Support Documents - FUNDAMENTALS OF PITCH - Chanter

  • Shortening the distance between the reed and the top of the holes will raise their pitch. This is known as "sinking the reed".

  • Lengthening the distance between the reed and the top of the holes will lower their pitch. This is known as "lifting the reed".

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METHODS OF TUNING

Unlike many reeded instruments, bagpipe reeds are not played directly in the mouth, which means we have no means of influencing the pitch of individual notes via pressure or embouchure. While an increase or decrease in pressure will affect the general pitch of the chanter, it is certainly not a valid method of accounting for individual notes. The tuning of the chanter depends entirely on reed manipulation and adjusting hole size - either by using tape or undercutting holes. Combining these methods with a steady blowing pressure will give the best result.

TAPE

  • We tune chanters with every note taped. Some will consider this excessive and granted, in a stable environment, with a well matched reed and chanter, it is possible to have a reasonably accurate scale with only 2 or 3 pieces of tape. In a solo situation, particularly in the hands of a top class piper, you can get away with as little tape as necessary. But in the real world, especially when playing outdoors, having tape on every note is of great advantage when trying to compensate for the effects of climate change. The problem with the pipe chanter is that when the temperature changes, the tuning of the chanter will also change, and not always evenly throughout the scale. Moisture on the reed will also alter some notes more than it will others.

  • Due to this uneven pitch alteration, we need to have a method of tuning each note independently, and this is where tape comes in. Don't believe in the myth that every note taped equates to having a poor quality chanter or reed. It is a practical method of creating a truly accurate scale and not one that is just near enough. Don't use normal cello tape, use black electrical tape or a quality medical tape.

  • It should be stressed that tape is for fine-tuning only. If you end up with a note half covered with tape, you clearly have a reed and or chanter problem that needs to be addressed.

  • The application of tape over the top of a hole will lower its pitch. This is because you have increased the distance between the reed and the top of the hole, which is effectively now tape.

  • If you then move the tape to a higher position, the notes pitch will be sharpened. This is because you have decreased the distance between the reed and the top of the hole.

TAPE & TEMPERATURE INCREASE

  • Temperature increase will lift the pitch of your chanter. It should be noted that when the temperature increases, the lower notes will tend to sharpen more than the higher notes. To re-balance the chanter, you could remove some tape from the top notes, or sink the reed. The problem with these methods is that your overall pitch could end up significantly higher. A more convenient method is to apply additional tape to the bottom notes (Low G, Low A, and possibly B). The advantage is that your overall pitch will not go up as much, and when the temperature decreases, you can replace the tape to its higher position.

TAPE & TEMPERATURE DECREASE

  • Temperature decrease will lower the pitch of your chanter. Opposite to the scenario above, when the temperature decreases, the lower notes will go down in pitch more than the higher notes. To re-balance the chanter, you could apply more tape to the higher notes, or lift the reed. Both of these methods could significantly lower your pitch. The easier method is to sharpen the lower notes by removing some tape. Your overall pitch will not go down as much and you can replace the tape to its lower position when the temperature increases.

UNDERCUTTING

  • Along with using tape on every note, this is another tuning technique that tends to be frowned upon. The fact is, many chanters are shipped with undercutting already performed on certain notes. Depending on the strength and type of reeds you use, you may find that a little more will be required to finish the chanter to your needs. If a note is persistently flat with a variety of reeds, and it has little or no tape compared to the rest of the scale, undercutting the top of the inside of the hole will permanently sharpen its pitch and bring it into line with the other notes on the chanter. This should only be done when you are absolutely certain that a note is flat and out of balance with the rest of the scale. If you have any doubt at all - do nothing and further adjust the reed if possible.

  • If you are confident enough to go ahead, undercutting can be done with a thin hobby knife or a thin file. Only remove a small amount of material at a time and test regularly.

  • Undercutting alone will only sharpen a note so much and in some cases, pipers will actually enlarge the hole opening by cutting it's top end at a 90 degree angle to the outside edge of the chanter. From here, further undercutting can be done if required. While this is not uncommon in top level bands, you should perhaps look to further adjusting the reed or changing chanters if you still have problems.

REED MANIPULATION

Refer to Chanter Reeds for more information.

PREPARING THE CHANTER

  • To begin with, place approximately 1mm of tape over the top edge of each hole - including the Low G sound holes. This will slightly lower the overall pitch and give you the opportunity to raise or further lower the pitch of individual notes as required. Any more than 2mm of tape on any given hole would normally be considered excessive.

  • The next step is to position the reed in the chanter's reed seat with about two thirds of the staple or tie on thread showing. This will give you a good starting point from where you may have to lift or sink the reed if necessary. It should be noted that it is desirable to set up a chanter with the reed as high as possible in the chanter's reed seat. This will help to create a stable, full sounding top hand, and help to ward off any crow on High A.

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TUNING A TENOR DRONE TO LOW A

  • For the sake of convenience, plug your bass drone and one of the tenors.

  • Ignoring High A and the rest of the scale, play Low A and listen to it's tuning relative to the drone. It's more than likely that you will hear some wavering. You will need to experiment with moving the the tenor in the direction required to slow the wavering down. This will require a little more concentration than just tuning drones.

  • While moving the tenor, play High A with the left hand and periodically check your Low A. If the wavering speeds up, move the drone in the other direction until it slows down and eventually stops. At this point, the drone and Low A will be in tune.

  • Despite the fact that your Low A is taped and therefore tunable, from here on in, do not adjust it. Low A will be your frame of reference for the rest of the tuning procedure. Once your chanter is tuned however, you may find that at a later date, in a different environment, a slight alteration to your Low G, Low A, and maybe B, is all that will be required to correct your scale relative to the drones.

  • As you proceed, regularly check your Low A against the drone and retune as required. This is particularly important in the first 10 minutes or so, as the chanter will rise in pitch as the reed warms up.

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CHECKING THE BALANCE OF HIGH A & LOW A

  • With the drone tuned to Low A, change to High A and listen to the tuning. Make sure you are playing a true High A with the bottom hand on the chanter. Listen for a unified sound. If you hear wavering, then the High A is either flat, or sharp.

  • Now, ignoring the Low A, re-tune the tenor drone so that it is in tune with High A. If you lengthened the drone, then the High A is flat relative to the Low A. If you shortened the drone, then the High A is sharp relative to the Low A.

  • Reposition the reed so that the High A and Low A are balanced, and therefore both in tune with the drone. Lifting the reed will flatten the High A more than it will the Low A, and sinking the reed will sharpen the High A more than it will the Low A.

  • If you're overall pitch is now either too high or too low, reposition the reed to compensate, and instead balance the chanter by adjusting the tape on High A.

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LEARNING WHAT TO LISTEN FOR

Before tuning the chanter to the drone, it can be a good learning experience to first of all practice tuning a drone to the various notes on the chanter. This will help you to understand what "flat", "in tune",  and "sharp", actually mean in terms of sound.

While it is relatively easy hear if High A or Low A is in tune or not, the other notes are not as straightforward. In very simple terms, you need to listen for a chord with the drones. If a note is out of tune with the drones, you will hear wavering, but it will not be as pronounced as with High A and Low A. When a note is only slightly out of tune, it will be difficult to hear wavering at all. Instead, if the note is flat, it will sound "dull" and "thick". If the note is sharp, it will sound "shrill" and "thin". 

Perhaps the best note to start with is D, because it is possible to play D without using the bottom hand on the chanter. (The removal of the right little finger only raises the pitch of D very slightly.) By playing D at the same time as tuning the drone, you can learn to listen for the changing harmonics between the two as you move the drone up and down.

  • Play D, with your bass and one tenor plugged.

  • At the same time, move the operating tenor up and down. You will hear the harmonic relationship between the drone and chanter alter as the D becomes flat or sharp relative to the drone. Remember that flat will sound dull and sharp will sound shrill.

  • Somewhere in the middle there will be a point where the two sounds will be in tune to each other. Listen carefully so that you are able to hear the speed of the wavering between chanter and drone slow down. Keep moving the drone until the sound of the chanter and drone lock in to form a chord. Then move the drone slightly higher - the note should sound shrill (sharp). Then move the drone slightly lower - the note should sound dull (flat). Then bring the drone back in tune with the D so that the sound locks in again.

  • Practice with the other notes as well. It will not be as convenient as with D, because you will need to check all other notes with both hands on the chanter. The principal is exactly the same as for D however. To make the exercise easier, you could tape the holes closed to play the note you want to hear - this way you can still tune the drone at the same time as hearing the note.

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TESTING THE NOTES RELATIVE TO LOW A

Now you need to test which notes are sharp and which notes are flat, relative to the to Low A or drone. If you can hear which notes are sharp or flat - you're half way there. If you're still unsure, the following method will help.

  • Tune a tenor drone to Low A, making note of it's position on the pin.

  • Now, tune the drone so that the Low G is in tune. If the drone had to be shortened, this means that the Low G is sharp relative to the Low A. If the drone had to be lengthened, this means that the Low G is flat relative to the Low A.

  • Repeat these two steps for the rest of the scale, remembering to retune the drone to Low A before checking each note. When you are finished, you will have an indication of what your chanters characteristics are and where tape will need to be adjusted. To make things easier, write down your results as you proceed.

TUNING THE CHANTER
Finally, we get to the task at hand. From the above test, you will know which notes are sharp and which notes are flat relative to the Low A.

Go back to your record of which notes are sharp or flat. With a tenor drone tuned to Low A, adjust the tape on each note so that they are in tune with the drone.
 
NOTES FLAT TO THE DRONE

  • Decrease the amount of tape covering the hole of that note. Try to ensure there is some tape left so you still have room to move.

  • If E, F, High G, and High A are flat to the drone, sinking the reed will help. This will raise the overall pitch and most of the effect will be on the top 3 or 4 notes.

  • If D, C, and B are flat to the drone, sinking the reed will also help, but it might cause the higher notes to become too sharp. Compensate by increasing the tape on the sharp notes, or consider the possibility of undercutting the flat notes.

  • Another alternative is to increase the amount of tape on Low A. This will require you to lower the pitch of the drone, which will bring it closer to the flat notes.

NOTES SHARP TO THE DRONE

  • Increase the amount of tape covering the hole of that note. Any more than 2 mm of tape could signify that further adjustment is required to the reed and or chanter.

  • If most of the notes are sharp, you could lift the reed. This will lower your overall pitch, and most of the effect will be on the top 3 or 4 notes. You may find that this will also make your High A too flat.

  • If you find that your overall pitch is now too low, adjustment to the reed may be necessary.

INDIVIDUAL NOTES SIGNIFICANTLY OUT OF TUNE

Refer to Chanter Reeds for more information.

TUNING 3 DRONES TO THE CHANTER

Once you are confident that your chanter is in tune, it is time to operate all three drones at once and tune them to Low A. The principals are exactly the same as for tuning the drones to themselves, except that like the tenor drone you have been using up to this point, all three will be tuned to Low A. 

With practice, you will be able to tune all three drones at once while playing High A. Remember that when playing High A with only the left hand, it is only a rough guide due to the fact it's pitch will be slightly sharp without the bottom hand on the chanter. Another point to be aware of is that your pipes will take more air with all three drones operating. You may find that you will need to increase your overall pressure to keep the chanter at the required pitch and to keep the High A clear. It's more than likely you will need re-tune the chanter to a small degree once all three drones are operatring. Refer to Tuning Drones for more information.

KEY POINTS

  • The reed needs to be low enough in the reed seat so that the pitch is what you require and yet high enough so that you don't have problems with top hand stability.

  • You then need to know whether most of the chanters scale is sharp or flat, relative to the Low A (Drones). Taping will lower the pitch of the sharper notes, but you may find that if there is too much tape on some holes (more than 2mm), you may have to consider the possibility of undercutting the flat notes to compensate.

  • Ideally, there shouldn't be any major difference with the amount of tape on each hole. This is where careful undercutting can help to balance up a chanter.

  • When sinking or lifting a reed in the chanter's reed seat - all notes are changed, however the higher notes are more sensitive and will alter more than the lower notes.

  • Lower notes are the most volatile and unstable with temperature change. Low G, Low A, and to a lesser degree B, will sharpen more than the higher notes in the heat, and lower more in the cold.

  • As you tune the chanter, regularly check your Low A against the drone, or drones, as the chanter will sharpen slightly as it is played - particulary when the reed is cold.

  • It is essential that you blow with a steady pressure.