Saturday, December 11, 2010

"You're sawing a propane tank in half in your basement?"

Yes. Sort of.

But first, some history. As far as random internet reading can be considered "history"...

The "hang" (pronounced closer to "hung", often called a "hang drum") is an instrument with which I became completely infatuated the moment I heard it. Was it the alleged healing properties still resonating even through poor quality YouTube videos? Or was it just that some dude was making really neat sounds by hitting a strange little UFO-shaped thingy with his hands? Maybe it was both.

A few more random YouTube videos of street performers and new-agey types in their basements and it was official - I needed a hang. The tone is sort of otherwordly, like a steel drum, but with a subdued, harp-like quality.

I could almost certainly make a synth patch that would achieve the same effect, but that's not the point. As much as I love my computer-based music production (and I love it very, very much), I became mildly obsessed with living the real, live, acoustic, tactile experience of hitting a hung with my actual fingers.

So I would have to buy one. Surely it's carried at fine percussion retailers the world over, right? As it turns out, it was... briefly... but that was stressing the makers out, man. The hang is hand crafted and individually tuned by just two Swiss dudes. They invented this new instrument, resent it being called a drum, and have to spend a few months every year meditating on how to make the drum better. The whole online thing and shipping to stores was disrupting their lifestyle, so now the hang are kind of impossible to get.

I should stop and say here, for the sake of being balanced, that people who have allegedly actually flown to Switzerland say these guys are completely unpretentious instrument makers who live for their craft, and are also generally awesome people. They've reverse engineered other tuned percussion instruments, and also claim metallurgical advancements to give the hang it's specific tone. And they've made something completely kickass and anything I write here that sounds like I'm jabbing at them is just good-natured ire stemming from the fact that I can't have one of their beautiful instruments.

To obtain a hang, you now need to write a letter expressing interest. As in, an actual paper letter, mailed to Switzerland. This might get you on a waiting list to buy a hung for a few thousand dollars at some later date. But there are all sorts of crushing tales of defeat... people writing impassioned pleas and mailing their letters across the ocean, only to several months later receive a reply informing them they will not be getting a hang, and little explanation why.

Further, the hang-makers reserve the right to buy back any instrument you might be thinking of reselling, so there's no second hand market.

And to top it off, if I could even get one, the hang costs something like two thousand dollars. I'm not a starving artist, but I'm also not so flush with cash that this doesn't give me pause.

So I'm not gonna get a hang.

I am, however, gonna make a hank!

The "hank" drum is an ingenious instrument brought to us by musical tinkerer Dennis Havlena. This guy is an amazing DIY instrument maker, and his "poor man's hang" isn't quite the same instrument, but very pleasing in its own right.



The hank (a portmanteau of "hang" and "tank", and maybe a nod to the eponymous propane salesman from King of the Hill) requires only a propane tank, some power tools, and the will to see it through (and tune the thing properly).

Because I am clumsy and unaccustomed to using power tools (and because my wife and parents lobbied hard for me not to), I am currently trying to avoid using a (big and scary) reciprocating saw on a curved metal surface. It is theoretically possible to cut the tongues entirely with a (smaller, safer) rotary (dremel-type) tool, which I have obtained. I'll update you with progress as I manage to make any. Technically, I don't cut the tank in half so much as I remove the ring it sits on from the bottom and cut resonant tongues there.

For those of you concerned for my safety, I have obtained a brand new, never-before-used propane tank. The gentleman over at Orleans Propane Centre was kind enough to remove the valve for me, and during the process the sound of air rushing into the tank verified his story that it was purged after production. I made some initial cuts in the basement, but I'm out in the garage now (less because I actually think the sparks will ignite the carpet - though I suppose it's possible - and more because I would cry a lot if the grinding stone shattered and hit my big screen tv). Production was briefly halted because the sound of filing down the metal was unpleasant and deafeningly loud, but I got some nice earplugs to wear (to go with my safety goggles, mechanic's gloves, and face mask to keep all that nice lead-based paint out of my lungs). If I still manage to hurt myself, I'll be sure to let you all know, because I'm sure it will be an amusing and unusual story at that point.

I'll be blogging about further hank drum production, with the ultimate goal of producing beautiful music with it.

3 comments:

  1. Wow Mike! I don't blame you. Something about the analogue and the incarnate eh? Good luck!

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  3. This is a great article and very interesting. I did not know this could be done but it seems like a hard process. I used propane for a lot of things and I think this article also shows the importance of propane. I use propane a lot for grilling but mostly for my mini heaters in my house. Last year I also got a propane power supplier. I decided to research Propane Suppliers in PA before doing so to find the best options and rates.

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