I purchased every set of drone reeds for this independent review. Except the Ackland drone reeds, which Terry Ackland asked for my input in their development.
Title says it all. In addition to these reviews here are some interesting links: Want to hear what various drones with different reeds sound like without chanter? Go here. Here’s a post with a really good snapshot of what a bunch of drone reeds sound like in one pipe (D. MacPherson) all spliced back to back. Looking for a complete listing of just about every drone reed ever made? Go here. Recordings for each reed are included below (as I have time to add them).
What I Play
The proof is in the pudding, whatever that means. This is what I’m playing right now, in no particular order:
- Colin Kyo drones with Ackland Overtone 480 reeds all around. I had settled on Redwood tenors and Kinnaird Original bass just prior to that. In the past also liked Ezee, X-TREME, Crozier Glass, and Canning.
- Tim Gellaitry drones with X-TREME bass and original Kinnaird Original tenors (Crozier Glass all around is nice too).
- Chris Terry drones with Redwood tenors and Selbie bass (X-TREME bass also).
- 1950’s Henderson drones with standard X-TREME bass and tenors.
- 1960’s Sinclair drones with Selbie tenors and Redwood bass (opposite of my Terry’s, how convenient).
- Glencoe drones (lawrie spec) with standard Cannings all around with carbon fiber bass.
- Keith Jeffers drones with carbon fiber Robertson spec Rockets all around. On loan to a guy playing Canning with carbon fiber bass.
- ~1900 Cocuswood David Glens with Ackland Overtone Bb reeds all around. Previously Kinnaird Original reeds.
- Kron Standard: Ackland A440 reeds. These are my A440 pipes since I wasn’t floored with the tone at higher pitches, being rather mellow. However, the Ackland Overtone 440 reeds really make them sing!
What I don’t play and why
- Too buzzy = Balance Tone, Kinnaird Evolution,
- I can’t get them to work well = Crozier carbon V2, Redwood bass (this reed doesn’t work in any bass drone I’ve tested it in except for my Sinclair pipes, in which it is fabulous), Kinnaird Edge, Henderson Harmonic Deluxe (LOTS of people swear by these reeds, especially the bass, and I don’t dispute that they sound good. BUT over two different sets of reeds, I have had the bass reed simply shut off on me out of the blue: once at a funeral and once at a Burns supper concert, so they’re a no go for me),
- Might be solid reeds, I just haven’t found a pipe they were best in = Crozier carbon V1, SM-90, Crozier Cane,
- What are solid reeds, just haven’t found something that they’re best at = Crozier glass (discontinued, I believe)
Just want a bold, solid drone sound? Ackland Overtone drone reeds. Terry Ackland’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org. He makes them in A = 480 Hz, A = 466 Hz (Bb), and A = 440 Hz versions. The only difference between them is length.
Want to beef up some mellow tenors? I’d try these in this order: 1) Ackland 2) Redwood tenors 3) original Kinnaird 4) Selbie tenors 5) Canning tenors.
Have bold tenors and want to dial them back? Use Ezeedrone tenors, you’ll get an excellent ring over the top of an otherwise subtle tone. X-TREME tenors will give you very similar tone to the Ezeedrone but with just a little less ring.
Bass reeds are more fickle, I try to find one that is easily tuned as my top priority because if you can’t hear it to tune it, you’ll never sound good. I use a different bass reed in every pipe so it’s hard to recommend just one. At least, I used to say that. I’ve had great success with the Ackland Overtone bass in every pipe. It’s bold, strong, and easily tuned (as are the tenors). Second place goes to the X-TREME bass drone reed which is an excellent reed and was my go to reed for the bass; it is deep, raw, and harmonic in most pipes. The original Kinnaird is right behind the X-TREME. The standard Ezeedrone bass works too for a darker sound than most other bass reeds. I was a fan of the Ezeedrone short, inverted as being bolder but I had one crap out on me after not so much playing, so I dunno, I’m just using a normal one now. The Selbie and carbon fiber Canning are also good bets though a tad mellower than Ackland, X-TREME, or Kinnaird.
Me Droning On About How I Decide What Is A Good Match
Picking a set of drone reeds for your pipe is a very important decision. You want your drones to harmonically support your chanter, not just hum in the background. The last thing you want your pipe to sound like is a bombard with a bumblebee in the background. Some of the most interesting bagpipe sounds are those that when the chanter note changes, the drones sound different. This is a good indication that the drones are harmonically interacting with the chanter and aren’t just some noise in the background. For every pipe I own, I try to optimize the tonal quality of each set of drones by matching them with the best sounding set of drone reeds; which are going to be specific to each set of pipes.
There’s really not a catch all drone reed, in my opinion (since it’s my blog, lol). Again, something I used to say. I haven’t found a set of pipes that Ackland Overtone drone reeds sound bad in. For all sets, this has boiled down to finding which set of reeds gave me the best tenor sound coupled with a reliable, steady bass with the additional criteria that tenor and bass must blend well. All too often with synthetic drone reeds, people will buy one set, plug them in, and because they work out of the box, never give it another thought. Granted, working out of the box is a great advancement over cane, but unless you’re a lucky guesser, there’s better tone to be had. The problem is, I have found that more often that not, there are only a couple brands, or maybe even just one, of drone reed for each bagpipe that gives really good tone with the rest being mediocre *in comparison* to that standout set of reeds. Again, except that you’ll get a bold, interesting drone tone with Ackland reeds, no matter the make.
What I look for is a good solid tenor sound because the overtones provided by the tenors are what blend with the frequencies emitted by your chanter the most and what give you an overall well integrated pipe sound. Reeds that don’t sparkle in your set of pipes will just hum in the background and won’t support your chanter harmonically and then you’ll have the bombard/bee problem.
I have found a few brands of drone reed that I always seem to come back to, alphabetically: Ackland, Canning, Ezeedrone, original Kinnaird, Redwood (tenors), Selbie, and X-TREME. These all have good tenors with a solid bass (excepting the Redwood which I don’t care for the bass performance for strike-ins though it works great in my Sinclair pipes). Ackland reeds are bold, but not blaring. Big bass with tenors that blend, but don’t disappear. Fantastically easy to lock in the tuning. Genesis Kinnaird (meaning non-Evolution, original Kinnairds) will offer a bit more volume over Canning with similar relative amplitudes in the overtones. Selbie is also louder but with more overtones, so a good choice when you want to beef up what would be called a mellow pipe. Selbies in pipes that don’t need the volume help can become tedious to tune because you’ve got to get those overtones locked in just right. Redwood tenors have the interesting ability to provide lots of tenor volume without being overbearing in the overtone department, most of the volume concentrated in the fundamental and lower overtones making them a good alternative to Selbies when you want tenor volume without the tenor tuning tediousness in a bold pipe.
There are always two sides to every coin and one must always seek balance between tenor and bass. You don’t want tenors that are just screaming loud because the bolder the tenor the more precise the tuning must be. The reason why is best illustrated with an example. If you have one tenor at 240 Hz and another at 241 Hz, the beating frequency between the fundamentals will be 1 Hz, that’s the wawawa sound. But because they’re bold reeds you can clearly hear the overtones of which the first overtone is the octave up at 480 Hz and 482 Hz, respectively, with a beat frequency of 2 Hz, a faster wawawawa. Because some reeds are bolder, you’ll hear that beating easier at the overtone frequency because those overtones are louder. Practically I don’t actually hear the wawawa of the overtones (I don’t think) but a good analogy is that the fundamental wawawawa beating will dissipate but it will still sound off or “dirty”. All reeds will have overtones, you can’t get around that because that’s what drones do, but some reeds just bring the overtones out more and that’s usually what I’m looking for. Some people prefer to have rather mellow tenors so that well into a long piobaireachd or other set, if the drones have shifted pitch just a little bit, you can’t necessarily tell all that well because the tenors don’t have the amplitude in the higher overtones for the higher frequency wawawawa to be audible. That’s the way I look at it anyway. So while I like “big” tenors, you don’t want them too big. A good metric is to make sure your overall drone sound is well blended, meaning that you cap your tenor volume at the point at which they start to overpower your bass drone.
Alphabetical Listing and Links to Audio coupled with (Outdated) Comments, undoubtedly
Ackland Overtone – Terry Ackland is a Canadian drone reed maker. He previously made NovaCane, Spitfire, and Silverxonix reeds as shown as Andrew Lenz’s bagpipe drone reed guide. Several years ago I gave him some feedback on drone reeds with a plastic body and cane tongue; then a couple years after that he approached me again for help refining all plastic drone reeds. Two years of back and forth later, on a whim, he struck upon an excellent design for A = 440 Hz drone reeds that he ultimately just cut down in length to make 466 and 480 Hz reeds. From the get go, Terry’s vision for the reeds is that they be bold. Quite a bit of time was spent dialing the volume back. Other priorities were pressure stability, ease of tuning, and general applicability (works in any pipe). The current product is bold, well blended, and easy to tune. Bridle placement is more lax than other reeds, with smaller changes in efficiency allowing you to use the bridle to achieve the desired pitch if the tuning plug isn’t getting the job done. Due to their efficiency, you’ll need to be well practiced if you play in a band and need very clean cutoffs. The best recording on the blog at the moment is a whole session of me playing the 466 Hz, Bb model in my David Glen pipes which can be found here. I haven’t been recording much lately, but I’ll try to get more sound files of the 480 and 440 reeds up when I find the time.
Canning – These reeds are plug and play and produce a smooth tone. The tenors, while very smooth, can be a little brassy which indicates a strong fundamental and overtones. If the tenors are a little too brassy for your tastes, head on over to Ezee drone tenors. The bass reed is more commonly a carbon fiber tongued reed which is deep sounding but not overbearing. The rarer polycarbonate tongue bass is more robust producing tones that range from broad spectrum harmonically to just deeper than the carbon fiber. Find which one gives the best blend.
Colin Kyo (early Henderson) – (tenors) good reeds for this bagpipe – I have used Canning tenors as heard here and in the other recordings in this post. This is a recording of Colin Kyo bagpipes with Canning tenors with the following bass drone reeds in order: 1. Canning carbon fiber 2. Crozier glass 3. Kinnaird Evolution 4. Ezeedrone (regular) 5. Henderson Harmonic Deluxe 6. old Kinnaird (from this post).
Jeffers – polycarbonate bass works well – recording here.
Gibson – I understand they are also fantastic in Gibson bagpipe though I have no recordings of that combination.
Crozier Cane – Good tone, but bass hard to set up. It’s got a long tongue that needs springing, apparently, and I just never bothered to figure it out. Tenors smooth but not voluminous. I initially used the tenors in my Gellaitry’s paired with some random bass. Here they can be heard with a Kinnaird bass from this post. The Crozier brand of products utilizes flat tongues with curved bodies.
Crozier Carbon – The bass reed on my set of reeds is a bit weak volume wise. Tenors very smooth and powerful so would have to be paired with a different bass reed. Tenors are very bright. The nose cone plug, while airtight, can be a pain to move in and out relative to the ease of those systems which have a screw; rotate the plug to move it in and out. The other two Crozier reeds listed use the same tuning plug. I don’t have any recordings of a full set up as the bass is too quiet for me to mess with relative to the tenors. As far as the tenors are concerned, this recording is of my Gellaitry’s with Kinnaird bass with both Crozier carbon tenors (first) and Kinnaird tenors (second), you can see why I stick with Kinnaird in the Gellaitry. Here we have a set of tunes with the Crozier carbon tenors and Kinnaird bass in the Gellaitry’s from that post. The Crozier brand of products utilizes flat tongues with curved bodies.
Crozier Glass – These are powerful reeds with a good blend between bass and tenor. I’m hesitant to use the word rough, but they don’t produce a smooth sound; which isn’t a bad thing, just different. Buzzy isn’t really indicative of what I mean either. Should the standard reeds I’ve picked for each pipe (individually optimized by brand for tone) should fail, I know I can grab these, stick them in, and they’ll play and sound well. You get a deeper sound overall. The Crozier brand of products utilizes flat tongues with curved bodies.
Colin Kyo – Solid reeds but are a bit sharp. If you’ve got flat drones that tune way down on the pins, these are the drone reeds for you. The tenors and bass blend really well. Not the loudest reeds out there, but not the quietest either. A really solid set of reeds that are just relatively sharp to most if not all other brands, these are my backup reeds to my backup set of reeds. Recording here in Colin Kyo bagpipes from this post. You can hear them in a set of H. Starck pipes in this recording from this post. I don’t think Murray makes these anymore.
Ezeedrone – The tenors are the most commonly used today and many also use the regular bass reed as well. The tenors are very good at giving you just a little ring off the top without any blaring. The bass comes in several varieties and while the standard is bold it is also a little dark, maybe too dark, maybe, but I do like it’s tone in my Colin Kyo pipes. Many prefer the inverted bass version, as it is still bold but less dark (okay maybe slightly mellower). My experience has the short inverted bass as being more bold than the regular inverted bass so there’s that variable you can play with. All around, a set of reeds that will make just about any pipe sound pretty decent. Also, I’m not sure it’s possible to have a higher level of quality control. I’m starting to love these reeds!
Colin Kyo – Ezeedrone are tied with Canning tenors for tone in CK pipes as evidenced by this recording from this post. The Ezeedrone is slightly less brassy. In that recording it’s paired with a Henderson Harmonic Deluxe bass drone reed (this is a very popular combination among the big guns!) I have personally switched from Canning to Ezeedrone in my CK pipes which gives a slightly mellower tone but with great bass presence and just a little tenor ring over the top. For boosted tenor volume, substitute Redwood tenors in. Examples of both can be heard in this post. Switch to a SHORT inverted Ezeedrone bass for a more powerful bass and great overall tone and blend with the Redwood tenors.
Henderson Harmonic Deluxe (the best price I’ve found them for in the states is at nwbagpipes) – Good smooth reeds. The bass reed is a very popular bass reed and the tenors are the smoothest carbon fiber reeds you’ll come across. They have excellent harmonics as expected for something designed by Murray Henderson. They have an odd tendency when not played to need to get warmed up or they shut off. Odd because they’re synthetic reeds with a carbon fiber tongue. Here is a recording of them in D. MacPherson bagpipes from this post. Here‘s a really old recording of them in my 1950’s Henderson’s from this post. The tongues are flat. The reed body has a “cliff” (like a fulcrum) behind the bridle that the securing-bridle pulls the reed down into lifting the tongue off the reed body, making it the bridles’ job to pull the tongue back down, hence providing the tongue, reed-body gap. This is the exact same mechanism as employed by Armstrong’s X-TREME drone reeds.
Kinnaird – They currently have three versions of their reeds, the old standard (original or as I call them Genesis, haha), Evolution, and Edge. The old standard bass is probably as popular as the Ezee tenor reeds. Good solid sound all around. Kinnaird originals and Evolution have tongues with a natural curve to them, hence movement of the bridle isn’t always productive because they’re set to a specific strength during the “curving” process. As such, they sell “regular/standard” AND “easy” strength tongues. Despite playing at around 32″ H2O pressure, I’m inclined to try “easy” tongues. Their Edge model utilizes a fulcrum and an adjustable screw to push the back of the tongue down over the fulcrum to lift the tongue. I found myself utilizing just the anchoring bridle without any extra help from the adjustable screw to get the bass set as well as I could (which wasn’t all that well) and I found no particular advantage in tone from the tenors than to just get Kinnaird originals.
Gellaitry – I used a full set of the originals in my Gellaitry pipes as you can hear in here and here from this post for quite some time. Here’s another super good recording from this post. I would guess the Gellaitry’s are the most recorded pipe on the blog so dig around, I’ll bet you’ll find more with all Kinnairds (like here’s a Piobaireachd from this post).
The Evolution reeds go beyond the original, adding power in the form of bolder overtones from the tenors and a deeper, more solid bass. My experience is that in those changes, they have become more buzzy, too buzzy in my opinion. Selbie can provide similar overtone performance without the buzz. Here you can hear a set with the Evolution reeds in my Gellaitrys (naturally since I already played regular Kinnairds in them) from this post which also included the same tune set played with the regular Kinnairds here. A big take away from the comparison is the overtones on the Evolution tenors are so bold that you can tell my E is a little out of tune with the E overtone produced by the drones. That and the buzz. They would make great band reeds to match the volume of big holed band chanters with big, loud ridge cut reeds in them. I would not use them for a solo instrument.
Redwood – The tenors are pretty decent reeds with good tone and volume. A great selection for volume and tone but without the twang of some other bolder tenor reeds. The bass growls like crazy and is hard to set for most pipes, but works great in my 1960’s Sinclairs, spectacular even. Bass reed strike-ins in other pipes can be unreliable, but again in the Sinclairs not much compares. Unique tone you won’t get from any other set of reeds though. Mellow and powerful at the same time, with a good blend once the bass comes in. Plenty harmonics. Here’s a recording in Gellaitry bagpipes from this post.
Jeffers – Redwood tenors and an inverted Ezeedrone bass can be heard in (watch out, this one is chanter loud at the beginning until I rotate away from the mic) this recording from the Single Recording Archive.
Rocket – I understand these reeds are no longer made. Great reeds. Design of the reeds change depending on what pipe they’re made for. I played Atherton MacDougall spec in my 1950’s Hendersons for a while but decided it was just a poor match with regard to air consumption despite the glorious tone they produced (a function of the reed/drone combo, not just the reeds). I previously used Naill spec Rockets in those Hendersons, but the blend wasn’t as good, but of course, I’m using them in a pipe they weren’t designed for. Since you’ll be buying used you’ll just have to hope they work. For instance, the Robertson spec Rocket bass reed does not work at all in my 1950’s Hendersons; when tuning the wawawa will slow but will never stop and after some point the beating will get faster again, so there’s no point at which it will tune. The Robertson spec Rockets are now at home in my Jeffers pipes where they work great! Here’s my Henderson’s with the MacD Rockets in the tenors and the Naill Rocket in the bass from this post. The full set of MacD Rockets in the Hendersons can be heard here (a tune named after me) from this post. Robertsons with Robertson Rockets can be heard in this post (here’s one of the recordings). Robertsons with the old Naill spec Rockets can be heard in this post but a couple better files are on the Single Recording Archive page (here’s one of the recordings and here’s the other). There’s a few other recordings on this site of Rocket drone reeds but they’re predominantly all played in pipes they weren’t designed for, so maybe not the best representation. For example, the Naill spec Rockets in a set of Robertson pipes sounded particularly fantastic here from this post (haha, I forgot I used the same old Naill spec Rockets in this set of Robertsons as I did in the other set of Robertsons just mentioned a couple of sentences before. I’m editing this page, can you tell? haha). One thing you’ll undoubtedly get from a set of Rockets is volume so if you like a sweet mellow setup, they may not be for you. However, carbon fiber tongued Rockets are mellower than the glass fiber models. They are also incredibly reliable and steady. You can hear unknown spec Rockets in my Terry pipes in this recording from this post or in Bb in this recording from this post.
Selbie – These reeds are plug and play, very bold with some of the biggest harmonics out there. They go great in mellow pipes to really liven them. That’s not to say they also don’t go great in other pipes, however, I found them irritating to tune in my more tenor bold Hendersons. I have used these in my Jeffers (loosely Duncan MacDougall spec with modified tenors) and previously used them in my Glencoe (Lawrie spec) pipes.
X-TREME – by Chris Armstrong. Solid reeds, maybe a bit tenor mellow. The fundamental tone is weaker than most other tenor reeds but the overtones are stronger, making for a unique combination. Imagine Ezeedrone tenors, just slightly quieter. They’re not buzzy so that’s nice given that they’re all carbon fiber tongued reeds. They’re marketed to be very highly moisture resistant if you buy the premium version which is about $30 more than the $100 regular versions. Though, I’ve got a picture of moisture on the bass reed I need to post. I recommend you buy the regular version as the premium version’s body material is not as robust and can be more easily bent if you apply too much pressure when setting the reed in the drone reed seat. The tongues are flat. The reed body has a “cliff” (like a fulcrum) behind the bridle that the anchoring-bridle pulls the reed down into lifting the tongue off the reed body, making it the bridles’ job to pull the tongue back down, hence providing the tongue, reed-body gap. This is the exact same mechanism as employed by Henderson Harmonic Deluxe drone reeds and the new Kinnaird Edge. Here’s a clip with the mic drone side from my full review post here. However, I’ve had more time with the reeds and they are quite nice. The bass gives my Gellaitry drones a whole new voice and the tenors are finally reigned in my finicky Hendersons. A must in any drone reed guru’s toolbox. Here’s a recording with the X-TREME bass in my Gellaitry’s: here.