All posts by Patrick McLaurin

A-440 Highland Bagpipes

Due to the way our sheet music is written and the common use of Korg chromatic tuners, the description of a bagpipe’s pitch can be a confusing affair. Our scale is written on the page with what we call low A corresponding to the note A which sounds at 440 Hz; this is the A on a piano just above middle C. However, modern highland bagpipes do not pitch this low A at 440 Hz, but more like 480 Hz or higher. It is common when referring to a bagpipe’s pitch to quote the frequency at which low A tunes, e.g. my older Colin Kyo chanters tune at 482 Hz.

Due to their low cost, Korg chromatic tuners are often used to tune bagpipes (at least the drones anyway). However, these cheap tuners, while they have the ability to adjust the reference pitch away from 440, have a limited range of 410-480 Hz. If your low A exceeds this range, one trick is to simply divide your pitch by 1.05946 (twelfth root of two) and set the reference pitch to that. So for me, 482/1.05946 = 455 Hz. By doing this, the tuner will no longer report that it is hearing the note “A” when low A is being played, but will instead say “Bb”. So by lowering the reference pitch down to 455 from 480 since my 482 chanter will always register as sharp if left at 480, the reference pitch goes down while the name of the note goes up to compensate. Which explains why some pipers will answer the question of what pitch they play at with “482 Hz” while others will say “455 Hz”.

The issue of pitch gets confusing because there are older pipe chanters that do indeed have low A that pitches in the 450s, though even more are known to tune to 466 Hz. 466 Hz is true Bb (B flat) based on the orchestral standard of low A being 440 Hz: 440 * 1.05946 = 466 Hz. The Bb (low A = 466 Hz) standard for highland bagpipes is common because it is a true concert pitch and it goes well with brass marching (military) bands.

So, we’ve seen that there are many pitches for highland bagpipes, from the 450s up to the 480s, a range that encapsulates several different standards for how to refer to pitch, be the reference pitch referred to as the note A or the note Bb. One has to pay attention to context to discern if, for example, someone has quoted their pitch as being 460 Hz and whether that pitch refers to their low A playing at 460 Hz or low A playing at 460*1.05946 = 487 Hz.

All this to say that you’ll see more and more people asking about highland pipe chanters that play at A = 440 Hz. And why should they not? That’s the way we write our music. Is it too much to ask that we actually play what we write, at the pitches every other musical instrument expects based on what we write? Must we be confined to only playing with other pipers who also have the same randomly tuned pipe chanter we do? But, without fail, someone will suggest the person seeking a 440 chanter should instead buy one of the many available Bb chanters on the market. They’re thinking, “Oh, this person wants a concert pitch chanter. They just don’t know how to ask correctly.” This drives me nuts! Yes, if you have a Bb chanter and you set your tuner to 466 Hz, it should read the note name “A”. But this should not be conflated with playing low A at 440 Hz! It is true that if you set the tuner to 440 Hz reference pitch, and you play a Bb chanter it should report that your low A is sounding as the note “Bb”. But again, that has nothing to do with someone wanting to play low A at 440 Hz! The pitch. of low A. AT 440 Hz!!! There are two viable concert pitches: low A = 440 Hz = concert A and low A = 466 Hz = concert Bb. They ARE NOT the same.

There are several ACTUAL A-440 chanters on the market. MacLellan has had one available for a while. McCallum also recently came out with one (and also for sale here, though you can see on the same website, but for the Bb chanter, that this retailer can’t tell the difference between 440 and 466 chanters!). 440 and 466 are NOT the same thing despite what adjusting a Korg tuner has taught you about the relationship between setting the reference pitch higher or lower and whether it says you’re playing A or Bb!

Anyways, below are some recordings of a low A = 440 Hz chanter made for me some years ago by EJ Jones. Chanter reed is a Gilmour, drones are Kron standards with prototype Ackland A 440 drone reeds (only one tenor is playing, my bad). One barrier to playing A 440 chanters is that the drones aren’t made to play that flat. Several manufacturers have offered 440 drone reeds in the past. I still own my Wygent set and MG reeds made extenders for the normal reeds that attached to the tuning plug end (not the drone end), but neither of those ever got me comfortably to a 440 reference pitch; the bass was still extended way out on both tuning pins, for example. Terry Ackland has graciously extended our relationship beyond prototyping normal drone reeds for him and made me a couple different sets of 440 Hz drone reeds. Finally, drone reeds that get you all the way down to 440 Hz but still have normal tuning positions on the tuning pins! And they sound good. The tunes here come from a collection of Irish tunes that can be played on Scottish smallpipes in A and be in the correct key to join in on an Irish session; the tunes can be found on my Free Tune books page; the C natural was sounding so well on this chanter I decided to play a few tunes that incorporated it. Enjoy!

Humours of Tullycrine

This is my love, do you like her?

Cooley’s Jig

Salmon Tails up the Water – we don’t have low E or low F#, hence the kind of odd low G and low A sequence at the beginning of the tune; otherwise the rest fits!

Halting March

Old Copperplate

McKenna’s – reminiscent of the Swallow’s Tail but I missed EVERY birl

Should you be interested in playing in A 440, keep an eye out for when Ackland 440 reeds become commercially available. Additionally, an alternate 440 chanter to use would be a border pipe chanter like Piper’s Choice, which comes equipped with a chanter reed made by highland pipe chanter reed maker John Elliott. I would advise getting the harder strength border pipe chanter reed along with using an effective moisture control system. Additionally, you’d want to make sure the chanter tenon was large enough to not need tons of hemp to make it fit into a highland pipe chanter stock.

September 2019 Tune of the Month – Lisnagun

September’s tune of the month is an Irish tune that has found its way into many sets by folk and pipe bands alike in recent years. Upon hearing it again in one of the grade 1 medleys at the World Pipe Band Championships I figured it would make a good tune of the month. Lisnagun is by Brendan Ring, an uilleann piper, and has a simple, but effective melody, hence its popularity. I have included a straightforward version that precedes (recording) or follows (sheet music) an embellished version of my own.

Lisnagun <- pdf

Lisnagun <- mp3

August 2019 Tune of the Month – Jacky Latin

Jackie Latin is an old tune that spans many piping traditions. I, however, only ran across it listening to PM Ben Duncan playing at The Masters Solo Piping Competition as a part of Piping Live! week at the National Piping Centre. You can hear him play his MSR starting at 11:36:40 with the tune starting at 11:39:39. He is essentially playing the 6 parted version published in Willie Ross’ first book with slightly different rhythm in places. The tune has been published many times with a few available online, though they vary in the number of parts (and the name of the tune: Jacky Lattin, Jackey Layton, etc.). Traditionally, the tune doesn’t really fit as a competition style reel, but Ross’ version fits the mold very well. If you haven’t picked up the Pipe-Major W. Ross’s Collection yet, shame on you; you should have bought it right after acquiring Donald MacLeod’s Collection (no sheet music this month as I don’t want to infringe on Ross’ copyright of the arrangement). The tune itself is relatively easy; there’s a throw at the end of each line, a B –> C grip in the first part, a few doublings scattered around, and that’s it aside from timing issues. GDE and GD gracenote rhythms in reels is essential to getting the flow. I hold the first note of GDE patterns, DOT cut dot: look for this in the 5th and 6th parts. This tune also has the GDGD, cut dot cut dot, rhythm most associated with the reel The Smith of Chilliechassie; in this case I make sure to hold the second note, cut DOT cut dot = tach-ummmmmmmmmmm da-daaa: look for this in the 4th part of my recording. And while I was thinking about those things, I should have held the D on the throw a little longer at the end of each line and held those DOT cut dot, ABC and ABE, patterns in the first and second parts, respectively. Doh! Well, that’s why I record my practices…I’ll update with a new recording after I no longer have to sight read the tune.

Jacky Latin (mic in front, rightish side) – same audio as the video above (recorded 2019-08-14)

Below are several recordings made over several days of most of my collection of bagpipes. Which of the setups do you like?

Jacky Latin (mic off to the left) – not the audio from the video above (Pipes are Colin Kyo with Ackland Overtone drone reeds = why you get two sound perspectives. Chanter is Colin Kyo with Shawn Husk chanter reed.) (recorded 2019-08-14)

Jacky Latin (Gellaitry + original Kinnaird tenors and regular X-TREME bass, Colin Kyo + Sound Supreme reed) – mic off to the left (recorded 2019-08-15)

Jacky Latin (David Glen + original Kinnaird, Colin Kyo + Husk) – mic off to the left (recorded 2019-08-16)

Jacky Latin (Glencoe drones, Canning reeds with carbon fiber bass, Colin Kyo chanter + Husk reed) – mic off to the left (recorded 2019-08-19)

Jacky Latin (Henderson + X-TREME drone reeds, Shepherd MK3 Classic + Shepherd Bb reed) – mic off to the left (recorded 2019-08-20)

Jacky Latin (Kron standard + Ackland Overtone drone reeds, Kron Medalist + Gilmour reed) – mic off to the left (recorded 2019-08-21)

Jacky Latin (Chris Terry drone + Ackland Overtone drone reed, Shepherd MK3 chanter + Shepherd Bb reed)

McGillivray’s Aurora Chanter

A friend of the blog has had Jim McGillivray send me one of his polypenco Aurora JM chanters to try out before sending it on to them. Jim has had a hand in designing several chanters, including the CE Kron Medalist and The Gael from Jim’s previous collaboration with Roddy MacLellan. The Aurora JM comes out of the shop of Dunbar bagpipe makers, which is consistent with all the work they do for him restoring pipes and making reproductions of old pipes for his piping retail business. The Aurora JM is different than both the Medalist and the Gael.

The Aurora JM is designed to be a flatter chanter (like the Gael in that respect), and it accomplishes that being a full 4 Hz flatter than a Shepherd MK 3, which I consider to be the flattest chanter used by pipe bands. Where my MK 3 comes in at 479 Hz with a Shepherd Bb reed, the Aurora comes in at 475 Hz. As an aside, this particular Bb reed is unlike my other Shepherd Bb reeds which actually tune to Bb in my Shepherd Orchestral chanter; this one is a few Hz sharp of Bb. The sharpest I got the Aurora was with an easy Gilmour playing at 25″ H2O and even then, I only got the pitch up to 480 Hz.

I found the finger spread easy to adapt to. Below is a photo with the Shepherd MK 3 on the left, Aurora JM in the middle, and a Colin Kyo on the right. You’ll notice the Aurora has a longer spread between the D and E holes, but the spread on each hand is normal, the same as the Shepherd, slightly longer than the Kyo.

I found the E to be a tad sharp and D to be a tad flat; C# and B were also flat for some reeds. After playing the chanter for 3 days in a row, I might be inclined to move B, C#, and D up the chanter a tad, leaving low A where it is. There’s plenty of room considering the gap between E and D; though that would increase the bottom hand finger spread. But, it’s not my chanter, in any sense of the phrase. One could also simply tape low A down to the rest of the notes, and that’s exactly what I did for the 3/5 reeds that had sharp low As to the rest of the bottom hand. Every reed had tape on high G.

Now for some audio. All recordings are of a set of 1950s Hendersons with X-TREME regular drone reeds; The Zoom H4n Pro field recorder is off to my left at head height. I haven’t been playing all summer due to travel and being home with the kids all day. So, my fingers aren’t in the greatest form. I particularly hate how tight my doublings are; sometimes the second grace note is non-existent. Kids are headed back to school in a few days so I’ll have to resume a more routine practice schedule once they’re out of the house. We start with recordings of the 25″ H2O easy Gilmour at 480 Hz. You’ll notice my drone reeds are set for a harder reed.

Hector the Hero – a tune I usually avoid because it’s close to being over done, but sometimes you just gotta play one of James Scott Skinner’s classics

Lark in the Morning, King of the Pipers, and Troy’s Wedding – two Irish jigs, the second of which is arranged by myself for highland pipes and a past tune of the month), followed by a popular jig by Colin Magee

Paul K’s, Battle of the Braes, and Glenlyon – a set of tunes I got from Fin Moore at a smallpipe workshop a few years ago

Next we’ll have some recordings with the Shepherd Bb reed which eased some during the session, ultimately settling at 29″ H2O, so it needed a wee push to get the drones in as well. This combination resulted in having tape on E and high G and pitched around 475 Hz.

Mrs. Duncan MacFadyen, Duncan Lamont, and Drumlithie – an MSR comprised of Donald MacLeod tunes

John MacColl’s March to Kilbowie Cottage, The Doune of Invernochty, and Roderick MacDonald – another MSR set, with tunes by William Lawrie, William Grant, and again, Donald MacLeod

Burden of Innocence and Happy Days – a tune I wrote followed by a tune any Battlefield Band fan would recognize

Eileen MacDonald and Hen’s March – off key highland jigs!

For comparison the following recording was made right after those above with the same Shepherd Bb chanter reed, but set in a Shepherd MK 3 chanter. This chanter has tape on high G (half the hole!), D, and C#.

Song for Winter, Hen’s March, and Eileen MacDonald – again, a Shepherd MK 3 chanter with the Shepherd Bb reed used in the recordings just above.

Returning to the Aurora JM chanter, I tried a third reed the third day. I pulled a non-ridge cut Sound Supreme out of my solo Colin Kyo chanter. It was not as good of a match as the Gilmour or Shepherd Bb reeds above. I had to tape low A (a last resort for me) and D and C# were still a tad flat, though all the tape came off the E; so tape only on high G and low A. This was a long session as well and I think my bag is due for another seasoning as moisture seems to be accumulating on the chanter reed. Most noticeable was the pitch that fell from 475 to 473 Hz as the reed got wetter. This reed plays a little harder than the previous at 31″ H2O.

Bloody Fields of Flanders, Lord Lovat’s Lament, Flett from Flotta, Battle of Waterloo, and 51st Highland Division – started off with the melody chosen by Hamish Henderson for his song, Freedom Come All Ye, then worked in some 4/4 marches including a true to timing as written rendering of Flett from Flotta (note the high A quarter note in the ending phrase)

Kantara to El Arish, Murray Huggins’ Sweet Chanter, and Murdo MacGillivray of Eoligarry – Kantara is a tough tune for me, so I play it as often as I can, the strathspey is my own composition, and Murdo was a past tune of the month with MacGillivray in the title!

The Rock and Hollerin’ for Haggis – two hornpipes by Texas composers, and both tunes were previous tunes of the month (so sheet music is available on the Free Tune Page, as are my compositions and a bunch of other stuff)

Kalabakan, The Sister, and Canongate Twitch – a medley quickly becoming a standard for me, the last tune being yet another tune of the month

Turns out the wife was still at work and my daughter was, thankfully, STILL standing in for me on the Nintendo Switch playing with her little brother, so despite how tired I was from the first set of tunes on the Sound Supreme reed above, I figured I needed to knock out a couple more reeds before the weekend zapped my time. I would certainly like to get this chanter on to its real owner. So, next we have a Troy/McAllister reed. I had to tape low A to get it down to the flatter D, C#, and B. No tape on the E here, so just tape on high G and low A. I had modified this Troy reed at some point in the past, taking some cane off the very tips in an effort to bring the high G down (I don’t recall this working, oh well). It did, however, make it one of the batch I received actually playable, haha. The other two I can’t even make squawk. My McAllister reeds come from back when I was trying the RJM chanter, it being the reed that Roddy MacLeod prefers and it also brought the flat D of that chanter up to the rest of the scale.

The Blackbird and Hilton McLaurin’s Jig – another tune of the month (this one was an Irish tune I rearranged for the pipes) and a tune I wrote for my father (the 2nd tune I ever wrote, and still one of my favorites and best, I think)

Lament for the Old Volunteers (74th’s Slow March) – another tune of the month, a slow one this time

Dusky Meadow and The Foxhunter – a Cape Breton strathspey and an Irish reel, both arranged by myself and past tunes of the month

Last, we have uno recording with a Husk reed because I forgot to turn the recorder on. Doh! Again, the low A is taped down to the flatter D, C#, and B. This 32″ H2O reed came in at 473 Hz. Just a tad of tape on E and the most tape on high G of the 5 reeds tested (1/3 of the hole).

Rusty Gully (Wee Totem Fogg) – a common border tune that was recently a tune of the month

Conclusions:

  1. The high G seems well controlled with regard to pitch. While every reed needed tape on high G, what chanter doesn’t?! The fact that I never needed to cover more than 1/3 of the hole AT MOST says a lot in my opinion!
  2. The chanter is definitely flatter than most (non-Bb) chanters, coming in at an average 474 Hz with robust 30″+ H2O reeds. Really, it is just as flat as many Bb chanters which don’t actually get to 466 Hz unless you have the right reed, though I believe the Aurora will not get to Bb naturally, that is without taping of the bottom hand after pulling the reed out to get the high A to the Bb reference.
  3. I believe the D, C# and B are consistently flat enough that you’ll likely find yourself taping the low A down to their pitch, depending on the reed.
  4. The finger spread for both hands is normal. It isn’t the smallest, but certainly not the largest.
  5. Low G was generally very well pitched, with only one reed coming in about 10 cents sharp of the -31 cent tuning required by just intonation (I don’t recall if it was the Troy/McAllister or the Husk), but this is easily corrected by taping a tone hole or two (though I did not because I was already into recording and I’m lazy).
  6. F# was also well pitched. I never put tape on it for any of the 5 reeds and it sounded good to me. I never put tape on high A if I can help it, and it never needed it here.
  7. The reed seat is threaded. You’ll love this feature when fine tuning a reed means a simple clockwise twist further in. You’ll hate it when you twist a reed out and it pulls the bottom wraps of hemp off the reed and you have to rewrap it entirely losing all track of where the reed was sitting before.

July 2019 Tune of the Month: Within a Mile of Dublin

You probably know that I’ve spent some time learning uilleann pipes so I’ve been staring at a lot of Irish music recently. July’s tune is one that has previously found its way to the highland bagpipe repertoire as it can be found in Terry Tully’s Collection of Traditional Irish Music and on pipetunes.ca (both arranged by Terry), though the setting I provide here is different.

Within a Mile of Dublin <- pdf of sheet music (I didn’t play all the gracenotes written here in the video below, and neither should you!)

June 2019 Tune of the Month: The Mooncoin Jig

You may be aware that I’ve been collecting and arranging tunes for the Scottish smallpipes which are applicable to those interested in playing in Irish music sessions. Most of the tunes are for A smallpipes, though no small number require you to turn your drones off as the tunes resolve on G instead of our usual A or D. In addition to that, a similar number require you to have the C natural note which uses an extra hole on smallpipe chanters as their cylindrical bore does not facilitate alternate fingerings to achieve “accidentals” (notes outside the default key). You could very heavily tape the normal C# down to C natural, but the note becomes very muted. However, for the tune of the month, I have identified The Mooncoin Jig as being one of the more behaved tunes with only a single high B that I have also taken the liberty of arranging a replacement phrase for those of us without a high B key.

The Mooncoin Jig <- pdf

You might notice in the video below that on the repeat of the first part I reverse the order of the end of the 5th bar with the beginning of the 6th bar (swapping the birl with the GDE on low A), as suggested in the notes in the sheet music (although I referenced them as the first and second bars in the pdf). The second time through the tune, in the *2nd* part: I also play the 7th bar twice (as the 6th and 7th bars) as an alternative to the high B section.

Breadalbane Component Drone Sounds by William McKenzie

Full

A

B

C

D

E

F

G

H

I

J

Bass

A

B

C

D

E

F

G

H

I

J

Tenor

A

B

C

D

E

F

G

H

I

J

May 2019 Tune of the Month: The Rusty Gulley

Shout out to dunholmpiper on Instagram (Paul Martin) for making me aware of this awesome tune: The Rusty Gulley (Wee Totum Fogg). The first three lines are pretty much his setting and then from there out I arranged it based on an amalgamation of other versions I found (which include thesession.org, Breabach’s track Farsund off their most recent album Astar, and my own head). It can also be found in LBPS’s suggested Session Tunes tunebook. If you’ve got a high B key, there’s some cool stuff you can do in the 4th line on the high hand in the first bar as is done on the low hand in the 3rd bar.

The Rusty Gulley <- pdf

Ackland Prototype Drone Reeds in Colin Kyo pipes

I spent my afternoon Sunday playing with the different widths of tongue blades on these Ackland prototype drone reeds. I discovered the wider tongue gave a smoother, simpler tone whereas the narrower tongues gave a more harmonic tone. I much prefer the narrower tongues. The previous post featured the wider tongues, so this post will feature the narrower tongues.

I recorded this go around with the Zoom H4n Pro feeding the audio into my iPhone 8 via a Blue Mikey Digital (the previous blog post used recordings made with just the Blue Mikey Digital’s microphones instead of bypassing them as I did this time).

Pipes are all Colin Kyo, Husk chanter reed.

Ackland Prototype Drone Reeds in the Terry Pipes

I have been testing drone reeds for Terry Ackland for a wee while and I feel his latest reeds are his best yet. These reeds started out VERY bold and the current iteration is just bold, which is good I think. Early versions were incredibly harmonic (and loud) and were fun to play, but unlikely to be adopted due to the sheer imbalance between chanter and drones. So the volume has been dialed back a far bit, so upon listening below you can imagine how loud they initially were. Other recent (using that term loosely here) blog posts of prototype drone reeds would have been older versions of these reeds.

I’m currently testing different tongue widths. I’ve tested both extremes that he recently sent me, I haven’t gotten around to the two middle sizes. Both narrow and wide are incredibly air efficient and rock steady. Due to these two qualities, and despite their harmonic boldness, they are quite easy to tune. They also hold their tuning so the only thing you have to stabilize is your chanter pitch. The wider tongue is less prone to squealing when filling the bag and stopping. These are the wider tongues in the recordings below. The reeds really don’t need a strike to the bag to get started, you can just blow up the bag and they’ll come right in; I strike out of habit.

My entire practice session with the wider tongues was recorded on my iPhone 8 using a Blue Mikey Digital Recorder. It has 3 gain settings: 1) Loud environment 2) Auto-gain 3) Quiet environment. All the recordings were on auto-gain (I think) except the MSR which was recorded with the Loud environment setting (because bagpipes are loud), which resulted in a quieter recording. I usually just use the Blue Mikey as an interface between my iPhone and Zoom H4n Pro recorder through its input jack, but I was lazy today. Although the practice session was broken into 8 pieces, the recorder was going for ALL instances of playing. Tuning, mistakes, etc. are all included. (I just lied, I did omit setting the bridles and initial tuning, but oh well.) There was a gap of time between takes 2 of 3 where I had to retie the middle and outer tenor drone stocks due to a nasty leak that just appeared. Make sure you’re NOT tying bags near the star cut hole, but a bit below! Details of the sets are in the YouTube description field which probably doesn’t appear in the linked videos below, so if you want the tune names head over to YouTube.