Some years ago I made an instrument I called Bands & Bars. Actually, Bands and Bars wasn’t an individual instrument as much as it was a conglomeration of many instruments mounted on one big chunk of wood. All of the sound makers were variations on the idea of steel bands or bars mounted at one end and free at the other. This sounds like a description of lamellaphones, as in kalimbas and mbiras, and indeed there were some kalimba-like sounding elements built into the instrument. But most of the sounding elements were not very kalimba-like. Some were quite long, like several feet, and not rigid but floppy, so that when they were set in motion they danced all over the place, producing tone qualities quite un-kalimba-like. Others were similarly long but more rigid, so that their fundamental frequency was low enough to be perceived not as a pitch but as a repeated pulse. Many of these were set up to hammer on something like a bridge, creating a steady, hammering beat. Some other bars were bent into odd shapes or had additional weights or extensions which altered their characteristic patterns of movement. Still others had additional effects like attached rattles, or pitch-bending mechanisms to produce unusual sounds. They all had pickups — magnetic or piezo — providing an aural window into inner oscillatory goings-on that might otherwise be inaudible. The wooden piece on which they were mounted was a heavy 6″x6″ beam about five feet long, positioned horizontal on splayed legs. The great mass was necessary to provide sufficient counterpoise for the heavier sounding elements.
Performing on this thing was, to use the language of a bygone era, quite a trip! The elements were tuned for a kind of general tonal coherence — or, at least, that was the hoped-for effect. Many of them were way off in their own realms of inharmonic overtone relationships. I tuned, to the extent possible, by adjusting various parameters while listening for what sounded like fortuitously coherent relationships. The intent was to create a whole that would strike the ear not just as timbrally interesting, but in some way tonally coherent, even if it was a tonality from Mars.
Many of the sounding elements, once set in motion, would keep going of their own accord for quite some time, swinging and swaying and hammering and flopping. This made it possible for a single player to layer-in multiple levels of sound patterns, and even to bring in separate instruments for added color as the beast carried on.
I only performed with Bands & Bars a few times. The instrument was never well documented, but you can see and hear a bit of not-great video here (scroll down to the last one on the page). It was eventually retired to my basement where, in a disassembled state, it took up space for many years. Recently I decided the time had come for some kind of reckoning, so I reassembled it with the intention of re-acquainting myself with it and, based on what I found, deciding whether to keep or scrap it. On the “keep it” side of that question, I was reminded what a blast it had been to play it, and also that many of the individual sounding elements really did produce unique and interesting sounds. On the “scrap it” side, I had to recognize that the whole thing was kind of a mess, many of the elements were in shaky condition, some of the workmanship was sub-par, and the cumulative effect of all those pickups was adding up to an unacceptable level of hum. Added to this was the fact that I didn’t expect to see occasion to perform with it any time in the foreseeable future. With some regret I decided to decommission it — freeing up space in the basement space is always a high priority! — but also to consider salvaging and/or rebuilding some of the most interesting elements as individual instruments.
And so, in recent months I’ve once again been exploring the sound-world of steel bands or bars fixed at one end and amplified with a pickup. I’ll now describe some of the ideas I’ve been reworking, focusing on various kinds of floppy bands. These are bands of relatively thin spring-tempered steel, fixed at one end, and long enough that they don’t hold rigid but flop around freely. Typical sizes might be 1/2” to 3/4” wide, less than about .03” thick, and greater than about 16” long.
The observable motion of such bands is often wonderful to behold. They’re chaotic in the physicist’s sense that in spite of the simplicity of the underlying system — after all, it’s just a strip of steel — once set in motion their movements may be wildly varied and unpredictable. Without a pickup, they produce some sound, but the most interesting sounds are those you hear when the pickup reveals what’s going on, vibration-wise, within the metal, including those modes of vibration that aren’t otherwise very audible because they do not communicate well acoustically to the surrounding air. The bands can be activated in various ways like plucking, striking, or even bowing, but the most intriguing sounds often come about with a slow attack in the form of push-and-release: just give it a shove in one direction or another, and let the band take it from there. The result may be a slow build-up of sound, or an initial crash followed by more varied development.
With exceptions noted below, the ear does not hear a single clear note in the resulting sounds. The frequency blends are usually too complex for the ear to make sense of in that way, plus the sounds may be ever-changing. It is generally not even useful to think of these bands producing a recognizable overtone series, harmonic or otherwise. The lower modes are all subsonic (often observable in the slower swayings of the band), but even these seemingly staid lower modes are subject to unpredictable disruptions arising from interactions with other modes. As for the higher modes, there are so many of them in play, and their relative strengths are so variable from one moment to the next, that the business of trying to identify and analyze them would be a huge and probably unrewarding task. Further complexifying the situation is fact that the flexing of the bands produces pitch-bends in some modes. For those bands that have magnetic pickups, there are also variable volume effects that come into play as the flexing bands move closer to or farther from their pickups. Overall, it’s the shifting mess of frequencies that makes an impression on the ear, doing so in a way that reads as timbrally fascinating but not harmonically meaningful.
Some of the captivating qualities of these bands are visual — the crazy dances they do once set in motion. Adding to the fascination is the way those dances are reflected as changes in sound from moment to moment. Some types of bands may even go silent for a time even as they continue bouncing and swaying — meaning that while subsonic patterns of movement continue, there are no vibrations going on in the audible frequency range — and then come to audible life again as some convergence of factors gives rise to new audible frequencies.
In spite of the complexity just described, in some cases the band does seem to have a steady, recognizable pitch. This comes about when, among the many modes present at different frequencies, there happens to be one which is strong enough and steady enough to catch the ear’s attention, causing the ear to focus on that frequency. In these cases, the resulting pitch perception is usually pretty shaky, often barely discernable within the gestalt of the tone. Occasionally it’s a bit more distinct. If there are several bands with similar acoustic qualities tuned to neighboring pitches, the pitch sense can be made a bit more sure by playing these bands in sequence, encouraging the ear to track the relevant mode melodically — a nice little psycho-acoustic trick. On the other hand, in complex sonic environments, as when the sounds of many bands overlap or when other instruments are playing, it’s quite likely that the pitch-sense will be lost, the ear unable to track it among the other distractions.
And here’s another interesting factor that limits the possibilities for using these bands as definite-pitch instruments: Given a single band of whatever length and thickness, it may be the case that, as described above, one mode among the many stands out enough to provide the ear with a recognizable pitch. But a fairly small change in band dimensions — say, making it a bit longer — is often enough to alter the relative prominence of the modes present so that the mode that had been prominent no longer dominates. That mode may just retreat into the general mix so that the ear no longer recognizes any dominant pitch, or it may recede enough to allow some rival mode to rise to the top and take over the perceived pitch-sense. For this reason, you’ll often encounter this scenario: you find a band that produces a great tone with recognizable pitch; you decide to make a scale of similar bands tuned to different lengths; but when you start cutting longer or shorter bands to provide the other notes of the scale, you find that the other notes don’t work: at other lengths the previously dominant mode no longer dominates and the pitch-sense is lost. When it happens, as it sometimes does, that other modes come to dominate at other lengths, you get crazy results in which the perceived pitch seems to bear no relationship to length. Often enough, for instance, a longer band seems to produce a higher note. This situation — a seemingly arbitrary disconnect between length and resulting pitch — can be a source of consternation for makers in connection not only with floppy bands, but with other sound sources as well. If you’ve spent a lot of time exploring offbeat idiophonic sounds perhaps you’ve encountered this phenomenon yourself.
In spite of the limitations just described, I’ve attempted a few definite-pitch instruments using floppy bands. In one of them I ended up with just three notes, taking advantage of three different lengths in which some mode or other just happened to dominate enough to provide good pitch sense. Very limited — but what fantastic sounds those three notes are! For another I managed to get five pretty well defined crash-sizzle pitches. And I made two others with more complete scales. Those two depend very much on using just the right plucking or striking techniques and careful pickup placements to bring out the intended mode across the range.
And then there are the unpitched floppy instruments, of which I’ve also made a couple. These have been great fun. In addition to the crazy sounds and movements inherent in the bands alone, I’ve used several of the enhancements mentioned earlier to add interest and variety. This includes various sorts of rattles, which tend to activate and de-activate themselves from moment to moment depending on the swaying and bouncing and flexing patterns of the bands. The rattles sound alongside the metallic sounds of the bands themselves, but they also become part of those metallic sounds as the tiny percussions of the rattles help excite the band modes.
Some of the coolest effects come about with creased bands. These are very thin bands — like .012” thick and less — that have been very slightly creased down the center to increase their rigidity. Creasing changes the way the bands flex: instead of bending in more-or-less uniform curves, creased bands tend to flex in narrower regions while remaining straight between bends. They also have a tendency to pop or snap between bent and unbent states. Lots of cool sounds there.
And then there are the weights. Placing something like a short but heavy bolt & nut or a very small C-clamp somewhere along the length of the band contributes greatly to the complexity of movement in an “emergent” sort of way (meaning: complex and unpredictable behaviors arising from seemingly finite and simple input parameters). This is wonderful for visual effect — easily as entertaining as watching TV — and contributes good stuff to the gradually evolving sound.
Making an instrument featuring the upitched floppies is a two-part process:
- Gather a bunch of spring-steel bands of varying dimensions, and spend some time messing around with them in search of cool sounds. This generally involves clamping them one at a time in a vise with varying lengths extending out and flopping over, positioning either a magnetic or piezo pickup near the base of the band, exciting the band in various ways, subjecting the band to various manipulations and alterations such as adding weights or rattles or bends, listening, and making note of what one hears. Then, having tried out a good number of bands and configurations in this way, selecting from among them those that make the coolest sounds.
- Make a framework to hold the selected bands and mount the selected bands on it.
The heart of the process, and most of the fun of it, is in step one — the looking-for-cool-sounds part.
In designing the frame, an unavoidable issue is space. A floppy band in itself isn’t very big, but the space it needs to freely flop around in may be quite large. If in its excursions it bangs into anything – other bands, its frame, or nearby objects — it produces a loud and discordant clang, better avoided. In designing these instruments, I had to find ways to maximize available space by angling the bands away from each other. For more compact storage between usages, you can use a small bungee cord or something similar to strap the bands together above the main instrument, like an up-do (is that what they call that kind of hair-do?), and then later sing something like “Baby, let your hair hang down” while releasing them for playing.
Instruments made from these unpitched floppies invite a kind of playing that is not much about melody, harmony, or even rhythm. Instead it’s very much about exploration of the characters of the individual bands and the ways they interact. A collection of several unpitched floppy bands is a collection of personalities, as distinct as a bunch of hyperactive kids in a second-grade classroom. Difficult to control, full of life, full of their own ideas.
Thus do the floppy band ideas of the now-defunct Bands & Bars instrument live on. No recordings, videos or photos of these new instruments have been done yet; I hope to get to that soon.