The Hang Drum: Real and Virtual
by Thomas Brett
Do you like the sounds of steel pans and gamelans? Then you might really be intrigued by the sound of the Hang, a percussion instrument created and hand-built by the Swiss company PANart (Felix Rohner and Sabina Scharer) since 2000. The Hang consists of two steel sheets welded together to make a convex shape, a little like a UFO. The top sheet has a main pitch hammered into its middle, along with 7 additional pitches located as indentations around its perimeter. The instrument almost looks like the concave steel pan turned inside out. To play the Hang you place it on your lap and tap it with your hands and fingers, which brings out the instrument’s many overtones. Due to some YouTube videos that show the Hang in action, demand for the instrument has skyrocketed in recent years. Yet there is very little information on how to obtain a Hang, besides buying a used on eBay for thousands of dollars. Moreover, PANart has no website with information on how obtain one. I have a percussionist friend who has one or two, but I’m a little afraid to ask how he obtained them (!) It’s all a little pleasantly mysterious in a time when just about everything is one click away on Amazon.com.
As with so many audio-video things, YouTube is a good place to check out the Hang in action. Here’s a clip of the most-watched Hang video (over two million views so far): an original piece by the Austrian percussionist Manu Delago. The piece is a moody and catchy one, showcasing the Hang’s tuning and dynamic range, along with Delago’s groovy percussionist’s rhythmic flow. You can watch his performance here.
If you want to get your hands on the Hang’s sound but like many of us have no access to obtaining the actual instrument itself, you might want to consider downloading a sampled version. The company Soniccouture sells a virtual instrument called “Pan Drum” which is a meticulously sampled Hang drum that has earned rave reviews.
Soniccouture specializes in reproductions of instruments from around the world, including the Chinese gu-qin, the khim Thai dulcimer, the Balinese gamelan, and a version of the mbira from Zimbabwe. For US $79.00 you can own Soniccouture’s Hang samples and play them from your MIDI keyboard, add effects, and mutate them to your liking. Soniccouture’s website describes its Hang software as “a unique and evocative instrument that will bring indefinable atmosphere to all kinds of musical production …”
Unique and evocative? Indefinable atmosphere? All of this talk about musical mood leads us back to timbre, or sound “quality” in music. Timbre isn’t everything, of course, but it’s a whole lot of what makes one music sound different from another. Think of the crunchy distorted electric guitar timbres in rock and metal musics, or the liquid metallic shimmer of steel bands, gamelans, and now, the Hang. Timbre is a big part of why we are attracted to or repelled by a music. Companies such as Soniccouture recognize our love of timbre and the simple fact that different timbres make us feel different things; they may even mean different things. And so we continue searching for new sounds for making our music.