Some Thoughts About Bagpipe Pitch

Continuing my recent theme of bagpipe-related posts, one thing I don’t think I could gloss over is an issue that has bothered me for a long time now – the ever-increasing pitch of the bagpipe.

An old grad school friend of mine last night remarked to me that it seemed to her that the pitch of the bagpipe has increased sharply (pun fully intended!) in the modern time. I reassured her that it was not just her ears playing tricks on her. This trend is a real thing and it’s just not a good trend in my view.

As for why this trend is a thing, despite a lot of pipers not being happy with the trend? Well, let’s just say pipe band competition drives a lot of market trends in the industry and pipe bands (particularly at the top levels of competition where minutia can make the difference between a first place and last place finish). For whatever reason, bands tended to note that if they pitched their chanters (and subsequently their drones) just a shade higher than the rest of the field it gave them an edge in scoring, most likely because a higher pitched sound is perceived as louder (well, at least within the normal operating range of the bagpipe). As such, the stage was set for an arms race for who could produce the highest pitched sound.

This trend took an instrument that once pitched a few hertz higher than concert Bb (that’s B-flat for you non-musical people) to one that now pitches right at B (natural). In the last 10 years we’ve seen almost a half-step increase in the pitch.

So why is it a problem, so long as the instrument is tuned well? The answer is the higher up you go in pitch the more of the upper harmonics (upper partials if you will) you lose as they become inaudible to the human ear as they are now in a frequency range the human ear does not detect. What you gain in perception of volume and clarity you lose in richness of tone. In the band scene this might not be a huge issue when you have multiple instruments to fill the sound out, but a soloist at today’s modern band pitch does not sound pleasant. Hell, it’s even so high now that bands don’t sound pleasant anymore.

Let’s do some case in point here. Same band, 10 years apart. One performance from 2008 and one from 2018. The difference in pitch is absolutely shocking.

This has no doubt gotten out of hand. Alas, it’s harder and harder to find lower pitched chanters these days, which is why I was relieved to find one in my perusing of shops last night (designed by a major bagpipe making firm in conjunction with a top-level piper), and no doubt I’ll be ordering one to complete my new set of drones (and to use with my current one). My current go-to chanter was designed for a vintage pitch but along with chanters, even modern reeds are designed higher pitched than they used to be so the pitch of my chanter has creeped up in turn. It’ll be interesting to see how this one compares.

I don’t know. All I do know is that I sure hope the trend reverses soon.

What do you think? Pipers or laypeople, what do you make of this trend?

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Doing Something Nice for Yourself

First things first, you’ll be pleased to know my new tattoo has healed up beautifully as they always do when you use Saniderm/Tegaderm to heal a tattoo. I’ll of course post a healed pic on the “My Tattoos” page once I get ample lighting to take a good picture (not for a couple of days – cloudy, dreary and a chance of snow here for the next two days; yes it even snows in Texas!).

Anyway, aside from that highlight my life has been struck by a bunch of lowlights recently. Job stress, family stress, a health scare, a 30 day Facebook jail sentence, a pet’s death, learning of two close friends moving away, deailng with a punk-ass troll, you name it. When it rains it pours, I guess.

As such, I think I deserve something nice for weathering the recent storm. Just what I didn’t know, until I was browsing FB (yes, I can still browse but I can’t post or send messages) and I saw something I’ve been eyeing for awhile pop up and I’m like “I just got my tax refund, now’s the time!”

As an intermittent hobbyist piper, one thing that has always worried me with our climate in Texas is cracking and warping. Unfortunately, with it being able to go from blistering hot to freezing cold in a matter of minutes around here, this puts an undue stress on the instrument. It isn’t much issue when you’re playing in a climate controlled area, but anytime you play somewhere that it’s very hot, very cold, very wet or very dry you’re going to have problems, and lo and behold I have multiple pieces in my instrument with hairline cracks (all the “stocks” – the bits that actually tie into the bag). It’s inevitable in our climate.

A solution to this is to look at alternative materials, of course – the most popular being a thermoplastic called polyoxymethylene (most commonly sold under the trade names “Delrin” or “Polypenco”). This has been used in the construction of woodwinds for a long time and have been great for that and it makes a very good chanter, but drones are a different story – drones made of Delrin have historically had a very unrefined, loud and brashy tone. Nonetheless I’d always wanted such a set as one I could take anywhere in any climate and not have to worry about it.

Well US bagpipe maker Roddy MacLellan introduced an all-new design a couple of years ago he calls his “Revelation” bagpipe that elevates the Delrin instrument to a new level – it gives you the resiliency of Delrin but the sound of wood by lining the bores with a cellulose polymer material. This design features some other innovative solutions for moisture control, including silica gel cartridges in the drone stocks to keep your drone reeds dry and maintain tuning stability. Roddy talks about his new design a bit here:

Ever since this design was introduced I have absolutely been drooling over it – it’s so unique they actually applied for a patent on it. I already own and play a 2008 MacLellan bagpipe in African Blackwood and it is hands down the best bagpipe I have ever played. Alas, it does still have the issues that wooden bagpipes are prone to, granted it’s held up really well despite the abuse I’ve put it through. I could never part with this beautiful instrument. To have a twin in Delrin will complete my stable in every way. Of course, as with any of his bagpipes, you can choose any of his drone profiles and doll them up however you wish, as I have.

Now obviously I won’t be retiring my ABW set. I could never do that. Alas, I will probably just pop the stocks from the Revelation in and use those with both sets of drones on account of the hairline cracks in them and the moisture control built into the Revelation stocks. For practices and performances in climate controlled environments where the wooden pipe would be “comfortable” it will still be my go-to instrument, but anytime I have to be outdoors in the elements for any length of time or any time I have to travel the Revelation will be my instrument of choice as I have no desire to go through the permitting process for my now CITES listed ABW bagpipe – if caught with them without the proper paperwork they would be subject to confiscation! Of course, I have the same two chanters and blowpipe I’ll use with both sets of drones so that doesn’t change one way or another.

Anyway, it’s been a long time since I’ve gotten myself a gift so I figured it was about time. It’ll be approximately 4-6 months before it arrives but that’s OK. Quality can’t be rushed. When they do arrive I hope to finally be over a little health problem that has prevented me from playing at all recently and I’ll be ready to assemble and give them a test drive.

Until then, the anticipation begins!


PS: It looks like maybe the immediate threat of the troll has passed so I’m re-opening comments. Let’s hope I can keep them open.

Dear Bagpipe, FUCK YOU!!!

Has anyone ever punted a bagpipe before? If not, I might be a trendsetter. I just kicked mine 10 feet in the air and about 30 feet out from me. I didn’t know I had such a strong leg and foot! I guess that’s what rage does to you.

So this year, as I usually do, I was to play at a Memorial Day service this morning. OK, done it multiple times before without issue right? Well, as this weekend has not gone according to planned in any way, shape or form why should that have changed now? Well, to add insult to injury, four measures into the tune I suffered a catastrophic reed failure.

When a bagpipe reed fails, it always does so in a big way, suddenly and without warning. That’s the nature of the beast. As most time is spent rehearsing, reed failures usually occur during rehearsals where it’s not that big of a deal. Not this time. I was unlucky enough to experience a reed failure in the middle of a performance. I was left to stand in deafening silence and red faced from both embarrassment and rage.

This has just been the icing on the cake for a weekend that has just fucking sucked all around. For what started out great, it’s been downhill from there ending on a truly shitty note (pun fully intended). I am so mad right now I’m crying.

Well guess who’s not getting invited to play for that service again, or for any more funeral or memorial services hosted by that funeral home? That’s right: me. All it takes is one bad gig to completely ruin it.

I know shit happens, but it is usually not of this magnitude. Of the hundreds (maybe even thousands) of weddings, funerals, birthday parties, services, etc. I have played I have not once experienced a reed failure in a gig, until today.

Yeah, fuck the bagpipes. Just fuck them.

 

New Responsibilities – The Stress and Anxiety

I just had a feeling moving back home would come with it a major catch. Don’t get me wrong – it is so much better being back home. Alas, I’ve been thrust into a role outside of work that I’m not ready for nor did I really want, but I’m having to take out of pure necessity.

I’ve been the Pipe Sergeant (2nd in command only to the Pipe Major) for my pipe band almost ever since I got out of high school. Luckily I’ve not had to do much in the way of band leadership; the P/M has always taken that role upon himself. That was much appreciated as I didn’t want to handle much of that aspect of it but I always knew in the back of my mind that one day I would have to take that role on as the P/M is considerably older than me.

That day has come.

Due to the current Pipe Major having some health issues and that he’s aging, the time has come for me to assume that role. It’s not that I wanted it. Trust me when I say if I could have turned the position down I would have. I’ve just moved back, I’ve got a hectic (yet fulfilling, I should say) new job and I’ve never had a leadership role of this sort before. I wouldn’t know where the hell to begin or what to do. Needless to say I’m incredibly anxious and scared.

I’m hoping this will only be temporary until I can hand the position off to someone else, but in the meantime I was the only logical choice for the position. Whoever steps up into the Pipe Sergeant role will have to have a much more active role in management than I did while P/S. I’m not going to force it on anyone who does not want it, but I know for sure I will need some help. I also hope the outgoing P/M will provide some sort of support.

I see this as a good opportunity for me, but at the same time a lot of unneeded stress and I’m not sure how to deal with it. I’m sure I’ll figure it out, but the sooner I am able to hand it off to someone who actually likes being the head honcho and I can go back to just being a piper (I’m sure I won’t even want to be an officer of any kind after this) the better.

Wish me luck in this new adventure. I’m going to need it.

Product Review: Kinnaird Edge Bagpipe Drone Reeds

dronereeds1

One struggle I’ve often found with setting up my bagpipe to match my physiology (which requires a very easy bagpipe – my chanter reed is set around 23-24 inches of water) is with drone reeds. Namely, I’d have to close my drone reeds off so much that the drone tops would nearly be falling off the pin and a substantial amount of tonal quality sacrificed due to having a short effective tongue length.

For the longest time I played a set of Rocket drone reeds which were fine at the time but those are hard to come by these days and, to be quite frank, the last set I received just didn’t have the same quality as I had come to enjoy out of the original set that came with my 2008 MacLellan bagpipe.

After retiring the Rockets I settled on a set of Kinnaird Evolution reeds – the previous iteration of the Kinnaird reed. These were solid reeds with a good tone but due to having to close them down so much striking them in was impossible (even with a set of easy Evolutions). I was left to only blow them up with a quick puff and having to tolerate a split second of squealing tenors.

Then enter the Edge drone reeds – not an entirely new concept in the world of synthetic drone reeds but one that borrows some of the best design elements of various drone reeds prior and rolls them all into one killer combination. First off is the unique curved carbon fiber tongue on the Kinnaird reeds since day one – probably the most harmonically rich synthetic reed design and the closest to a cane sound as they come. Second is the fixed bridle of the Rocket reed  – this gives the longest possible effective tongue length across all strengths. Third is the grub screw strength adjustment of the Ross/Crozier Omega drone reed – this eliminates moving the bridle and allows for much more precise adjustment of the strength.

Now here’s where the Kinnaird Edge is different – instead of the bendable body with flat tongue of the Omega reed and/or the fixed tongue spring of the Rocket, one adjusts the tongue’s spring level of the Edge using the adjustment screw at the base of the tongue. No bridle adjustments are needed, leaving the full effective tongue length intact. Of course, pitch is adjusted with the grub screw in the nose cone as in all of the Kinnaird designs previous.

The reeds arrived to me well packaged and insulated. The reeds themselves are made from materials that are practically indestructible but this was an added measure of protection so the reeds will no doubt arrive at your door in proper playing condition.

After adding the required amount of black waxed hemp to seat the reeds securely in the reed seats, I plugged off the bass and middle tenor and proceeded to use the outer tenor as my baseline to match with the chanter reed for strength. I quickly found out that the tiniest of adjustments with the tongue grub screw produced drastic changes in strength. So much as 1/16th of a turn can make a very light reed into a very strong reed and vice versa. Several tiny movements and a little bit of patience are required to dial the reed in perfectly, but after several tries I found the “sweet spot” of having just enough overblow protection but not consuming too much air compared to my chanter reed.

I then proceeded to cork the chanter and then match the bass reed to the outer tenor and finally the middle tenor to the other two. Again, several tries were required to equalize all three reeds in terms of strength but a little persistence paid off when I got all three reeds to shut off at the exact same amount of overpressure. After I accomplished this, I added in the chanter to make further adjustments.

After 15 or so minutes of warming up the chanter to get it up to pitch, I was required to sink the grub screws in the nose cones to bring the tenors tops and bass mid section down to the sweet spot on the tuning pins. It should be noted these reeds are pitched fairly high so if you play a lower pitched setup you might require reed extenders. I had to sink the screws almost as far down as they’d go to get the drones in their optimal tuning range using a McCallum McC2 solo chanter with a Husk reed (my Low A pitches around 475 Hz with this setup – on the lower side of today’s tuning range which is my preference).

Once I got the pitch dialed in to match my warm chanter I proceeded to play several tunes. The results I got were nothing short of astounding – the drones did not budge in the slightest for the entire time I was playing. Not only did they remain locked in for the duration of the session they produced a big, bold, powerful sound in my MacLellan drones – a deep, profound bass with bright, ringing tenors that blended together seamlessly without any of the harsh buzzing noise found in many synthetic reeds. The end result was a solid wall of sound that brought out the overtones in the various notes of the chanter in a huge way. The entire setup just seemed to vibrate into my core. The entire instrument became a true joy to play.

Strike-ins and cutoffs were a cinch, even with a synthetic (Ross suede) bag. Note I do not use drone valves or a canister system either one so that’s saying something. Moisture resistance was very good – even as water vapor condensed on the reeds they remained steady as a rock.

I have nothing more to say than I am totally blown away by these reeds. They were the absolute perfect solution for my situation. The ease of setup, bold/rich tonal quality and ease of starts and stops really make these the ideal reed for a variety of players. I think only well-set cane reeds could possibly beat these for tone but who’s got the time and desire to deal with the headaches? If you want the best out of your drones without the hassle of cane, give the Kinnaird Edge drone reeds a try. You’ll be glad you did. Rating: 5/5.