How often does a note on our chanter sound out of tune with our drones, but we can’t figure out if it’s sharp or flat? And if we can’t define which way it’s out of tune, how do we even begin to fix it? One simple approach is to use a really nifty technique known as the “blow trick” to answer these questions.
We know that as the air pressure in the pipebag increases, the chanter notes rise in pitch, or become sharper. In contrast, if we decrease the pressure in the bag, the chanter notes become flatten, or lower, in pitch. We can use this observation, known as the "blow trick", to fine tune notes on our chanters, as well as to get a drone in tune with the Low A on the chanter.
How to Do It
Let’s take an example of how to use the blow trick to help with chanter tuning. After we have assured our bag is airtight, we’ve played for 10-15 minutes, let our pipes settle for a few minutes and tuned our drones, we now need to fine tune our chanter notes to match our drones. Let’s pick the note E, for example, and say that it just doesn’t sound right against the drones. The drones are already tuned, so what do we do now? Sink the chanter reed and try again? Raise the reed? Tape the E hole? Instead of any of those potentially detrimental options, an easier approach is to play E, slightly increase the pressure on the bag, and listen. Does the E now sound better, or does it sound worse? If the tuning gets better, that means that our E was a bit flat to begin with, and increasing the pressure raised the pitch enough that the tuning improved. We’re not finished with tuning E yet, of course, but at least we now know that E was flat and needs to be sharpened. We can also underblow a note slightly to see the effect on tuning. If underblowing a note makes it sound better, the note was a bit sharp to begin with, and we know how to fix that, as seen in previous Dojo classes Chanter tuning
Most pipers tune their first tenor drone to the chanter’s Low A by listening for “beats” brought about by sound waves that are not in unison between the drone and the chanter’s Low A. The drone length is then adjusted to eliminate the beats, resulting in a drone that is now in tune with the chanter’s Low A. However, instead of listening for beats between the drone and chanter Low A, some pipers use the blow trick to tune their drones because it’s simple, logical, and for some it might be most time efficient. Also, when tuning the drones, it may help to remember “blow up, move up” and “blow down, move down”. This memory aid simply reminds us that if the drone tuning gets better with increased pressure (blowing up), then the drone top should be moved up, effectively flattening the drone to match the relatively flat Low A. And if the tuning sounds better when slightly under blown (blow down), then move the drone top down, which will sharpen the drone and bring it closer in tune with the chanter’s Low A.
We’ve barely scratched the surface here about how the blow trick can help our ability to tune our pipes. There is a lot more to learn, so check out the following classes:
The Blow Trick
Chanter Tuning Basics