If you’re in the market for a new handpan then you may have found yourself at a crossroads; nitrided steel vs. stainless steel. What’s the difference? Is one any better than the other?
Let’s take a look at these two materials to decide which choice is best for your next handpan!
Put simply, nitration is a chemical process to change a handpan’s surface structure for the purpose of strengthening and altering steel. In general, nitrided steel handpans:
Are more resistant to corrosion (rust) compared to raw steel.
Are more stable (less likely to go out of tune) compared to raw steel.
Have less sustain and are more “percussive” (crisp or ceramic-like).
The nitration process typically creates a distinct sound of control, balance, and isolation which many handpan players prefer in various situations.
A nitrided steel handpan may be a good choice for you if:
1. You are a more percussive player.
If you tend to play faster, louder, or more complicated, nitrated steel may be a good choice as its natural isolation will provide the needed clarity for more dense playing. 2. You want to play chromatically or choose a more half-step dense scale.
Most of the time nitrided steel handpans have a much lower level of note-to-note interaction or “crosstalk”. While high sympathetic resonance may be a desirable effect for specific players, or within certain handpan scales, if you are playing chromatically between multiple instruments, or have a handpan with a significant amount of half steps (scales like hijaz, onoleo, or certain harmonic minors might qualify) sympathetic interactions between notes may actually be undesirable.
If your handpan has a high level of interaction across notes, chromatic playing can begin to sound a bit sour as the difficult to control resonance of your handpan could lead to unwanted chromatic harmonies ringing out on top of each other. Fortunately, nitrided steel handpans tend to have a much higher level of note isolation, so playing chromatically should sound much cleaner!
Next let’s take a look at one of the other most popular steel options in the handpan world: stainless steel!
Stainless steel is an alloy containing a higher balance of chromium, an element that largely contributes to the material’s corrosion resistance and signature shine.
In general, stainless steel handpans:
Have very rich and long sustain.
Have a warm and rounded timbre.
Are very resistant to corrosion (rust).
Have a gold, bronze, or silver color.
Stainless steel handpans are known for their warm and lush sound with high levels of sustain and note-to-note interaction that can be great for certain handpan scales and certain types of players.
A stainless steel handpan may be a good choice for you if:
1. You tend to play slower or in a more meditative style.
Since stainless steel handpans tend to have much higher levels of sustain, faster, more percussion-heavy playing styles may not be this material’s best fit as it can be easy for this style of playing to get buried in the resonance of these instruments. A good way to think of this may be to imagine you are playing a grand piano and someone placed a brick on the sustain pedal! With this pedal constantly depressed there would be no way to control the resonance of the piano strings. Loud and fast passages would be quickly muddied by the wall of sound left unfettered without the use of the pedals. While this example might be a bit extreme, the reality is that we have no “sustain pedal” when playing the handpan, so once a note is struck it will continue to ring out until it has died down in its own time. This factor may make stainless steel sound like a bit of a nuisance but the material really shines in its handling of slower, meditative playing. If you started playing handpan as a way to relax and unwind, then stainless steel is the way to go. The richness and resonance of these instruments are perfect for lullabies, love songs, or just melting into the warmth of a single note.
2. You live in an area with a humid climate.
While nitrided steel handpans do offer a level of corrosion resistance, nothing can quite parallel the anti-rust abilities of stainless steel. If you live in an area where it is naturally humid, particularly if you are playing your handpan outdoors frequently, then stainless steel may be your safest choice.
3. Your handpan is extra low-pitched!
While the idea of a handpan reaching anything lower than a B2 was once only a pipe dream, lower and lower-pitched handpans are becoming the new reality. Generally, as a handpan note gets lower, its ability to sustain becomes increasingly difficult (it's a lot of metal to move!). Because of this, many handpan builders have opted to switch to stainless steel for the added resonance needed with these extra-large low notes. While these low pitches can be (and have been) built on nitrided steel shells, if you are looking to get that extra punch in the low register, then stainless steel is your best option. Comparing these two materials is a bit like comparing balsamic vinegar to distilled white vinegar. You can’t really say that one is any better than the other because each has its own uses and its own strengths.
Consider these points and you should be headed in the right direction to decide which material is best for you. And if you really can’t make up your mind, you might just have to add two new handpans to your collection!
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