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The Sound of Science - 'Tuning the Steelpan'

Wade Duerkes/Wade Duerkes - Northern Illinois

Newt: You're listening to The Sound of Science on WNIJ. I'm Newt with NIU STEAM and I'm excited about NIU's CSA steelband and its 50th anniversary this month. Today we have the Director of the Community School of the Art steelband Yuko Asada here to talk to us about tuning the steelpan.

Yuko: Steelpans have a sound that is unmistakable and that sound is possible because of the intricate and complex tuning process that takes place after a steelpan is built. Unlike other musical instruments, such as string, brass or woodwinds, steelpan performers or panists rely on skilled tuners to do the job for them. When tuning a steel pan, the pitch and timbre, or tone color, have to be adjusted independently. Tuners use a hammer and stroke tuner for accuracy. They tune the fundamental pitch and partials such as octaves and fifths. If the harmonics are not aligned, the note will sound distorted. Additionally, if the note shape is incorrect, the timbre will be harsh and metallic. The fundamental pitch is located at the center of a note panel while the partials are located at the edge of a note panel. Let me show you by striking the center and edge of a steelpan.

Yuko: The tuner needs to know where to strike to move the fundamental harmonics and must constantly analyze to figure out how pitches need to be moved in aligned. Steelpans are crafted differently by various builders and tuners, which means the tuning technique needs to be adjusted accordingly. Tuners must be able to identify how a pan was crafted and how a note will respond. Tuning steelpans is a challenging and complex process that requires a great deal of skill, patience and practice. It's a craft that is not easily learned and requires years of dedication to master.

Newt: This has been The Sound of Science on WNIJ, where you learn something new every day.


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