Category Archives: Bagpipe Sound Research

The Big Ackland drone reed post


At the “end” of the design process with Terry Ackland I figured I needed to put my advice where my mouth is and switch all my pipes over to Ackland drone reeds. With a little hesitation, I committed and I couldn’t be happier with the drone tone out of each of my sets of pipes. All of them. Gellaitry, Henderson, Terry, Sinclair, David Glen, Colin Kyo, etc. This page will contain recordings of Ackland reeds in all my pipes as I get around to recording them. Check back for updates!

As you’ll find on my Modern Drone Reed Review page, I am all about bold drones and I assert that requires bold drone reeds. Drones should not hum in the background, but stand out and interact harmonically with our modern, bold chanters. Before, I’d have to sift through a few brands of reeds to find the best fit for performance and tone with each different brand of pipe. This usually involved a combination of Kinnaird, Redwood, and X-TREME in most pipes with a couple of other brands thrown in on occasion. But now, I’m convinced you can just throw a set of Ackland’s in there and be golden.

2020-8-28: I start with Colin Kyo Bagpipes. I love these reeds in these pipes. A big bold tenor sound is what you get (bass too, of course). Maybe a bit too bold to start as I had the bridles set back a wee bit; though don’t let the recording setup bias you immediately as the first orientation I have with the mic has the tenor drones blaring right into them, I do rotate around eventually to get a slightly more even balance:

March of the King of Laois, Lark in the Morning, & King of the Pipers

For the recording below, I swapped out the tenors for Ackland tenors with a -0.001″ design specification change which mellowed out the tenors a little bit. The overall blend is very good and Terry Ackland will make you these if you want; I think I’m still sold on the original (see further below recording that starts with Hector the Hero).

Fair Maid of Barra, Unst Bridal March, Alan MacPherson of Mosspark, & Archie Beag

2020-8-31: I also recorded a more common drone reed setup so you could hear how much more vibrant the Ackland reeds are. The recording setup is exactly the same. Ezee tenors and Kinnaird bass. A great tone for sure, but just too refined for my taste.

Fhuair Mi Pog, Skye Boat Song, Thief of Lochaber, & Hen’s March

Kantara to El Arish, Murray Huggins’ Sweet Chanter, & Murdo MacGillivray of Eoligarry – You’ll hear this MSR again later down in my Hnederson’s also.

2020-9-1: I then revisited the normal set of Ackland reeds (the same reeds as the first recording above) but I optimized them a little more for efficiency by moving the bridles down just a wee bit (any further and they started to shut off). I think it brought the tenors down to a much better level and I really enjoy the blend here.

Hector the Hero, Portree Bay, New Year in Noosa, & Rory Gallagher

It’s a GREAT HIGHLAND BAGPIPE and mine are going to live up to the name. Of course, don’t take that the wrong way; by no means am I going to play gut buster reeds to get the loudest chanter sound I can (my reed preference is around 28-30″ H2O), I’m after the best overall sound I can get and that means drones and drone reeds that give *audible* harmonics that give my chanter a new fuzzy sound with each new note.

2020-9-13: We now switch to the pipes I’ve owned the longest, since I was 15 or 16 years old, so two decades now: 1950s Henderson Bagpipes acquired from Jimmy McIntosh by my parents. The mic is in the same spot but I felt the recordings were coming off a little quiet so I increased the recorder’s recording volume +5 relative to above recordings of the Colin Kyo pipe. I’ve always had a wee bit of trouble reeding these Henderson pipes. They last held a full set of X-TREME as the bass was fantastic and the mellow X-TREME tenors brought the tenors in line.  The bass tone was great and the result was a bass heavy blend that was a nice sound that I enjoyed in my rotation of pipes. But now, with Ackland reeds, the tenors are still under control but the sound is that much more glorious for the volume the Ackland tenor reeds bring. These Ackland are the 466 (Bb) model.

I attempted to keep the same recording set up as used before, though as noted the mic setting changed and since the pipe changed from Kyo to Henderson, so did the chanter; so the mic position in the room is the same as is where I’m standing and rotating, but all else has changed.

Kate Martin’s, PM George Allan, Lucy Cassidy, & The Herringwife

My favorite thing to play these days are MSR and HJ and that’s about all I practice. I’ll be walking back and forth in these during the march (unless I’m sight reading the music off the bed), so there will be a variety of orientations you’ll hear the pipes from.

David Ross of Rosehall, Tulloch Gorm, & The Keel Row – A new set for me, still sight reading. Tulloch Gorm is such a hard tune, an excellent challenge both technically and rhythmically; I play the birls straight from B and C which is tough, especially since my birls aren’t that great to begin with. Keel Row is such fun; make sure you hold the initial C and B on the GDE (I think I rushed off the endings of the GDE just a bit) and the A and G on the tachums in the ending phrases. David Rose of Rosehall is so melodic especially when you put the 2nd (actually 1st) throw back into the second part and fix the 4th part second ending.

Hugh Alexander Low of Tiree, Top of Craigvenow, Willie Murray’s Reel, Fiona Ferguson, & Thief of Lochaber – Another newer set for me. Hugh just loves to sit on low A and G. Craigvenow is a great darado exercise; I’m changing the placement of the darado in the 2nd bar between the 1/2 and 3/4 parts to add some variety in what seems a bit tedious to me when they’re all played on the same beat. Willie Murray’s is great fun with drive; love playing taorluaths from C instead of GDE at the end of the phrases in the 1/2 parts. Fiona is a classic from MacLeod that I follow up with a jig I’ve known forever, The Thief of Lochaber (with 3/4 parts by MacLeod).

The Clan MacColl, MacBeth’s Strathspey, & Traditional – My most recently memorized new MSR, forgive the bobbled 3rd part – 2nd line restart in the march, accidentally went into the 4th part ending. MacBeth’s is another challenging strathspey though I’m starting to get a handle on it. Traditional is another great reel from MacLeod’s books, I usually miss the D doubling in the ending phrase but I’m working on it; I’ve played my own rhythm for so long I don’t remember what is usually played (MacLeod has it written mostly round).

Cowal Gathering, Neil Sutherland of Lairg, Stornoway Castle – I’ve played Cowal forever though I still struggle in the ending, I have to make sure to pause on each themal beat note.  Lairg is just so fun and strathspey-ey. Stornoway is one of the most fun reels ever!

Kantara to El Arish, Murray Huggins’ Sweet Chanter, & Murdo McGillivray of Eoligarry – an MSR I’ve played for a while now; you can tell because it’s already on this page in a different pipe.

John MacColl’s March to Kilbowie Cottage, Clachnaharry, & Roderick MacDonald – an MSR I’ve played for a while now. Attacked Roderick a little too tight and got a squeal :-|

2020-9-14: Here are my Gellaitry pipes with Ackland reeds. How can one not love the blend?! Recording volume has again increased by 5 units on my Zoom H4n.

Scots Wha Hae, High Road to Gairloch, Brown Haired Maiden, & 42nd Highlanders – looks like I gotta work on those heavy D throws!

John MacColl’s March to Kilbowie Cottage, Clachnaharry, Roderick MacDonald, Angus MacKenzie of Dumbarton, & Joseph MacDonald’s Jig – I love playing Angus MacKenzie of Dumbarton with a little dot cut added following Roderick MacDonald. I need to pay attention to the dot cut of the pickup notes in the march; I really rounded out the pickup notes in the first part of Kilbowie, yikes.

2020-09-15: Now I’ve got the Chris Terry pipes with Ackland drone reeds. Since I’ve only been practicing my MSRs I figured I’d play other stuff for the recordings, stuff I haven’t played in a while. Please excuse me forgetting how stuff goes!

Iron Man, Balmoral Caste, Dusky Meadow, Uist Reel, & Arnish Light Hornpipe

Mediocrely played competition reels

2020-09-16: Cocuswood David Glen Bagpipes! Still trying to remember old tunes to not beat the same old competition MSRs into the ground, please forgive when I forget how they go!

Mo Ghile Mear, Neili’s, & Ger the Rigger – forgot my ending phrases went in the last tune, oh well

More Polkas! – Polka Polka Polka

2020-09-17: Gibson pipes! This is also the first time I will not be playing a Colin Kyo chanter, but the Gibson chanter that came with my new-to-me Gibson R-110-D pipes. Actually, everything about this setup is different than all my others. Instead of an old L&M elk hide or a Gannaway bag, I am using a medium Canmore hybrid bag (no MCS) and an Apps 2019 ridge cut reed (that’s a little too hard for me as I’m breaking it in, apologize in advance for all the chokes). This Gibson chanter is probably ~2004 and has pretty good tone. I notice the E hole is rather large making it a bit sharp and I’m curious if that is specific to this era of Gibson chanter. In other tests I noticed plastic pipe reeds (Glenarley and McLaren) which usually suffer from flat Es in all other chanters had less of a problem in this chanter. Though, as you’ll hear in the recordings, I had a tough time really perfecting how much tape was needed on the E hole. It being a big hole was problematic as it needed more than just a little tape and the more tape you put on a hole the more unstable the note becomes. I’ll get there, it being a harder chanter reed than I’m used to didn’t help.

Bo Mhin Na Toitean, Humours of Tulla, & Ducks on the Mill Pond

Loch Tay Boat Song, Sleepy Maggie, & Dancing Feet

McCallum A440 Highland Pipe Chanter Review

My interest in playing highland pipes at A 440 (not the often quoted “concert pitch” of low A actually being Bb which is 466 Hz) probably dates back to listening to the band Clandestine with EJ Jones, piper. You should buy every album of EJ’s you can get your hands on. Playing at A 440 allows you to play with other instruments that use the 440 convention (most Western instruments) and it means they can play “bagpipe” music (modulo an octave) the way it’s written. EJ was kind enough to make me a blackwood A 440 chanter with an olive sole that plays quite well. However, commissioning a smallpipe/border pipe maker like EJ to make you a 440 chanter to fit highland pipes will usually run around $500. It’s a beautiful chanter, but not economical for generating interest in playing at A 440. Another barrier to playing at A 440 is getting your drones that are designed to play around 475 Hz to play at 440 Hz. The drone problem has been resolved in my collaboration with Terry Ackland (website pending) who produces a range of reeds from 440-490 Hz with all sharper pitches based on the original 440 reeds you’ll hear in my recordings below.

There are 3 economical options for playing at A 440 and I have come to the conclusion that my current favorite is the McCallum A 440 chanter. The other two options are the Piper’s Choice border pipe chanter and the MacLellan A 440 chanter. Each chanter has pros and non-negligible cons. The McCallum is the sharpest of the bunch, but it is the most stable. Both the Piper’s Choice and MacLellan can get squirrelly on low G, producing squeals with some grace notes. This is the primary deal breaker for me in reviewing a highland chanter. The problem with the McCallum is to get it to do what I want, I had to carve high A and E; not just undercut, but actually make the holes longer to sharpen the notes. The high A hole is quite low down making it flat, so the rest of the chanter is sharp to that high A; you have to carve high A just so you can pull the reed out. Otherwise you’re sinking the reed just to get high A up to pitch meanwhile low A is halfway to Bb. I’m also using 2(!) rushes to flatten the chanter the rest of the way down to A 440. Rushes are wires placed inside the chanter to reduce the internal volume of the chanter, flattening all the notes it runs through (so you can make the rush any appropriate length). I’m currently using Ook brand 16 gauge steel galvanized wire because I don’t know any better (I hear some people use old broken guitar strings, I just wouldn’t use copper because it could turn green with moisture). One of my rushes goes all the way up to high A and the other to high G. Make a u-bend at the bottom of the rush so that it friction fits into the bottom of the chanter. Below is a picture of a rush with blobs of tac for flattening specific notes even more so, though none of my rushes used here have the blobs of tac. This tac stuff is the same stuff college kids might hang dorm posters on the wall with. Kind of like bubble gum.

Having 2 rushes running past the rather lowly placed E hole made it even flatter such that I then needed to elongate it as well to sharpen the E. I use 1 rush in my EJ Jones chanter, so their use isn’t isolated to the McCallum chanter. The MacLellan chanter generally does not need a rush, being a very natural 440 Hz chanter as is the Piper’s Choice border pipe chanter. I’m using a medium Sound Supreme/John Elliott medium border pipe reed as supplied by Piper’s Choice with their border pipe chanter which I did own at one point but gave it to a friend as a gift for graduating. I’m thinking a normal reed will work just as well, I was just hoping a border reed would make the McCallum behave a little better, but alas I still needed to modify the chanter. Before making my modifications, I did have success with a regular Gilmour reed with 3(!) rushes. Rushes are a much better solution to flattening a whole chanter. Rushes unilaterally flatten all the notes at once and have little affect on the performance (unless you add tac and then you may observe some quirky behavior). Once you start taping over a whole by more than 40%, the tone of the note suffers and it can even collapse when under blown. Collapse means to flatten to a completely different pitch.

I have reason to believe the McCallum A 440 chanter uses the same internal reamers as the Fred Morrison border pipe chanter which I also own. McCallum manufactures the Fred Morrison line of border and smallpipes. Both the McCallum A 440 and Morrison border pipe chanters have a bottom inner diameter of 0.635″. My EJ Jones comes in at 0.620″ with the MacLellan being a more traditional style chanter at 0.740″. Most highland chanters have a bottom inner diameter around 0.800″. The narrower bore gives a flatter chanter, which is why the rushes flatten the chanters further. The holes on the McCallum are drilled in different places than the Morrsion (generally lower down), which I think is to compensate for having drilled larger holes more in line with a highland chanter. I’d almost just want a plastic Morrison chanter with smaller (and quieter) holes and a highland sized tenon, but oh well. Below are pictures with these chanters side by side.

EJ Jones – Morrison – McCallum (aligned on the high G hole)

See how the F to E hole spacing is longer relative to the high G to F spacing on the McCallum (far right) even after I carved E.

Note how low the high A hole is on the McCallum (far right) even after I carved it. Chanters are still aligned on the high G hole in front.

MacLellan – McCallum – EJ Jones

Here is some audio of my Kron drones with 440 Ackland reeds and McCallum 440 chanter with John Elliott reed. The Zoom H4n is in front of me.

Lark in the Morning & King of the Pipers – Irish jigs!

Glasgow Police Pipers & Troy’s Wedding – Scottish jigs!

Battle of Waterloo, A Dram Before You Go, Portree Bay, New in Noosa, & Rory Gallagher – Classic march followed by some old and new jigs; also an example of how stable the chanter is on low G

Ducks on the Mill Pond, Humours of Tulla, & Rakish Paddy – An Appalachian tune followed by Irish reels

Kalabakan & Famous Bridge – two Scottish reels which were a popular combo amongst several folk bands in decades past

Ultimately, the McCallum A440 chanter sounds and feels like a normal highland chanter and with some finagling will play at 440 Hz. I don’t have to worry about changing my arrangements to work around squirrelly behavior which is a huge plus. At $175 USD or thereabouts, it’s also a chunk of change cheaper than a blackwood chanter from a cottage maker. I will lament that the chanter is plastic. Of course this may seem odd because I would venture that plastic chanters are more common than blackwood these days, at least in terms of production. However, I’ve been playing blackwood chanters fairly exclusively for several years and noticed when playing the chanter how sticky it gets when your hands get sweaty. Though I could just be trying to make excuses for my shoddy birls; next time I’ll just swipe my pinkie on the crease of my nose for some birl grease.