“I Can’t Get My Bass Drone in Tune.”
Tuning a bass drone can be troubling indeed for many new pipers. You may be at a point where you are able to “lock in” your tenor drones quite well, but you always seem to take a long time with the bass. You spend a ridiculous amount of time trying to get it “right,” making you want to toss your pipes into the fire. Don’t do that. It’s going to be OK.
Drone tuning is one of those elements of bagpiping that can frustrate even the most motivated and capable student. Becoming proficient at it is, however, just as essential to good piping as clear embellishments. The lower octave of the bass can certainly present a challenge to those trying to get their tuning “legs.”
Not to worry. Like any other piping trouble, trouble tuning your bass drone can have a few definite causes. Luckily, and again, as with all piping trouble, there is a method to cracking and addressing it.
One of the likely culprits of many a pipers’ drone tuning difficulty is simply blowing or, more specifically, blowing and squeezing. If you have been working on blowing your bagpipe at the “sweet spot," you will know what it takes to keep the bag at full pressure at all times. That is great when you are standing in proper position with both hands on the chanter. But what happens to your blowing/squeezing cycle when you take your right hand off the chanter and reach around to twist a drone? Not only is it important to be blowing at the sweet spot when you play, it is important to tune at the sweet spot as well. Pay attention to how your body position changes when you reach for the tenor drone versus the bass drone. You may be altering how you’re squeezing the bag, putting less air through the drone and thus tuning the drone at a slower vibration of the tongue and a flatter pitch of the chanter. You then play low A and it is not in tune because you are now blowing at full pressure. Your chanter pitch is slightly higher and the drone is not lined up. You keep twisting it but it never seems to lock in. If blowing is the source of the trouble, you’ll never get it locked in.
Diagnose and Solve the Problem
Hook yourself into a manometer. Find your sweet spot, then reach to tune your bass drone. Watch what happens to the water level with respect to the sweet spot. Chances are, it will be bouncing around or dropping well below. If this is happening, you have identified the source of your trouble. That water line should always be within the sweet spot zone—even when tuning your drones. Practice this hooked into the manometer, compensating for the physical changes when you’re reaching for your bass drone, and perhaps altering your blowing/squeezing to keep everything at full pressure.
It’s Using Logic With a Bit of Ear Training
If you have run your manometer diagnostic above and you’re confident you can lock the water level to the sweet spot when you tune your drones (good for you!) but you are still having trouble getting your bass drone in tune, the solution is some logic coupled with practice. In short: You will have to learn to find the sound you’re looking for.
Your drones will never be perfectly “in tune” technically, since the human ear cannot detect the full range of harmonics involved. What we want instead is a “match” of the pitches as close as we can get them with all other things (such as blowing and pipe maintenance) being equal.
Diagnose and Solve the Problem
Cork off your chanter stock and middle tenor drone and “tap off” your bass drone. Position your outside tenor drone to a spot you think sounds good. Activate your bass drone. How does it sound? Make a downward move of the bass on the tuning pin. Does it sound better or worse? (By “better” or “worse” we mean are the “beats” of sound slower or faster?) If it’s better, make another downward move on the bass. If it sounds worse, make a move in the opposite (upward) direction. Keep doing this—moving your drone and asking: better or worse? Make smaller moves until you reach a point where you think the bass is matched with the tenor. This is the “radio tuning” method covered in several Dojo U classes (see Take Action below). Just like we’re finding a signal on an old radio, we move the dial until the sound comes in clear. If we go too far one way, we move back in the other direction.
Is that it? Hardly. Now twist your outside tenor higher on its pin. Listen to the difference in sound between the bass and tenor. Which way are you going to move your bass drone to match it? No advanced ear training is needed to know that it should go in the same direction—up. Twist the bass higher on the pin and ask: better or worse? Keep moving up until you can say better, then keep going and ask: better or worse? If worse, you’ve gone too far. What do you do? Move the drone back in the opposite direction in smaller moves until you can say “better,” push it further in even smaller moves until it is worse, then make even smaller moves until it is better. Twist the tenor down on the pin, listen to the difference in sound and repeat the process with the bass again.
The above exercise is not dependent on pitches or frequencies. Knowing what to listen for practices logic and your ear. Once you are playing your chanter, and tuning to that, the technique does not change.
You might be one of those pipers who, after running the above diagnostics, discovers that your inability to lock-in your bass drone is because of needed work on blowing/squeezing issues and some ear training. The solutions are still the same. The good news is that addressing one will help the other. Isolate your work on one issue at a time and you will be on your way to drone tuning confidence.