Title says it all. In addition to these reviews here are some interesting links: Want to hear what various drones with different reeds sound like without chanter? Go here. Here’s a post with a really good snapshot of what a bunch of drone reeds sound like in one pipe (D. MacPherson) all spliced back to back. Looking for a complete listing of just about every drone reed ever made? Go here. Recordings for each reed are included below (as I have time to add them).
The proof is in the pudding, whatever that means. This is what I’m playing right now, in no particular order:
- Colin Kyo drones (henderson-esque) with standard Ezeedrone tenors and bass.
- Tim Gellaitry drones with original Kinnairds all around (actually now toying with Redwood tenors and X-TREME bass).
- 1960’s Sinclair drones with Rocket (or Selbie) tenors and Redwood bass.
- 1950’s Henderson drones with X-Treme tenors (or Rocket tenors) and old Rocket bass.
- Keith Jeffers drones with carbon fiber Robertson spec Rockets all around. On loan to a guy playing Canning with carbon fiber bass.
- Chris Terry drones with glass fiber Atherton MacDougall spec Rockets all around. Canning are good too, or with Redwood tenors.
- Glencoe drones (lawrie spec) with standard Cannings all around.
- Kron Standard with I haven’t decided yet. These are now my pipes in G since I wasn’t floored with the tone.
A lot of the reeds listed above are Rockets which aren’t commercially available (I don’t think). These are the reeds I would be playing if not for the Rockets:
Mellow tenors? I’d try these in this order: 1) Redwood tenors 2) Selbie tenors 3) Canning tenors. These reeds are bold but not buzzy.
Henderson tenors? Use Ezeedrone tenors, you’ll get an excellent ring, it won’t be bold though if that’s your thing, see above. X-TREME tenors will give you very similar tone to the Ezeedrone but with a differently behaved reed that I think you might prefer, I think there’s just a little less ring.
Bass reeds are more fickle, I try to find one that is easily tuned as my top priority because if you can’t hear it to tune it, you’ll never sound good. I use a different bass reed in every pipe so it’s hard to recommend just one. The X-TREME bass drone reed is an excellent reed. The standard Ezeedrone bass works too. I was a fan of the Ezeedrone short, inverted but I had one crap out on me after not so much playing, so I dunno. The Selbie and carbon fiber Canning are also good bets, it really depends more on how your pipe responds to reed.
Picking a set of drone reeds for your pipe is a very important decision. You want your drones to harmonically support your chanter, not just hum in the background. The last thing you want your pipe to sound like is a bombard with a bumble bee in the background. Some of the most interesting bagpipe sounds are those that when the chanter note changes, the drones sound different. This is a good indication that the drones are interacting with the chanter and aren’t just some noise in the background. For every pipe I own, I try to optimize the tonal quality of each by matching it with the best sounding set of drone reeds; which are going to be specific to each set of pipes. There’s really not a catch all drone reed, in my opinion (since it’s my blog, lol). For all sets, this has boiled down to finding which set of reeds gave me the best tenor sound coupled with a reliable, steady bass with the additional criteria that tenor and bass must blend well. All too often with synthetic drone reeds, people will buy one set, plug them in, and because they work out of the box, never give it another thought. Granted, working out of the box is a great advancement over cane, but unless you’re a lucky guesser, there’s better tone to be had. The problem is, I have found that more often that not, there are only a couple brands, or maybe even just one, of drone reed for each bagpipe that gives really good tone with the rest being mediocre, and there’s usually a standout set of reeds.
What I look for is a good solid tenor sound because you don’t want your drones just humming in the background. The overtones provided by the tenors are what blend with the frequencies emitted by your chanter the most and what give you an overall well integrated pipe sound. Reeds that don’t sparkle in your set of pipes will just hum in the background and won’t support your chanter harmonically and then you’ll have the bombard/bee problem. I have found 3.66 brands of drone reed that I always seem to come back to, alphabetically: Canning, Kinnaird, Redwood (tenors), and Selbie. These 3.66 all have good tenors with a solid bass (excepting the Redwood which I don’t care for the bass performance in striking in though it works great in Sinclair pipes). Genesis Kinnaird (meaning non-Evolution, original Kinnairds) will offer a bit more volume over Canning with similar relative amplitudes in the overtones. Selbie is also louder but with more overtones, so the best choice when you want to beef up what would be called a mellow pipe. Selbies in pipes that don’t need the volume help can become tedious to tune because you’ve got to get those overtones locked in just right. Redwood tenors have the interesting ability to provide lots of tenor volume without being overbearing in the overtone department, most of the volume concentrated in the fundamental and lower overtones making them a good alternative to Selbies when you want tenor volume without the tenor tuning tediousness in a bold pipe.
There are always two sides to every coin and one must always seek balance between tenor and bass. You don’t want tenors that are just screaming loud because the bolder the tenor the more precise the tuning must be. The reason why is best illustrated with an example. If you have one tenor at 240 Hz and another at 241 Hz, the beating frequency between the fundamentals will be 1 Hz, that’s the wawawa sound. But because they’re bold reeds you can clearly hear the overtones of which the first overtone is the octave up at 480 Hz and 482 Hz, respectively, with a beat frequency of 2 Hz, a faster wawawawa. Because some reeds are bolder, you’ll hear that beating easier at the overtone frequency because those overtones are louder. Practically I don’t actually hear the wawawa of the overtones (I don’t think) but a good analogy is that the fundamental wawawawa beating will dissipate but it will still sound off or “dirty”. All reeds will have overtones, you can’t get around that because that’s what drones do, but some reeds just bring the overtones out more and that’s usually what I’m looking for. Some people prefer to have rather mellow tenors so that well into a long piobaireachd or other set, if the drones have shifted pitch just a little bit, you can’t necessarily tell all that well because the tenors don’t have the amplitude in the higher overtones for the higher frequency wawawawa to be audible. That’s the way I look at it anyway. So while I like “big” tenors, you don’t want them too big. A good metric is to make sure your overall drone sound is well blended, meaning that you cap your tenor volume at the point at which they start to overpower your bass drone.
Canning – These reeds are plug and play and produce a smooth tone. The tenors, while very smooth, can be a little brassy which indicates a strong fundamental and overtones. If the tenors are a little too brassy for your tastes, head on over to Ezee drone tenors. The bass reed is more commonly a carbon fiber tongued reed which is deep sounding but not overbearing. The rarer polycarbonate tongue bass is more robust producing tones that range from broad spectrum harmonically to just deeper than the carbon fiber. Find which one gives the best blend.
Colin Kyo (early Henderson) – (tenors) good reeds for this bagpipe – I have used Canning tenors as heard here and in the other recordings in this post. This is a recording of Colin Kyo bagpipes with Canning tenors with the following bass drone reeds in order: 1. Canning carbon fiber 2. Crozier glass 3. Kinnaird Evolution 4. Ezeedrone (regular) 5. Henderson Harmonic Deluxe 6. old Kinnaird (from this post).
Jeffers – polycarbonate bass works well – recording here.
Gibson – I understand they are also fantastic in Gibson bagpipe though I have no recordings of that combination.
Crozier Cane – Good tone, but bass hard to set up. It’s got a long tongue that needs springing, apparently, and I just never bothered to figure it out. Tenors smooth but not voluminous. I initially used the tenors in my Gellaitry’s paired with some random bass. Here they can be heard with a Kinnaird bass from this post. The Crozier brand of products utilizes flat tongues with curved bodies.
Crozier Carbon – The bass reed on my set of reeds is a bit weak volume wise. Tenors very smooth and powerful so would have to be paired with a different bass reed. Tenors are very bright. The nose cone plug, while airtight, can be a pain to move in and out relative to the ease of those systems which have a screw; rotate the plug to move it in and out. The other two Crozier reeds listed use the same tuning plug. I don’t have any recordings of a full set up as the bass is too quiet for me to mess with relative to the tenors. As far as the tenors are concerned, this recording is of my Gellaitry’s with Kinnaird bass with both Crozier carbon tenors (first) and Kinnaird tenors (second), you can see why I stick with Kinnaird in the Gellaitry. Here we have a set of tunes with the Crozier carbon tenors and Kinnaird bass in the Gellaitry’s from that post. The Crozier brand of products utilizes flat tongues with curved bodies.
Crozier Glass – These are powerful reeds with a good blend between bass and tenor. I’m hesitant to use the word rough, but they don’t produce a smooth sound; which isn’t a bad thing, just different. Buzzy isn’t really indicative of what I mean either. Should the standard reeds I’ve picked for each pipe (individually optimized by brand for tone) should fail, I know I can grab these, stick them in, and they’ll play and sound well. You get a deeper sound overall. The Crozier brand of products utilizes flat tongues with curved bodies.
Colin Kyo – Solid reeds but are a bit sharp. If you’ve got flat drones that tune way down on the pins, these are the drone reeds for you. The tenors and bass blend really well. Not the loudest reeds out there, but not the quietest either. A really solid set of reeds that are just relatively sharp to most if not all other brands, these are my backup reeds to my backup set of reeds. Recording here in Colin Kyo bagpipes from this post. You can hear them in a set of H. Starck pipes in this recording from this post.
Ezeedrone – The tenors are the most commonly used today and many also use the regular bass reed as well. The tenors are very good at giving you just a little ring off the top without any blaring. The bass comes in several varieties and while the standard is bold it is also a little dark, maybe too dark, maybe, but I do like it’s tone in my Colin Kyo pipes. Many prefer the inverted bass version, as it is still bold but less dark (okay maybe slightly mellower). My experience has the short inverted bass as being more bold than the regular inverted bass so there’s that variable you can play with. All around, a set of reeds that will make just about any pipe sound pretty decent. Also, I’m not sure it’s possible to have a higher level of quality control. I’m starting to love these reeds!
Colin Kyo – Ezeedrone are tied with Canning tenors for tone in CK pipes as evidenced by this recording from this post. The Ezeedrone is slightly less brassy. In that recording it’s paired with a Henderson Harmonic Deluxe bass drone reed (this is a very popular combination among the big guns!) I have personally switched from Canning to Ezeedrone in my CK pipes which gives a slightly mellower tone but with great bass presence and just a little tenor ring over the top. For boosted tenor volume, substitute Redwood tenors in. Examples of both can be heard in this post. Switch to a SHORT inverted Ezeedrone bass for a more powerful bass and great overall tone and blend with the Redwood tenors.
Henderson Harmonic Deluxe (the best price I’ve found them for in the states is at nwbagpipes) – Good smooth reeds. The bass reed is a very popular bass reed and the tenors are the smoothest carbon fiber reeds you’ll come across. They have excellent harmonics as expected for something designed by Murray Henderson. They have an odd tendency when not played to need to get warmed up or they shut off. Odd because they’re synthetic reeds with a carbon fiber tongue. Here is a recording of them in D. MacPherson bagpipes from this post. Here‘s a really old recording of them in my 1950’s Henderson’s from this post. The tongues are flat. The reed body has a “cliff” (like a fulcrum) behind the bridle that the securing-bridle pulls the reed down into lifting the tongue off the reed body, making it the bridles’ job to pull the tongue back down, hence providing the tongue, reed-body gap. This is the exact same mechanism as employed by Armstrong’s X-TREME drone reeds.
Kinnaird – They currently have two versions of their reeds, the old standard and the new Evolution reeds. The old standard bass is probably as popular as the Ezee tenor reeds. Good solid sound all around. Kinnaird sets their tongues to have a natural curve to them, hence movement of the bridle isn’t always productive because they’re set to a specific strength during the “curving” process. As such, they sell “regular/standard” AND “easy” strength tongues. Despite playing at around 32″ H2O pressure, I’m inclined to try “easy” tongues.
Gellaitry – I used a full set of the standard in my Gellaitry pipes as you can hear in here and here from this post for quite some time. Here’s another super good recording from this post. I would guess the Gellaitry’s are the most recorded pipe on the blog so dig around, I’ll bet you’ll find more with all Kinnairds (like here’s a Piobaireachd from this post). I’ve recently switched the tenors out for Redwood because I’ve always had the bridles on the Kinnairds pretty far down and they’ve always behaved for the most part. I’ll be buying some “easy” tongues to replace these regular tongues and see if I can regain some stability.
The Evolution reeds go beyond the original, adding power in the form of bolder overtones from the tenors and a deeper, more solid bass. My experience is that in those changes, they have become more buzzy, too buzzy in my opinion. Selbie can provide similar overtone performance without the buzz. Here you can hear a set with the Evolution reeds in my Gellaitrys (naturally since I already played regular Kinnairds in them) from this post which also included the same tune set played with the regular Kinnairds here. A big take away from the comparison is the overtones on the Evolution tenors are so bold that you can tell my E is a little out of tune with the E overtone produced by the drones. That and the buzz. They would make great band reeds to match the volume of big holed band chanters with big, loud ridge cut reeds in them. I would not use them for a solo instrument.
Legato – Haven’t tried. Probably won’t because it doesn’t seem they’re made anymore? Crowded market.
MG – I haven’t played either of the most recent models. The first model (mark 1, tenors with plastic tongues) sounded very smooth once they are up and going, a very nice blending sound neither bass nor tenor dominant. They tend to howl however on the strike in until a higher pressure is reached, which bothers some people and is usually not desirable in a band setting but this is also a pipe dependent property and not just a reed thing. I think they use a little bit more air than I am used to but it is not very noticeable and may be my imagination. The bridles used were of poorly suited material so I imagine that’s the biggest difference between the mark I reeds I had and the currently available mark II reeds. I can’t comment on the carbon version. I have also bought the A 440 Hz extenders they offer and they do indeed bring the drones down to 440 Hz, however you might find the reed longer than your drone stock! (not unexpected really) I don’t have any recordings of them played with a chanter.
Redwood – The tenors are pretty decent reeds with good tone and volume. A great selection for volume and tone but without the twang of some other bolder tenor reeds. The bass growls like crazy and is hard to set for most pipes, but works great in my 1960’s Sinclairs, spectacular even. Strike ins in other pipes can be unreliable, but again in the Sinclairs not much compares. Unique tone you won’t get from any other set of reeds though. Mellow and powerful at the same time, with a good blend once the bass comes in. Plenty harmonics. Here’s a recording in Gellaitry bagpipes from this post.
Jeffers – Redwood tenors and an inverted Ezeedrone bass can be heard in (watch out, this one is chanter loud at the beginning until I rotate away from the mic) this recording from the Single Recording Archive.
Rocket – So Mark Lee doesn’t have a website but you can buy the reeds from two retailers (that I know of): Lothian and Tartantown. Great reeds. Design of the reeds change depending on what pipe they’re made for. I played Atherton MacDougall spec in my 1950’s Hendersons for a while but decided it was just a poor match with regard to air consumption despite the glorious tone they produced (a function of the reed/drone combo, not just the reeds). I previously used Naill spec Rockets in those Hendersons, but the blend wasn’t as good, but of course, I’m using them in a pipe they weren’t designed for. When buying new, you’ll specify what brand of pipe you’ll be putting them in. If you’re buying used (like me) you’ll just have to hope they work. For instance, the Robertson spec Rocket bass reed does not work at all in my 1950’s Hendersons; when tuning the wawawa will slow but will never stop and after some point the beating will get faster again, so there’s no point at which it will tune. The Robertson spec Rockets are now at home in my Jeffers pipes where they work great! Here’s my Henderson’s with the MacD Rockets in the tenors and the Naill Rocket in the bass from this post. The full set of MacD Rockets in the Hendersons can be heard here (a tune named after me) from this post. Robertsons with Robertson Rockets can be heard in this post (here’s one of the recordings). Robertsons with the old Naill spec Rockets can be heard in this post but a couple better files are on the Single Recording Archive page (here’s one of the recordings and here’s the other). There’s a few other recordings on this site of Rocket drone reeds but they’re predominantly all played in pipes they weren’t designed for, so maybe not the best representation. For example, the Naill spec Rockets in a set of Robertson pipes sounded particularly fantastic here from this post (haha, I forgot I used the same old Naill spec Rockets in this set of Robertsons as I did in the other set of Robertsons just mentioned a couple of sentences before. I’m editing this page, can you tell? haha). One thing you’ll undoubtedly get from a set of Rockets is volume so if you like a sweet mellow setup, they may not be for you. They are also incredibly reliable and steady. I’m now using an unknown spec version of Rockets in my Chris Terry bagpipes. You can hear them in this recording from this post or in Bb in this recording from this post.
Selbie – These reeds are plug and play, very bold with some of the biggest harmonics out there. They go great in mellow pipes to really liven them. That’s not to say they also don’t go great in other pipes, however, I found them irritating to tune in my more tenor bold Hendersons. I have used these in my Jeffers (loosely Duncan MacDougall spec with modified tenors) and previously used them in my Glencoe (Lawrie spec) pipes. I don’t have them in anything at the moment as I’ve switched to Redwood tenors when tenor volume is needed in otherwise tenor bold pipes.
Shepherd SM-90 – Nothing too exciting. They work, but tonally, regardless of pipe, there is a better suited set of reeds out there. Don’t have recordings here, they were sold despite the fact its what I played at the World’s in 2001.
X-TREME – by Chris Armstrong. Solid reeds, maybe a bit tenor mellow. The fundamental tone is weaker than most other tenor reeds but the overtones are stronger, making for a unique combination. Imagine Ezeedrone tenors, just slightly quieter. They’re not buzzy so that’s nice given that they’re all carbon fiber tongued reeds. They seem to be very highly moisture resistant if you buy the premium version which is about $30 more than the $100 regular versions. Though, I’ve got a picture of moisture on the bass reed I need to post. The tongues are flat. The reed body has a “cliff” (like a fulcrum) behind the bridle that the securing-bridle pulls the reed down into lifting the tongue off the reed body, making it the bridles’ job to pull the tongue back down, hence providing the tongue, reed-body gap. This is the exact same mechanism as employed by Henderson Harmonic Deluxe drone reeds. Here’s a clip with the mic drone side from my full review post here. However, I’ve had more time with the reeds and they are quite nice. The bass gives my Gellaitry drones a whole new voice and the tenors are finally reigned in my finicky Hendersons. A must in any drone reed guru’s toolbox. Here’s a recording with the x-treme bass in my Gellaitry’s: here.