The temperament button on our tuning software is the most feared button by most tuners; general instructions, DON'T PRESS IT! But why? What is equal temperament and why are all handpans tuned in it?
In an effort to continue my development and education as a handpan maker and tuner I have waded into the very deep waters of alternative temperaments. Fear not, I have guides! I have had in-depth discussions with Mark Deutsch and Alan Tower regarding temperaments beyond the standard equal temperaments and how they might apply to handpans. Mark Deutsch is a life long musician and expert in the field of temperaments. He is also the inventor of the famed Bazantar. Alan Tower is a long time Hang player, instrument developer, student of Mark's and Bay Area sound explorer.
While many may think that equal temperament is the standard it's actually a synthetic construct. Granted, its existence gives us things like western music and symphonies but it does go directly against all things that occur naturally. It shifts the naturally occurring frequencies into a 'best-fit model, adjusting them off perfect. For example, a minor third can be shifted as much as 16 cents. In doing so it allows an instrument, like a piano or handpan, to be played in any key and sounds (mostly) good as opposed to sounding near perfect but only in one key.
It has been a long-standing dream of Alan's to hear a handpan tuned to something other than Equal temperament and a production-related opportunity presented itself in that I had three D Kurd8's to make in a row. After deciding upon the scale, Mark designed two temperaments specifically for Kurd8. Pulling on Just Intonation and Pythagorean interval ratios, both temperaments serve to accentuate and honor the prominent characteristics of this very popular scale.
My thoughts on temperaments in relating to handpans:
This has been a fantastic exercise and one that I think was well-timed for me in regards to my career thus far as a handpan maker and tuner. It challenged my beliefs, forced me to broaden my perspectives, and examine my underlying biases. All that just from moving some notes around a few cents. It goes to show how much power there is in tuning and temperaments!
Your responses have been fantastic. This seemed to really engage those who were interested or curious about temperaments. Some didn’t hear the difference, some quickly gravitated towards one temperament and some of you were downright offended by temperament 1 (mostly joking). Those who commented that the high A was a real standout note for them on how it changed across the temperaments were surprised to hear that I never touched that note. It stayed exactly where it was originally put but notes around it changed in such a way that it ‘felt’ as though it had moved.
Is equal temperament the right decision for handpans? This is a complex question. In general, I think yes. I noticed that my playing did feel limited in the other temperaments. They were all set to be in reference to D, the center note. If I played off the D’s then the instrument sounded good to great but the moment that I rooted off any other note things, at least for me, things started to fall apart. Just because a Kurd is in D minor doesn’t mean that I can shift to F major or even A minor if I’m in equal temperament. It does however tend to sound ‘off’ if I do those shifts while in a non-equal temperament.
From a tuning perspective, things can get complicated. For example, one of the proposed tunings had the C4 shifted up 18 cents and the G4 shifted down 2 cents. In an instrument where just the fundamentals are being tuned this isn’t such a big issue. Granted that most instruments will generate their upper partials (octave, compound 5th, and so on), they are naturally generated and you can’t alter them. Not the case in handpans, in fact, that's the whole deal with handpans; we have complete control of the upper partials. The problem in this example is that the C4 has a 5th that is a G5 and the G4 has an octave that is a G5. I now have two of the same frequencies on the instrument that are to have a 20 cents difference. That will be audible and I would argue, work against the natural resonance of the instrument.
On the topic of tuning harmonics within each tonefield, there is a great deal of wiggle room. There are instances where I might leave a 5th 6 cents sharp or leave an octave a few cents flat. Intentional detuning can have a massive positive impact both on the health and balance of each tonefield and with overall timbre blending. There’s also the question of even if the temperament has been shifted, within each tonefield do you tune to equal temperament or adjust to the alternative temperament. This is a weaker argument as it's just a few cents (for example, just intonation shifts the 5ths relation to the fundamental 2 cents) but as we heard in the comparison video, 2 cents can have a massive impact.
My reflection on shifting within these different temperaments is that most handpan tuners are already not tuning in equal. Most experienced tuners play well into the grey area. While equal temperament is the starting point there are reasons that things might be shifted; international detuning, timbre adjustments, blending, stretching, or the ‘it just sounds better’ argument. I would guess that at some point experience leads tuners to have their preferred temperament, both overall, for specific scales, for specific instruments, and even within each tonefield. I know that when I tune a Celtic8 I slightly shift off equal, just a few cents here and there but it leads to a sound that I like better than zero’d out equal.
While equal temperament wins for versatility it didn’t win in my poll. Mark Deutsch explained temperament 1 as more extroverted, heroic, and brighter while temperament 2 as more melancholy, darker, introverted. As the winner, I think it's interesting that melancholy, darker, introverted is a better fit for the Kurd scale. It's a complicated thought, but is there a perfect temperament match for each handpan sound model. Would extroverted, heroic, and brighter be a better fit for a major scale?
My final thought is that temperaments within handpans are already very fluid and most tuners are already playing in the grey and fudging numbers. When I first started tuning I trusted the computer first, my ear second, and the instrument third. Now it is inverted, I trust the instrument first, my ear second, and the computer third. Hearing and temperament preference is subjective; we can both like different temperaments and we can also both be right. I am a better tuner for having explored these alternative temperaments and for the record, I voted for temperament 2. The real question is am I going to take the frets out of my guitar and retune my Kurd9 to temperament 2?! Time will tell.