Science and Acoustics

Nov 2, 2003

Squabbles over standardisation

T&T - The importation of entire steel orchestras for the recently-concluded World Steelband Music Festival triggered a long and highly participatory discussion about the standardisation of instruments, at the final session of the International Conference on Science and Technology of the Steelpan. The issue was not listed on the programme, but somehow sprung from the topic, What Constitutes a Good Pan?, and dominated the available time, as people representing special interests leapt to the microphone to sing the praises of their preferred styles, while the scientists examined some more complex considerations.

EXPRESS, by Terry Joseph

Many of the foreign orchestras that came for the festival brought all their instruments. Sponsored by BWIA, England's Ebony Steelband was spared much of the problem, but for those who attempted to ship bass pans and other bulky instruments, it was clear that standardisation would have helped reduce both cost and worry.

But bands have their pan styles and will incur great expense to change the instruments to satisfy some new standard, not to mention the retraining of scores of pannists, who will have to learn the orchestra's repertoire afresh, if different pans were put before them.

WITCO Desperadoes is a case in point, with its tenor pan note spread laid out in unique fashion and opposite to that of many of the other orchestras.

"Pan is not yet ready for standardisation," said UWI lecturer/pan researcher Dr Derek Gay. "Its life so far, a mere 60 years, is a dot in the history of music. In addition, today's materials are not the same as those used at the time of inception or even 25 years ago. Perhaps we should be looking at finding the precise mix of the metal for the various voices in the orchestra, before we attempt to ensure that all the notes are in the same place on each pan.

"Standardisation will mean not just the placement of the notes, but a predictable consistency in the metal from which the instruments are made, as is the case with piano wire, so that wherever a note of the same value is struck, the actual similarity of sound can be guaranteed," Gay said.

"Bear in mind, though, that the smallest quantity of steel you can order from a serious mill is about ten tons. You are then left with the problems of economies of scale, which will inform the cost of each instrument. When you look at all that, standardisation seems to be less of a priority than previously agreed."

But John Schmidt, presented the business perspective, which turned out to be a popular view. "It costs a fortune to ship background pans to New York," he said. "If the pans were standardised, a band could travel with only its front-line instruments and rent basses and cellos and guitar pans in the countries where they are required to play. The same would have been true for bands coming to the music festival."

Dr Uwe Hansen, professor emeritus at Indiana State University's Department of Physics, endorsed Gay's position. "Pan is a beautiful and powerful instrument," he said, "but it is too young to start regimenting style and attempting to confine evolution. Scientifically, it is also very complex, with all its notes located on a single surface. When you play one note, you really play all. I think there are a number of things to be more properly understood about the various styles before we seek to narrow design and tuning techniques."

Felix Rohner, the Swiss pan innovator, argued that greater collaboration was needed between the various people involved with pan experimentation. "The need for continuing dialogue seems more pressing right now than standardisation," Rohner said. "Pan is not just a Trini novelty anymore. It is an instrument that has been given to the world and several people have ideas about what should happen to it next. We need to hear all those ideas before taking any steps that might slow its progress."

Pan manufacturer Michael Cooper was practical. "Technology and science can only be relevant to panmakers if it is affordable," he said, "or the whole body of knowledge will come to nought. The matter of standardisation may well require scientists of different disciplines to examine it thoroughly."

This is Journalist Terry Joseph's interpretation of the proceedings of the:
International Conference on the Science and Technology of the Steelpan
October 2000 Crowne Plaza, Port of Spain, TRINIDAD, WI
From the point of view of what ideas held by T&T's local pan fraternity, and thus now held to be traditional, may need to be re-examined in the light of new information returning from the scientific and engineering communities, as research and development of the steel drum instruments continues apace world-wide.

A four part series - related articles:
- Hiding pan facts under canopies
- Miking solo instruments
- Squabbles over standardisation
- Unite for the common pan