Describing the Steel Pan Sound

Describing the sound of the steel pan musical instrument is both difficult and seemingly fraught with contradictions.   Much easier to articulate is the dramatic effect steel drum sound has on so many listeners.   Even though they are comparatively new, it seems surprising that steel pans could have the wide appeal they enjoy worldwide and so easily induce such a high level of listening pleasure.   Some hear it as soothing and cheerful, while others characterize steel drums as exciting and brash.   Since there are so many styles of music performed on steel pans and so many styles of playing steel drums, maybe this is to be expected.   

Not lost in this discussion is the “vacation effect” that steel drums have for North American tourists and others.   After spending time in the Caribbean and hearing the beckoning music of steel pans every day, that sound seeps into their subconscious and becomes associated with the free and easy vacation time spent on their island excursions.  Time passes and then when they hear steel drum music again in a setting far from the island culture that produced it, they respond in the carefree manner of the tropical vacation they are being reminded of.   This means that steel drum bands can almost instantly induce a positive atmosphere on listeners and are unparalleled in elevating the mood of a party, cocktail hour or corporate event.  In addition to the power of the  “vacation effect”, the music played by steel bands is brighter, happier and more upbeat than most any other musical style.   Even the island songs that express some melancholy in their lyrics are often played with a joyous abandon.    

In comparison to most other instruments, steel pan has a very broad sound.   A simple melody played on a melody steel drum (such as a Lead, Double Second or Double Tenor), is more impactful than on a piano or guitar, due to the rich buoyancy of tone that is produced. This very satisfying sound has a unique set of attack, decay and sustain characteristics.   The attack (initial sound) of a steel drum note being played is quite fast and almost punchy.   The decay is not too long lasting but is very wide, as if the sound is exploding forth.   The sustain is long and has a very pretty sound to it very like that of the reverb effect on electric guitar amplifiers that makes it sound as if the instrument is in a large acoustically desirable hall even if it’s being played in a small basement room.  The shape of the steel pan sound is somewhat like that of a banjo, but with more body, decay and fullness.   Good steel pan tone has what can be described as a broader sound than most other instruments -full yet shimmering with an edginess that excites and a sustain that soothes.    

Steel pan players often use rolls, which are a rapid fire playing of the same note many times to create a more continuous sound.   Musically, this allows for the simulated playing of longer notes that maintain their strength rather than decaying such as a single hit would produce.  The rolling technique on steel drums can be very warmly beautiful and is part of what many react to as they hear these instruments played.   The bass steel pan has a sound very like that of an acoustic bass, but with more power, punchiness and strength of tone.   The sound can be thrilling when up close to a bass steel pan.  Some consider the sound of steel drum cello pans to be the most interesting.   The tone is so warm and full that they produce a blanket of sound much like that of a large string orchestra when playing sustained chordal passages.   Each different steel pan instrument has it’s own sound within the overall steel pan tonal palette.  Hearing all of them together in a large steel drum band is a truly unforgettable musical experience.