How to tune a pipe corps

Drones don’t lie. Neither do your ears. Blowing scales is useless.

But before we get to that, you actually do have to start with the chanter. That is, which one are you playing? What reeds are you playing in it? Where do high A and low A produce an octave gap without any tape on either? Are there any notes consistently flat with this chanter/reed combo? Why all these questions? Well, you need to pick a pitch. What frequency will you choose to tune your low A to? Ideally, it’s the pitch that your low A and high A tune to without any tape on either, and you’ve got no flat notes, only sharp notes, in between. But, that is usually a pipe dream, pun intended. Pipe chanter reeds are variable enough even among the same maker that there is going to be some variability. You’ve also got these new fangled band chanters with oval holes, effectively pre-carved, for your convenience. So, what then? Pick an average pitch that is readily attainable. Some chanters may have the reed sunk in a little farther to get the low hand up to pitch requiring tape on the top hand, some chanters will need the reed a little farther out to get the top hand flat enough with some tape on the bottom hand. It goes all ways. The last thing to consider: chronically flat notes. Sure, you can carve, go for it. If you don’t want to, there is an alternative. Set your pitch to where that note is in tune, provided it isn’t too flat, and tape all the other notes down to that one note. In a band setting, this ensures that you have maximum flexibility in tuning chanters because you’ve got tape on just about every hole. Also consider that a lot of reeds produce flat C(#)’s and F(#)’s prior to being broken in. While a dental elastic band bridle can bring those notes up to pitch while also making the reed easier, well, that’s just one more part of the equation. But, you’ve got a bunch of people in the pipe corps, and their reeds may be at varying stages of being blown in at any given time. If the C and F aren’t too flat with new reeds, set the pitch where C and F are in tune, and as the reed is broken in, add tape to C and F. That way, even the guys breaking in reeds aren’t flat on C and F. Now, someone is going to mention that all you have to do is give the reed a little squeeze and the C and F will come up to pitch. Yeah, okay, maybe sometimes. But you know what, there are a lot of not so great reeds out there. I can’t count the number that I gave a little squeeze to and they immediately died. I don’t mean I pulverized them, just a gentle squeeze and they lost all decent tone. They would still play but lackluster is the adjective of choice. Plus, who wants to go squeezing their reeds all the time. Put the pipes down for a few minutes while the PM blabs on about something for a minute and your reed has opened up in the meantime. Also, squeezing the reed is going to change your overall pitch. So, you’re only in tune after you’ve squeezed the reed. Or, is your C and F now in tune but the rest of your scale went sharp too? Ah! Too many variables. The less varied hand manipulation you have to do to each reed in the band the more likely you’re going to be in tune. One guy has to squeeze his reed 5 times, you’ve got to squeeze twice, oh the pain never ends. The less that guy on the other side has to fiddle with his reed manually, the better. Put the chanter in and play, that’s the goal. Okay, you could use the bridle to bring C and F up (I do), and also ease the reed. Put a couple wraps of the band no more than half way up the reed (any higher and you’ll start squeezing the reed in such a way that the blades may start to separate). As the reed breaks in you should be able to pull the bridle off and the C and F will still be up to pitch (and maybe now require tape if you’ve chosen a flatter pitch) and any strength in the reed you lost during the break in will be regained to some degree once the bridle is removed. Note though, a bridle on the reed is going to really bring up the pitch of the top hand, so you may have to reseat the reed as the bridle is removed. But I digress, you could just pick a pitch where those pesky C’s and F’s on new reeds are in tune and you’ve probably taped low A and high A down to match, along with the rest of the notes. The sign of a bad chanter/reed combination: still flat C’s and F’s with reeds that are broken in. Seek ye a different reed or a better chanter to suit. Okay, you can carve, don’t forget that. Point of all this is: you need to pick a pitch that you can get any of your chanters to with your choice of reed. <- that’s a period. Those are just some of the things to think about.

So, you’ve picked a pitch. Great! It’s only good for one day. Why? The ambient weather conditions will always dictate your absolute pitch. So what’s the skinny, go with it. Forget your absolute pitch “On The Day”. Everybody’s chanters are pretty much going to change pitch the same, so don’t worry about it. BUT! For now we’re going to assume you’ve got your absolute band pitch. We’re going to say you’ve picked the number 480 Hz for your band’s low A. Yay! Rough tune every band member’s chanter by mouth blowing the chanter at a tuner set at your band’s pitch. If you set the tuner to 480, it should read A when you play low A or high A. If you set the tuner to 454 the tuner should say Bb. It’s the same thing. 440 Hz is the standard A these days and Bb is roughly 466: 466 – 440 = 26 Hz. 480 – 26 = 454. Ta da! Don’t get confused. Some people use the Bb convention (454) and some people use the A convention (480). Just pick one. Probably best if you’re going over 480 for your pitch to use the Bb convention because Korg tuners don’t go any higher than 480 so you’re forced to use the Bb reference unless you want to memorize a lot of offsets in cents, which you shouldn’t want to do because you already have to memorize the normal offset in cents for each note required by the just intonation scale. If you have no idea what that means, you need to read this. Of course, you might be using one of those bagpipe specific tuners which have the offsets from normal equal temperament tuning already built in; if so, great! Back to the subject at hand, rough tuning the chanters. Yeah, this is really approximate. Why? Because everybody is unique and “special”. Once you get their chanter in their pipe, everybody is going to blow different than how you did by mouth. No worries, I’m just operating under the assumption that you might be ‘hearable’ by the public during your band rehearsal and we don’t want you sounding like total crap.

Get everybody playing together. None of this walk around separately warming up your pipes, wasting time. Why? Some guy is going to play the whole time straight. Some other guy is going to diddle with his drone reed and play 30 seconds. Some guy got to practice 30 minutes early and hasn’t quit playing yet. This has got to stop. Everybody get your pipes out, and play, together. If you’ve got a dedicated non-player to tune drones, that’s cool. I bet 99% of bands don’t. Oh well. In that case, the PM or PS should be the tuner guy. Meaning his pipes are on the table not doing anything while he/she is going around the circle with a Korg tuner set to the reference pitch tuning everyone’s drones to pitch.

There is no stig. The idea of a master chanter that everybody tunes to is all well and good I guess, or not. That guy is doing a lot more playing than everybody else, which can be a bad thing. This guy is usually one of your best players, you don’t want to wear him out. Also, you’ve got him playing and everybody else sitting around until it’s their turn. Man, everybody else’s chanter is going to go flat while they’re sitting around and you aren’t going to have a clue where their chanter really is pitch wise when it comes to be their turn. So who’s the stig? Well, drones don’t lie. You had someone go around and tune each person’s drones during the warm up to the reference pitch. After the first 5-10 minutes of playing you’re going to know whose chanters really aren’t so close. Go around the circle and have each person play a little snippet. Scotland the Brave is great for this. You hit low A, C, E, and high A in the first 2 bars and big D’s and F’s in the 3rd bar. Takes no time at all to figure out how far out a chanter is from that person’s drones. Note: guy with the tuner should be making sure the guy who is playing has drones that are still set to the reference pitch as some drone reeds will change pitch just like chanter reeds in the first few minutes of warm up. It’s that easy. Go around once, play as a band some more. Go around again. Check individual chanters against the drones! All too often, bands will check chanters against a master chanter. Most notes are pretty close, one note a little off, move that piece of tape and good enough. But hey, that guy’s reed really could just be pushed in a little farther, drones will help you figure that out. Also, forget the scales. There’s this E, B, low A, low G, low A, B, C, D, E, F, high G, high A thing going around. Why, I have no idea. No one blows the same with this little dinky scale exercise as they will playing a tune. So don’t bother trying to tune to it. You’ll only set yourself up for disappointment. So, here is where your ears don’t lie. You gotta be able to tell if the guy’s chanter is just a little out of tune with his drones. You’re looking for general flat or sharpness. The chanter balance is either flat, in tune, or sharp to the reference pitch as indicated by the drones. Until you get the right balance, farting around with fine tuning is pointless because you haven’t even gotten the reed at the right depth in the chanter yet. Also, don’t be afraid to use hemp. I don’t know how many people I see who move reeds in and out without changing the hemp. This is crazy! But, I will say threaded reed seats do allow this a little. But here’s the deal yo, you want that reed in there and seated well. You ain’t gonna impregnate anything if you’re not all the way in and the last thing you need is your reed dancing a jig in the reed seat. Seriously, take a wrap of hemp off or put another wrap of hemp on and stick it back in. AS FAR AS IT WILL GO. With that in mind, most of my hemp is at the bottom of the reed to facilitate such adjustments. I guess if your reed seat is so gigantic that the hemp further up the reed wrapped around the binding instead of the bottom of the staple actually affects how far in the reed is, well, go ahead, though this just sounds iffy to me. The point is, put that (expletive deleted) thing in there, please. For the sake of eliminating variables, all the way in. The hemp will control how far it goes in.

Pipe bands are pipe bands, every person is different. You’ll quickly learn who under blows relative to you and vis versa. Easy reeds tend to tune sharper, harder reeds flatter. It’s all in the juggling act. You’ll figure it out. Also, tuning up this way is less irritating to the drummers. Why? Well, there’s none of this band of solo meandering pipers looking for a place to tune their (relatively) out of tune chanter. You’re always playing as a band, be it warmup or full rehearsal.

So, you’ve tuned up the band. Rule #1. Don’t touch it. The fastest way to piss off the PM is to say you moved the reed during the week. Your intentions are meaningless. Don’t touch it. Play it, but don’t touch it. The last thing any band wants is to have to go through the tuning process at every rehearsal. That, is a pain in the woohoo. Like I said, ambient conditions are gonna change your pitch. So don’t go fiddling with the reed to reacheive band pitch in your 60 degree garage when you practice with the band on Sunday afternoons when it is 95 outside. It ain’t gonna happen. Just retune your drones and move on, maybe move some tape a micrometer, at most. Same thing when the whole band gets together. You’ve replaced your cozy 73 degree church auditorium for the competition circle in Baghdad and it’s 120 degrees outside. Don’t go chasing after your band’s set reference pitch. Cause all you’re going to end up doing is retuning everybody’s chanter and wasting a lot of time and effort. Warm the band up and try to set the drones about normal. First thing you notice is they’ll be all out of tune. That is, the chanters won’t be in tune with the drones. So after warm up, go around the circle measuring everyone’s low A and figure out if everybody is flat to reference pitch or sharp. If it’s colder than usual, you’re going to be flatter. If it’s hotter than usual, you’re going to be sharper. Once you’ve got where everybody’s low A has moved to, go around again and retune to today’s reference pitch. Ta da, you should be done. Not always as sometimes the weather has just funkified everything and you’ve got to move a few reeds. Maybe it’s really humid and everybody’s hard reed just turned to mush and they’re overblowing and you’ve got to pull the reeds out a bit, it happens. The point is, your reference pitch in your cozy band hall may always be 480, but on a chilly St. Patrick’s day parade morning, you’re going to be around 473 more likely just because the air is colder.

A last little personal note. How many bands are there out there in the great wide open that exist primarily because of one or two highly skilled players trying to organize the masses in a band. Yeah, I’m talking to you, some odd 25 year old chap been playing half your life leading 8, 40 something year old guys who have an average of 4 years on the pipes. Don’t put your tuning as a priority above everybody else. Even if you’re the guy going around tuning the band, you’re not responsible for tuning your drones. Your drones should be tuned to the reference pitch just like everybody else’s with a tuner, by somebody else, while you’re playing a tune. None of this finger gymnastics tune by ear non-sense. You blow differently playing a tune than gymnastics just like everybody else. Also, your chanter isn’t the stig anymore, that job has been moved to each person’s drones. Also, it makes you look like an @$$ when you go around spending 10 seconds to tune each guy’s drones with a tuner and then you make them wait 5 minutes while you prepare like you’re about to go on stage at the Glenfiddich. Ideally, once you’re done going around the circle, hand the tuner off to some random guy in the circle, join the band in playing and have him tune your drones. Pick a new guy each time. You never know when you’ll need your non-standard pipe sergeant to do the dirty work. It might be the guy you cut on the day of competition. Sure would be nice if the guy not playing knew how to tune the band’s drones, wouldn’t it? Then you could focus on the playing and music and not the hive of bumblebees 8 sets of out of tune drones sound like.

The drones are the foundation of a pipe corps. They all have to be playing at the same pitch. Tune them with a tuner while the band is playing tunes. Forget stopping off drones and playing scales to the stig’s master chanter. You’re going to blow different and you’re going to miss the balance of the chanter because you’re analyzing it note by note instead of the average against the drones. I’m also gonna bet since you’re comparing chanter to chanter, you’ll just be tuning each person’s drones individually to their chanter, under the assumption their chanter is in tune. Nope! You’re going to get a hive of bumblebees, at least that’s what the drones will sound like.

Some variations on a theme. Some bands will have the stig play, then have another player start up next to them playing, and then the tuner guy will tune that person’s drones by ear to the stig’s drones. I guess this works too, but it can be tough. Eliminate the variables and use a tuner. Buy a Korg, those things work. Don’t need to plop down the dough for a bagpipe tuner when all you’re doing is looking for a little green light. That being said, I use the tuner for individual notes when each guy is going around testing his chanter against the drones. But again, we’re not playing scales. In going around, each player should be playing a tune, no scales! Drones don’t lie, and neither do tuners. Maybe the stig’s F is a teeny bit flat. No worries if you’re standard is the tuner. If some note sounds off have them play up to that note and hold it. Given the offsets in the pdf above, there’ll be no guess work whether it is sharp or flat and you can fix it quick. I just thought of another reason the stig is a bad idea. You have to assume this guy is blowing the exact same for every guy in the band who is coming up one at a time. You think after 10 pipers of the same boring old scale he’s going to be blowing the same for the last guy as he did the first, the second time around? I don’t think so. Drones don’t lie, just make sure they’re in tune on the quick solo checks.

So, those are my thoughts. I started as a PM of a band and I tuned them like I tune solo. Meaning, I tuned myself and then tuned their chanters to mine and then their drones to them playing low A, just like I tune myself. Big mistake. We’ve switched to tuning the drones, I’ve dropped my ego and let somebody else tune my drones, and we’ve got a solid drone sound on which to build a great chanter sound. It also helps teach pipers to listen to their drones and blow tone. One of the hardest things to do is play between two players who have a different pitch than you, and if their drones are tuned to their chanters and not a standard, it’s all the harder. You’re (subconsciously) always trying to find them to blend in. If you’ve got the drones all set, there’s a foundation on which to base your ‘blowing tone’. If you’re finding you’re having to blow harder to get your chanter up to pitch to your drones, your chanter is flat. If you’re really having to back off, your chanter is sharp. You would never be able to tell if your drones are sharp or flat were they just tuned to your low A on an individual basis. Drones don’t lie.

One thought on “How to tune a pipe corps

  1. real good post. loaded with a lot of info that we sometimes forget or just blow off. If it ain’t broke dont fix. Like you said the best way to PO the PM is putz around with the reed and move it. Leave the blasted thing be and let the PM do the moving…if he messes it up thats his doing , if you mess it up you will be a dead person walking!

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