Swedish bagpipes

Tuning

This page explains how I get my reeds to work well in the chanter, i.e. how I adjust them and tune the chanter. (This is not to say that my way is the only way.) I also mention some tuning problems specific to drones.

If you have not already, I suggest that you read through the section on reed making first. Even if you do not make your own reeds, knowing how it is done is helpful when learning how to tune them. In particular, you need to know some names of the different parts of the reed, as well as some reed making concepts. I assume here that we already have a reed which in itself makes about the right sound.

It may be necessary to scrape away some material from the open end of the reed to make it fit properly in the chanter. I do this with a sharp knife. My reeds are upcut, so I slice from just below the reed tip towards the open end (all around the reed). This way, I make an edge immediately below the tip, where the reed suddenly gets thicker. This prevents the air pressure from pushing the reed too far into the chanter.

It is important that the reed fits properly, with no leaks between the inner chanter wall and the reed. If the reed is too thin you can make it thicker by wrapping adhesive tape around it. An upcut reed reed should be inserted as far as possible without the tongue tip hitting the chanter.

Tuning of a chanter
Tuning of a chanter.
The guy to the right is Håkan Sjöö.
Photo: Anne-Marie Eriksson

What is "out of tune?"

The chanter can be out of tune in three ways:
  1. The scale is too narrow or too extended, i.e. the distance between the notes is wrong.

    The most important parameter to control this is the elevation of the tongue over the reed body. Lifting the tongue narrows the scale, lowering the tongue extends the scale.

    I prefer heat setting to adjust this. But if the reed has a hair under the tongue, the elevation can be adjusted by replacing it by a thicker or thinner one, or by moving the hair. Moving the hair towards the root, making the free vibrating part of the tongue longer, has approximately the same effect on the scale (but the opposite on tone quality) as raising the tongue, and vice versa.

    Once the reed is finished and tuned and played in, this problem seldom occurs.

  2. The scale as such sounds right, i.e. the notes are in tune when compared to each other, but the whole scale is sharp or flat. The whole scale should be shifted down or up.

    A heavier tongue tip shifts the scale down. A lighter tip shifts it up. Making the tip heavier is best done by applying some bees-wax to it. Not too close to the edges, though - we don't want the tongue to stick to the body.

    Consequently, making the tip lighter is best done by removing wax from the tip. If there is no wax to remove, I cut away material from the tip with a sharp knife. But there is a limit to how thin you can make the tip without causing leaks.

    If the reed has a bridle it can be moved. Moving it towards the root (in effect, making the tongue longer) shifts the scale down and vice versa. In my experience, this technique has more side effects than the bees-wax method - the notes on the upper half of the scale are more affected than the notes on the lower half. For small adjustements, though, it works well. (This side effect on the scale is there for the bees-wax method as well, but the effect is not as strong.)

  3. Individual notes are wrong.

    If a single note is sharp, it can be flattened by inserting som bees-wax at the top edge of the corresponding finger hole. In effect, the finger hole moves down slightly (and also becomes smaller).

    To sharpen a note which is flat is more difficult, unless there is some bees-wax in the finger hole to remove. One thing to check is that the chanter bore is clean (remove the reed and look through it). Dirt in the chanter can have surprising effects on tuning. I use a barrel brush for an air gun to clean the bore, if necessary, but letting a 4 mm drill slide through the bore works fine too.

    If the note is in the lower half of the scale, make sure that there are no leaks in the upper half (under fingers, under any keys, or between the reed and the chanter's inner wall). Leaks in the upper half may affect the tuning of the lower half a lot.

    As a last resort, one may have to file up the finger hole. If so, file with a thin round file on the upper, inner hole edge. But, only after making absolutely certain that everything else is OK, that only this note is wrong, and that this is so for several reeds.

In what order to tune things

When tuning a chanter, I do things in a particular order:

  1. I listen to the reed itself. The sound it makes should be a reedy, steady tone, slighly above the top note on the chanter (E) (Sound example).

  2. After inserting the reed into the chanter, I then check that the pitch of A is approximately right.

  3. Next, I check that the top E is right in relation to the A. It is more important, at this stage, that this interval is right, than that the pitch of A is.

  4. Now, when the interval between A and top E is OK, I shift the scale so that my A is a true A (440 Hz). Hopefully, I'm already so close that the side effects of shifting the scale does not destroy the interval between A and top E. If required, I go back to adjusting the interval (step 3) again.

  5. When both the A and the interval A-(top)E are OK, the other notes on the chanter usually are too, with the common exception of low E. But I leave that for later and adjust the other notes individually if I have to first.

  6. Low E is so often out of tune that I always have a ring of rubber (from a bicycle tyre) there so that I can adjust it easily, covering more or less of the upper half of that finger hole with the ring. On some chanters, the very end of the chanter can be turned to tune this particular note (turning it partly covers/uncovers the tuning hole from the inside). I check this note between every tune I play and sometimes even adjust it while playing (with my right little finger). Low E also very easily gets out of tune if you don't cover the finger holes in the upper half of he scale properly. A small leak there makes a big difference for low E.

  7. The previous point also implies that low E is not suitable as a reference when tuning the drone. It is better to tune the drone by comparing it to the chanter's A or B. More about drones below.

Air consumption and sound

Swedish bagpipes should not be hard to blow. If you must refill the bag more often than every 5 seconds when you play, something is wrong (with the bag and/or the reeds).

Assuming that the bag is airtight, a reed which requires too much air probably also sounds bad. Compare to the sound of Swedish bagpipes in the same key as yours from a record. Comparing to two other single-reeded instruments, the clarinet and the harmonica, the sound of a Swedish bagpipe should be much closer to that of the harmonica. However, there is plenty of variation in how different bagpipes sound, even among those made by the same maker.

If the tongue of the reed is too elevated, or too thick, the chanter will be hard to blow, it probably makes strange noises (screeching or burring) when pressure is released, and the sound is closer to a clarinet. The sound should be much crisper than that, but it is an issue which is hard to describe in words.


Workshop in Estonia, showing off Swedish bagpipes and how to make reeds.
Photo: Mikael Larsson

Drone reeds

Making drone reeds is easier than making chanter reeds, since they only have to work well for one or two notes. On the other hand, there is a stability issue when making drone reeds, which is usually not addressed when making chanter reeds - the drone note should not be affected if you vary the pressure on the bag.

When inserted in a pipe (chanter or drone) a reed can only be stable for one note (one frequency). On the chanter, the stable point is usually somewhere close to the middle of the scale. If you take a note above that point and increase pressure, the pitch goes sharp (up). If you take a note below the stable point and increase pressure, the pitch goes flat (down). On the chanter, this effect is sometimes used to reach notes beyond the usual scale (listen to Brudmarsch från Dalby, for example). But when doing that, the drone should stay put, i.e. the stable point of a drone should be the drone note!

This is best controlled by the weight of the tongue's tip (or the tongue's length, I presume, but I never do it that way). If we add weight to the tip, we move the stable point down the scale, and vice versa. So, if the drone note goes sharp with increased pressure it is above the stable point and, therefore, some weight should be removed from the tip (the saying goes "if the drone goes sharp, sharpen the blade"). Consequently, if the drone goes flat some weight should be added instead.

The really interested reader just discovered a small contradiction. If the drone should have its stable point at low E, i.e. lower than the chanter's typical stable point, then the drone reed should be made slightly longer than chanter reeds. But in the section on reed making I said that Alban Faust recommends that drone reeds are made a bit shorter than chanter reeds (35 mm instead of 37 mm). How is that?

The answer is that there is another stability issue with bees-wax on the tongue's tip - added weight there decreases the risk of the reed shutting close. Therefore, it may be a good idea to make the drone reed a bit too short, on purpose, so that we must compensate for that later with a hefty piece of bees-wax on the tip (which then solves three problems at the same time - it makes the drone flatter, it moves the stable point down and decreases the risk of it shutting close).

Tables of adjustments and effects

I end this section with two summarizing tables, on what happens when doing different things to a reed, and how to counteract various problems.

Adjustments and their effects

Adjustment How to do it Effect
Lifted tongue Heat set it (see the section on reed making), or insert a hair under the tongue, or replace the hair(*) with a thicker one. The whole scale moves down and shrinks (the upper half moves more than the lower half). The tone becomes rawer and stronger. The reed requires more air. The chanter may screech and/or burr for low notes (in particular if heat set only at the root). More stable tone. Less likely to shut close. In extreme cases, the reed may stop sounding without shutting close, i.e. still letting air through.
Lowered tongue Heat set it (see the section on reed making), or replace the hair(*) with a thinner one. The whole scale moves up and widens (the upper half moves more than the lower half). The tone becomes finer and weaker. The reed requires less air. More unstable tone. More likely to shut close.
Heavier tongue tip Add some bees-wax to the tip. The whole scale moves down. Less likely to shut close. Moves the stable point down the scale.
Lighter tongue tip Remove some bees-wax from the tip, or scrape away some material from the actual tip with a sharp knife. The whole scale moves up. More likely to shut close. Moves the stable point up the scale.
Thinner tongue Scrape or slice along the full length of the tongue with a sharp knife. The whole scale moves down and shrinks. The tone becomes finer and weaker. Requires less air. (Same scale effect as when lifting the tongue, but opposite sound effect.)
Longer tongue Move the bridle(*) towards the root. The whole scale moves down, the upper half slightly more so than the lower half. Requires a bit more air.
Shorter tongue Move the bridle(*) towards the tip. The whole scale moves up, the upper half slightly more so than the lower half. Requires a bit less air.
Longer free length of the tongue Move the hair(*) towards the root. The whole scale moves down and shrinks. The tone becomes finer and weaker. The reed requires less air. Increased risk of the reed shutting close.
Shorter free length of the tongue Move the hair(*) towards the tip. The whole scale moves up and widens. The tone becomes rawer and stronger. The reed requires more air. Decreased risk of the reed shutting close.
(*) if you have one ...

Trouble shooting

The chanter

Problem Solution
The chanter is hard to blow, the sound is raw and "closed in" First, lower the tongue or move the hair(*) towards the root.

If that does not work, thin out the tongue

The interval between A and top E is too narrow Lower the tongue or move the hair(*) towards the tip.
The interval between A and top E is too wide Lift the tongue or move the hair(*) towards the root.
The whole scale is sharp Make the tip heavier with some bees-wax or move the bridle(*) towards the root (more pronounced side effects).
The whole scale is flat Make the tip lighter by removing some bees-wax from it or move the bridle(*) towards the tip (more pronounced side effects).

If you want to make the tip lighter but there is no bees-wax (left) to remove, scrape away material from the tip itself with a sharp knife. If the tip is too thin to do that, tie a bridle to the root (unless you already have one - if so, move it towards the tip).

An individual note is sharp Press some bees-wax down the upper edge of the finger hole.
An individual note is flat In order (until the problem is solved):

  1. Remove bees-wax from the finger hole.

  2. Clean the chanter bore.

  3. Check for air leaks above the finger hole for the problematic note. Try pressing down your fingers on the chanter harder then you usually do, to see if that affects the pitch of the problematic note. If it does, you don't cover the holes properly.

  4. Try another reed.

  5. Try yet another one, two or three ...

  6. File with a thin round file on the upper, inner edge of the finger hole. If you don't want to do that (which is understandable) the only remaining solution is to flatten all the other notes in the scale.

The drone

Problem Solution
The drone note goes sharp with increased bag pressure Remove some bees-wax from the tip.

If there is no bees-wax (left) to remove, scrape away material from the tip itself with a sharp knife. If the tip is too thin to do that, tie a bridle to the root.

The drone note goes flat with increased bag pressure Add som bees-wax to the tip.
(*) if you have one ...

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Olle Gällmo http://olle.gallmo.se olle@gallmo.se