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).
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.
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:
An attribution error takes us down today’s rabbit hole. I’ve played the tune Eileen MacDonald (C.M. Williamson) for a long time. PM Angus MacDonald also plays it on his Ceol Beag in the Castle album, followed by Nameless Jig he attributed to the same composer. However, it turns out Nameless Jig is listed as Unknown in Scots Guards Vol. 2 on page 150 and is by PS A. M. Lee and H. Workman. Of course, that I already had the music in a book was only realized AFTER I transcribed the tune off of Angus’ album, doh! Thanks to Mic Sorrentino for the heads up! Unfortunately I can’t share the sheet music with you due to copyright concerns, but I figured I’d play the tune along with one of my own compositions that, un-ironically, doesn’t have a name yet either.
The pipes I’m playing in the recordings below are my Chris Terry drones with Redwood tenor and inverted Selbie bass drone reeds along with a decade old plastic Colin Kyo chanter with a current model Husk reed in it. Redwood tenors are bold reeds, which is even more evident since I keep the microphone behind me. I was so taken with the high A blend that I recorded a couple of other sets that feature high A as well. Hope you enjoy!
Mic Sorrentino had suggested Unknown be a tune of the month, though I’d rather find a tune I can share the sheet music for. In the spirit of that though, if you’d like to hear my first run through Unknown and Unnamed on the pipes (a different set of pipes) and with a lot more errors, you can hear that below. Tune of the Month started as a challenge to learn a tune each month and I would post a recording at the beginning and again at the end of the month so progress could hopefully be heard. I’ve pretty much ceased doing that from the start but you’ll get to hear the progress of an hour long piping session. Pipes are 1950’s Hendersons with X-TREME drone reeds all around, Shepherd Orchestral (Bb) chanter with former model Husk chanter reed. I have several pipes and so I play each of them a little bit each day, hence the change in which bagpipe was being played between the beginning and end of my practice session.
Unknown and Unnamed <- just learning the tunes at the beginning of the recording session; the X-TREME bass is a beast is it not?
Crazy (and long) post that includes the following: 1. Tune of the Month 2. The Spanish Peaks Piping Retreat 3. A Cocuswood David Glen highland pipe 4. Shepherd Bb chanter 5. Accidentals 6. Tunes outside the highland piping tradition. Whew!
This was my fifth year attending the Spanish Peaks Piping Retreat organized by Jim Conley in conjunction with the Spanish Peaks International Celtic Music Festival in La Veta, Colorado. The retreat/workshop focuses on the playing of Scottish smallpipes. Returning as an instructor this year was Tim(othy) Cummings who gave us a couple more Appalachian tunes to augment our repertoire from the year before; additionally Tim gave me a couple “challenge” tunes which have been quite fun and in line with my desire to increase my own repertoire beyond the highland tradition, both of these tunes can be heard below. A short plug for Tim: he is an awesome smallpipe instructor, music collector, and all around nice guy. Any workshop with him will be worthwhile. The band Heron Valley was over from Scotland playing at the festival and so their piper, Euan McNab, also taught a few tunes in the Scottish tradition when he had time to escape his performance responsibilities. What a great, young band.
The tune of the month for October 2018 is a tune Tim gave us during the retreat: Ducks on the Mill Pond. This is a great little hornpipey reel from the Blue Ridge Mountains here in the U.S. Sheet music can be obtained from Tim for $1.00. Just uno dinero. He’s got a bunch of other tunes that can also be purchased for that paltry sum, some of which are featured further down in this post. Note that this and some other sheet music obtained from Tim’s website comes with two versions of the tune, a simple melody that accompanies the included lyrics and also a “hoedown” version; I am playing only the hoedown version. Listen here on my new-to-me 1910ish David Glen cocuswood bagpipe (more on that below):
A tune that surfaced during a jam session at the retreat was The High Drive by Gordon Duncan, but all mayhem broke loose when we reached the last line of the tune, as it seemed I was at odds with a few of the other versions out there. Without realizing it when I learned the tune from the music book “Gordon Duncan’s Tunes”, the last line has 5 bars! The others did a good job of having me question my sanity but upon returning home from the retreat I was vindicated by the sheet music, muahahahahahaha. You can hear Stuart Liddell play the extra bar as well in this youtube clip:
On to the 1910ish cocuswood David Glen bagpipe. CITES developments have made me nervous for a while so when this pipe came up for sale I jumped on it. It comes with the original chanter which is mostly for provenance now as I haven’t found a reed that doesn’t squeal yet (a thought just hit me, maybe a border pipe reed?). The pipe was located in Canada and had 2 rings that were still ivory along with the chanter sole. I had the seller ship the pipes to Dunbar to have the ivory removed and replaced with Mexican royal ebony, also known as katalox. I think Rick at Dunbar did a great job, at a great price, and at great speed. The saying about car repair, “you can have it done fast, well done, and cheap; but you can only pick two” doesn’t apply to Dunbar bagpipes, you get ALL THREE.
I haven’t spent a whole lot of time with the pipes, but they don’t seem the most forgiving when it comes to drone reed selection. I’ve got a set of Rocket reeds in there now and they seem to go quite well. Canning reeds also seem to go well. For whatever reason, a lot of drone reeds just shut off. I’ve tied them into an old L&M bag and since my stash of Airtight smelled more gross than I remember a new bottle smelling, I’ve settled for seasoning the bag with 100% vegetable glycerin which turns out to be very runny. During the recording session I actually had some leak out around the chanter while I was playing! So I drained the bag a second time afterwards. Perhaps I need to get some more Airtight ordered? The drones come in right around concert Bb, 466 Hz, so I’ve paired them with a Shepherd “Orchestral” chanter, which is a solid Bb chanter. I’m playing a previous model Husk chanter reed. What will be obvious from the remaining recordings in this post is how well this chanter and reed combination plays the C and F natural accidentals!
You may have noticed I have not been posting much recently, save for the Tunes of the Month. I have been playing a lot of bagpipes in my new found unemployment, but not just highland bagpipes. In addition to Scottish smallpipes and border pipes, I am also playing in a border pipe ensemble using Jon Swayne border pipes in G. I understand they are English border pipes in G with some French chanter design influences, so I call them the Frenglish pipes. The chanter has the back thumb hole for the C natural (in highland terminology), and also plays the F natural and G sharp accidentals really well, in addition to having high B, C, C#, and D readily accessible in the next octave. This pipe has done a wonderful job making my fingers do new and crazy fingerings. Our repertoire is mostly English, French, Breton, and Galician. Here I am playing a Galician tune:
I also have a Seivane gaita chanter in Do (C) whose cork-like tenon wrapping fits perfectly into my 1960s Sinclair chanter stock whose drones I have tuned all the way up to concert C (Redwood bass reed, single Colin Kyo tenor reed, other tenor is plugged). Here I am playing a Galician tune:
Back to the highland pipes, influenced by my playing of non-highland bagpipes, I’ve got some more tunes for you on the new-to-me Glen pipes. First up is another Appalachian tune Tim gave us at the 2017 retreat followed by a jig I picked up from a Facebook video of uilleann piper Tiarnan O Duinnchinn. The Appalachian tune, Cluck Old Hen, utilizes C natural instead of our usual C#, which is fingered with the ring finger down instead of the pinkie. I play the song arrangement through twice followed by the hoedown version twice through. The jig that follows has no accidentals outside our normal A mixolydian scale, but it is also about a chicken so I figured they’d go well together despite being different time signatures.
Next we have some bourrées. The first one is in 3/8 and is one of Tim’s challenge tunes. The rest are in some version of common time from the border pipe ensemble repertoire. You’ll hear heavy use of both the C and F naturals in the first and third tunes. You’ll also hear a mistake in each of the first three tunes, but the fourth managed to go unscathed.
Lastly are some 3/2 hornpipes. If you have Gary West’s “Hinterlands” album he plays this set, turns out. However, I got the tunes from other sources. The first tune I’ve heard more recently in this very entrancing video on Facebook:
Comments in the video indicated the tune is called “Came Ye O’er Frae France”, however, what sheet music I can find doesn’t match what is played in the video so I transcribed it from the video (I have doubts about my transcription so I’ll have to work on it a bit more to make sure). I’m just gonna call it “A Lancashire Hornpipe”. Let’s just say, low G to C natural is tricky due to the ring finger and pinkie switch. The second tune is another of Tim’s challenge tunes: Mr. Preston’s Hornpipe. You may notice a dearth of gracenotes, which are less common in other piping traditions, which is just my excuse for sight reading the tunes and throwing gracenotes in there when I have the spare brain capacity to do so.
I’m unemployed now so I figure I’ll start practicing for real, haha. Expect a lot more posts, although the kids get out for summer in a month so we’ll see how that goes. Got any topics you want covered?
I’m testing some prototype drone reeds. This post has them in Colin Kyo bagpipes with the mic in front of me. Yesterday had them in Gellaitry bagpipes with the mic behind me; a single recording of that is HERE. The chanter is exactly the same as it fits in both pipes (older Colin Kyo with Sound Supreme reed). I like to stand behind people when I’m listening to them play so that I can hear the drones at their best, but when listening for chanter drone balance, those consulted thought it best to record from the front. However, the mic is still up high at about 6’4″. What do YOU think of the drone tone?
These reeds are a second iteration, the first having VERY bold tenors with harmonics flying everywhere. The tenors have been dialed back a bit but still have non-negligible overtones, more overtone amplitude than many commercially available reeds currently on the market. What we’ll see below is that the drones go out of tune more often due to these overtones (not really). A while back I wrote a couple of posts (The Illusion of Drone Locking and Tuning Tenor Bold Pipes) about how there was a trend in pipes (MacDougall-ish) and reeds (mellow tenor, big bass) that posited the stability (why such pipes were/are in demand) perceived with such pipes with dominant bass and mellower tenors was not actually stability, but the inability to hear the drones going out of tune because the higher frequency overtones weren’t loud enough to be heard (the beating frequency is faster for overtones than for the fundamental for the same amount of out-of-tuneness). In the recordings that follow, you can hear the drones go out of tune and it’s not super obvious sometimes, but the overall tone just sounds…dirty. They eventually settle in a bit, but even the last track has me retuning beforehand. It is terribly fun to play with such overtones WHEN they’re in tune! But it is a bit distracting when the drones start to drift. If your tenors weren’t as full of overtones, it would be harder to notice the drones drifting because the lower frequency fundamental wouldn’t sound out of tune over the length of a typical note. Take note that retuning involved moving all 3 drones in the same direction every time, so they’re largely moving together, but not with the chanter pitch. Note that I tune the outside tenor first with the other drones off followed by tuning the middle tenor to outside tenor with the bass off, then I turn the bass on and the middle tenor off. Also note that most movements of the drone are tiny little twists that move the drone very small amounts up and down. I usually hate tenors with overtones because I can never get them tuned, but these reeds are very easy to tune. Also, these two tenor reeds are not identical as one has a smaller aperture than the other; this is on purpose as various designs are tried. Perhaps if they were more similar I’d experience even less difference in tuning drift.
I played for the first time in a month yesterday, the hiatus due to sinus illness. So this is my second day back on the job. What follows is my entire practice session, tuning included, broken into chunks. Some of it is garbage but I’m posting it anyway. Maybe you’d like to hear me suck at playing? If you’re interested in listening to me tune to these audible overtones, listen to the tuning clips. *If you’re just here to listen to the audio that’s in tune with minimal flubs, look for asterisks to denote less-sucky recordings.*
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?
I have been loaned a set of Atherton Legacy bagpipes to feature for the blog. They were acquired as half-mounted nickel and artificial ivory but were shipped to David Davidse to have the nickel engraved. They’re tied into a medium Gannaway bag (no grommets) and played with a Colin Kyo chanter and custom Husk chanter reed. Bore dimensions lead me to believe Atherton’s Legacy model is based in the Henderson tradition. Drone reed experiments ultimately led to the use of an X-TREME bass drone reed alongside regular Ezeedrone tenor reeds. A close second was just the standard Ezeedrone bass reed, however it blended more readily and was therefore subdued relative to the power of the X-TREME bass reed. Of course the Henderson Harmonic Deluxe bass reed was also good though not as bold, but trouble with consistency from this brand bass reed keeps me from using it. Other drone reeds tested include all commercially available Crozier reeds, Selbie, original Kinnaird, Henderson Harmonic Deluxe, Redwood, and perhaps a few others. The combination of Ezeedrone tenors with a carbon fiber bass is very common as are pipes made in the Henderson tradition, more than a coincidence in my opinion. Popular carbon fiber bass reeds used in this combination include the Original Kinnaird and now Evolution Kinnaird bass drone reeds as is the previously mentioned Henderson Harmonic Deluxe.
I am here to convince you that if you have not yet tried an X-TREME bass drone reed, you have not tried the best commercially available synthetic bass drone reed on the market. I used Original Kinnaird in my Gellaitry pipes for years until acquiring the X-TREME reeds at which point the X-TREME bass drone reed was used due to its superior tone. However, the Original Kinnaird tenor reeds remain in the Gellaitry as they give the tenors the extra power they need. A recording of this setup can be heard in this mp3 recording. Original Kinnaird tenors are too powerful for Henderson based pipes, and that proved true for this Legacy pipe; they were loud and brash. Henderson based pipes are known for their tenor volume and therefore a milder drone reed is needed. The X-TREME tenor reeds are a solid choice however regular Ezeedrone tenors offer a bit more harmonic overtone without being brash or nasal sounding. Following the success of the X-TREME bass reed in my Gellaitry pipes, it is not really surprising that it was also the best reed in the Legacy. It is deep and harmonic at the same time and is tonally superior to any other bass drone reed I’ve ever played, now proven in two commercially available pipes, Gellaitry and Atherton Legacy.
Vacation and illness have taken their toll on my playing ability and endurance. I hope you enjoy the recordings below. This is only a small selection of the music I played during today’s practice. The chanter and drone interaction was harmonically strong and very pleasing. A fine pipe capable of supporting the chanter quite well.
Having switched studios, my daughter’s yearly dance recital did not conflict with the Rio Grande Valley Celtic Festival & Highland Games in May (Albuquerque, NM) so I finally had a chance to return to a favorite games of mine, after 15 years if I’ve done my figuring correctly. At only 5 hours away this is the closest piping competition to Lubbock, TX. Two weeks later, I competed at my first indoor competition, the Austin Piping and Drumming Competition; Austin is 6 hours away. If I were not going to Yellowstone for vacation, I’d also attend the Pikes Peak Celtic Festival in Colorado Springs in another 2 weeks (about an 8 hour drive), making my competition season 4 weeks long. But, that’s it really for games that have piping competitions. There’s one in Tulsa, OK in September but I can’t find a website, hrm.
With owning many pipes, the first thing to do is pick which set of pipes to play in competition. The pipes I play most are my band pipes, my old Hendersons. The only other two currently in rotation are my Colin Kyo and Tim Gellaitry sets. It had been some time since I featured Tim’s pipe in competition and so I decided to go with them. This decision was reinforced by the glorious drone tone I’ve been getting with them. I have always loved the tone of them as one of the best and most stable using all original Kinnaird drone reeds, however I have recently switched to Chris Armstrong’s X-TREME bass drone reed and it is all sorts of fantastic. THE BEST BASS DRONE I HAVE EVER HEARD. Coupled with the tenors still using original Kinnaird, I get a most excellent, harmonic drone tone. I got many compliments from fellow competitors and judges alike on the tone of the drones. It should come as no surprise, my chanter of choice is Colin Kyo. A custom straight cut Husk was used in ABQ as their weather is similar to Lubbock’s but it started double toning on F in the humidity of Austin so about 10 minutes before I was to start my series of performances in Austin, I had to switch to a different CK chanter equipped with a Gilmour reed that’s as probably as old as my 7 year old son, luckily it played nicer with the humidity.
Below, you’ll find recordings of the pipes as played in Austin, though the chanter isn’t quite settled in for non-humid Lubbock as I’m still moving the reed and tape back to where they were prior to Austin. EJ Jones once told me it takes days to tune a bagpipe. TRUTH.
The mic is behind me so you can hear the drones clearly (understatement of the month). Most of the tunes below are competition tunes and some are ones I actually played, but not all.
One topic I have pondered much in recent years is tempo. I grew up listening to recordings of pipe music about as old as I was. Much of my MSR repertoire mimics the 1984 Grant’s Piping Championship album (available on iTunes if you can tolerate the random distortion from the “old” recording). While digitizing this album yesterday from my old cassette tape, I took a few tempo measurements. Iain MacFadyen played one of my MSR: Kantara to El Arish at 74 bpm, Inveraray Castle at 142 bpm, and Captain Lachlan MacPhail of Tiree at 95 bpm. Truly an engaging performance. The slowest reel came from Hugh MacCallum’s John MacKechnie at 85 bpm, Malcolm MacRae’s at 98, Murray Henderson’s at 92, Gavin Stoddart’s at 90, and Bill Livingstone’s at 94. Other strathspey tempos were anywhere from 128-138. Marches in the low 70s. I feel that common tempos have fallen to slightly lower values at the current time. Marches are often in the mid 60s, strathspeys right around 120, and reels in the low to mid 80s. While I have enjoyed more measured performances, with great care taken in rhythm, and have tried to mimic them on occasion, I have come to the conclusion that I prefer slightly faster tempos. Marches are for marching and strathspeys & reels are dance music (and I don’t mean modern highland dancing). Strathspeys are a derivative of reels evidenced by, if nothing else, the often quoted SWMW emphasis in 4/4 time strathspeys which directly coincides with the cut time of reels: 2/2. Piping has many idioms, and I find myself favoring the THIS IS A HIGHLAND BAGPIPE AND I’M GOING TO GET YOUR BLOOD PUMPING style because MACPHERSON HOLDS THE FLOOR.