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.’
P/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.