thinking through music, sound and culture

Category: sampling

The Hang Drum: Real and Virtual

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

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.

Sounds Want To Be Free: Freesound

Freesound ( is a collaborative database of Creative Commons Sampling Plus-licensed sounds.  At freesound, anyone can upload or download sounds.  What kinds of sounds are here?  You name it: environmental sound field recordings (wind, rain, ice cracking), industrial and mechanical sounds, human voices, sound effects, digitally processed sounds, drones . . . All of the sounds on the website can be copied, sampled and transformed, and even used in new works, as long as authors of the original sounds are credited in the derivative work.  Users can even upload sounds into “sample packs” or collections of related sounds.  Thus, you can find a collection that features the sounds of someone walking over ice and use this sample pack as the basis for a new kind of drum kit.  The range of sonic material here is staggering: browsing freesound is a little like getting a glimpse of the human DNA code.  To continue the genetic analogy, if you are an electronic musician interested in tweaking sounds, this is a great place to find sounds (besides recording your own of course).

I have two thoughts on freesound.  First, it reminds me of something John Perry Barlow talked about his 1993 Wired article “The Economy Of Ideas.” One of Barlow’s main points is that information “wants to be free”–free, that is, of the “containers” in which it has been packaged for so long. Barlow could have been talking about sound too, as what has happened to music over the past 15 years nicely illustrates his point.  During this time, it has become very easy to free sounds–remixing them, mashing them up, re-sampling and transforming them.  In this regard, f seems to me to be just an inevitable kind of collective freeing sound project.  Interestingly, there are no songs on the freesound website.  But this doesn’t mean that there still aren’t sounds that perhaps shouldn’t be there.  For instance, type in “overtone singing” and you’ll find 60 sound samples, including Tibetan chanting, Tuvan khoomei, and all kinds of processed variants of these.  After a few seconds of hearing the first sample (chant from Tibet), the ethnomusicologist wants to know: Where was this recorded?  Who is chanting?  And was the recordist given permission to record?  After a little digging around, we learn that a freesound member named djgriffin is not only the recordist, but also the singer on many, but not all, of his samples.  There are field recordings buried in there as well.  One of djgriffin’s samples features gelug nuns chanting at a 2010 world peace festival in India.  This recording is now part of djgriffin’s “tibetan buddhism” sample pack that contains fifteen sounds.

The second point to note about freesound is how freely its sounds have travelled to other sound outlets.  Case in point: I was recently enjoying listening to an iPhone app called Ambiance.  Made by the company Urban Apps., Ambience is described as a sonic “environment enhancer” that lets users download from a collection of 1000 free sounds and mix them together to make custom soundscapes for listening.  (I have put together quite a nice mix of low-pitched wind chimes and ocean waves . . . )  Interestingly, all of the sounds that I have so far auditioned are attributed to the freesound website.  This is yet another example of what the Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer calls schizophonia, or the splitting of a sound from its origin through electroacoustic reproduction.


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