December 14, 2018
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Maine inventor turns old propane tanks into whimsical drums

Inside the propane tank, sunlight filtered in through narrow cuts in the steel, illuminating the blue walls and the carpet squares that lined the bottom of the vessel.

Jim Doble of Union, an inventor and craftsman of percussion instruments for the past 30 years, had transformed the the tank into a drum designed to be played from the inside.

He doesn’t have an official name for the instrument yet. For now, he just refers to it as “the beast.”

Lying lengthwise on a trailer, the propane tank, painted ocean blue, has a door at its center just large enough for a person to crawl through. The door then closes and the outside world disappears. The drummer is surrounded by the drum. Sitting or lying down, he uses a mallet to strike the metal surface at various locations, producing deep notes that hum throughout the tank. The drummer doesn’t just hear the sound waves, he feels them in the vibrations of the walls.

This giant instrument is just one of the many creations Doble has invented over the years for his business Elemental Design. Using metal, stone, glass and wood, he re-creates traditional percussion instruments and he invents some of his own.

“The part I like most is just exploring sounds, getting new sounds out of things,” Doble, 59, said.

With his hair fastened back in a ponytail, safety glasses shielding his eyes and heavy-duty earmuffs protecting his eardrums, Doble set to work on two orders on Friday, Jan. 26, in the outbuilding that serves as his workspace at his home in Unity.

Using one of his many saws, he carefully cut U-shapes into the rounded top of a propane tank. The cuts would form “tongues,” which work much like the keys of a xylophone. Each tongue, when struck with a mallet, produces a different note.

“When you hit [one note], every other note rings to some degree, and when it’s in tune, they all ring harmoniously and they build on each other,” Doble said.

The large, round metal drum is an invention of Doble’s called the Whale Drum, one of his best sellers. The sounds the drum produces are fairly deep and “gongy,” as Doble describes it on his website.

“The sound sort of reminds me of whales,” Doble said. Hence, the name.

Painted bright colors, the Whale Drums are popular among children. In fact, about 95 percent of Doble’s customers are purchasing instruments for playgrounds and museums. Over the past three decades, he’s shipped instruments all over the country and frequently fills orders from overseas.

“I had a couple orders for Africa,” he said. “One was a large stone instrument and the other was an African Mahogany amadinda.”

And the funny thing is, Doble has no formal training in music. In fact, he has a bachelor’s degree in Native American studies. Yet he started creating instruments in 1988, after attending a weeklong improv workshop led by famous jazz musician Paul Winter on the Blue Hill Peninsula. The program was to benefit Helen Nearing, author and pioneer in simple living. During the workshop, Doble fell in love with the amadinda, a Ugandan xylophone made out of soft wood that is typically laid out on fresh banana tree stems and played while sitting on the ground.

Doble wanted to construct an amadinda he could play while standing up, so that’s what he did. And thus began his career in creating percussion instruments, one in which he’s found success. On Jan. 26, Doble was chipping away on about three month’s worth of back orders.

“Because they’re old tanks, every one is a little bit different,” said Doble as he used an electric tuner to tested each tongue on the Whale Drum he was constructing.

Using a mallet with a soft rubber end, he struck each tongue he’d cut into the tank, marking notes that were a tad too high or low. He then flipped the tank over and corrected the notes by grinding away metal in certain spots. He’s learned to do this through trial and error.

Also in the works that day was a Doble invention called a Chimasaur. Also constructed with a propane tank, the Chimasaur, if one uses their imagination, has the look of a dinosaur, with metal pipes protruding from its “back,” and metal bars and keys trailing down its sides.

Doble purchases the old propane tanks from Downeast Energy, a local business that serves Maine and New Hampshire homes and businesses with heating oil and propane delivery. But not all his instruments involve metal.

“I was over by the barn one day and noticed a pile of slate tiles and said, ‘Oh, I wonder what that sounds like.’”

So he made a xylophone out of the slate.

“It sounded good,” he said.

He’s also created xylophones out of granite countertop scraps, large metal bolts and old wrenches. And for the National Children’s Museum of Jordan, he made a Stonophone, a large xylophone made of various stones. He assigns each instrument a name — boltophone, wrenchaphone and stonophone — because xylophones are technically made out of wood.

“I sold a lot of stuff back in the early days to Hollywood percussionists because they’re always looking for different sounds for movies or whatever,” Doble said.

Those clients included Emil Richards, famous percussionist who’s worked on soundtracks for about 2,000 movies and TV shows, including “Jaws,” “Toy Story,” and the “Mission: Impossible” TV series.

As Doble’s business has evolved, he’s become increasingly interested in sound therapy, an age-old practice involving the use of sounds to influence a person’s brain waves and promote healing.

“I’ve been exploring that for a number of years and I’ve started actually practicing doing it, seeing people and doing sound therapy,” Doble said. “So developing instruments for that sort of where I want to go.”

Gongs and tuning forks are Doble’s key tools for sound therapy, which he practices in a sunlit room of his solar-powered house. Living off the grid, deep in the woods, Doble will sometimes have open houses for people to enjoy his growing instrument collection.

Sitting in his driveway, “the beast” can also be a therapeutic instrument, he said. He created the giant blue drum a couple years ago, and it’s not for sale. Once you crawl inside, you lie down or sit, then use a mallet to strike the tongues carved into either side of the tank. It’s a special experience, one he loves to share with guests. Each strike of the mallet creates a rumbling note, surrounding the drummer until they feel a part of the sound itself, cradled inside an old propane tank.

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