In Indian music, drone is a basic function of the music. The development of a raga, any composition or song within raga presupposes and requires the continuous sounding of the key-note, its octave and another tone, usually the fifth or fourth. Traditionally drone is provided by one or more tanpura player(s), especially for vocal performances. The electronic tanpura was created as a marketable, practical solution for instrumentalists, having their hands otherwise engaged, who cannot readily avail themselves of able tanpura players for their long hours of private practice.
Since the late 1970s, little white boxes (electronic tanpuras) appeared, first privately, then gradually coming openly to the stage as the technological sophistication of the models advanced.
In Indian solfège, called Sargam, Sa is the tonic, Ma, Pa and Ni are 4th, 5th and 7th tone degrees within the octave. Generally, the electronic tanpura has one or more dials to control the tone and volume, and may have other switches and buttons that allow a certain pitch and volume to be saved and used again at a later time. The range is usually one to two octaves.
For many musicians the electronic tanpura is a practical commodity. It delivers a passable substitute for a real, live tanpura. Certainly, it is much easier and less expensive than maintaining a live tanpura player. However, the electronic tanpura is a poor substitute when compared to a good tanpura in expert hands as the tones it creates lack the dynamics of a live musician, producing a mechanical, repetitive sound.
The electronic tanpura was first invented by G Raj Narayan, an engineer-flautist from Bangalore, India, and demonstrated at the annual conference of the Music Academy Chennai in December 1979. The products were manufactured by the company he founded, Radel. The first versions were created with the technology then available, using discrete components and transistors. In the late 1990s, these gave way to models using sampled recordings of the traditional tanpura on a chip. Over the last decade, these have been further refined and the latest models can hardly be distinguished from a traditional acoustic tanpura. The success of this invention gave rise to many other players who then started manufacturing and aggressively marketing bad copies of these products. These copies have earned a bad name as the little white boxes and comparisons are made to the traditional acoustic tanpuras.
- Spaink, Martin (2003). "Some reflections on the use of Electronic Substitute Tanpura and the intricacies of proper tanpura tuning". Retrieved 2007-06-25.