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 required knowledge about reed manipulation if it is going to be performed correctly.
Many the intrepid tinker it is who still tries to improve on the simple functionality of a tube with a vibrating tongue and moveable bridle. Today’s reeds can be like mini-machines, with all the moving parts, tools, and advanced materials to go along. And, like any machine, they require digesting instructions before you use them.
Today’s synthetic reeds may come in different shapes and sizes and use different materials, but they all require the same general techniques to adjust their sound and performance. Getting the reeds set “just right” for you is often the most tedious work—but it is also the most rewarding. If properly set, today’s synthetic drone reeds will perform consistently and remove many of the frustrations and variability in performance that can inhibit your improvement as a piper—and produce a fine sound to boot.
Busting the Myth
Nearly all the modern synthetic reeds on the market lay claim to that “cane-like” sound. In reality, the only thing that will get you a cane-like sound is, well, cane reeds. The assumption is that a cane-like sound is the only thing you should desire and whatever brings you closest to it, that is what you need. But modern synthetic drone reeds have evolved to produce a quality of sound all their own. The synthetic varieties actually have their own character, something that should be explored by the individual piper, and something that has become desirable even among the best players in the world.
Many pipers today still buy into the myth that synthetic drone reeds eliminate the problems and difficulty of traditional cane reeds and will have you up and playing right away. Just buy a set of reeds and pop them in, it’s that simple. Right? But it never ends up working like that. Consider the myth busted. It’s amazing that folks will think that new innovations somehow remove the need for knowledge and learning. Setting up any synthetic drone reed to achieve the sound you desire still requires the same knowledge and skills used to set up reeds made of cane. You will need to spend some time with them before you actually play them to get them operating efficiently, learn as much as you can about their unique behavior, and continually tinker with them as you use them.
Many of the commonly played synthetic reeds today elaborate on a basic design, with the only variation being in the materials used or small differences in dimensions and tongue length. All of these variations though, can influence the overall quality of sound coming from your bagpipe. For the inexperienced player, it can sometimes be quite frustrating to work with these new machines. It is often hard to remember the right things to do in order to get them sounding their best in your pipe—and easy to do the wrong things.
Let’s dive in and explore the basic parts you will find on any synthetic drone reed and the techniques required to manipulate them.
The reed body is basically a hollow tube fashioned of plastic, fiberglass, or wood/plastic composite. The general overall length of the body will determine the quality of sound in your pipe. Some brands of reed are longer than others and might perform differently in different makes of bagpipe. Experiment to find the best reed suited to your pipes. Be aware that the inner walls can sometimes collect dirt over time. Blow or rinse out the reed occasionally.
The vibration of the tongue is what makes the sound. The tongue can be made of fiberglass, plastic, or carbon composite. The tongue is curved and set to vibrate at its most efficient. The tongue should vibrate optimally without manipulation. “Flicking” the tongue to get a better vibrating response is not recommended. It can damage and overly stress the material. Debris can sometimes collect underneath the tongue over time. Clean the underside of the tongue by gently sliding a piece of tissue paper or a dollar bill under the tongue. Be aware that the material of the tongue can, indeed, wear out over time. The stress of constant vibration will stress the material and break it down where its vibration is less than optimal. A drone reed that suddenly needs to be “re-pitched”, or is not sounding quite right, not staying stable during playing, or not striking in properly can be a tongue that is showing signs of its demise.
Tuning Plug, or “Pitch” Screw
The tuning plug can sometimes be a standard screw, a plastic plug, or a sliding pin in various shapes. Moving the plug changes the length of the column of air flowing through the inside bore of the reed, thus changing its overall pitch, also changing where the reed will tune on your done’s tuning pin. Turn the screw clockwise (in) to sharpen reed and tune the drone higher up on the tuning pin. Conversely, turn the screw counter-clockwise (out) to flatten reed and tune the drone lower on the tuning pin. Sometimes the plug can be hollow with a space for “filler” to achieve the same goal. Filling the space is like turning in the plug, taking out filler is like turning the plug out.
The bridle is typically a rubber O-ring or band of rubber around the reed’s body. The bridle slides up and down the tongue and reed body. Sliding the bridle in small amounts will change the amount of air required for the reed to operate. Sliding the bridle down the reed toward the tip of the reed shortens the tongue and forces the tongue to vibrate faster. It sharpens the pitch and allows the reed to play with less air. Sliding the bridle up the reed, toward your drone, lengthens the tongue, forces the tongue to vibrate slower. Thus, it flattens the pitch and requires more air intake to play.
In Part 2, we’ll explore some simple steps to getting your set of synthetic drone reeds working in your bagpipe.