Tone in the pipe band – part 2

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In the second part of his two-part article on pipe band tone, Bob Shepherd discusses volume and also the controversial subject of pipe band formation.

Tone in the pipe band– Part 2
By Pipe Major Robert T. Shepherd

From the table above (Fig. 6) it is observed that Pitch is employed both by chanter and snare drum and a balance between them must be achieved. Added to this balance would be the background of a good quality drone sound harmonious to the chanter, enriched by the pulses of the bass and tenor drums giving the overall sound produced a depth of character and providing the ‘heart beat’.

The volume, as explained previously, should be carefully controlled by the drummers to suit such requirements as

(1) number of performers i.e. the ratio between the number of pipers and drummers;

(2) acoustics;

(3) the dynamics required for the melodic and rhythmic flow of the music.

I would also at this sage like to take the opportunity to suggest that the pipe band circle is outdated and the band should be formed in such a manner that all performers are facing the audience; this would allow the Pipe Major or musical director to face his members in a position where he can study the tonal effects and therefore have a say in the balance and presentation of the band to the public. Under normal circumstance, especially competition, he is obliged to form his band in a complete circle. This obviously means the band must have different effects on the audience and would be dependent on the listening position of the audience, e.g. one could be placed behind the drum section or vice versa, therefore an unbalanced sound would be heard. This, of course, also applies to the adjudicators at a competition and is the reason why the ensemble adjudicator has to choose his ‘listening spot’ with care and attention.

If a semi-circle idea was adopted then both the public and adjudicators would be in a more advantageous position to listen and enjoy the combined sounds of thepipe band. Thy dynamics used by the drummers could possibly be better interpreted by the listener and the bass and tenor drums regulated to a much finer degree. The final word on this positional set-up departs from my original terms of reference but I think is worthy of a mention to strengthen my argument. With a half circle a conductor could be employed to conduct the band, which I believe more and more Pipe Majors do anyway at their own band rehearsals.

In a circle formation, “the band must have different effects on the audience and would be dependent on the listening position of the audience … I never allow my own band to perform in a circle except, of course, at a competition where it is compulsory to do so”

I never allow my own band to perform in a circle except, of course, at a competition where it is compulsory to do so. I set my band up using the bands normal marching formation, i.e. rank and file with myself in front. This way I can hear the overall effect of all the instruments whilst the close proximity of the front rank allows me to detect any lack of chanter or drone unison in that rank and by changing the ranks i.e. bringing the second rank up to the front then the third and so on. I can by correction eliminate any chanter or drone imbalance that exists.

In conclusion, perhaps by using a series of pre-recorded tapes or some form of recordings, the following comparative analysis exercise could be attempted, which has been designed to develop the basic understanding of three characteristics of sound discussed and their application to the various instruments of the pipe band.

The idea is to listen and write down your comments on each unit, trying at all times to listen objectively to that particular unit.

*From the December 1978 International Piper.

*Read Part 1.