning process. So let’s go ahead and look at what makes this pyramid have a solid foundation.

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Material selection is at the base of the pyramid because it is extremely important. It will affect all of the subsequent steps in the building process. Material selection requires an understanding of steel kind and grade, as well as chemistry and thickness. There are thousands of grades of steel to choose from, and even more options arise when you start to consider selecting for physical or chemical properties. Unfortunately for the handpan builder, steel industry standards and tolerance ranges are quite wide, and thus not necessarily well suited for reproducing tuned steel instruments. When builders select for a particular steel, that selection inevitably takes time, trial, error and research.

We carefully source our steel to meet the specifications of our building process.

 Our proprietary tool at work with our local stamping company.

Our proprietary tool at work with our local stamping company.

 Our resulting and unique shell geometry, prior to nitriding.

Our resulting and unique shell geometry, prior to nitriding.

The next building block that helps us answer the question “how is it tuned?” is nitriding. Nitriding is a heat treatment process that increases resistance to rust while also changing physical properties of the steel. The gas nitriding process requires a furnace with precise controls for time, temperature, gas and pressure. Selecting the appropriate material in the first step will allow the nitriding process to achieve the best results. The measurable physical changes will subsequently affect shaping, tuning and the resulting timbre of the instrument. It takes a wealth of knowledge to work with nitriding companies to develop a specialized instrument-focused nitriding process.

We have developed and adapted our nitriding recipe for years. Here are some old microstructure pictures that depict a lightly nitrided steel sample in magnified cross-section.

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Visual inspection shows nitride needles lightly crossing grain boundaries and the formation of a “white layer”. A white layer is a visual signature of the nitriding process, is a barrier to rust, and is a subject of active exploration at Isthmus Instruments.

Stay tuned for Handpan Tuning - Part 2 (Shaping & tuning) .

 
How to choose a handpan?

We want to help you find your perfect handpan scale.  In our other blog, "How to choose a handpan scale" we created an application that allows users to explore how they perceive the musicality of various handpan scales. With that tool we've developed an approach that can help you find your perfect scale. These key questions should be useful in finding your perfect scale: 

 

1) Do you have a musical background?

2) Do you prefer Low Bass (deep sounding) or Mid-range (higher sounding) instruments?   

3) Do you prefer Uplifting (major sounding scales) or Mysterious (minor sounding scales)?

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To us, "Beginner" handpan scales are those that allow for easy improvisation, expression or intuitiveness when playing, while also having an ability to play well with other common instruments. We believe you shouldn't need a musical background to enjoy these instruments! So if you've never played before, we first recommend selecting a  "Beginner scale"  that has that inherent musicality, built-in.

If you have a musical background and are looking for more challenge and inspiration in your songwriting, we recommend checking out the "Intermediate scales" as well as any beginner scales.

If you are just starting to think about scales, we think that deciding between a "Major feeling" or "Minor feeling" scale set can be very useful. We typically define a major feeling scale to be uplifting, happy or joyful. A minor feeling scale could be mysterious, mystical, melancholy or inquisitive.

If you've been looking for a deep or low-voiced and bass sounding instrument, we've separated those options into the Low Bass Scales category, which has a few scales that also may work well for beginners.

This process is made to help you know where to start when looking for a handpan scale that might be a great fit for you. We've already separated the handpans we build into these categories (Beginner, Intermediate and Low Bass (Click here for the video demo)) for quick comparisons.  Although what ultimate scales we offer may change in the future, the process and the questions we present here should help you understand how to make an informed choice for yourself.   We hope this helps. 

-The Isthmus Team

  

 
 
Virginia Robinson
Hardcase vs. Softcase? - Handpan accessories

Should I get a hardcase or a softcase for my handpan? Do I even need a handpan case?  We will break down the options to help you make your own informed decision. (This list is not exhaustive, but it is a great place to start).

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Hardcases for handpans (Evatek and Panji).

There are still only a few hardcases in the market for handpan players at the time of this writing. The most well known to date is the Evatek by Hardcase Technologies. These bags are manufactured in Italy and are popular worldwide with handpan players. They became one of the first bag companies to add additional solid support built right into the bag. The outside is made of a lightweight hard shell, and inside there is a bit of foam for cushioning your handpan. The backpack straps allow you to take this bag anywhere, and it can protect your handpan from minor bumps and falls.

Another great option for a hard case comes from Panji Bags, located in Colorado, USA.  Panji bags have a great reputation for their supreme protection. They are custom made unique for each order and their use of recycled materials make them incredibly sturdy. They have a very distinct look, and are made with the highest quality in mind. They are however definitely heavier and more expensive than a manufactured bag like the Evatek.

Soft bags - (Namana & maker bags)

Namana is a company based out of the Ukraine.  We love their bags!  We stock a simple padded version in our store. But you can also find a wide variety of unique bags on their etsy shop. 

The Namana bags are high quality, and custom tailored to fit your handpan, so make sure you know your handpan size when ordering direct. They host a huge variety of color options, additional pockets, embroidery options, and more protection via hard plastic inserts, if you want to add that. Basically, you name it, and they can build it for you.  The plastic inserts may be a nice option for a lightweight bag that straddles the line between impact resistant and lightweight.

Other "maker soft bag" options are available, although we can't possibly list them all here.  We are defining a "maker bag" as one that is normally sold or branded exclusively by handpan builders, for their customers. 

The basics of most maker bags usually include: limited color choices, and non-existent or extremely limited padding. The bags may or may not have pockets or backpack straps available. They are usually provided at the time of purchase, or sometimes available for a small price. Again, this all varies by maker.              

 

Now, which should you choose?

If you want to maximize protection, shift towards the heavier cases. If you want comfort and portability,  (and are a relatively careful individual), shift towards the lightweight options.  Here's our breakdown with Pros and Cons.

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We hope this Helps!

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2nd Annual Midwest Handpan Gathering! Hosted by Isthmus Instruments

Our Friend's Video LOG above!

Also see local news coverage of the event by clicking here.

Isthmus Instruments hosted the 2nd Annual Midwest handpan gathering in Madison, WI on May 12th, 2018.  The event was a huge success, drawing new and experienced handpan players from in and outside of the state of Wisconsin! 

This year's event was free and sponsored by Isthmus Instruments. The event was also supported by several local volunteers and presenters.  Isthmus brought sixteen handpans to support beginners in their learning journey, providing hands-on access to the normally hard to find handpan instruments.

Throughout the day there were workshops that covered beginning touch, rhythm, song structure and scale techniques.  We are incredibly thankful for the workshop content provided by Jeremy Arndt, Shirin Leela,  Tony Meister, and the Fanka Foli drumming group.  We also want to thank our customer family and new friends for their logistic and musical contributions. The open mic and concert portion wrapped up the event. 

We are grateful to share in the love of these instruments with the beautiful community of people that gather around them. If you have ideas for future events, or would like to collaborate with us in the future, please email us at isthmusinstruments@gmail.com. 

Thanks to all and see you next year or sooner!

- The Isthmus Team

 
Handpan store official launch!
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We are excited to announce the launch our new webstore! Every month, we plan to post a limited number of handpans for sale. If you have been looking for handpan flash sales, Check here often. Since we are still very busy building custom handpans, the instruments available on the webstore may vary every month.  To stay notified of shop updates, you can signup for our mailing priority list. 

If you don’t see what you are looking for in the new shop, please check out our custom order page to learn more about designing your own custom handpan.

Our new shop will help beginners and experienced handpan players alike find quality instruments in a great price. We guarantee our workmanship and our customers thank us for it!  We want to make all of our customers happy, and we are here to answer any questions you have along the way to finding your new (or second, or third) handpan!

Happy holidays to all our friends and thanks for all your support in 2017!

- The Isthmus team  

 

Handpan maintenance- how to clean your handpan.
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At Isthmus Instruments, we recommend the following regular maintenance and cleaning for your Isthmus handpan if it has a serial number from #001- #130, or if it was previously oiled with a Phoenix handpan oil.  (If you would like to try a new oil, or switch to Seal1 oil, follow steps 1 and 2 and replace Step 3 with a Seal1 oil. If your instrument was already oiled with Seal1, follow the instructions sent with your instrument.  Please feel free to contact us with any questions you may have about your Isthmus handpan).

CLEANING:

* How often you clean your handpan is a matter of both preference and environmental conditions. We suggest you clean more often when the instrument has been exposed to excessively humid or salty environments.

Step 1:  Use a microfiber cloth to wipe your handpan free from dust or excessive oils.

Step 2:  Use another soft cloth (workshop paper towels or an old shirt will work), wetted with 70% isopropyl alcohol to remove old oils. Make sure you clean both sides of your handpan.

To prevent visual streaking when removing old oils, and for the cleanest look, apply the alcohol and quickly dry it off in a circular motion with a clean microfiber cloth before the alcohol evaporates from the surface. 

MAINTENANCE (Oiled handpans):

* If your instrument does not have oil on the surface, continue to follow your unique handpan care instructions given to you, before choosing to add oil.

You may choose regular cleaning in between maintenance. Start at step 3 for regular maintenance.

Step 3:   Apply Phoenix handpan oil to your handpan to increase rust resistance.

Use an old shirt or any other cotton rag, add several drops of Phoenix handpan oil, rub into the surface and repeat as needed. Make sure you cover every spot of your handpan with this protective handpan oil layer.

The oil will change the color of the instrument to a slightly darker shade.

We recommend Phoenix handpan oil as the only oil to be used with our Isthmus handpans at this time. If you live in an especially humid climate, we suggest you monitor the surface and re-apply oil when necessary to continue to prevent rust. 

Step 4:  Use your clean microfiber cloth or a dry rag to soak the excess oil from your handpan.

Make sure you repeat this action on both sides of your handpan. If you have any questions about this cleaning method, please don't hesitate to contact us.

 

ADDITIONAL NOTES

* There is no need to clean or oil the inside of your handpan.

* If your instrument does not have oil on the surface, continue to follow your unique handpan care instructions given to you, before choosing to add oil.

* How often you clean & remove old oils in steps 1 & 2 is a matter of both preference and environmental conditions.  We suggest you monitor your instrument in it's new environment and adjust your cleaning/maintenance as necessary.

* Store your instrument outside of it's protective case, or unzip the case to allow airflow to prevent rusting.

 

   

Virginia Robinson
Isthmus Instruments community work
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Isthmus Instruments is involved in volunteer work for the local community through Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

The "Strategic Planning Day” was held on August 4th, 2017 at the Lussier Family Heritage Center in Madison. The DPI provides schools with tools and resources to support students in the non-cognitive variables that contribute to student success. Their work spans challenges such as bullying, mental health issues, school-age parents, LGBTQ issues, school safety, after/before school programs, and resiliency; as well as supporting the four school-based pupil services categories: school counseling, school nursing, school psychology, and school social work. The day was dedicated to educating for mindfulness. Thanks to everyone who participated and made this day special.

Check out the Department of Public Instruction website:

https://dpi.wi.gov/

 

 

Virginia Robinson
How the handpan saved my life
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My name is Shlomo Calvo.

I was born and raised on the sunny beaches of Tel Aviv-Israel.

As a kid, my parents encouraged me to take piano classes.

I loved it, and couldn't wait to get home from school each day and play the piano.

As the years passed, I played it less and less and for a while,

I felt like I lost my desire for music.

It was only when I got out of the Israeli army (in Israel everybody has to serve),

that I re-found my love to music.

I still remember that day.

The year was 2005.

I was 21, traveling through India and Thailand. And had no idea what I wanna to do with my life.

Most of my time was spent on partying and dancing to Trance music.

Until one day, I was walking on the beach in goa, India.

Suddenly I heard the most amazing sound I ever heard in my life.

As I kept walking, I noticed a guy sitting by the water and playing a UFO shape like drum.

It was magical.

At that moment, I knew what I wanna do in my life.

Since that day, I dedicated my life to searching for a handpan and a few years later, I bought my first one. My life has changed forever.

In 2012 I moved to the United States.

It has always been my dream to live in this great country and I was so excited about living here.

But I had no job or no savings.

So I decided I am going to play on the street for one hour and see how much money I make.

To my great surprise I made much more money than I even hoped for.

In the next 5 years busking and playing shows have been my only way of living.

I moved to New Orleans and spent a few years there.

I always had that confident that wherever I go I could always get by and have enough means to support myself, as long as I have my handpans with me .

I was lucky enough to play with a few of the best bands in New Orleans.

We played at big bars, smaller venues and amazing festivals.

All of these I could not done without the handpan in my life.

These days i am  living in Madison Wisconsin, working for Isthmus Instruments full time, surrounding myself even more with these beautiful instruments.

This is how handpan saved my life.

 

Virginia Robinson
Handpans in the Midwest - The first gathering 2017

 

On May 13th 2017, Isthmus Instruments hosted the first handpan gathering in the midwest. The focus of the gathering was to bring together people who share interest handpans. All experience levels were welcomed- from attendees never having touched an instrument before, to experienced players wanting to learn more.  Several technique workshops were hosted by Mark D'Ambrosio , Shlomo Calvo and Maxwell Edison Johnson.  The following video recap was made possible by Tony Meister of Chameleon Communications in Milwaulkee, WI. Thanks to all that attended, participated, and shared in the love & learning of this instrument! We at Isthmus Instruments are looking forward to continuing to build the community through future gatherings. Your input is always appreciated. Happy Summer Everyone!

Virginia Robinson
Handpans explorations

If you are like us, then there is something special that happens when you hunker down with your handpan in a comfortable place. Sometimes a quiet room, sometimes out in nature, and sometimes surrounded by people.  Here are a few local people are doing really neat things with their Isthmus Instrument handpans:  

 Kristie Vosburg shares her music in and around Waukesha, WI.  She began a monthly meetup group which incorporates a guided relaxation/meditation with the handpan. 

What Kristie says about playing the handpan: "In November of 2016 I purchased a handpan from Isthmus Instruments. Since then I have truly enjoyed every minute of playing my handpan, and very soon after purchasing it I also began playing it on a monthly basis for a guided meditation at a friend's yoga studio. It has been a hit and I have received a lot of positive feedback from the people attending these meditations. I am having a great time on my handpan journey and I am looking forward to what the future will bring for me with this awesome newfound instrument!"  ~ Kristie


Tony Meister shares his music in and around Milwaukee, Wisconsin. You might find him outside a coffee shop, at a wedding or special event,  or wherever his travels may take him...  

What Tony says about playing the handpan:  "The handpan lends itself to effortless expression that draws young and old from all walks of life. The unique sound makes it fresh and new every time I hear it and just the experience of playing the handpan takes me to an alternate milieu. I am so caught up in the moment as I go to that place; a place I love to take people to. " ~Tony


We would love to hear your story, too! Send an email to isthmusinstruments@gmail.com

Handpan Lessons - How to play Handpan for Beginners
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When people visit the Isthmus Instruments workshop, one of the first things they often ask is “Do you teach lessons on how to play the handpan?"  Fortunately, we can answer "Yes", and we want to offer a variety of ways to help you learn and enjoy your instrument. 

1) Workshops & Retreats - The first small scale midwest handpan gathering will be hosted by Isthmus Instruments in Madison, WI. It will include Beginner & Intermediate handpan playing workshops.  Register for event in May 2017 by clicking HEREStay tuned for the 2018 retreat location & announcement...

2) Lessons - If you live in the Madison, Wisconsin area and travel to the Isthmus Instruments Workshop to purchase an instrument, we are happy to offer one free introductory lesson with long-time handpan player Shlomo Calvo to help you get started with your instrument. Just ask us to learn more.  We will also share with you our 2-part beginner's approach during your visit: 

a. Developing the touch- Admittedly, the most difficult thing about playing a handpan for the first time is learning how to touch the notes quickly for best resonance. We will introduce you to the techniques we use on your first visit.

b. Learn your scale - With a sense of touch beginning, working the scale up and down and with constant left-right hand alternations will develop: fine motor control, spatial awareness & rhythm coordination, patience, ear sensitivity & dynamic control. These two steps are foundations for all your future playing!

3) Other Resources-  Free handpan lesson options can be found by simply searching for them on Youtube. For some more at length programs, we like these DVDs by Colin Foulke & David Kuckermann.  We also learned of a new program offered by David Charrier that is available as an online course, with some great reviews.  

How to choose a handpan scale

How to choose a handpan scale

Alison Mikulyuk & Jenny Robinson

2018 Update(Part 2): How to choose a handpan click here.

If you just recently discovered handpan instruments, you might become surprised or even overwhelmed to learn of the vast number of scales available for handpans. How to choose a handpan scale is a common question.  Isthmus Instruments developed an application to help with this particular question. Here is a screen shot (the link to the site is below):

If you've spent some time looking at videos or listening to handpan sound recordings, you probably noticed that each instrument has its own voice-- some sound happy, others sound intriguing or introspective. The affective quality of handpan music is in part determined by the musician and the creative choices they make, but it is also determined by the notes available to the musician. If the handpan player is a painter, the handpan scale is that painter's palette.

We wondered whether removing the musician from the equation would help us better focus on the musicality of each scale. We decided to build an app that would play a random sample of 'music' based on a user-defined set of notes. The randomness sounds a bit odd at first, and using the computer to generate sound from sine waves has a distinctly robotic or mechanical feel, but we like how this tool can be used to systematically compare different muiscal scales. In the app's two tabbed windows, you can either explore one of many scales used by handpan builders, or you can specify your own set of notes.

For example, here are two random samples drawn from two scales we often build at Isthmus Instruments:

Which scale appeals to you more?

Does your preference remain the same when comparing to actual instruments? Why or why not?

 Certainly, this application cannot substitute the process of finding a builder you prefer based on timbre or quality of sound.  However, we do think it is a useful tool that may help you explore a set of notes quickly, and with reduced bias.  With random note generation, maybe it is possible to look deeper into the inherent ability of a set of notes to make patterns that sound like melody to human ears, regardless of the skill of the player.

Let us know what you think!

**Please use desktop versions of Google Chrome, the app won't work in other browsers or on mobile devices**

Want to try it yourself? Click here to travel to the app:

https://isthmusinstruments.shinyapps.io/IsthmusScaleRandomizer/


 
 

Thanks to Jean-Mattheiu and Julien Aho from the handpan.org forum for their contributions to the google scale spreadsheet used by this application.

We built this tool in the R environment for statistical computing using the 'Shiny' package:

R Core Team (2016). R: A language and environment for statistical computing. R Foundation for Statistical Computing, Vienna, Austria. URL https://www.R-project.org/.

Winston Chang, Joe Cheng, JJ Allaire, Yihui Xie and Jonathan McPherson (2016). shiny: Web Application Framework for R. R package version 0.13.2. https://CRAN.R-project.org/package=shiny

Virginia Robinson
Handpan Accessories - Microphones for Amplification

Some snapshots of the Big Shot contact mic by K & K sound on Isthmus Handpans.

For live handpan amplification,  we would like to share a microphone setup we have used.  With one quarter-sized contact microphone, your whole handpan can be amplified.  When placed on the instrument bottom below the Gu (soundhole), the microphone picks up vibrations to output through the surface of the steel. Admittedly, the sound output from any amplifier will change the user and listener experience. This may or may not be your thing, but it can help the handpan music carry in loud areas. The one we have used is called The Big Shot, from K & K sound.  It is affordable and works well. 

Attach the jack near the Gu. Add support for the jack with duct or gorilla tape. It may not be pretty, but it works! Use the double sided light adhesive that came with the K&K microphone to stick the contact mic portion to the handpan. Experiment for the best placement. Add two pennies ontop of the mic portion to enhance the sound. Removing the contact mic and jack is tricky and best done with the help of a small sharp edge like a razor blade. (If you are worried about disrupting the surface of your instrument, this setup may not be right for you).  Use isopropyl alcohol or acetone to remove bits of remaining adhesive, and you are back to acoustics.

Thanks to Shlomo for these tips. Find him here:   shlomocalvo.com
Handpan Accessories - Stands

Handpan stands can provide new players with several benefits. Since many handpans can be large in diameter and depth, a stand will allow a player to move freely around an instrument, without the cumbersome task of having to balance the handpan in the lap. Often, handpans will resonate more freely on a stand as well, making them sound louder and brighter. Stability when playing can also be a benefit when the stand is extra sturdy.

 
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1) Isthmus Handpan Stand

NEW! COMING SOON in FALL/WINTER 2018!

In collaboration with local companies, we are proud to announce bringing our own Isthmus Handpan Stands into the world. Natural design and portability at the right price. It's the stand you've been asking for!

 
 
 
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Yamaha SS-740A Snare Stand

2) The snare drum stand with adjustable arms. There are other brands available, but the essential part of using a snare drum stand with a handpan instrument is making sure that arms that are used to hold the handpan/snaredrum are able to be moved up or down and locked into a taller 'v' arm position. This allows the instrument to rest on the rubber tips (rather than the metal support arms).

We find this model available from amazon.com and it works well for casual playing of our instruments. Benefits include more mobility around the instrument for speed and ease of playing and increased resonance due to reduced bottom dampening.

 

Sounds Inspiring - Handmade stands

3) The custom handpan stand, made by Richard at Sounds Inspiring. This is a great value on a stand that also has visual appeal. The handmade stands fold up beautifully and keep flat for travel or storage. Beyond the built in quality/ purpose- these stands are available in a standing version, which can be hard to find. We like the standing height with the locking leg version. If you play fast or harder however, the legs may sway a bit, but this is normally not a problem.
 

 

How to make a handpan

Inquistive muscians, engineers, metal workers, hobbyists and makers who have heard the sound of handpan music- all inevitably seem drawn to ask the question, ”How do you make a handpan?” 

The exterior shape offers few answers. With two steel sheets of metal fastened together to look much more like a UFO or a weber grill, the hammer marks and dimples hint at something beyond the visible form. For the piano, we can lift the lid and see the felt tipped hammer that strikes the strings, for the drum we can see the mallets or hands bounce upon a stretched membrane, for the woodwind we can find the reed and sounding holes. But with handpan instrument, we hear evidence of mechanism, yet look inside to find only a hollow body…It is this new form and sound that has captured our attention.

Every handpan builder employs different steps to reach their unique sound. The recipes get more refined and specific over time. Below are a few pictures which share a very basic process of building a handpan. Click on the pictures for more information. For more technical & in depth resources for those looking to try their hand at building, we recommend this handpan building page by Saraz handpans. 

 Step 1.  Sinking. Transforming a flat steel surface into a bowl shape that will eventually become a handpan.

Step 2. Heat treatments. Methods we use may include torches, kilns, ovens or furnaces. 

Step 3. Shaping the handpan. All makers use different tools for this process.

Step 4. Tuning. Some of the most differentiation in instrument timbre can come from the the processes employed in steps 3 & 4.

Step 5. Glueing. Most handpans are joined with adhesives choosen by the builders. 

Step 6. Retune(s) after glue. Once the shells are joined, the handpan builder retunes the instrument through the soundhole with a small hammer.