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Composing and Arranging for the Steel Pan - Part I : Basics
An Overview of the Special Issues in Writing and Arranging for the Steel Pan By Richard A. Sharma

1. The Instruments, their Ranges, and the Lack of Standardisation

The steel pan is a complete family of instruments with an orchestral range, from soprano to bass. (Although, somewhat confusingly perhaps, the soprano instrument is called tenor pan, or in US practice, lead.) The established practice in Trinidad and Tobago therefore is to call a panside a steel orchestra, rather than steel band.

The total range is approximately from Bb1 to F#6. However, some tenor pans may stretch to G6, while the Nine Bass and Twelve Bass can extend the range downwards to about F1 and B0, respectively.

A further extension of the range upwards is possible with the very rarely used sopranino pan. Unlike the ‘standard’ pan family, its diameter is a mere 14-16 ins. and it is about an octave above the high tenor pan. Apart from being extremely rare, its sound does not seem to blend easily with the ‘standard’ pans as, to me at any rate, it sounds rather thin and a little bit tinny by comparison.

The ‘standard’ pans range, in descending order, from the high tenor to the bass. They are, high tenor, low tenor, ‘bore’ tenor (increasingly replacing or augmenting the standard tenors), double tenor, double second, double and triple guitar, quadrophonics, three and four cello, tenor bass, and six bass. In addition, the nine bass and mighty twelve bass have become almost indispensable in larger pansides. We shall explore the ‘standard’ pans in more detail, especially with regard to their individual ranges and characteristics, in the following sub-chapters.

Furthermore, there are several non-standard voices to be found. These include the quadro, six pan, eight bass, and ten bass. A seven bass is also to be found in use.

Just to complicate things further, there is also the recently developed range of ‘G pans’ or Genesis pans. These use a larger diameter pan and compress the whole range of the steel orchestra into a much smaller number of different pans. However, these will be the subject of a future article, and it is perhaps a little early to concern ourselves with these at this point.

Contrary to popular myth, steel pans today are rarely (if ever) made from discarded oil drums but rather, from specially manufactured steel. However, the ‘standard’ pans maintain the original dimensions established by the 55 gallon oil drum, with a diameter of 22 ¾ ins. The length of the skirt of course varies among the different voices.

Typical skirt lengths for the different voices are:

• High Tenor Pan – 5 ins.
• Low Tenor Pan –5½-6 ins.
• ‘Bore’ Tenor Pan – 6-9 ins.
• Double Tenor Pan – 6 ins.
• Double Second Pan – 9 ins.
• Double and Triple Guitar – 17 ins.
• Quadrophonics – app. 10 and app. 17-28 ins.
• Triple or Three Cello and Four Cello – app. 28 ins.
• Tenor Bass – app. 28 ins.
• Bass – 34-36 ins.

However, there can be variations between different makers and tuners in the length of individual voices’ skirts, the layout of the notes on individual voices, and even the exact range of a given voice.

The most standardised instruments are the two tenor pans, the high and low tenor. The layout of notes normally follows the well established ‘cycle of fourths and fifths’ principle (see Fig. 1, Low Tenor). But even here we have the exception of the ‘Invaders tenor’, in use with Trinidad’s Invaders Steel Orchestra, with a completely different layout and slightly extended range upwards.

Low Tenor Pan layout
Fig.1 - layout of low tenor pan

It is principally the albeit small difference in the actual range of individual voices that poses a dilemma for the composer and arranger. The only solution here, it would seem, is to ‘play safe’ and stick to the typical ranges and hope for the best, if writing generically as opposed to for a specific steel orchestra.

But a far greater problem still is the lack of standardisation in the actual instrumentation of different pansides. For example, some orchestras may leave out the double tenor and the cello altogether, others may dispense with the tenor bass, yet others may use non-standard basses.

In the absence of writing for a specific steel orchestra with known instrumentation, there is just no way for the composer/arranger to know whether a given voice will be available. (Smaller ensembles of roughly between eight and twenty-odd players can be equally variable.)

The best solution perhaps is to write fairly ‘generically’ and make it easy for any orchestra’s arranger to adapt the parts to the voices available. For instance, cello parts can easily be taken over by the quadrophonics, but vice versa this could prove impossible and a quadrophonics part may have to be split between cellos and double tenors or double seconds, with the added complication that the sound will be a noticeably different one. Likewise, triple guitar parts could, at a push, be taken over by cellos or quadrophonics, though the resulting sound again will be very distinct from that of the guitar.

Where one or the other of double tenor or double second is not available, the part can, again at a push, be replicated by the available voice though with a very distinct timbre from that intended, and the minor differences in range have to be borne in mind by the ‘generic’ composer/arranger. (Typically, the difference is only about a semitone at both ends, i.e., the double tenor being about a semitone lower.)

If the work is intended for a large steel orchestra, it is normally safe to assume that a nine bass and twelve bass are available. However, this may not be the case with a smaller orchestra, and almost certainly not with a small ensemble where it is safer for the composer/arranger to limit himself to a six bass.

In the case of an arrangement of an existing work, it is probably safest to be very conservative and make it very easy for parts to be swapped. Otherwise, an orchestra’s arranger may feel disinclined to bother as he may perhaps as well have written the arrangement from scratch himself.

With an original composition, the composer might perhaps be a little more adventurous but should bear in mind that some parts may have to be swapped to a different instrument.

Who said life in the steel pan world was meant to be easy?


© 2009 Richard A. Sharma / Rainlore's World of Music. All rights reserved.

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