Tuning Tenor Bold Pipes

I have recently re-fallen in love with my Colin Kyo drones made by Murray Huggins. To make a long story less short, I started playing Colin Kyo chanters in September of 2008. Sometime later I advised a student to purchase a set of Murray’s pipes and not knowing anything about them I advised my student to buy plain Jane Ezeedrone reeds. When the pipes arrived and we set them up, I clearly remember standing behind my student tuning the tenor drones and noticed this audible ring coming off the tenors. I thought, “Wow, Murray can make chanters AND drones!” I was in graduate school and my wife was in medical school so I didn’t have the dough to get a set myself. A few years pass and a local piper buys a used set of full moose mounted Colin Kyo bagpipes in 2012. I then bought those pipes from him in 2014 when he bought a new set of Colin Kyo pipes half mounted in engraved silver and moose antler. While his set of magic Canning drone reeds didn’t come with the set, I’ve since found my favorite set of reeds for this pipe so far. Ezeedrone! The same reeds I had my student purchase 4-5 years earlier that had that distinct ring off the tenors.

Now, on to how the title and content of the blog post are related. That ring off the tenors is grand, and gives great harmonic blend with the chanter. It makes every note sparkle and sound different from each other. It can also be tedious to tune such drones to the chanter. Those overtones, like the ring off the tenors, are so audible that not only do you have to get the fundamental of each drone audibly aligned, you also have to get those overtones in tune with each other which requires very accurate fine tuning. For some background on that, read this blog post about drone locking.

My tuning routine is as such: 1) Turn off bass and middle tenor, tune outside tenor to chanter low A, 2) Turn on middle tenor and tune to outside tenor and check against low A, 3) Turn the bass on and turn off middle tenor and tune the bass to the outside tenor and check against low A, 4) Turn on middle tenor and make sure all is well. However, this is only sufficient for tenor dominant/audible overtone producing pipes if you’re lucky. I found myself spending a fair bit of time tuning using the above method and then preparing to record a set of tunes only to find that while the drones sounded good against low A, E and a couple other notes would be out of tune just enough for me to notice and not be able to focus on the tunes. That, and I’d never want to intentionally record something for distribution with drones out of tune when I could fix it. So, I had to devise a new method. The new method is exactly the same as the above, except after verifying each set of drone combinations is in tune with low A, I then fine tune each new drone against E (of course, this requires your chanter to already be in tune relative to itself). The method of also checking against E works pretty well I think. You can hear an example of me tuning this way here (note, I often play either high A or D when physically moving the drone; I like D because it has the least harmonic overlap with the drones allowing me to focus on the tuning between the drones whereas high A could obfuscate the drone tuning since it’s just a couple octaves up from the drone fundamentals; make sure your chanter is sounding when tuning drones!):

Tuning

The clip starts with all drones going and you can notice they’re not quite in tune. I shut off the bass and check the tenor unison against low A. I get them settled against D while moving the drone, then low A, and then check against E and you’ll notice they are out of tune against the E even though they sounded fine against low A. This is where you fine tune the overtones. Now, in the clip, before I finish tuning the tenors together, I turn off the middle tenor because I’m going to check the outside tenor by itself against the E first (there’s no point in proceeding if your reference drone isn’t in tune), which it sounded fine so I don’t move it. I then bring the middle tenor back in and you can hear it’s out against the E (since I didn’t fix it a moment ago) so I move it once and check against E again to hear that it is now in tune. On comes the bass with the middle tenor turned off. Again, it sounds good against low A but it’s out of tune relative to the E. 3rd time is a charm for the bass. I almost found it easier to tune the bass against E because its easier to tune the higher frequency overtones of the bass against the E than it is to tune the fundamental to low A. This is because the overtones make the wawawawa sound faster than the fundamental. The bass fundamental wawawa against low A gets to be so slow sometimes it can be hard to hear if it’s my terrible blowing or it’s actually out of tune! The result of tuning with the additional check against E is then heard for the first bit of I Am Proud To Play A Pipe. The first two variations can be heard here as a continuation of the above clip:

I Am Proud To Play A Pipe (forgive the phrasing, I don’t play piobaireachd)

Now I’m eager to try Ezeedrone reeds in all my pipes! We’ll see if it’s Kyo magic, Ezeedrone magic, or a mix of both. Note that I’ve discovered Ezeedrone reeds can’t be set for strength by mouth blowing them. They shut off very easily when mouth blown, disproportionately easy relative to the pressure required to shut them off in the stock. Just a heads up!

4 thoughts on “Tuning Tenor Bold Pipes

  1. That is a well sorted and balanced bagpipe. I love the overall effect. Warm but precise; and those are often hard qualities to mesh together.

  2. Hey thanks for making that link! Tuning is always a struggle for me, largely because of my blowing, but also because I find it’s hard to listen to so many things at once! Sounds like you should play some piob. I’d say your pipes certainly enjoy it by the way they humm merrily along!

    1. There are some who tune their drones with all 3 playing. I can’t do that. I never know which one to move to really dial it in. Moving them all up and down until they’re in tune with the chanter seems unnecessarily time consuming considering one could just turn 2 of them off and settle it rather quickly.

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