Panyard, Inc. was formally incorporated in 1990. The roots of the company go back several years before that. Ron Kerns (founder,owner and CEO of Panyard, Inc.) and Shelly Irvine (founder and former tuner for the company) were both enrolled as Music Education majors in the University of Akron’s Music Faculty.
Kerns had chosen the University of Akron as his college specifically because of the presence of the Steelband Program. As he tells it, “Dad and I came up to Akron from Kettering to check out the college, and they showed me the pans. I’d never seen anything like them before, but as soon as I heard them I was hooked!”. In 1987 he and Shelly spent a brief time in Trinidad just before Carnival. The tours of the various panyard’s mesmerised the pair, and they made plans to return to the island on their own.
In 1989 Ron and Shelly went back to Trinidad to play with Phase II Pan Groove for Panorama, under the directorship of Len “Boogsie” Sharpe. That trip became the starting point out of which Panyard, Inc. would grow. Anyone who is familiar with the rehearsal schedule for a 120-piece steelband in Trinidad will know that it takes thousands of man-hours for one of these bands to learn their competition piece. The fantastic arrangements learnt by each band are not written down – the music is all taught by note and passed from one player to the next.
Ron and Shelly asked Boogsie if he would mind if they wrote down his arrangement for that year (“Fire Down Below”). “Yeah Mon, write it down! Write it down!” he replied, and so they started the monumental task of recording on tape and music score the entire ten minutes of the arrangement. Once all the materials had been recorded, they headed back to Akron to edit it together and produce a workable musical score.
A new music-editing program had just been released for the Apple Macintosh – “Finale”. Working mostly at publicly available Mac’s at the University, they entered the entire score, referring to taped recordings of each part as well as hand-written scores they had jotted down in Phase II’s panyard. Ron recalls “At that time Finale was new. The authors had never considered that anyone might use their software for the kind of thing we were doing. We didn’t have access to a manual – more about that later – and so we just hacked our way into it. We made numerous calls to the tech-support guys, who were stunned that we were trying to work with such a large file.” The work took several months; each note was entered, checked, and then hand spaced to make it readable. “The hand-spacing took most of the time. The default settings simply didn’t work properly. We were about 99% finished when one of the faculty came by and said ‘Oh, you just need to press this button and it will re-adjust all the spacing automatically.’ Shelly was ready to punch him, since this guy had walked past us and seen us doing this work for weeks but had not offered us any help. And he owned a manual!”
That year, thanks to the efforts of Kerns and Irvine, the University of Akron steelband played “Fire Down Below” at it’s annual concert, becoming the first non-Trinidadian band to perform a full Panorama score. Boogsie Sharpe was in attendance, having been invited as the guest artist for that year’s concert.
Word soon spread that this score existed. “We began getting calls from other college programs asking us if we were prepared to let them use the score,” says Kerns. “They asked us about other scores we might have too; at that time there was virtually no sheet music available for pan – each band had to do its own arrangements.” Ron and Shelly gradually became aware that there was a growing market for sheet music for pan. And so they purchased a Mac, a copy of Finale, a laser printer (“That printer cost us $ 4500.00!”) and started to publish sheet music.
Beginnings – 1990
Through the sale of the sheet music, Ron and Shelly began to come into contact with more and more steelbands, and became aware of the possibility to provide items other than sheet music to these groups. “At that time, if you wanted a pan, you had to find a maker, pay him some money upfront, and in a couple of months you might be lucky enough to get your drum.” There were no formal businesses making pans, and little or no after-sales support. “Once you got your drum, the next hurdle you faced was finding mallets and a stand. Some makers sold crude pipe-stands, and several only provided plans for you to make your own stand.”
Seeing the disparity between the presentation of pan when compared to the presentation of other established instruments at colleges, Ron and Shelly set about designing a professional series of stands and mallets. These two products were the beginning of a vision for pan that is still a driving force at Panyard, Inc. today. This vision essentially revolves around growing pan away from its garage-industry home-built roots, and maturing it so that it too can be regarded as a professional, established instrument. Its not surprising that when Ron and Shelly were considering incorporating the company, one of the names that Ron put forward was ‘Quality Steelpan Products’. “Horrible name for a company,” he says. “Imagine trying to market that – getting people to remember it and take it seriously?”
Working out of the basement of Shelly’s house in Kenmore (a suburb of Akron), Panyard, Inc. began providing stands, music and mallets to the steelpan world in 1990. They made the stands at a fab shop around the corner from the house, doing most of the preparatory work themselves, but relying on the services of a professional welder to assemble the pieces. The mallets were made by Mike and Cherie Laco, whose son Chris was a member of the U-Akron Steelband along with Ron and Shelly. Another valuable contact was Steve Popernack, who was also a member of the band. Steve has perfect pitch and an incredible ability to transcribe music.
Preserving an Art Form
Ron and Shelly were both acutely aware of the historic nature of the work they had done in transcribing “Fire Down Below”. But they were also acutely aware of how much time and effort it had involved. So they began negotiating a deal with the Trinidad Methonol company to part-sponsor them in their efforts to transcribe other pieces by other arrangers. Between 1991 and 1997 Panyard staff made annual trips to Trinidad, armed with tape recorders and a great deal of patience. The result is a brief snapshot of the top tunes performed in Trinidad, preserved for future generations to be able to perform and enjoy.
Typically, each Panorama score takes hundreds of hours to transcribe note-for-note. Firstly, it is only possible to start the process in any seriousness after Panorama is finished, because most of the arragements are not finished until the morning of Finals. During the build-up to finals, many parts of an arrangement may change, too.
“The first challenge,” says Ron, “is to find players who actually know the part from top to bottom, and who will actually show up at the appointed time and place to make the recording. We have had to literally drag people away from their homes after they didn’t show up 2 or 3 days in a row; not that they had anything else to do, they simply didn’t show up!” Once the player is in the panyard, the next problem is to find a set of pans that are in tune. Panorama performances are energy-filled, fast and furious. The pans take a real beating. “Sometimes, particularly with the basses, we would record the entire scale of the instrument, even though the pitches were not strictly in order. At least then we would have a reference point when we listened to the recording: we would know that this particular ‘clunk’ should be an ‘F’, and the ‘crunch’ sound is ‘G’, and so on!”
Each part was recorded on tape using a tapped click as a beat. If possible, a lead pan player would be present on all the recordings to provide a reference point in the tune for each part. Once the tapes were made, the crew would head back to Akron and the real work would start.
Since there is no score at all (none of the arrangers even work off a score), there are many points in each tune where the various sections are playing parts that don’t really fit with other sections. “An extreme case is a tune arranged by (name ommitted), half the band was in one key and the other half were in another”. Apart from errors on the part of the arranger, there are also errors on the part of each player. Gradually, after listening to each recorded part many times, a picture starts to emerge of the entire arrangement.
Once all the notes have been transcribed, the piece needs to be edited. Mistakes made by the players and arrangers need to be corrected, and the piece needs to be formatted properly so that a musician can read it. Rehearsal marks, dynamics, repeat signs and the like need to be inserted. Then the orchestral score is separated into individual parts, and each part needs to be laid out sensibly on the pages ready for printing.
Ron says “We would love to continue to transcribe and publish these scores. But the sad reality is that it does not make economic sense for us to pursue this. We sell maybe 20 of these scores a year, but our investment to produce each tune is literally thousands of dollars. Maybe at some point in the future….”
By 1993 Panyard, Inc. had established a reputation for providing quality products to the steelpan community. The product line had expanded to include cases and CD’s, and the company had a growing customer base. One of the recurring themes that customers expressed was “Why don’t you guys sell pans too? You have everything else!”
Reluctantly, Panyard, Inc. began selling pans. After trying a few local sources, the company negotiated a deal with TTIL to import pans from Trinidad. “When the first batch arrived, we were really excited! This truck pulled up outside Shelly’s house, and there were literally CRATES of pans inside!” However, excitement sooned turned to disappointment, as most of the instruments were severely out of tune. After a few heated phone-calls, TTIL agreed to send Roland Harrigan up to Akron to tune the pans.
Working in Shelly’s basement, Roland began tuning the instruments. Over the course of a few weeks the instruments improved to the point where Panyard, Inc. felt comfortable selling them. Roland went back to Trinidad, and another batch of pans was ordered, on the assumption that since the first batch had been fixed, TTIL would ensure that the second batch were in top-notch condition.
The second batch of pans proved to be exactly the same as the first. After more phone calls, Roland Harrigan was once again dispatched to Akron to fix the instruments. While doing so, he mentioned that it might be easier if he simply brought his whole crew to Akron and made all the instruments here.
After much discussion, Ron and Shelly agreed to bring Roland and his entire crew up to Akron. Visas were organised. Obviously the entire crew could not work in Shelly’s basement, so a search began to find a suitable location to build the pans. As it turned out, the building two doors down from Shelly’s house was up for sale. And so Panyard, Inc. proudly took possession of 1216 California Avenue, Akron, Ohio 44314 in 1995.
Apart from watching a few tuners at work, neither Ron nor Shelly had any prior experience at tuning pans; they relied heavily on the feedback from Roland’s crew as to what needed to be purchased in the way of tooling, equipment, safety gear and so on.
Roland’s crew arrived ahead of him. The idea was that they would build up a stock-pile of pans that needed to be tuned, and then Roland would fly in to Akron and tune them. In time, about 30 instruments were prepared, and Roland arrived.
After spending a few hours on the first drum, Roland declared the steel to be unsuitable. At this point, Ron and Shelly had invested a large sum of money in the venture, and they were not about to give up so easily. After a spirited discussion between Ron, Shelly and the crew, as well as amongst the crew themselves, Roger “Moon” Robinson started to work on the same pan, and began to get success with it. Roland quickly returned to work on the pan and produced a finished drum.
This had been a valuable lesson. It was clear that a lot more control would be needed in order to be able to definitively decide a course of action, and prevent a recurrence of this sort of issue.
Beginnings of a system
One of the easiest things to control was the steel. After destructively testing a number of good pans, and using a methodical approach to testing a variety of steels, Panyard, Inc. began to narrow down a range of suitable materials. Not everything succeeded immediately – some of the early experiments yielded yielded easy-to-sink pans that produced no sound at all!
Another system that was introduced concerned the sizes of the notes and shapes of bowl. Instead of allowing each crew member to eyeball his work, drums had to be sunk to specific depths and shapes. The measuring systems used during this period were really crude compared to what happens at Panyard, Inc. today, but they were a start.