PP Academy: How Much Air Should Drones Take?

Pipe band expert P/M Barry Donaldson has kindly responded to this query from reader Bill McFarlane: ‘How much air do drone reeds really need? I tape off 3/4 of the holes going in and out of my moisture canister going to the drones. The drones are full and take considerably less air, which means more air for the chanter. Has anyone else experimented with this? Prior to this I taped off three of the four holes in my tone enhancers with the same effect.’

barryP/M Donaldson:  Okay; the first thing to understand is why a device, such as a ‘tone enhancer’, canister, valve system etc. is required. Quite simply, on the introduction of synthetic bags moisture became a more significant issue than was experienced with quality sheepskin. In addition, bands who adopted these devices  realised the cut off (ending the performance) was much more difficult to achieve, experiencing trailing drones and failing to sustain sound through to the last note (none of these a problem for the solo performer). Some may recall the first synthetic bag to hit the market in the late 1980s. It was green Gortex and did not have a zip. This was quickly altered on the realisation that resolving the aforementioned problems required internal access.

Different synthetic bags produce varying degrees of retained moisture depending on the product. The majority of efficient moisture control systems require the device to be inserted into the bottom of the drone stocks (the manner in which this is done varies depending on manufacturer). We now have to ask ourselves this: what effect does this have on our drone sound?

Quite simply it diminishes and alters the natural sound – though pipers may now be able to stop on time! The drone sound is not really enhanced at all when using such products and, Bill, drones are not ‘full’. Listen to the difference when you remove a device from your drone stocks.

This notwithstanding, there was a period when Grade 1 bands were moving onto synthetic bags. Shotts and Dykehead and Victoria Police [pictured above winning at Glasgow Green in 1998] both won the Worlds with synthetic systems. However all top Grade 1 bands currently use skin bags with the understanding that the best bagpipe sound is produced with this product and, significantly, with drone stocks uninhibited.

Going back to Bill’s question, particularly the point about reducing the amount of air by adjusting the ‘enhancer’ / drone valve. This obviously facilitates a reduction of air pressure impacting on the drone reed. Consequently the reed can be adjusted to take less air, thus making the pipe easier to blow and, yes, facilitating ‘more air for the chanter’. But what it also does is reduce drone sound and, more significantly, diminish harmonics created by the drones (particularly the bass).

This has the effect of making the chanter predominate, and in many instances may give the impression of a harsh chanter sound. In my experience most pipers in bands don’t listen to their drone tone enough and consider the pipe is ‘good’ if the drones are chording with the chanter. Do you have quality drone sound? What predominates, bass over tenor or tenor over bass, or equal. What should it be? You should strive to achieve bass over tenor – and this is much more difficult to achieve with valves in the drone stocks.

The type of instrument being played is significant too. Is it a quiet set of MacDougalls or a more robust Robertson? Obviously the Robertson is more suited to a synthetic set up. Modern pipes tend also to be louder and therefore more accommodating than synthetic. There are alternative hybrid synthetic bags which will operate in a  similar way to sheepskin in that band pipers can sustain sound to the end and the drone stocks do not require valves. These bags still require an efficient moisture control system however, and I would recommend a condensing system which only connects to the blowpipe stock. Having said all of the above, I have heard some pretty good pipes set up with synthetic systems. However I have no doubt these instruments would produce superior sound with an alternative, natural set up. As a senior solo adjudicator over the past 20 years, the best bagpipes I have heard have been those with a sheepskin bag.

3 thoughts on “PP Academy: How Much Air Should Drones Take?

    1. Just note of interest; the first synthetic bag was of a black material and included a clamp at the back. The green gortex bags mentioned above were an attempt to jump on the band wagon.
      Of further in the first synthetic reeds were developed in Australia as was the afore mentioned pipe black bag. Since all and sundry have had a crack; with varying degrees of success.

  1. Pipers are forever on a quest to address steadiness of sound which remains stable sufficient to play for a relatively lengthy period without the moisture presenting too much of a problem. There are pipers for whatever reason who produce more moisture than others and they have to look to other materials than sheepskin or hide to address this. The problem has blighted some very good players affecting their otherwise very good playing. As a result a good deal of research has gone into this by individuals and has resulted in various types of pipe bags, water traps, tubes, reeds and synthetics have been utilised. This generally has pushed the standard of bagpipe sound higher than ever before. Some pipers are fortunate to be able to still use sheepskin or hide, but speaking for myself and I know of others sheepskin or hide does not allow me to get a sufficient period of time to play the tunes I wish. Added to that is the maintenance of the sheepskin or hide and depending on circumstances, regular playing which is essential to maintain sheepskin and hide is not always possible. In any case the introduction of synthetics was inevitable for reliability and convenience. Of course the quest continues. The subject of drone valves is perhaps of interest. There are a few of those things on the market and for that reason it is assumed that they get fairly wide usage. Fitting those things to the bottom of the drone stocks requires access to the bag and that is achieved now via a zip which is a relatively modern innovation to pipe bag manufacture. It seems that drone valves are perhaps not such a new idea. I have heard of such things being found in the bottom of MacDougal Drones and they looked like wooden plugs with a series of holes drilled to let the air through to the drone reeds. I cannot imagine this working as seasoning would probably clog up the holes. However in addition, whether true or not it has been claimed that the pipe maker Donald MacDonald had additions to the bottom of drones which regulated the air flow to the reeds and this was done circa 1840. Getting access to the bag to fit those things or clean them would not be possible, so perhaps they were not a success, but the idea seems to have been alive then. The question arises–why would this have been tried? Was it to affect the sound and make the drone sound a bit quieter or sweeter or was it in any way to address moisture?
    I have fitted collars to the bottom the end of both cane reeds and synthetic reeds, leaving sufficient clearance in the stock for air to get to the reeds and the purpose of this or the result was to soften or sweeten the drone sound and it worked I do not play in a pipe band and loud sounding pipes are not my desire. This collars have actually slightly assisted in addressing the moisture problem I had/have. In addition I have a moisture control system which works with or without the drying agent material. Without the drying agent material, I can get about 45 to 50 minutes of steadiness and with the drying agent a good deal longer. The late Pipe Major Robert Reid apparently used base drone stocks in his tenor drones as well as in the base drone and this was apparently to address moisture. I cannot see how that would do the trick, but as the quest does go on I have obtained such a set of stocks to try this out. It is early stages in the experiment as yet, but there may indeed be something in this and I will keep you posted!
    Pipes are for playing tunes on and if there is anything which helps in this, such as a form of additions to stocks, be it synthetic etc. which might help prevent young players throwing the pipes below the bed and forgetting them, then they should be used. Good stops and starts are for the bands to worry about and really has nothing to do with playing the tunes—of course in the pipe band competitions points make prizes and a trailing drone would be a serious flaw!
    Duncan Watson
    Now I am away to walk the dog!

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