Adjusting your Drone Reeds to the Proper Pitch!
We’ve been talking about air-efficiency of your bagpipe, being the stocks and attached components. In my previous post I focused on the air-efficiency of your drone reeds and how to balance them to the strength of your chanter reed. Today we’re going to talk about setting the pitch of the drone reeds.
Let’s start at where we want to end up and work our way backwards. When your reeds are properly set to the pitch of your chanter, your tenor tops should be positioned at the bottom on the hemp line on the tenor bottoms. This enables the drone to achieve maximum resonance delivering the full potential of your drones.
The bass drone top section should also be positioned at the bottom of the hemp line on the bass mid-section. The mid-section should ride a bit lower, perhaps about the width of two fingers off the top projecting mount on the bass bottom. This is more or less a “rule-of-thumb” and may vary slightly from brand to brand. Don’t be tricked into thinking that a fully extended bass drone is the optimal position. You’ll probably have strike-in issues if the mid-section is riding too high on the bottom joint pin.
Now, assuming that you’ve already set up the reeds to achieve maximum air-efficiency, tune your drones to your chanter and take note of where they are positioned. I’m going to mention here that you need to be playing a tune during this process. Pick something simple that you’re comfortable playing. You are most apt to blow the proper pitch when playing a simple tune. In comparison, you’re most likely to blow below-pitch if you’re simply playing Low A. When asked to play Low A, most pipers will start out at the proper pitch but then get flatter and flatter the longer they hold the note. If you want to rest on Low A briefly, no problem. Do it within the context of a tune and pay attention.
We’ll just work with the tenor drones for now. If the tenor top-section is half-way down the tuning pin on the bottom section, your reeds are pitching flat, relative to your chanter. You need to sharpen up the pitch of the reed which will allow you to extend the drone to the optimal tuning position, as mentioned above.
Ways to sharpen a reed:
- Insert the reed deeper into the reed seat
- Shorten the reed
- Shorten the tongue
- Lessen the weight of the tongue
- Sleeve the bore of the reed
You probably won’t have to resort to the more radical remedies however I thought I would mention them for the sake of being thorough. I don’t expect people to be rushing out to sleeve the bore or adjust the aperture on their reeds, however logically speaking, these factors do have an impact on the pitch of a reed.
If my top-section is tuning half-way down the pin, the first thing I’m going to do is to ensure the reed is seated as deeply into the reed seat as possible. Next I’m going to check the bridle position. I may be able to move the bridle just a smidge to sharpen the pitch of the reed without causing it to shut down when being played. Assuming that neither of these adjustments cures the situation, I’m probably going to try to shorten the reed by means of the tuning apparatus at the end of the reed. Some reeds have a push/pull plug where others have a screw style plug. Both do the same job. Other reeds may have a removable nose cone with cavity. This cavity may be lengthened or shortened by means of a threaded plug or, in the case of the Rocket Reed, modeler’s clay. The concept is all the same. Shorten the reed and you sharpen the pitch.
I would consider lessening the weight of the tongue and inserting a sleeve into the bore of the reed both radical measures not intended for the unskilled or faint-of-heart. In the days of cane reeds, we would sort through dozens of reeds to select the few that were “right” for our particular bagpipe and set-up. As the pitch of the chanter rose, we would select the narrowest reeds we could find and we avoided those reeds with wide, heavy tongues.
If you feel the need or desire to assault a particular reed in this fashion, the outcome will depend heavily on your personal skill in so doing. Reeds today are extremely well-designed and radical home-remedies should not be necessary.
If your drone tops are more than 1/3 the way up the hemp, this is a bit precarious and you may want to bring them down just a tad.
Ways to flatten a reed:
- Extend the reed away from the reed seat
- Lengthen the reed
- Lengthen the tongue
- Increase the weight of the tongue
- Open the bore of the reed
You can extend the reed by using a bit of hemp and not inserting it so deeply into the reed seat. You also may want to employ drone-extenders. These are handy little gizmos and work like a charm.
Again, back in the old days, if a reed was too sharp, we’d put a drop of sealing wax on the tongue. The additional weight would cause the tongue to vibrate at a slower frequency, dropping the pitch just a tad.
With the bass drone, the top section should be stationary at the hemp-line of the mid-section. This should not be adjusted, ever. Set it there and leave it there. This allows engages the full potential of the various tuning chambers and bores. All adjustments to the pitch of the bass drone should be accomplished by moving the mid-section up and down the tuning pin on the bass-bottom section. Most bass drones are happiest with the mid-section tuning about two fingers off the bass-bottom top projecting mount. Any higher and you may find a tendency for the drone to double-tone during strike-ins.
That’s pretty much it for the mechanics of your drones. Inspect them periodically to ensure no intruders have established a home inside, no cracks are present, and the bushings are secure. All of these things have been known to happen to the detriment of both sound and behavior. Drone reeds continue to evolve. We may dedicate a future blog to discussing cane and its qualities. I’m a strong believer that everyone should, at some point, play a set of cane drone reeds. It will awaken your ears to a sound that synthetic reeds strive to duplicate!