Thursday, September 23, 2010
Thoughts on Drone Reeds
Over the years we would have trialled and tested nearly every drone reed on the market. There are a number of reviews posted on the School of Piping site, but it should be made clear there are a lot that have not reviewed. We will not, at this stage post reviews on products that simply do not work. (Some products we have not tested recently and to be fair to the makers we also will not post reviews on old products).
There have been a number of reeds that have been absolutely appalling. They either use so much air that they are unplayable (one set had tape stuck under the blades to keep them vibrating and used so much air that when they were set as efficiently as possible I still could not play the pipes for any length of time), or they just will not go. Some sets are impossible to balance and some are pitched badly or have aweful tone.
I think that there are so many of us willing to try whatever reeds are on the market that there are good sales even if your product is complete rubbish. There are always a number of people willing to jump on that type of cash cow. If they were not making drone reeds, they would probably be selling diet pills! One of the reviewers spoke to a reed maker who does not play the pipes. When asked if any quality players had tested his reeds before he put them on the market he said he didn't know any! I found this extraodinary particularly when his product was found the be seriously flawed and was not on the market for any more than a few months.
The other issue is the variance in bagpipes. Not every reed goes well in every bagpipe. You will see a few reed makers make reeds specifically modified for Naill bagpipes as an example, which are quite a flat pitched drone. Some other bagpipes are just difficult to reed and set up. Some are old and warped, cracked or just have bad bore designs.
I think many pipers have forgotten (or have never known) what drones with cane reeds sounded like. There are an infinite number of variances on how a cane reed could be set up, but if well set they had a "oneness", that most synthetic reeds are unable to replicate. They also had the ability to follow the chanter and if well balanced would tend to change in unison. I have heard a few lately that have been set up to be buzzy and sound like a synthetic reed (yes, that is possible).
Few synthetic reeds follow the chanter. Some are now so stable that they are producing a consistent pitch and have to be tuned to match a chanter that rises and drops in pitch with playing and temperature fluctuations. Some chanter reeds are more stable that others in this regard as well.
When testing reeds we look at ease of set up. Ease of balance and quality of tone and harmonics. We look at the ability to follow the chanter, by playing, putting the pipes down for a number of minutes and then playing again until they return to the point where they are again in tune with the chanter. We also comment on "oneness", where the drones sound like an overall umbrella of sound, not three individual drones. This is a quality that must be experienced to be understood. You can have three drones playing in unison, perferctly tuned, but you do not feel they are in sympathy and producing one overall sound. Volume is measured on a decibel meter.
We are not trying to say that one set of reeds is better than another in our reviews. Many pipers will prefer one reed over another depending on their taste in sound, much the same as the variances between quality players using cane reeds or different sets of drones. We do want to highlight what the differences are and how the reeds perform. They are also testing in a variety of bagpipes. We hope that this will give pipers a choice as to what sound they prefer and how they should expect a reed to perform. If we have to fiddle with a reed too much to get it to play well, then obviously it is not a good reed for an inexperienced piper.
We also try to test reeds in a variety of temperatures, as we have found some that do not perform in extreme heat. Obviously due to our location we are limited with testing in really cold dry conditions, however it does get cold here in winter to the point where it is uncomfotable to play and we trust that will suffice.
If the reed is receptive to variation in set up, we will make comment on our finding regarding any modification we have adopted. We often try different bridles, and a number of makers have adopted our recommendations over the years. Often getting the sound or result you want is a matter of experiment and trial and error.
Drone reed reviews can be found at the School of Piping website.