Aspects of tuning – reeds

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Figure 2

By Roger Gould-King

Figure 2 shows a typical chanter reed design suitable for most chanters and the average piper’s blowing habits. This design follows the principle that all dimensions of the blades are based on a simple ‘rule of 3’. For example, the staple is 4mm in diameter, which multiplied by three gives a blade width at the lips of 12mm. The total length of the blades is 3 x 12 = 36mm while the blades are tied, and the staple positioned halfway or at a distance of 18mm from the end. Further, the free (untied) surface of the blades is divided into thirds, the top two thirds representing the area that will have cane removed, while the remaining third is initially never modified as this allows some cane remaining for further modification later when the reed needs reworking. As shown, the remaining two thirds, or 12mm, is what we have to work with in terms of removing cane.

The first steps (if they haven’t been carried out before purchasing the reed!) are to test whether the reed leaks at the sides and whether the staple has been correctly tied. The most effective way to check for leaks is to close the lips of the blades between thumb and forefinger and to suck at the staple end. The differential between the vacuum formed and the atmospheric pressure will soon show if the reed is airtight or not. The second test is to determine whether the reed is overtied or undertied. This means that the top thread of the tie. must be precisely in line with the top of the staple (flattened end) opening. If it is over the top  (overtied), moisture absorption will cause the cane to swell and the reed will deform, while a tie below the staple opening will generally cause the sides to splay at the lips and cause leakage there.

Most reedmakers (but not all reedmakers) use a staple precisely 15/16” long (approximately 24mm) and one therefore uses a spare staple as a gauge or simply measures the distance from the bottom of the reed to the top of the tie.

The next most important check is to see whether the reed is properly and tightly tied. By gently squeezing the reed in a rolling motion between finger an thumb in the staple area, it will be seer whether the blades are displaced laterally or not. If they are this is considered to b a fault as one can be reasonably certain that the tie will loosen further and the reed will need a re-tie and general re-assembly. If the reed is loosely or badly tied, it should, in the interests of long life stability, be re-tied.

Figure 2

Green cane
The final check is to examine the blades for flaws such as minute cracks or splits in the cane and finish up with the thumbnail test. This last test gives an indication whether the cane has been properly seasoned. Green cane or badly seasoned cane is soft. To test, one presses down hard with the thumbnail at the base of the reed, that is to say, just above the tie. There should be a faint thumbnail impression. If the cane is obviously soft the best thing to do is to take the reed apart, mark the inside surfaces of the blades for later matching and store these in a box for a year or two when it may be found that they have seasoned sufficiently to be of use. The colour of good cane is generally white, while one should be immediately wary of cane which is discoloured.

Referring again to Figure 2, it will be seen that the 12mm we are going to modify has been divided up into nine zones labelled with the notes of the chanter scale, each zone being approximately 1 1/3mm in length. These zones correspond approximately to a note on the chanter, but always bear in mind that modification to one area will affect adjacent areas and the remainder of the reed as well.

Before removing cane we have to soak it in water because the reed will always be played in a moist condition. If one were to remove cane from a dry reed it may work well while dry but be too weak when it absorbs water.

The length of time a reed is left in water is very much determined by the local climatic conditions. If one stays in a dry climate, an hour in the water would be about right, while a moist atmosphere would indicate a time of about ten minutes. Remember that while removing cane, water is evaporating from the reed so frequent wetting may be necessary.

Taking the wet reed in one hand, gently insert a very thin oval metal plate between the lips and using very fine glass paper wrapped around a perfectly flat block, gently remove cane from the top two millimetres, right across the full width of the blades. (Figure 3).

Soak the reed again, then wrapping the glass paper around a 25mm diameter dowel, gently work this across the face of the blades to get the beginning of the rounded V section shown in the sketch. (Figure 4).

Figure 4.

At this stage very little cane will have been removed. Dip the reed in water, insert in chanter and blow. If too hard, soak the reed well, then remove cane from the top 2mm as before and remove a little more further down by using the dowel. Replace in chanter and test. If the reed sounds on the top notes (because we have removed enough cane from the top or lip area), but is hard to blow on the bottom notes, a very little cane may be removed from the remaining 10mm working area, always aiming at eventually getting a rounded V shape.

The next important step is to take the reed and place it on a nail driven into a block of wood and leave it for about two days. This allows the blade to assume its new shape and permits new stresses to equalise out.

After a couple of days have elapsed, again wet the reed thoroughly and repeat the sanding process always being very careful to remove a very little at a time, and always remembering that the cane will age and become slightly weaker.

Therefore, in the beginning one must play a very wet new reed until it has been played for some 30 hours when it can be considered to be fairly stable and final little adjustments can be made.

To summarise then, remove cane from the top down and from the centre out towards the sides. Aim at getting a very smooth surface with no steps or irregularities as these will cause major problems in the reed’s performance.

Vibration rate
It is most important to remember that the reed vibrates according to the length of the air column it is exciting; this means that its vibration rate is regulated by the powerful back-effect of these pulsations in the bore. Hence, chokes are caused by a reed failing to respond instantly to a change in bore length, for example playing a note higher or lower down the scale from the current finger positions. The other cause is insufficient air pressure for the length of air column under excitation.

The opposite extreme is the dirl which can occur on any note but most commonly on low G. This is caused by a reed which becomes overblown because it is too ‘weak’, because of insufficient cane, or too flat a curvature at the staple.

Similarly, ‘double-toning’ or ‘growling’ in the drones is caused by a reed with too low a generating frequency. This can be cured by simply shortening the tongue length or decreasing the blade opening by suitable manipulation.

‘Skrechs’ on the top notes of the chanter, notably high A, are caused by a chanter reed having too much cane in the lip area and can be entirely eliminated by removing cane.

The remaining notable drone reed problem is the sudden cutting out or stopping of a drone or the slow fading out of the drone. The former is probably caused by a minute moment of negative pressure in the bag, that is a gap between blowing and arm pressure causing a cut-out, or by a drop of condensation striking the vibrating blade.

It is suspected that the slow fading out of a drone is caused by swelling of the cane coupled with strangulation of the blade by a bridle that is too tight.

Having sorted out most of our problems with regard to getting the reeds to sound, the remaining task is to get each note on the chanter to chord with either the fundamentals of the drones or one of the strong harmonics.

There is only one position of the reed in the chanter seat that will allow one to get an approximate chord. The task of finding this is quite simple. Starting with the reed as far out of the chanter as possible, strike up the pipes and, because it is convenient, immediately sound high A and tune a tenor drone to this. The drone is ‘in tune’ when it harmonises with the high A and there are no beats or fluctuations in tone between the two. Once this is done, sound low A. If the tenor drone must be moved down the slide (towards the stock end of the drone) to bring low A into tune, this means that the high A is too flat in pitch. To correct this the chanter reed is gently inserted deeper into the seat. Repeat the test until low and high A are in tune. Note however that the pitch of the chanter reed will rise because of moisture absorption, so the chanter will only stabilise in pitch after a period of blowing when the moisture content of the bag, and the transpiration rate of the reed are more or less constant. Practically speaking, the chanter reed is always flat in pitch when the instrument is first sounded. The pitch will rise and finally stabilise. However, long playing sessions, say four hours continuous blowing or more may cause the reed to become too sharp when it will have to be adjusted to bring it back into tune.

Assuming that the instrument has been sounded continuously for 15 minutes or more, that the high and low A’s are in tune, one may next sound E which is a perfect fifth with the fundamental (low A) to see if it harmonises or tunes with the drones. If it does then one proceeds to sound each note in turn to see whether each is in tune with the drones. If they are (with a new reed), this can be regarded as good fortune. More often than not GBDFG’ are a little discordant and the problem is to find out whether they are too flat or sharp. The test is quite simple. Leaving the drones in the position where they are in tune with low A, E and high A, sound the note being tested and by bending the finger associated with that note, partly cover the hole opening. If the discord gets worse the note is too flat, and if the note can be tuned to the drones by increasing or decreasing the hole area by moving the finger, then that note is too sharp.

Surgery to the reed
Flat notes can be sharpened by removing minute amounts of cane in the zone associated with that note remembering always that adjacent notes are sharpened a bit, too.

Sharp notes are simply corrected (if too sharp) by reducing the finger hole area using tape across the hole. In general, sharp notes can always be taped but flat notes require some surgery to the reed.

Throughout this process, it is assumed that the chanter is well made, in other words, on the average the notes sounded by it are fairly close to the correct pitch. Sometimes one particular note, such as B is always flat, no matter what reed is used and the remedy may well be to enlarge the hole and thus sharpen the note. On the other hand a chanter may be flat all over its tonal spectrum. This may be caused by its total length being too long (rare) or more commonly in old chanters, the neck opening at the top becomes constricted because of wood swelling resulting in a flat pitch. The remedy is to open out the neck to the correct diameter for that chanter.

In general, the major hurdle that has to be crossed is the recognition of the harmonics generated by the instrument and the fact that this is what one tunes to. A 30-minute session a week will not train the ear; it takes constant and long hours of playing to familiarise the senses with the instrument. Even a seasoned piper who for one reason or another fails to play the instrument for a month or two has to go through a re-orientation of the senses before his tuning faculties return to normal.

While playing it is usually necessary to adjust the bag pressure by minute amounts to keep notes in tune-sympathetic blowing. increased pressure will increase the pitch (sharpen the note) while slightly decreasing pressure will flatten the pitch.

So far it has been assumed that the piper has what is called a ‘musical ear’ and is not fully or partially ‘tone deaf’. The hearing apparatus is a very complicated subject and cannot obviously be discussed here even if the writer is qualified to do so, which he is not. Nevertheless a visit to any ear, nose and throat specialist will enable the piper to undergo appropriate hearing tests and help him to objectively evaluate his ability to tune an instrument at all or for that matter, criticise the tuning of others.

Before ending these necessarily brief notes on a very complicated subject, we may briefly examime the actual act of tuning itself. In other words just what does a piper play when he is busy tuning the instrument. Obviously, the audience will go insane if the piper spends ten minutes or so playing nothing but disconnected low As, Es and high As with the other notes thrown in haphazardly for testing purposes.

Figure 5, below, shows the three main pentatonic modes of the Highland Bagpipe. They are important because the majority of ceòl mòr pieces utilise only the notes of one of these three modes. They are also important because they enable a piper to play tuning phrases (or little melodies for the purposes of tuning) in an intelligent manner.

The observations which follow are mainly of interest to the ceòl mòr player because what he does before starting his piobaireachd is extremely important. He would not, for example, play half a dozen hornpipes before launching into Lament for Donald of Laggan. The tuning phrases played before playing the actual composition are features of many piping cultures. The aim is twofold, firstly to tune the instrument until one is satisfied it js in tune and will remain so for a relatively long length of time, and secondly to prepare the audience (and oneself) spiritually for the tune to come.

Thus, if the piobaireachd one is about to attempt is pentatonic in the key of A, it would be advisable to keep one’s tuning phrases in that pentatonic mode so that there will be no sudden change when the piobaireachd is actually played. It takes a certain amount of study to introduce tension (discord) and harmony by changing modes and thus ‘meaning’ or import.

Tuning and tuning phrases is a discipline vital to the whole art of playing the Great Highland Bagpipe and cannot be adequately discussed in this essay. However, it is suggested that the extemporaneous melodies characteristic of tuning can be considerably aided if one were to observe what key one will be playing in, and to develop one’s tuning theme within that mode utilising octaves, fifths and thirds as the main themal note intervals.

*From The International Piper, August 1978.

•Aspects of tuning – pitch, scale and drones.