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.
Just a tune I found scouring thesession.org and recognized from some highland pipe recording; the ending of the first part is rather distinctive. It is embellished rather simply, preferring half doublings over full doublings, especially for smallpipes (trying to minimize use of the piercing high G grace note). This tune is one that can be played in Irish sessions as it is already in the correct key signature for smallpipes in “A”. I have taken 2 versions of the tune that fit the range of the smallpipes from thesession.org and simply added highland bagpipe embellishments. Along these lines, I have created a new page on the blog cataloging the tunes I’m aware of that (mostly) fit the A smallpipe scale and can be played at Irish sessions, borrowing from the Irish session repertoire. The tunes that I don’t risk violating copyright are located in a Free Tune Book. Please let me know if you are aware of any other tunes that need to be in the list and/or in the tune book, it’s a group effort!
I probably found The Canongate Twitch browsing through thesession.org looking for tunes that fit the range of the different kinds of bagpipes I play (6 now, I think, though 3 of those nominally have the same, Scottish, scale). I thought, “what a great tune, shame about the first line phrase endings.” So I rewrote them, as I was in a bit of a composing fit at the time.
Turns out this tune has been covered before by The Battlefield Band and The Tannahill Weavers (cannot verify). Perhaps it references the Canongate district of Edinburgh? The tune has similarities in the first part to The Woman of the House in the centre in David Glen’s Irish Tunes for for the Scottish and Irish War Pipes. Woman of the House is yet another tune that has similarities but isn’t close enough to be quite the same tune, in my opinion (I’ve added it to my list of tunes I’m going to learn on the uilleann pipes though).
If we take this source (which attributes the Tannahill Weavers for the setting), the Tannies and the Batties play very similar versions of The Canongate Twitch, so there’s history somewhere in there, I’m just not sure how to connect the dots. Below I’ve provided the Batties/Tannies version along with my own so you can decide which you like better for yourself. If you feel my setting lacks the usual number of gracenotes expected for a highland pipe setting, I decided to cut back on the number of gracenotes my brain was automatically adding because I felt it was just too much and they got in the way of the melody.
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.
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:
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):
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?!
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).
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:
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?
I have long been enamored with Brian McNamara’s uilleann pipe rendition of King of the Pipers from his album Fort of the Jewels (a great album you should buy). There aren’t any links for you to listen to any part of this album online that I found given a cursory search. Anyways, the tune doesn’t fit the highland pipe scale restrictions so I arranged a highland pipe version. Below you can hear me play it following Lark in the Morning. The tune has a couple of names it’s known by. The superimposed notes at the end of the first part in the sheet music are my lazy way of doing 1st (D) and 2nd (B) endings.
There’s another Irish jig that has been arranged for the highland pipes, Friar’s Britches (or Frieze Breeches). You can hear Andrew Carlisle play it in the Winter Storm Ceol Beag final on Facebook (his performance starts at 1:05:00, jig starts at 1:10:45). This seems to be Andrew’s go to jig as I’ve heard him play it at this competition several times. So there is some history to modifying cool Irish jigs to fit the highland pipe scale.