This is a breakdown of how I create my weekly handpan song cover. The process and theories can be applied to any song and any instrument you want to cover with. I hope this inspires you in some way in making music, or makes you understand the step-by-step work behind a 3-minute video. Alternatively, you can watch the tutorial here.
Here we go.
1 Find a song to cover
It’s really up to you. You might want to cover songs that you absolutely love. Or you pick the top 3 songs on Billboard for more views and likes. For me, it’s all about passion and how easy is that song be covered on handpan, due to the limited notes. Song songs are arranged with elements that resemble handpan sounds, for example Shape of You (Ed Sheeran), A Different Way (DJ Snake, Lauv) and Still Learning (Halsey).
If the song I want to cover doesn’t have those elements I will go to the Ultimate Guitar website (https://www.ultimate-guitar.com/) to see the chord pattern. If I see something like C#m7 or F# I need to decide if I want to transpose the whole song or just find another song. Sometimes I can’t be bothered. But the majority of the chord sheet is simple (since you can always add capo on guitar) and it isn’t a huge issue. If it’s a song I really love I certainty put extra effort in transposing and keeping the vibe and original idea.
There are 2 main reasons for transposing. First of all, if your instrument has limited notes like my handpan, you need to transpose the song to the key that you can easily play without skipping any chord progression. Second of all, if you are singing the song and the original key is out of your range, you might want to tune it up or down.
Most songs have alternative chord progressions on Ultimate Guitar website tho so you don’t need to worry. Otherwise you need some music theory skills in this part. The fastest way to transpose a song to the desired key is to think in terms of numbers. Let’s look at this example:
Say I want to transpose this chord progression of [G Em Am D] from G major to Bb major. How do I do that? Of course you can count the steps from G to Bb. But that’s too slow. Instead, you want to use numbers.
In a G major, [G Em Am D] means it is a [I vi ii V] progression. Note the major and minor.
So the [I vi ii V] pattern in Bb major would be: Bb Gm Cm F. This is the fastest way to transpose songs. Lucky for us, it’s a skill that we can practise and master.
So now you can transpose any song you like to suit your voice or instrument.
What I usually do next is to put the song in Garageband and transpose it. You can easily change the key in the app. I use that as a demo to guide my beat. It’s optional.
3 Brainstorm arrangement
When we cover songs we want to tell our own story. We want to narrate it in our own voice which might have a different result comparing to the original song. When I cover songs with my handpan I like to keep the original vibe through drum pattern. That’s the first thing I listen to. I try to mimick the beat using all the sounds a handpan can make. If I’m feeling lazy I just add on melodies on handpan. Creativity isn’t about being original sometimes…
If you are covering a song on piano or guitar, you almost have the most flexibility. I tend to explore the whole piano range for dynamic and contrast.
Now we have the flow, it’s time to record the audio tracks. Using the original track (tuned or not) as demo, I always start from recording handpan audio. Yes, I am not playing live so I can separate my vocals and my instrument. If you are the improvisational type of person feel free to just record and film at the same time. I am not good at rhythms so I always record instrument part first so that the vocals will stay on beat easier.
For songs with repeated chorus, I usually just use additional tracks to record vocal once so I can copy and paste. Yep, I am lazy.
Pro tip: play to your strengths. If you have strong instrument skills, have fun with ad-lib fingerstyle improvisation. For me, harmony is my signature thing and it goes well with handpan so I always add harmony layers to the song.
5 Production and mixing
I’m not a pro here. I just screen the audio, cut all the background noise or tongue clicking sounds and change reverb and EQ a bit. Usually it doesn’t take much time to do sound engineering on Garageband.
6 Optional: video filming
If your aim is just to cover a song and post the audio track to Soundcloud/Spotify, your project is finished here. But if you want to upload that to YouTube, then you need to film yourself. Since I separate my video and audio parts, I lip sync during filming. I actually wear mask for most of my covers so I don’t even need to remember the lyrics. I just remember the handpan patterns and film myself. For sure, it is important to be prepared in order to reduce the chance of starting over.
7 Video editing and uploading
This is the last step. Now we have both the audio and visual part ready, we just need to match the audio track to the video, add subtitles, do colour grading and hit upload. I use iMovie for all my video editing but that is subject to change. Song covers are not like vlogs or cinematic videos. I don’t do fancy editing.
So this is how I make my handpan covers. You can watch this video here where I show you a step-by-step behind-the-scenes of creating Dance Monkey handpan cover: