You may have seen this rare instrument played by a busker on a city street, or perhaps, like me, you stumbled across them on Youtube and had your mind blown. They look like little spaceships and produce the most ethereal resonant sounds.
Mark Garner has spent most of his adult life learning how to create and tune handpans, starting Saraz officially in 2012 after falling in love with the instruments and deciding to build them in 2011. He learned a lot from friends at Pantheon Steel, which couldn't keep up with demand for its own Halo handpans as the interest in this modern instrument was exploding. Here he is on the steps to his home outside Asheville, North Carolina, before he gives me the tour of the Saraz workshop.
The Saraz Hand Pan (the company refers to the instrument with two words) is a complex metal instrument formed from cold rolled steel.
After starting out by hand hammering each half of a handpan into shape, which takes between 100,000 to 200,000 strikes, Saraz has now set up a partnership to source prefabricated convex shells. This enables it to focus on perfecting the rest of their process.
Mark Garner and other handpan-makers are shaping a brand new type of instrument, so many of the tools and processes in his workshop have been developed from scratch over years of trial and error. You've probably heard about the "10,000 hours" of practice needed to truly master a skill, and Mark attests to it. He built 150 instruments before he felt he'd mastered the process.
The Saraz team includes Mark's own father, "Papa Steve," and his close friend Chris Genereux.
After the notes for a handpan's scale are marked out on the steel, Papa Steve uses forms to shape the "dimple" for each note where it belongs.
Papa Steve uses a hydraulic press to punch in each note hollow.
Mark says these notes comprise some of the company's most valued proprietary material. Each one has been crafted to perfection over the years.
Here you can see a fresh "dimple" after a note has been pressed into the steel. This is only the beginning, however. A handpan by Saraz commonly has up to eight or nine dimples on the top and will require a ton of tuning by hand before it's finished.
Before Saraz had the press, Chris Genereux used to use to achieve this dimpling by hand with about 200 swings of this sledgehammer per note. He says he doesn't miss that process.
Once the concave dimples are pressed into the steel, it's important to "recreate the border" around each note, which will involve more specialized tools in this sound booth.
Mark selects one of their modified pneumatic sand rammers to show me what he's talking about.
Each note gets a round of "fine shaping" which helps with sustain and stability of sound.
Next up: Baking the steel in this kiln. As Mark explains it, "metal is like a muscle." Baking it between 700 and 800 degrees farenheit relaxes it, and "makes it want to stay in tune." Heating also brings out interesting colors in the steel, such as the gold tone you see in many of the company's finished pieces.
After the steel is fired, Chris applies a round of polishing.
This polishing is not just for aesthetic purposes, but also brings out the sustain, a key feature of this instrument's appealing sound.
Now comes the tuning of each note by hand with a hammer. Mark said it took around 4,000 hours to get good at this process.
Each note might take him between around 200 to several thousand hammer strikes to fine tune it. Here Mark is referencing Linotune software to achieve a level of perfection beyond what a human ear can detect.
Though they weren't working on the bottom of an instrument when I toured the workshop, Chris is showing me how he forges the shape of the "port" on the bottom by hammering the steel and cutting a small hole in the bottom.
After the instrument is put together it will require some fine-tuning from within by reaching a hand with a hammer through this port.
The two halves are glued together and a ring of rubber trim will be applied to the rim... and of course, more fine tuning!
Upstairs in the house, Mark plays a few of his handpans to demonstrate the finished product. Each has notes within a selected scale, so it's easy to improvise on and sound decent-- there are no "wrong notes," which is what makes these so appealing for beginners to pick up.
If you've got decent rhythm, hand coordination, and a bit of patience and passion, you could probably learn to play a handpan well enough to enjoy yourself. All sorts of people find them helpful as meditation tools or sound therapy devices.
A light tap of the finger can produce three sounds for any given note-- "a fundamental, an octave harmonic, and a compound fifth." Mark explains that a handpan is "ear candy" because the frequency ratios are "already simplified into the most primary ratio possible." Music theory is over my head, but I will say the sounds they make are some of the most beautiful I've ever heard.
Or upside down! Here Mark demonstrates playing on the port.
These instruments are obviously labor-intensive works of art, so the price is fairly high, starting at $3,000. You'd want to make sure to pick the best scale to suit your taste. You can listen and compare all of Saraz's available scales on YouTube before ordering. Unlike some other manufacturers, Saraz doesn't list its options under a confusing set of names, so it's clear which scale you're requesting. The D Minor handpan is the most popular model.