How to tune a pipe corps

Drones don’t lie. Neither do your ears. Blowing scales is useless.

But before we get to that, you actually do have to start with the chanter. That is, which one are you playing? What reed are you playing in it? What is the pitch of low A when high A and low A are an octave apart without any tape on either note? Are there any notes consistently flat with this chanter/reed combo? Why all these questions? Well, you need to pick a pitch. What frequency will you choose to tune your low A to? Ideally, it’s the pitch that your low A and high A tune to without any tape on either, and you’ve got no flat notes, only sharp notes, in between.

Pipe chanter reeds are variable enough even among the same maker that there is going to be some variability. You’ve also got these new fangled band chanters with oval holes, effectively pre-carved, for your convenience. So, what then? Pick an average pitch among the chanters that is readily attainable. Some of the chanters may have the reed sunk in a little farther to get the low hand up to pitch requiring tape on the top hand; some of the chanters will need the reed a little farther out to get the top hand flat enough with some tape on the bottom hand. It goes all ways.

The last thing to consider: chronically flat notes. Sure, you can carve, go for it. If you don’t want to, there is an alternative. Set your pitch to where that note is in tune, provided it isn’t too flat, and tape all the other notes down to that one note. In a band setting, this ensures that you have maximum flexibility in tuning chanters because you’ve got tape on just about every hole. However, too much tape will dampen that sound of the note.

Also consider that a lot of reeds produce flat C(#)’s and F(#)’s prior to being broken in. While a dental elastic band bridle can bring those notes up to pitch while also making the reed easier, the whole pitch might go up. Complicating this might be that you have a bunch of people in the pipe corps, and their reeds may be at varying stages of being blown in at any given time. If the C and F aren’t too flat with new reeds, set the pitch where C and F are in tune, and as the reed is broken in, add tape to C and F. That way, even the guys breaking in reeds aren’t flat on C and F. The sign of a bad chanter/reed combination: still flat C’s and F’s with reeds that are broken in. Seek ye a different reed or a better chanter to suit. Okay, you can carve, don’t forget that. Point of all this is: you need to pick a pitch that you can get any of your chanters to with your choice of reed.

So, you’ve picked a pitch. Great! It’s only good for one day. Why? The ambient weather conditions will always dictate your absolute pitch. So just go with it. Everybody’s chanters are pretty much going to change pitch the same, so don’t worry about chasing down the pitch from your band hall, just see where all the chanters fall on the day. BUT! For now we’re going to assume you’ve got your absolute band pitch. We’re going to say you’ve picked the number 480 Hz for your band’s low A.

Rough tune every band member’s chanter by mouth blowing the chanter at a tuner set at your band’s pitch. If you set the tuner to 480, it should read A when you play low A or high A. If you set the tuner to 454 the tuner should say Bb. It’s the same thing. 440 Hz is the standard concert A these days and Bb is roughly 466: 466 – 440 = 26 Hz. 480 – 26 = 454 (This is actually wrong, you should actually divide 480 by the twelfth root of two: 480 / 2^(1/12) ~ 480 / 1.05946 = 453.06 Hz, but the former is easier, haha). Some people use the Bb convention (453) and some people use the A convention (480). Just pick one. Probably best if you’re going over 480 to use the Bb convention because Korg tuners don’t go any higher than 480. If you need to learn how to use a Korg tuner (or other chromatic tuner) to tune a bagpipe, read this. Of course, you might be using a bagpipe specific tuner which does the math for you. Back to the subject at hand, rough tuning the chanters. This is really approximate. Why? Because everybody blows the chanter in their pipe differently. Once you get their chanter in their pipe, everybody is going to blow different than how you did by mouth. No worries, I’m just operating under the assumption that you might be ‘hearable’ by the public during your band rehearsal and we don’t want you sounding like total crap from the get go. You should only have to do this once for each chanter: when it gets a new reed. This is NOT an every practice thing.

Get everybody playing together. None of this walk around separately warming up your pipes, wasting time. Why? Some guy is going to play the whole time straight. Some other guy is going to diddle with his drone reed and play 30 seconds. Some guy got to practice 30 minutes early and hasn’t quit playing yet. This has got to stop. Everybody get your pipes out, and play, together. If you’ve got a dedicated non-player to tune drones, that’s cool. I bet 99% of bands don’t. Oh well. In that case, the PM or PS should be the tuner guy. Meaning his pipes are on the table not doing anything while he/she is going around the circle with a tuner set to the reference pitch tuning everyone’s drones to that pitch.

There is no stig. The idea of a master chanter that everybody tunes to is all well and good I guess, or not. That guy is doing a lot more playing than everybody else, which can be a bad thing. This guy is usually one of your best players, you don’t want to wear him out. Also, you’ve got him playing and everybody else sitting around until it’s their turn. Everybody else’s chanter is going to go flat while they’re sitting around and you aren’t going to have a clue where their chanter really is pitch wise when it comes to be their turn. So who’s the stig? Well, drones don’t lie. You had someone go around and tune each person’s drones during the warm up to the reference pitch. After the first 5-10 minutes of playing you’re going to know whose chanters really aren’t so close. Go around the circle and have each person play a little snippet individually. Scotland the Brave is great for this. You hit low A, C, E, and high A in the first 2 bars and big D’s and F’s in the 3rd bar. Takes no time at all to figure out how far out a chanter is from their own drones. In a band, you tune the drones to your chosen reference pitch and you tune the chanters to the drones, NOT THE DRONES TO THE CHANTER. The drones will always be playing in a players ear and so they will blow tone to their drones. Note: the guy with the tuner should be making sure the guy who is having his chanter checked against his own drones has drones still tuned to the reference pitch as some drone reeds may change after a few minutes of warm up. Drones should ALWAYS be tuned while a player is playing a tune! NOT scales, not low A, playing a TUNE!

It’s that easy. Go around once checking each player’s internal consistency, play as a band some more. Go around solo again. Check individual chanters against the drones! All too often, bands will check chanters against a master chanter. Most notes are pretty close, one note a little off, so they move that piece of tape and good enough. But hey, that guy’s reed really could just be pushed in a little farther, drones will help you figure that out. Also, forget the scales. There’s this E, B, low A, low G, low A, B, C, D, E, F, high G, high A thing going around. Why, I have no idea. No one blows the same with this little dinky scale exercise as they will playing a tune. So don’t bother trying to tune to it. So, here is where your ears don’t lie. You gotta be able to tell if the guy’s chanter is just a little out of tune with his drones. You’re looking for general flat or sharpness. The chanter balance is either flat, in tune, or sharp to the reference pitch as indicated by the drones. Until you get the right balance, farting around with fine tuning is pointless because you haven’t even gotten the reed at the right depth in the chanter yet. Also, don’t be afraid to use hemp on chanter reeds. Chanters with threaded reed seats are handy, but if you don’t have threaded reed seats, reed height adjustment should be by changing the amount of hemp, because the reed needs to be seated well and that’s not going to happen if the reed is being moved up and down without changing the hemp. For the sake of eliminating variables, get the reed all the way in the reed seat. The hemp will control how far it goes in.

Pipe bands are pipe bands, every person is different. You’ll quickly learn who under blows relative to you and who over blows. Easy reeds tend to tune sharper, harder reeds flatter. It’s all in the juggling act. You’ll figure it out. Also, tuning up this way is less irritating to the drummers. Why? Well, there’s none of this band of solo meandering pipers looking for a place to tune their (relatively) out of tune chanter. You’re always playing as a band, be it warmup or full rehearsal.

So, you’ve tuned up the band. Rule #1. Don’t touch it. The fastest way to piss off the PM is to say you moved the reed during the week. Your intentions are meaningless. Don’t touch it. Play it, but don’t touch it. The last thing any band wants is to have to go through the tuning process at every rehearsal. That, is a pain in the woohoo. Like I said, ambient conditions are gonna change your pitch. So don’t go fiddling with the reed to reacheive band pitch in your 60 degree garage when you practice with the band on Sunday afternoons when it is 95 outside. It ain’t gonna happen. Just retune your drones and move on, maybe move some tape a micrometer, at most.

Same thing when the whole band gets together. You’ve replaced your cozy 73 degree church auditorium for the competition circle in Baghdad and it’s 120 degrees outside. Don’t go chasing after your band’s set reference pitch. Cause all you’re going to end up doing is retuning everybody’s chanter and wasting a lot of time and effort. Warm the band up and try to set the drones about normal. First thing you notice is all the drones will be out of tune. That is, the chanters won’t be in tune with the drones. So after warm up, go around the circle measuring everyone’s low A and figure out if everybody is flat to reference pitch or sharp. If it’s colder than usual, you’re going to be flatter. If it’s hotter than usual, you’re going to be sharper. Once you’ve got where everybody’s low A has moved to, go around again and retune the drones to today’s reference pitch. Ta da, you should be done. Not always as sometimes the weather has just funkified everything and you’ve got to move a few reeds. Maybe it’s really humid and everybody’s hard reed just turned to mush and they’re overblowing and you’ve got to pull the reeds out a bit, it happens. The point is, your reference pitch in your cozy band hall may always be 480, but on a chilly St. Patrick’s day parade morning, you’re going to be around 473 more likely just because the air is colder.

A last little personal note. How many bands out there in the great wide open that exist primarily because of one or two highly skilled players trying to organize the masses in a band. Yeah, I’m talking to you, some odd 25 year old chap been playing half your life leading eight, 40 something year old guys who have an average of 4 years on the pipes. Don’t put your tuning as a priority above everybody else. Even if you’re the guy going around tuning the band, you’re not responsible for tuning your drones. Your drones should be tuned to the reference pitch just like everybody else’s with a tuner, by somebody else, while you’re playing a tune. None of this finger gymnastics tune by ear non-sense. You blow differently playing a tune than gymnastics just like everybody else. Also, your chanter isn’t the stig anymore, that job has been moved to each person’s drones. Also, it makes you look like an @$$ when you go around spending 10 seconds to tune each guy’s drones with a tuner and then you make them wait 5 minutes while you prepare like you’re about to go on stage at the Glenfiddich. Ideally, once you’re done going around the circle, hand the tuner off to some random guy in the circle, join the band in playing and have him tune your drones. Pick a new guy each time. You never know when you’ll need your non-standard pipe sergeant to do the dirty work. It might be the guy you cut on the day of competition. Sure would be nice if the guy not playing knew how to tune the band’s drones, wouldn’t it? Then you could focus on the playing and music and not the hive of bumblebees 8 sets of out of tune drones sound like.

The drones are the foundation of a pipe corps. They all have to be playing at the same pitch. Tune them with a tuner while the band is playing tunes. Forget stopping off drones and playing scales to the stig’s master chanter. You’re going to blow different and you’re going to miss the balance of the chanter because you’re analyzing it note by note instead of the average against the drones. I’m also gonna bet since you’re comparing chanter to chanter, you’ll just be tuning each person’s drones individually to their chanter, under the assumption their chanter is in tune. Nope! You’re going to get a hive of bumblebees, at least that’s what the drones will sound like.

Some variations on a theme. Some bands will have the stig play, then have another player start up next to them playing, and then the tuner guy will tune that person’s drones by ear to the stig’s drones. I guess this works too, but it can be tough. Eliminate the variables and use a tuner. Buy a Korg, those things work. Don’t need to plop down the dough for a bagpipe tuner when all you’re doing is looking for a little green light. That being said, I use the tuner for individual notes when each guy is going around testing his chanter against the drones. But again, we’re not playing scales. In going around, each player should be playing a tune, no scales! Drones don’t lie, and neither do tuners. Maybe the stig’s F is a teeny bit flat. No worries if you’re standard is the tuner. If some note sounds off have them play up to that note and hold it. Given the offsets in this article, there’ll be no guess work whether the note is sharp or flat and you can fix it quick. I just thought of another reason the stig is a bad idea. You have to assume this guy is blowing the exact same for every guy in the band who is coming up one at a time. You think after 10 pipers of the same boring old scale he’s going to be blowing the same for the last guy as he did the first, the second time around? I don’t think so. Each player’s own drones will not lie, just make sure they’re in tune on the quick solo checks.

So, those are my thoughts. I started as a PM of a band and I tuned them like I tune solo. Meaning, I tuned myself and then tuned their chanters to mine and then their drones to them playing low A, just like I tune myself. Big mistake. We’ve switched to tuning the drones, I’ve dropped my ego and let somebody else tune my drones, and we’ve got a solid drone sound on which to build a great chanter sound. It also helps teach pipers to listen to their drones and blow tone. One of the hardest things to do is play between two players who have a different pitch than you, and if their drones are tuned to their chanters and not a standard, it’s all the harder. You’re (subconsciously) always trying to find them to blend in. If you’ve got the drones all set, there’s a foundation on which to base your ‘blowing tone’. If you’re finding you’re having to blow harder to get your chanter up to pitch to your drones, your chanter is flat. If you’re really having to back off, your chanter is sharp. You would never be able to tell if your drones are sharp or flat were they just tuned to your low A on an individual basis. Drones don’t lie.

One thought on “How to tune a pipe corps

  1. real good post. loaded with a lot of info that we sometimes forget or just blow off. If it ain’t broke dont fix. Like you said the best way to PO the PM is putz around with the reed and move it. Leave the blasted thing be and let the PM do the moving…if he messes it up thats his doing , if you mess it up you will be a dead person walking!

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