Setting Up And Optimising Your Drone Reeds

First rule of thumb... Ensure that your drones are in a good state of maintenance. They should be correctly hemped, no loose or wobbling joints and no joints that are excessively tight. All efforts to produce a steady bagpipe will be wasted by you should your instrument not be properly maintained.

Fitting your reeds

Insert your drone reed into the reed seat of the drone, at this stage it is recommended that you avoid the temptation to ram the reed in as far as it will go. Seat the drone reed about half way into the reed seat, and set the pitch adjuster about mid way. This will leave room for additional pitch adjustment should it be required. IMPORTANT; make sure the drone reed has the hemp area adjusted by either adding or removing hemp, to ensure a snug fit in the reed seat.

fitting a drone reed

A safety measure that you can put in place to avoid the loss of a drone reed inside a bag is to fold back the last turn of hemp and trap it between the stock and the joint.

If you are setting up cane drone reeds be careful to ensure that you seat this firmly however so firmly that the tapered reed seat of the drone is causing undue pressure on the walls of the cane. This will cause the tongue to rise during play as the reed takes on moisture and so cause unsteadiness, a very common mistake made.

Setting the strength

Starting with the tenors, mouth blow these while seated in the drone and set the strength of the reed to suit your own strength of blowing. You should be setting the drone reed so that an increase in pressure from your normal strength will stop the drone. Be careful here because if you set a drone reed to close to this stopping point it can cause unsteadiness. This is particularly so for cane drone reeds.

drone reed bridle adjustment

You are looking to obtain a strength where the double tone of the drone reed just kicks out as / before you bring the chanter in.

Finessing the strength

Now that you have the desired strength of the drone reeds approximately set it is time to finesse them.

With the drones now inserted in the bagpipe, cork the chanter stock, blow up and tune the drones. Do not worry at this stage about where on the slides they are tuning.

Gradually increase the pressure of your blowing until the drones start to stop. As you increase the pressure, your drones will start to drift out of tune. This is because pitch is partially pressure dependent however we are not concerned with this at moment.

You will find that your drones may all stop together all at once, if so great this is what we are looking for, if not then put your chanter in blow your normal pressure and see which, if any, drone stops. If they all stop then you will have to open up the bridles a fraction, to make the reeds slightly stronger, as you have set them too high. If one or more drone keeps going then take note which one (s) and remove the chanter.

Re-cork the chanter stock and strike up again. Having noted which drone (s) kept sounding gradually increase your blowing pressure until this drone (s) stops. You now want to adjust the bridles on the remaining drones so that they too cut off at the same pressure. This may take a few attempts to get right but a little patience shown here will pay its rewards later.

Setting the pitch

tenor drone tuning position

Now that we have the drones operating at the desired pressure we want to have them tuning in the sweet spot. Although pipes vary from make to make it is usual that this spot will be found on or just above the hemp line with the tenors and bass top joint, as shown. The bass bottom joint will normally be a little lower, on older pipes it can be very close to the bottom mount.

You have to bear in mind that when setting the drones to tune in these spots, the pitch of the chanter will increase as you play it until you reach the steady window. It is necessary therefore, if you are setting up from a cold blown reed, to set the drones tuning a little higher on the pin than desired.

Although this is normally where you will find the sweet spot, it will vary from pipe to pipe and depends on the entire set up of the instrument. The important point to bear in mind, especially with tenor drones, is that the lower down the tuning pin the drone tunes the harder, and to some extent louder, the sound will be. This may well be a desirable characteristic of the pipe being set up if they are an inherently quite set of drones compared to the volume produced by the chanter.

To achieve the desired tuning position of the drones it will now be necessary to raise or lower the pitch of the drone reeds. You can achieve this by the following methods.

Drone reed seat

When we first introduced the reeds to the drones, we set them so that they were approximately half way into the reed seat. If we wish to lengthen the tuning pin of the drone to make the top sit up a little higher, we can seat the reed further into the Drone, so sharpening the pitch. Conversely, if we wish to lower the pitch slightly we can add a little hemp and seat the reeds a little further out.

Further pitch adjustment

Further pitch alterations, if desired, are achievable by changing the nose cones. Hollow nose cones will lower the pitch and solid nose cones will increase the pitch.

MG Carbon Drone Reed

Now that we have the drone reed seated where we want we can now make further pitch adjustments by turning the nose cone of the reed. The same rules apply, turn the nose cone inwards (clockwise), so shortening the reed length, raising the pitch, and making the drone top tune a little higher on the pin. Conversely, turn the nose cone outwards (anti-clockwise) to lengthen the reed, lower the pitch and make the drone top tune a little lower on the pin.