Review: African Blackwood Drone Reeds by the Ayrshire Bagpipe Company
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Reviewer: Duncan Watson, Aberdeen
For generations and beyond the memory of anybody, cane has been the material for drone reeds in Highland bagpipes. To get good sound required the reeds to be well made and pipers had to learn how to deal with them. Problems of reliability and being susceptible to moisture was, and is, a constant problem. To have the bagpipe drones sound well, the instrument had to be played regularly lest the reeds would dry out and become unstable. A bagpipe in such condition is, and can be, the most frustrating of instruments; such frustration at times caused them to be put away under the bed.
For the last 25 to 30 years there has been development and innovation of the Highland bagpipe, with synthetic pipe bags and synthetic drone reeds leading the way. Moisture control devices have been introduced and generally this has all improved the quality of sound of the instrument. Probably there are now less bagpipes stored below the bed and forgotten about.
There is an ongoing quest regarding pipe chanter and there is a large choice of makes to choose from. Our pipe chanter sound has become refined due in no small measure to note holes being enlarged in some cases, and in others tape being applied to flatten errant notes.
Drone sound is not so easily sorted. It depends on good drones, good reeds and, of course, good steady blowing and tuning. The sound cannot be corrected with a bit of tape or gouging out a hole. It is pretty well down to the reeds and how they suit the drones and if any moisture problems which exist can be overcome. Since the inception of synthetics, there have been about 50 different kinds of reeds made with varying degrees of success. Leading players continue in some cases to use cane reeds, but, safe to say, synthetic drone reeds are more widely used. Some use a mixture of cane and synthetic, i.e. cane bass with synthetic tenor.
Recently, the Ayrshire Bagpipe Company based in Troon and under the ownership of piper Brian Mulhearn, have been making African blackwood drone reeds. We are all aware of the use of African blackwood in the manufacture of bagpipes, but reeds made with the wood is unusual.
I obtained a set of these reeds. The bodies are made from the blackwood, the bass tongue is of carbon fibre and the tongues of the tenor reeds are of polycarbonate. The bridles are of a rubber or synthetic material. There is an adjusting screw in the reed for fine tuning and on the screw there is a rubber gasket doubling as a lock nut to prevent air leakage through the screw threads. The reeds are well finished.
To test reeds of any kind and come up with a balanced finding requires them to be used in different types of bagpipe with differing conditions in regards to moisture control. I have used the reeds in both a set of MacDougall drones and Henderson drones with and without moisture control. I do produce a lot of breath moisture and moisture control for me is essential. The pipe bags I use have leather/skin properties and are fitted with a zip.
In the MacDougall drones with moisture control, my initial finding was that the reeds produced a smooth sound and this made the drones easy to tune. The drones tuned on the tuning pins at satisfactory level. However, after playing for perhaps three-quarters of an hour the tenor reeds became a bit unstable and they then became difficult to tune. This problem was restricted to the tenor drones. The bass drone remained stable. In the course of testing the reeds I found that if I put the bagpipe down for a few minutes, and then resumed playing, they were well out of tune. This problem was not evident in the bass drone reed. It took quite some time to take the bagpipe back into tune.
My experience with the drone reeds without moisture control to the drones was fairly positive as when they were in tune, they did remain steady long enough to play several tunes. This was convenient if only having a short period to have a tune for a bit of enjoyment. However as indicated, for me moisture control was essential.
In the Henderson drones, with a slightly different bag the findings were similar except in the bass drone; it tuned a good deal lower. This did not cause a problem with sound.
The adverse comments I have are in respect of the tenor drone reeds. However, I replaced the bridles with bridles of material which exerts more control on the tongues and there was improvement. I have no doubt that Brian Mulhearn will strive to improve his product in any way he can and this is an area which may be considered.
The reeds can be purchased in sets or the bass drone reeds can be purchased separately. It is fairly common for a mixture of makes of reeds to be used and it seems that in general bass reeds are more difficult to obtain, thus there is advantage to being able to purchase the bass drone reeds in the quest to improve drone sound.
In summary, I have found positives in the reeds, particularly in the bass drone reed and would have no difficulty in recommending the bass reed as an addition to the weaponry to get the bagpipe to sound well.
Brian Mulhearn is a precision engineer by trade/profession and works to close tolerances in the manufacture of his products. His African blackwood reeds, with suggested minor adjustment to the tenor drone reeds as perhaps suggested makes this product a significant addition to what is already available.