The new Electronic Steel Drum kit (3,300 yen plus 8% tax) is out, and it’s pretty sweet. It’s basically a tuned metal plate suspended from a holder frame by a pair of fish lines. A pick-up coil is held in place by a second holder at the back of the pan, and vibrations in the pan cause the magnet in the pick-up to move inside the coil. The resulting current created in the coil is amplified by the included, fully-assembled circuit board. Output from the board can either be sent to a separate guitar amp (using the mini jack), or transmitted to an FM radio at the 88 MHz band. A jumper plug lets you choose one of four specific frequencies (88.2, 88.4, 88.6 or 88.8 MHz). I don’t have a guitar amp, and my little 9V transistor radio didn’t receive the signal from the kit. Instead, I plugged in my external 8W PC speakers. The output is hissy, and monophonic. Unless a guitar amp works better, you may want to run the signal through a low pass filter first. But, it’s still a fun toy to play with for a while.
In effect, the electronic steel drum is similar in concept to a speaker cone, but working in the opposite direction. You probably could use it as a speaker, but the sound out would be really weak unless you have a much bigger coil.
The mook spends a lot of time discussing steel drums, from their history in the Caribbean islands in the 1930, to modern design and manufacturing methods, and the science both behind the tuning of acoustic pans and how the Gakken version works. There’s an interview with Japanese pan master Yann Tomita, and a section on the Open Reel Ensemble’s use of the Gakken kit in with the rest of their 8-track gear. Avant-garde percussionist Tomo Yamaguchi demonstrates what happens when you put the second pick-up from the Gakken kit on various noise makers, Buffalo Daughter bass player Yumiko Ohno uses the kit as a normal steel drum, and someone from Highleads uses their CubeMic contact microphone on various objects around the city.
Additional articles cover the history of electronic drums, a pictorial on percussive instruments, a tour of a plastics manufacturer, and “the 5,000-year history of steel”. One story shows someone that makes Coca Cola dispensing, fire breathing cardboard robots, and another has a hobbyist that has apparently built a train simulator at home. The last article looks at reptiles, and the Manga Science chapter by Yoshitou Asari is about why it’s so hard to clean grime from walls and windows. There are no real suggestions for how to mod the kit this time.
Gakken suggests 30 minutes for assembling the drum, and it took me closer to 50 minutes because I was trying to make sure I understood the instructions right. There are two pick-ups, and it doesn’t matter which one you use. You put one pick-up in the cylindrical holder as shown in the pictures, and rotate it clock-wise an 1/8″ to lock it in place. There’s a length of rubber tubing that you cut into 5 pieces of equal length (about 1 cm each). Two of the pieces are used as end caps on the brown plastic rods used as hammers, and the other three go over the ends of the holder legs to hold the pan in place more securely. Put the legs on the pick-up holder. Put the circuit board in the case and screw the case shut. Put a CR2032 button battery in the battery holder of the case, and plug the pick-up connector into either jack A or B of the circuit board. Assemble the pan frame by attaching the two end pieces to the 2 white aluminum stay rods.
(Close-up of one of the pick-up holder legs, showing how the rubber tubing holds the pan more firmly against the leg. Basically, this is to prevent any unwanted vibrations showing up in the sound signal.)
Take the fish line that comes with the kit and cut it in half. Thread one piece through the two holes at one side of the pan and tie a knot to create a loop that holds the pan 2-3 cm from the frame arm. Thread the second piece through the holes at the other side of the pan and tie that fish line to make a loop the same size as the first one. Attach the three pick-up holder arms to the bottom of the pan so that there’s a gap between the pan and the pick-up, and the arms don’t touch the pan surface (the magnet will snap to the pan, but that’s supposed to happen). Hang the pan from the frame using the two fishing line loops. Turn on the circuit board, and either plug the “Out” jack to an amp, or place the unit next to an FM radio and tune the radio to whatever frequency the jumper block is set for.
(Close-up of the pick-up holder. Note that neither the pick-up coil body, nor the holder arms, press against the pan. If the coil slides out of the holder, it means that you didn’t rotate the coil within the holder to lock it in place.)
There’s a bigger hammer that comes with the kit, that uses a heavy nut and bolt for mass. You can wrap this with cloth to dampen the sound. There are also two light-weight springs that you can use to keep the pick-up magnets from touching the steel pan (or other surface) in order to change the sound quality. The pan itself is tuned to play 5 specific notes, and you can try playing the five songs given in the mook. (Size-wise, the plate is about 6″ in diameter, and with the stand is about 3″ tall.)
I don’t see myself turning into a steel drum player anytime in the near future, but I’m thinking of running the signal through the filter of one of my other synths to mess around with that. If you want a novelty drum for your kit, the Gakken pan is worth buying.
The Otona no Kagaku website is kind of screwed up at the moment: The link on the left side of the page doesn’t take you to the right Steel Drum page (click here, instead). And, there’s no “Next Kit” link. The back cover of the mook says that the next kit will be the “Tornado Humidifier”, winner of the first supplement kit design contest. No target release date or price given.
The new mini-Theremin is now on the shelves, too. It comes pre-assembled, with only a small booklet, for 2,500 yen. I’m not sure if I want to buy it right away, or wait a while. I can’t justify buying the steel drum and not playing it, then turning around and getting the theremin if I’m not going to play that very much, either.