Tone and manufacturing methods

"… microscopically massage the wood perched on their loving shoulders."

What is going on inside our drones? This interesting article from 1958 touches on that subject as well as on distortion, tone, pitch and sound waves, subjects most pipers don’t understand as fully as they’d like to think.

Would substituting square corners with radii allow sound waves to pass more freely and to achieve a unified frequency in the notes and waves of sound?

By Bill Jones and James McColl*

Before delving into this article too deeply we, the authors, would like to clear up a few points for the record. We realise that we are running the risk of incurring a drumfire of hostility by our remarks, but such is not our intention. We do not assume that the points set forth in this article will be arbitrarily accepted as conclusive evidence, for they are merely ideas that occurred to us through mutual interest and are not binding on anyone; rather, we hope for a storm of constructive criticism from the manufacturers or from those who have experimented along these lines more thoroughly than we. Our observations on the reactions of several brands of drones have culminated in this information which may be, if not enlightening, at least entertaining to our fellow readers.

It will be generally conceded that the conditions underlying a good-going pipe fall within the province of the performer; his musical background, ear for tone, quality and ability at reeding the instrument. Of these three elements we will be concerned, in the main, with the third. It is in the pursuance of the problem of reeding that led us to our present observations on tone and the possibility of enhancing it, or, at least, making the job of reeding a pipe easier.

Since a bagpipe is definitely an ensemble instrument, let us look to the facet that contributes the largest part in the overall tone picture. A true chanter, pleasantly pitched, is essential, but it takes the resonant timbre of a good set of drones to enhance it. Poor drones, or poorly reeded drones, will sap the life of an otherwise good chanter with the end result being an unmusical whole. Many a good chanter has been discarded as unsuitable when in fact it was the poor blending quality of the drones that was at fault. Several chanters may be bought for the price of a set of drones and still not solve the problem.

Since we are basically concerned: in this article with manufacture rather than personal ability we will observe some pertinent points along that line.

The wood used in a good set of drones should be of the correct density, free of knots, whorls, cracks, etc. and, when completed, free of any warps or potential warping. Many are the arguments favouring cocees wood or ebony over African blackwood, and they may be of some merit, but we believe that extraordinary performances on pipes made from any of these woods was due more to meticulous care in manufacture than in any inherent virtues of the choice of wood in question.

The base drone, in our opinion, is the most difficult to reed correctly. This is quite possibly due to the fact that there are more joints, and different gauge bones and hence more sound wave obstructions. Severe warping in the bass drone, especially the bottom joint, makes reeding extremely difficult, and more than once the player has had to resort to a heavy unmusical reed in order to produce any sound at all. Hairs have often been inserted under the tongues of these reeds to further expedite their operation, with a resulting cacophony resembling a hog with asthma.

The tenor drones appear to be a lesser problem in this respect than their big brother. Care should be exercised in selecting the two tenor drones in order that their tone qualities are exactly alike. After selecting one good reed that produces the desired tone in one drone it should of necessity produce the same tone quality in the other. This mutuality of tone is most rewarding to the ear and tends to maintain overall steadiness during long, protracted performances. The most resonant area of tuning, in conjunction with the selection of a reed, must also be found as it greatly affects the amplitude and quality of tone desired.

Without invoking the laws of physics it will serve our purpose to arbitrarily state that the vibrating tongues of reeds produce sound. This sound travels in the form of waves through the drones that are machined in a manner designed to alter both tone and pitch. Theoretically then, we may assume that these sound waves should travel through the drone unrestricted and undistorted to produce optimum brilliance of tone. Since the general design of the instrument will not allow this physical utopia, all we can hope to do is redesign the more flagrant errors in manufacture.

In Figure I [below], we have a cross section of a tenor drone showing, in essence, the basic method of boring in use today.

The first possibility of distortion might reasonably occur at the end of the tuning slide where its bore diameter ‘A’ expels the sound waves into the larger diameter ‘B’ of the upper section. Before these sound waves adjust to their new proportions they are again subjected to distortion on the square cornered, mitred surfaces at point ‘C’. After this rebuff they are squeezed into the smaller diameter ‘D’, and it might be assumed that they are projected a considerable distance into ‘D’ in a distorted fashion before resuming something of a normal frequency again. By the time this garbled confusion of sound reaches the bell ‘E’ this teacup shaped aperture is hard put to reproduce a pleasing tone,

We have attempted to be brief in designating these areas of impediment so that we might dwell on some suggested changes in design that we hope will alleviate the situation somewhat. In figure II [below], we find the same drone again, but with these changes incorporated therein.

In positions F, G, and H we have substituted the traditional square corners with radii, by so doing, we assume that the sound waves will pass much more freely over these contoured surfaces than they did over the conventional ones. We again assume that through these media we will have more closely achieved a unified frequency in the notes and waves of sound. If such an idea is carried to fruition by incorporating it in a new set of drones we feel that these drones will more closely approach that smooth, full and free tone that we all strive for. Since we have eliminated most of the restrictions, it follows that almost any fairly decent reed will give a pleasing tone, thus saving the player considerable time, effort and money. No longer should it be necessary to buy one bushel of drone reeds just to get one set.

We should like to make clear at this point that we do not sanction or recommend the use of this innovation in any existing set of drones as the consequences might be disastrous. Such revamping would necessitate deepening the bones (or lengthening if you prefer) and this could very well ruin an otherwise useful instrument.

It this idea has merit, and we believe it has, then perhaps the College of Piping could have an experimental set made by a leading pipe maker, the same to be paid for through donations from interested readers. If and when the pipe is completed and blown in it be further suggested that one of the foremost pipers be asked to do a series of recordings on it that the readers and contributors may hear and form their own opinions therefrom.

• From the April 1958 Piping Times.

*James McColl was an exceptional piper who was born in Shotts in 1928. In 1953 he won the Gold Medal at The Argyllshire Gathering before leaving Scotland in 1955 for California