What is the strange instrument in "Sour Times" by Portishead?
August 3, 2005 8:33 PM   Subscribe

In the song "Sour Times" by Portishead, there is a bizarre stringed instrument with percussive elements in the background. I'm having a heck of a time figuring out what it is.

I think it's also been used in "I, Robot" by the Alan Parsons Project, but I'm not sure. I would love to know what this instrument is though, as it could work very well in a composition.
posted by dagnyscott to Media & Arts (12 answers total)
Can you post a link to this sound?
posted by interrobang at 8:36 PM on August 3, 2005

it's originally from Lalo Schifrin's Danube Incident. I believe it to be a hammered dulcimer, but I'll do some searching to try and confirm.
posted by nylon at 8:52 PM on August 3, 2005

Here's a link to the sound - it's the jangly-sounding thing, if I'm not mistaken.
posted by Lyric at 8:55 PM on August 3, 2005

Yeah, I'm certain it's the hammered dulcimer, aka cymballum, or cimbalom. It's a Hungarian instrument.
posted by nylon at 9:02 PM on August 3, 2005

Heh. Beatles Hits on the Hammered Dulcimer. New and used from $7.17
posted by nylon at 9:08 PM on August 3, 2005

Call me out if you like, but I feel it's appropriate to mention a friend's great band: Tulsa Drone. The dulcimer is featured in every song they do.
posted by hellbient at 9:23 PM on August 3, 2005

I believe a hammered dulcimer isn't exactly the same as a cembalom. This is what the leader of the Chicago Klezmer Ensemble says, anyway.
posted by kenko at 10:53 PM on August 3, 2005

Ah, yes, kenko, you're right, and so is your friend - the cimbalom is larger and deeper in tone than the concert grand hammered dulcimer, which in turn is larger and deeper than the straight hammered dulcimer. But they're all closely related in the same way that the alto sax is related to the soprano sax.

I deduce, therefore, that Lalo (and therefore Portishead) was using the cimbalom, the big one with legs. Check out some mp3 samples of the difference between the three instruments.
posted by nylon at 11:13 PM on August 3, 2005

My guess is that it's a Santoor, the Persian variant of the hammered dulcimer.
posted by realcountrymusic at 8:46 AM on August 4, 2005

Some more web poking around reveals that it is (I think) a sample from a Lalo Schiffrin spy movie soundtrack. Schiffrin's music is amazing. He's most famous for the Mission Impossible theme, but he is one of the most prolific composers in the history of Hollywood, and has specialized in spy/thriller themes.
posted by realcountrymusic at 8:50 AM on August 4, 2005

Whoops, sorry. Nylon called it first, and named the movie as well.
posted by realcountrymusic at 8:50 AM on August 4, 2005

If you don't have access to the real instrument you might be able to apporoximate the sound using an FM synthesizer. Another option is to get a dulcimer soundfont. That would provide more flexibility than a single sample.
posted by lasm at 9:29 AM on August 4, 2005

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