Category Archives: Bagpipe Sound Research

Breadalbane Component Drone Sounds by William McKenzie


































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.

Fixing a sharp high G on an old Sinclair chanter

I have found that drilling out the top fraction of a chanter’s “throat” with a 3/16″ drill bit will flatten sharp high Gs. It will also flatten high A and sharpen F#. So far, it seems important to not drill all the way through the throat as then high G will be way too flat and the F# will become susceptible to collapsing all the way down to F (natural). Leaving 1/4″ to 1/2″ of original bore at the bottom of the chanter throat seems to give the best result.

Most chanter bores that I’ve measured are slightly larger than 5/32″ (0.15625″ = 3.96875 mm) but slightly smaller than 11/64″ (0.171875″ = 4.365625 mm), so my guess is 4.2 mm or thereabouts. Exceptions include the Ayrfire chanter at a full 11/64″ or slightly larger (4.5 mm?), as is an old David Glen chanter I have. The chanter throat is the cylindrical section of the bore between the reed seat and the main conical section where the finger holes are. The chanter throat’s length varies; I’ve measured them from 7/8″ to 1.5″ long.

If one accidentally drills all the way, or just too far, through the chanter throat at 3/16″, you can cut a short length (1/4″ – 1/2″) of 3/16″ OD (outer diameter) K&S Engineering hobby brass or aluminum* (my preference because it is softer and easier to work with) tubing and push it down into the bottom of the chanter throat to reduce the ID (inner diameter) back to “normal” as the wall thickness of their tubing is 0.014″ which puts the ID of the tubing at 3/16″ – 2 x 0.014″ = 0.1595″ = 4.0513 mm.

I’ve have drilled at 3/16″ into a modern chanter (drilled all the way through and then added tubing) and an old Sinclair (didn’t drill all the way through, left 1/4″ original bore at the bottom of the throat), in that chronological order. You can return the chanter to “normal” by inserting a piece of tubing that is the full length of the chanter throat.

Packs of drill bits often come with 5/32″ and 3/16″ bits. You’ll likely have to buy an 11/64″ individually, but it should be available at most hardware stores. However, I found the 11/64″ didn’t change the Sinclair’s throat bore enough to affect the desired flattening, but your results may vary. I did drill out, all the way, a Gibson chanter to 11/64″ with seemingly no ill effects, but also not much high G flattening either. Barely any material was removed as it was one of those bores between 5/32″ and 11/64″. If your chanter has a true 5/32″ bore to start, 11/64″ may be a good place to begin before jumping all the way up to 3/16″. However, 11/64″ OD tubing is not (as readily) available (not made by K&S Engineering anyway) so you couldn’t experiment with added tubing until you jump up to 3/16″.

Here is the video of me experimenting on the Sinclair chanter, trying to see if what I observed when experimenting on my modern chanter also helped fix an old chanter’s VERY sharp high G. It’s not a demonstration of how to do it, it is literally me filming the entire *experiment*, starting with an 11/64″ bit and then going to 3/16″ when that didn’t accomplish much. It’s 55 minutes long. Try this at your own risk.

G Major Highland Bagpipes

I have yet again revised my G major highland bagpipe setup which involves tuning the drones to low G instead of low A and then retuning the entire chanter. This latest iteration has me running Kron Standard drones (because they’re the flattest AND most accommodating drones), Ross Omega drone reeds (due to their inherent customization) fitted to brass tubing reed extenders, laminate Colin Kyo chanter with some putty in the E and C# holes to tune them correctly to G drones (super flat because E adopts the tuning of the standard F#; the C# actually gets turned into a C natural so it needs putty AND tape), and a Gilmour reed.

I think it would be really grand for a pipe maker to make a version of this chanter where the note we call low G is tuned to concert pitch A 440 Hz. On a nominal modern highland pipe chanter that tunes around 480 Hz, low G would sound around 427 Hz so we really aren’t that far off. All it would really take is bringing low A up to concert pitch B 493.9 Hz (some modern chanters are already here!). The holes would also need to be shifted and resized to accommodate tuning to the G drones in addition to turning the C# into a C natural. But, what really happens by setting low G to A 440 Hz and turning C# into a C natural is you get what pipers would call a G Major chanter, but since it’s tuned to A 440 Hz, every other musician would call it an A Major chanter. This has the distinct advantage of there already being commercially available drone technology to tune drones to an A 440 Hz reference and it opens up a whole host of new repertoire. Yay! I’ve collected some tunes and you can see them on my Free Tunebooks page (G major chanter tunebook). My setup has low A tuning around 464 Hz which means my low G is at 413 Hz which is why it’s so hard to get my drones so flat! So really, I’m just a couple Hz shy of having a G# Major chanter since my low A is so close to Bb 466 Hz.

Here are some shots of the drone reeds and how far out the bass drone has to tune. The tenors are actually down a fair bit.

I use sticky putty (the tacky stuff college kids use to stick posters to the wall, Blue-tac or something like that) to flatten the notes that need super flattening because otherwise the holes become so taped over that the sound is greatly muffled. Occluding the chanter bore with putty is much more effective for such drastic changes and doesn’t attenuate the volume as much.

Here’s the E hole:

Here’s the C# hole (yellow tape + putty):

The chanter has two types of tape on it. I usually use automotive pin-striping tape as it holds up against the heat without getting sticky and it leaves no residue. However, the tape is rather thin and so it is not very good for taping large open areas because it can get wavy. The yellow tape is the best electrical tape I’ve found for taping chanters (it comes in black, don’t worry). It is Scotch Vinyl Electrical Tape 35 and I bought my most recent roll (brown) from Home Depot.

In order to post something different than before (mostly non-highland piping tunes that can be heard here and here), I figured I’d play some tunes highland pipers would recognize. My selection criteria were that the tunes focused a lot on low G, high G, B, and D since those harmonize the mostly readily against G drones. Jigs are my bread and butter, so I present to you:

Eileen MacDonald and The Hammer on the Anvil

People like videos so I’ve also posted it to YouTube:

So there’s your highland pipes in G for the day!

Robertson Rocket Drone Reeds

Much ado has been made about how Rocket reeds shouldn’t be played in pipes they’re not made for. In general, I’ve found this to be mostly nothing to worry about. I’ve put all sorts of glass tongued Rockets into all sorts of pipes. The worst that ever happened was they consumed air like nothing else, but still sounded great, haha. But one day I acquired a set of carbon tongued Rockets that were made for Robertson pipes and the bass just would not work in the seller’s Hendersons, if I recall correctly. I had the exact same experience. Now, the tenors generally work in any pipe, it’s the bass reed that is selective for a specific bore design. Starting the bass sharp, as one lengthens the bass drone it comes close to in tune, but starts growling and then starts going out of tune again. Here’s what it sounds like in a set of Chris Terry pipes (which are purportedly (Duncan?) MacDougall based):

Chris Terry with carbon Robertson spec Rockets

As any regular reader would know, I’ve got a friend with not one but two sets of Robertsons: 1920s ebony and 1950s blackwood. So a quick jaunt to his house to test if these reeds actually worked in some sort of pipe, and they do! They work just grand in Robertson pipes. Go figure?!

1950s Robertsons with carbon Robertson spec Rockets

It turns out this friend has his own set of *glass* Robertson spec Rockets, which allowed us to confirm a statement that used to appear on the Kron website (I’ll post a screen shot at the bottom in case the link dies) that stated carbon Rockets were generally mellower than glass Rockets. The glass Rockets below are definitely bolder than the carbon Rockets above (same recording conditions, sorry there’s no chanter).

1950s Robertsons with glass Robertson spec Rockets

We didn’t record it but the carbon Rockets worked just as well in his 1920 ebony Robertsons which is curious because there are some bore size difference between the two. It’s like the reeds just know they’re in a set of Robertsons!

Now, I have gotten these carbon Rockets to work in one other pipe, Keith Jeffers. I had to dig through my archive of recordings that I never shared on the blog before to find one but I do have proof from June of 2014:

Spanner in the Works, Room 35, Moonshine, & Mark Sheridan

It all just goes to show how fickle bass drones and reeds are! The key is to find one that is steady and consider yourself lucky if it sounds great too!

More Highland Pipes in G

I have been working more on my highland pipes in G. The tonal quality was much compromised with earlier iterations with very heavy taping on E and C leaving not much of those holes uncovered. I have since had the idea to actually insert tacky putty into the chanter bore against the inside wall to narrow the bore around those notes and therefore flatten them. No tape is now needed on E, though C still needs some to bring it down to C natural in addition to the ~15 cents it needs to be flat to be in tune against G drones. Think of it as the opposite of carving a chanter. I do notice that the chanter cuts out more readily than before, undoubtedly caused by the bore restrictions introduced by the putty. However, it’s good practice for keeping the pressure up and allows the C and E notes to sound much more clearly. The E note is a little wonky against G drones being a 6th, I think I need a different just intonation value to tune it against. Maybe?

Seth Hamon’s Gamble & Paddy Cronin’s

Kitty Lie Over & Ulverston Volunteers

Poly or Blackwood Chanter?

I was asked if there were tonal differences between poly and blackwood chanters. I said, “Maybe, but you wouldn’t know which one was which.” See if you can tell the difference and perhaps which one is which. The two recordings below are EXACTLY the same setup (Chris Terry drones, Redwood tenor reeds, X-TREME bass reed, the SAME John Elliott chanter reed {Sound Supreme, not G1}, L&M hide bag, same recording session, same original mp3 file, and the same standing position as best as I could remember) except one was recorded using a poly Colin Kyo chanter and the other using a blackwood Colin Kyo chanter. The chanters are roughly the same “older” vintage and both came in just shy of 481 Hz (modern Kyo chanters come in under 480 Hz in my experience). Both had tape on high G and the poly also had tape on E. The recordings are a bit drone heavy and I slightly regret that, but oh well. It’ll go toward correcting the balance of all those professional recordings where the drones are almost inaudible.

Fair Maid & Arnish Light 1

Fair Maid & Arnish Light 2


Check the comments for the which is which!

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!):


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!

The Illusion of Drone Locking

Tenor drones produce a fundamental pitch one octave below low A. Bass drones produce a fundamental pitch two octaves below low A. However, both drones produce higher frequency pitches called overtones. The first overtone of each is the next A up. So a tenor drone’s first overtone is the same pitch as the chanter’s low A. The bass drone’s first overtone is the same pitch as the tenor drone’s fundamental. The second overtone of each is an E. So the second overtone of a tenor drone is an E with the same frequency as the E on the chanter.

These overtones, when present with enough amplitude to be heard, manifest as a pleasant ringing sound that seems to hover over the top of the overall drone sound. Many may often hear this ringing only transiently as their pressure fluctuates enough for the ringing to fluctuate in and out. Overtone tuning is very sensitive and here’s why.

Say your chanter tunes at low A = 480 Hz, a common pitch in modern piping. This means your tenors should tune to half that at 240 Hz and the bass tunes at half that, 120 Hz. Say we are tuning our tenor drones and one is at 240 Hz but the other is at 245 Hz. They are out of tune. What you will hear is a beating frequency of 5 Hz, the difference between the two frequencies: 245 – 250 = 5; this is the wawawawawa sound produced by out of tune drones. The overtones produce their own beating frequency. For example, our 240 Hz tenor drone will have an E overtone frequency of 720 Hz. The tenor drone playing at 245 Hz will have an E overtone frequency of 735 Hz. The beating frequency between the E overtones is 735 – 720 = 15 Hz. Therefore, if you can hear this beating frequency it will sound very out of tune. That’s fifteen wawawawa in one second! If you tune the second drone down from 245 to 241 Hz, the fundamental beating frequency between the two tenor drones is now 241 – 240 = 1 Hz and the E overtone beating frequency is now 723 – 720 = 3 Hz. The beating frequencies are smaller (not quieter) so our drones are getting closer in tune.

What does this have to do with drone locking? Well, if you can’t hear the overtone frequencies all that well then you don’t have to worry about their faster beating frequency. All you have to do is get your drone fundamental beating frequency small enough that it sounds as if the drones are in tune. I believe many pipers have often favored bass dominant pipes because they feel they “lock” in tune better. Locking is piper code for drones staying in tune for a long period of time without the need for retuning. I postulate that the perception that bass dominant pipes lock better is due to the lower amplitude in overtone frequencies that make their overtone beating frequencies harder to hear. Thus, the illusion of drone locking is simply due to not being able to hear one’s drones go out of tune because the fundamental beating frequency is still too small to hear and the overtone beating frequencies are too quiet to hear. Note the difference in the words used. Too small to hear means the wawawawa is so slow it can’t be discerned. Too quiet to hear means regardless of how fast it is, you cannot hear it.

I offer an audio sample to guide your understanding. This is made possible by a bum reed the manufacturer has already replaced. This bum reed needed a replacement because it sounds terrible. It produces this huge, nasty overtone that just hurts to listen to. Which makes it a great reed to prove my point, you can definitely hear the fundamental beating frequency along with an overtone beating frequency. You may need to turn up the volume to a setting that is generally considered too loud to be able to discern both beating frequencies. Notice how much smaller the fundamental beating frequency is relative to the high pitched, grating overtone beating frequency. Even near the end of the audio file when the drones are pretty close to in tune, you hear the overtone beating frequency go in and out as I try to find the perfect tuning spot for the second drone. It’s almost impossible and so I will never use this reed in public or even in private, hence why I asked for a replacement.

Tenor drone tuning

EDIT (28-06-2016):

I have received a copy of Mode Locking and the Highland Bagpipe by John Kidd and Peter J. Lindstrom published in Sonus, Vol. 32 No. 2, 2012. I found a couple of statements from the article interesting, they are as follows:

“Preliminary measurements have shown that the effect is real. The phenomenon has not yet been quantified by detailed measurements of instruments of our design. The instruments to be measured must be of this design because those made in the traditional manner, and not modified, will not mode lock.”

“Pipes with abrupt changes in cross section of the drone interiors and cylindrically bored stocks will not mode lock.”

To paraphrase, “single reed” mode locking is specifically the coherence, if you will, of the fundamental with the overtones and occurs very quickly, within the first second of playing a tone on an instrument. “Multiple reed” mode locking is the coherence between two instruments, e.g. two tenor drones.

Mode lock = Phase lock + Frequency lock

By measuring the frequency of the two tenors of the specially designed pipe they determined it took over 30 seconds for them to frequency lock. They made no determination for phase locking.

“Instruments made in the traditional way do not mode lock; however, there are several examples of modified pipes with tapered, but not flared, stocks that have mode locked.” Examples given in the article include: John MacFadyen’s Hendersons (mode locked in 20 minutes), Colin MacMellan’s (Lellan’s?) MacDougals, and Robertson pipes in generally (mode locked in 20 to 30 minutes) due to tapered stocks.

MacDougal designed the bell of the drones (a low pass filter) to allow only the fundamental and a couple overtones to pass. It is also claimed that MacDougals exhibit papered (tapered?) stocks and internal bore chamfering. Mode locking occurs in about 20 minutes.

Highland Pipes in G

As with most of my piping adventures, this one starts with someone asking me how to do something and then I take it way too far; and end up somewhere really cool! A local piper asked me, “How do you get your drones to tune to A440?” The answer, brass tubing! For bass drones and reeds, you’ll probably want 3/8″ K&S engineering brass tube, for tenors maybe the same or maybe 11/32″. It has to go on the outside of the reed tenon (where the hemp on the reed goes) but also on the inside of the drone reed seat (so it can’t be too big around). There are commercial drone extenders available but they do not get you down to A 440 Hz. The drone reed has to basically be sticking out the bottom of the drone stock just a little bit to have any chance of getting to A 440 Hz. See photo below of a tenor drone.


I’ve had limited success with 1/4″ tube put inside the bottom of the drone reed. It would seem to be drone reed dependent.

Of course, since I have yet to take this too far (there’s nothing new so far) I’m not actually going to use this to play with an A 440 Hz chanter (although I do have one). I’m going to use these now super flat drones to play with a normal A 470+ Hz chanter. Except, I won’t be tuning the drones to A but to the note G. Woot!

These are 1950’s Henderson pipes with Rocket drone reeds, Colin Kyo Pipeband/Samurai chanter, Shawn Husk chanter reed.

Grimstock and Dick’s Maggot – Watch this performance on YouTube

Keelman Ower the Land – Watch this performance on YouTube

Untitled and Ulverston Volunteers – Watch this performance on YouTube

What’s tricky about tuning the drones to G is you have to retune the entire chanter. In a pinch it means taping every note except the Gs, and maybe F(#). I also tune the C to a C natural so as to play in the key of G. The tuning offsets can be had in the this chart (shift the note names around until the G is in the “A” spot).

I can tell, you’re excited, because it sounds so cool! Hey, you can do it too! How? Go buy some brass tube (hobby or art shops usually have this), a tube cutter, and a cheap hand reamer (harbor freight has these). You’ll also need some teflon tape to seal the gap between the tube and the drone reed whether the tube goes on the outside of the drone reed tenon or the inside. Don’t forget the tube will have to also seat well in your drone reed seats. How to actually get it down flat enough is up to your pipes and your chosen drone reed. I’m using old Naill spec Rockets in the recordings above (there’s an “8” written on the bass drone tongue but that’s the only marking). The tube will need to be cut long enough so that the drone reed sticks out into the bag just a tad (bass drone stocks for tenors anyone?).

You’ll also need a chanter that doesn’t mind a lot of tape. I went through 3 before I found one that worked well enough for my liking: old carved up CK, Kron Medalist, and finally, third time’s a charm, a new CK Pipeband/Samurai prototype chanter (Thanks Murray Huggins!). Make sure you set your equal temperament regular old Korg $20 tuner to read in tune/green light on low and high G (instead of low and high A). Then use the offsets from the table linked above to dial in your chanter. Again, I tune the C to a C natural so there’s lots of tape on my C (this is really where things can get wonky, you’ll note a reluctant chanter when it is hesitant to switch to the C natural note if coming from B or D). I guess you could learn to cross finger C natural, but meh, I’m lazy. You could also buy a Boderiou Bagad chanter that comes with pastilles (inserts) that turn your C into a C natural for you (also F into F natural if you wanted to play in C major, muahahahahahahaha).

Lastly, you’ll need some tunes to play! Never fear, I’ve been playing smallpipes like this for a few months now and I’ve collected a lot of tunes in the key of G (again you need a C natural here; what’s the point of G drones if you aren’t going to play in G major?). The tunebook of my collected tunes can always be found on my Free Tunebooks page (you’re looking for the “A dorian chanter tunebook” as G major has the same notes as A dorian). I update it as I find new to me, but not copyrighted, tunes; always check back to see if there’s some new tunes. Also hit me up if you know of tunes that would work but I don’t have them in the book!