The last fifteen years or so have seen an explosion of synthetic drone reed makes out on the market. The modern Highland bagpiper is not at a loss when choosing a make of reed that is suitable to personal bagpipe vintage or sound taste.
Here at Dojo U, we make a big deal about drone reed calibration as a necessary step to producing great bagpipe sound. “Calibration” though is a word that brings with it knowledge about reed manipulation if it is going to be performed correctly.
In Part 1, we examined the different basic parts of a standard synthetic drone reed along with the techniques required to manipulate them. Now that you know all about them, what do you do to get them working in your bagpipe? Below are some steps to follow with a fresh-out-of-the-box set of synthetic drone reeds.
The Pre-Launch Exam
There are several things that a piper should do with any set of newly acquired drone reeds. The first thing is to give the new reeds a thorough exam.
Look over your new set of reeds prior to playing. Today’s reeds are manufactured with care, but, as with any manufactured item, imperfections and irregularities can creep in. Are there any defects in the reeds? Make sure any glued or tied parts are secure and that the reeds look identical to one another in every way.
Put the reeds into your drones and play them out of their stocks by mouth. Compare the response of each. Are the responses similar? They should be, and will require adjustments if not. Start with low blowing pressure and ease the reed into its full vibration. The initial “bwaaa-ummmmm" blow-in sound should be present for all three reeds. Compare air intake. Do the reeds (tenors especially) respond the same way with the same mouth pressure? Slowly increase your blowing pressure until the reed shuts off. It should cut off just before you are blowing your hardest. If the response and/or air intake differs between reeds, then they are not acting efficiently. Adjust the bridles slightly on the reeds as needed to get them all responding to the same air pressure.
Compare the sounds of each reed by mouth. The tonal quality or pitch should be nearly identical. Move your drones to the optimal point on the tuning slide, at or very near the hemp line. After you adjust the bridles and get the reeds responding to your liking, start adjusting the tuning or pitch plug/screw to get them all to match the pitch you want. (Notice that this is all subjective at this point. Precision will come later.) Use one reed as a guide and get the others sounding like that one. Blow each reed back and forth and listen to the sound produced. Keep adjusting until there is no perceivable difference in the sound between them.
Once you have made the above adjustments, put the drones in their stocks and cork up your chanter stock. Blow up the reeds and tune as closely as you can. Take notice if the tenor reeds are tuning at different spots on the tuning slide and where the bass drone might be as well. Now, increase your squeeze on the bag and blow as hard as you can. You are trying to shut them off. As you do this, all three reeds should shut off at about the same time with a reasonably intense blow/pressure. If you can't shut them off, or if only one or two shut off, then the tongues of the offending reed(s) are too open and will require some further adjustments. Again some “pre-calibration” subjectivity is involved. Take out the reeds and pull down the bridles (toward the screw) on the offending reed(s) slightly. Check each by mouth to make sure they still match in pitch and adjust if necessary. Try the pre-calibration shut off technique again with your chanter stock stoppered. Keep doing this until they all shut off simultaneously. If they shut off too soon, they will shut off with your chanter and need further adjustments. Pull up the bridles slightly to open the reeds until you reach the desired shut off point.
When you have achieved a pre-calibration point, again, take note of where the drones are tuning on the hemp. Adjust the tuning plug/screw as needed and blow up again. Keep making adjustments until the tenor reeds tune at the hemp line, and the bass tunes about two to three finger widths above the ferrule.
First Calibration and Fine Tuning
Now put your chanter in and play. Ideally, play for a good 10 to 15 minutes to settle the chanter reed. Then, test your calibration as you normally would. Briefly, this is blowing/squeezing hard enough to get squeaks from your chanter reed. The drones should shut off simultaneously at this point. If not, further adjustments will be needed (and they will, most definitely). Repeat the steps to adjust the bridles and get the drone reeds set to the strength to match your chanter reed.
Tune the drones as you normally would. Take note of where they are tuning. The will likely not tune at the ideal spot on the tuning slide, or they might be very close to it. Make adjustments to your tuning plug/screw as needed to bring the drones to their optimal tuning spot.
The Learning Curve
Each make of synthetic reed will have its own quirks. Each will require a learning curve to familiarize yourself with those quirks, and manipulate them to perform as you desire. The bottom line: Don’t assume anything is “factory tuned” out of the box. All bagpipes are different just as all bagpipers are different. The process described above can easily be done in a single practice session. The pre-launch exam, pre-calibration, and first calibration and fine tuning process is designed to “zero-out” the settings of your new reeds and start you off with the best chance of predictability and success.