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Reverse Tongue Drone Reed Adjustment

Setting up Drone Reeds

If your drones reeds have been made for  your pipes, they should stay in tune and play at an appropriate pressure indefinitely. However, environmental factors or knocks may lead to the need to make small adjustments from time to time.

If you have bought new reeds and need to set them up in your own pipes you might need to make some small adjustments to make them play at their best in your set.

The main reason you might wish to adjust your drone reeds is that they aren’t playing at a comfortable playing pressure.  You will know this because they either shut off and fall silent after you start them up but before you reach normal playing pressure, or that they don’t sound or start up at all.  The next most common reason to adjust them is because they don’t play at the correct pitch.  It is possible that the problem you’re having with them might be temporary so do give them a chance to settle to your playing environment for a couple of days before making any adjustments.

Before you make any changes it’s wise to check a few things-

  • Is the drone airtight – make sure there are no leaks where the drone meets the stock, where the slide meets the standing part or around the tuning beads or piston.
  • Is there any damage to the drone – check for cracks and breaks.
  • Is the reed seated firmly in the drone?

The reed design I make allows you to adjust either or both of the playing pressure of the reed and its pitch. All adjustments should be made in very small increments (less than 1mm at a time) as small changes can have big results. You might like to mark the position of the reed tongue and bridle on the body of the reed before making any changes. This allows you to put everything back as close to its original position as possible if necessary. If the reed doesn’t play, it might just need a little encouragement so try gently pulling up on the tongue a few times, and suck through the open end to get it going.

If you need to adjust pressure and pitch, always adjust pressure first

Drone Reed

Adjusting Playing Pressure.

The reed is set to play at a comfortable pressure (approximately 12” Water Pressure).  If the reed starts to play but then shuts off before playing pressure is reached, the tongue needs to be opened slightly.  If the pressure needed for the reed to play is too great the tongue needs to be closed slightly.

Hold the reed horizontally in front of you, with the reed tongue on top as in the picture.  You will see that on the left the reed tongue is loose and there is a small gap between it and the body of the reed.  The size of the gap is set by the position of the bridle (the thread wrapping) which dictates where the reed tongue meets the body of the reed.  The thread can be moved enough by gently pushing the left hand few threads with your thumb nail.  To close the tongue slightly, move the bridle to the left.  To open it slightly, move the bridle to the right.

Although this adjustment is done to manage playing pressure, you may notice a resulting change in pitch.  If this can’t be managed by adjusting the drone sliders, then you may need to move on and adjust the pitch.

Adjusting Pitch

This is controlled by the length of the tongue from its bridle to its loose tip.  If you wish to lower the pitch of the reed, the simple way is to gently stick a small piece of blue-tac near the tip of the tongue.  Alternatively, mark the position of the bridle then unwrap it.  Make the tongue longer by moving it to the left before re-wrapping the bridle.

If you wish to raise the pitch, you need to shorten the tongue by moving it to the right under its bridle.

Be patient
You may find you have to repeat or combine these operations over a few days until things stabilise, but with care you’ll soon have the reed set up how you like it.

For more information about the Northumbrian Pipes contact Kim@Northumbrianpipes.co.uk

Drone Reeds Made Simple

Rain or shine, if you are lucky, your drone reeds will sit happily in your pipes and sing beautifully whenever you play.  More likely, your reeds might sometimes seem temperamental and need an occasional tweak to keep them working in all conditions.  This is where having an understanding of how they work is useful.  Once we know this it’s easier for us to make simple adjustments to keep them playing at their best.  In this article we’ll look at the most common drone reed designs and how they work.

Types of Drone Reed

There are three common reed designs and these are shown here.

northumbrian pipes

The top reed is made from cane.  Similar reeds might be made from elder or other hedgerow plants.  David Burleigh probably made more of these reeds than anyone else and many of his sets still have them.      

The second reed has a brass body with a cane tongue bound on top.  If your pipes were made by Colin Ross you will probably have these reeds.

The third reed is a square section of drilled brass with a plastic tongue held in place by rubber bands.  Richard Evans and Mike Nelson have done much to develop this style and if you have their pipes you could well have this type of reed.

While these three reeds look very different, many parts are interchangeable.  For example, the tongues of the bottom two reeds can be made from other materials, so both types could easily be made with tongues made from cane, plastic, metal or carbon fibre – or any other suitable material.  What all three types have in common is how they work, and if we understand that we are well on the way to being able to maintain and adjust them when necessary.

The Parts of a Drone Reed

Drone reeds have three main parts – the reed body, the reed tongue and the bridle.  In the photo below you can see the body on the left.  The reed body is a hollow tube through which the air must flow as it passes from the bag to the main part of the drone and it forms the narrowest gap on this route. The air flows in through the slot on the top of the body and out of the tubular end of the reed body.  All reed types are designed to do this even though they may look different.

northumbrian pipes

The tongue is attached to the reed body at one end.  In this picture it is held in place with a rubber band.  Ross style reed tongues are tied on with thread and in all cane reeds the tongues are part of the body, where the tongue is split away from the body but remains attached at one end.  The other, free end of the tongue lies just above the inlet hole.  The tongue is slightly flexible.

 

The bridle is a rubber band or wraps of cotton around the reed body and tongue and forms the hinge point where the two are in contact with each other.  The bridle can be moved along the reed when adjustments are necessary.

 

 

How Drone Reeds Work

This is simple.  When we inflate our bag the air tries to escape.  One route out is through the hollow tubes which form the drones.  To escape, the air must pass through the reed body. Just like putting your thumb partially over the end of a hose to form a water jet, the air has to accelerate as it passes through the narrow drone body.  As it does so, Bernoulli’s Principle comes into play.  This says that as the air speeds up it’s pressure drops.  This means that the air pressure is higher just before it gets to the reed but lower inside the reed body.  Because the tongue is flexible, the higher air pressure on top of it and the lower pressure below it pushes it down and it blocks the inlet hole in the body.  As the flow is blocked the air pressure equalises and the elasticity of the tongue causes it to spring open again.  Once it is open the whole process is repeated, opening and shutting the tongue against the reed body – very quickly!

Northumbrian pipesI like to think that the tongue operates a bit like a school rule overhanging the edge of a desk.  Press down and release the free end and the rule vibrates and makes a sound.  You can change the pitch of the sound quite easily.  By lengthening the overhanging part you increase the mass of the rule and the pitch drops.  You can achieve the same thing by keeping the length as you first had it but add sticky tack on the end.  In the reed, it’s the air pressure changing which causes the tongue to vibrate and make the sound.

Managing the Variables

For the reed to work properly a few variables need to be managed.  Firstly, in order to sound a note at all the tongue needs to be flexible enough to be bent by the air pressure changes so it can shut off the air flow through the body.  However, it also needs to be elastic enough to spring back open afterwards.  This means that if the tongue is too stiff the air pressure won’t be able to bend it to close the reed.  If it’s too flexible it won’t be strong enough to spring back open.  The reed maker must select the material and dimensions of the tongue to allow this vibration, and set the gap between the drone body and the tongue to match the degree of swing of the tongue.  The gap is usually set by bending the tongue if it is made from cane or by leaving the tongue straight but shaping a bend in the body as in the picture below.

 

Once made and sounding, the maker will aim to make the reed as stable as possible.  By stability, we mean that it will play at the bag pressure we like and it will play at the same pitch even if we make small changes to the bag pressure as we play.  This can be achieved by adjusting a bridle.

Northumbrian pipes

In this photo you can see two rubber bands.  The one on the right is simply to secure the tongue to the body.  The band on the left is the bridle and this is used to make the reed more stable.  When playing, if the reed note goes up unacceptably as bag pressure increases you can make it more stable by moving the bridle to the left and shortening the tongue.  If the pitch drops as pressure increases then move it to the right and lengthen the tongue.

You can do this with all types of reeds.  For cane reeds you will see a thread bridle which you can slide up or down the reed.  Cane reeds don’t need the second elastic band shown in the photo above as the tongue and body are physically joined and not separated when the reed is made.  The Colin Ross style reeds don’t have separate rubber bands but instead have thread wrapping which both joins the tongue to the body and acts as a bridle.  There’s usually enough spare thread to add a few more wraps if you need to shorten the tongue or you can unwrap some thread to lengthen the tongue.

Once the reed is stable you might need to adjust the pitch slightly for the drone to play in tune.  As we saw above, this can be done by adding mass to the tongue to lower the pitch.  For all three reed types you can add a small piece of soft wax or putty to the end of the tongue, like we did to the school rule earlier.  Pitch can be increased by a small amount by reducing mass at the tip of the tongue perhaps using sandpaper.  For the Evans style brass/plastic reed, the tongue mass can be changed by moving the tongue itself along the drone body while making sure that the bands don’t move.

Hopefully, your reeds will be trouble free, but if you do end up with reeds which don’t work often the first thing to do is give them a clean.  If they still dont work then I’d encourage you to experiment with some of these variables we’ve looked at here.  The sequence I would follow is-

  1. Can I get it to sound? Experiment with the tongue stiffness and gap between the tongue and body.
  2. Is it stable?  Adjust the bridle.
  3. Is it at the right pitch? Adjust the tongue mass.

You have nothing to lose by having a go, and as your skills develop you can even start making your own reeds and become more self-sufficient as a piper.

For more information about the Northumbrian Pipes contact Kim@Northumbrianpipes.co.uk

Composite Drone Reed Adjustment

Composite reeds often have brass or wooden bodies and either plastic or cane tongues.  Wood and metal tongues have also been used and recently, people have experimented with carbon fibre.  The quest is on the find the material combination which gives the best drone reed!  The design I use is very stable and here I will describe how to make any adjustments you might need.  Reeds of other designs can be adjusted by following the same principles.

If your drones reeds have been made for  your pipes, they should stay in tune and play at an appropriate pressure indefinitely. However, environmental factors or knocks may lead to the need to make small adjustments from time to time.

If you have bought new reeds and need to set them up in your own pipes you might need to make some small adjustments to make them play at their best in your set.

The main reason you might wish to adjust your drone reeds is that they aren’t playing at a comfortable playing pressure.  You will know this because they either shut off and fall silent after you start them up but before you reach normal playing pressure, or that they don’t sound or start up at all.  The next most common reason to adjust them is because they don’t play at the correct pitch.  It is possible that the problem you’re having with them might be temporary so do give them a chance to settle to your playing environment for a couple of days before making any adjustments.

Before you make any changes it’s wise to check a few things-

  • Is the drone airtight – make sure there are no leaks where the drone meets the stock, where the slide meets the standing part or around the tuning beads or piston.
  • Is there any damage to the drone – check for cracks and breaks.
  • Is the reed seated firmly in the drone?

The reed design I make allows you to adjust either or both of the playing pressure of the reed and its pitch. All adjustments should be made in very small increments (less than 1mm at a time) as small changes can have big results. You might like to mark the position of the reed tongue and bridle on the body of the reed before making any changes. This allows you to put everything back as close to its original position as possible if necessary. If the reed doesn’t play, it might just need a little encouragement so try gently pulling up on the tongue a few times, and suck through the open end to get it going.

If you need to adjust pressure and pitch, always adjust pressure first.

Adjusting Playing Pressure.

The reed is set to play at a comfortable pressure (approximately 12” Water Pressure). If the reed starts to play but then shuts off before playing pressure is reached, the tongue needs to be opened slightly. If the pressure needed for the reed to play is too great the tongue needs to be closed slightly.

Hold the reed horizontally in front of you, with the reed tongue on top as in the picture. You will see that on the left the reed tongue is loose and there is a small gap between it and the body of the reed. The size of the gap is set by the position of the bridle ring which dictates where the reed tongue meets the body of the reed. To close the tongue slightly, move the bridle to the left. To open it slightly, move the bridle to the right.

Although this adjustment is done to manage playing pressure, you may notice a resulting change in pitch. If this can’t be managed by adjusting the drone sliders, then you may need to move on and adjust the pitch.

Adjusting Pitch

This is controlled by the length of the tongue from its bridle to its loose tip. If you wish to lower the pitch of the reed, make the tongue longer by pushing it to the left from its fixed end so that it moves under the bridle. Make sure the bridle doesn’t move when doing this or the playing pressure may change.

If you wish to raise the pitch, you need to shorten the tongue by sliding it under its bridle to the right. You can do this by holding the bridle in place and pushing the flat surface of the tongue with your thumb. Do not push the loose end of the tongue and it may bend out of shape.

Be patient
You may find you have to repeat or combine these operations over a few days until things stabilise, but with care you’ll soon have the reed set up how you like it.

For more information about the Northumbrian Pipes contact Kim@Northumbrianpipes.co.uk

 

 

How to Season a Leather Smallpipe Bag

The bags I make are made with a leather which is made airtight during the tanning process.  This means that it doesn’t need any additional seasoning.  However, when I’m asked to fettle pipes I’m quite often faced with a porous bag which leaks air.  There are two solutions.  The first is to replace the bag with a new one.  The second is to season the bag to make it airtight.  If the bag is in otherwise good condition then seasoning can often prevent the need to replace the bag.  In this article we’ll look at how I make the seasoning and apply it to the bag.

Northumbrian small pipes are bellows blown rather than mouth blown.  This means the air flowing through the bag is relatively dry and the pipe bag seasoning is different from that used in mouth blown bagpipes.  The dressing used in Smallpipe bags doesn’t have to absorb moisture nor protect the bag from rotting over time. It’s therefore realitively easy to make a suitable dressing as its only role is to block any pores in the leather and keep it airtight.

Seasoning Ingredients

Northumbrian Pipes Bag Seasoning

I make my bag seasoning from the following ingredients-

  • 25g of Beeswax
  • 25g Violin Rosin
  • 25g Vaseline
  • 250ml of Liquid Paraffin Mineral Oil
  • Melt The Ingredients Together in a Tin

    • All of the ingredients are heated in a tin or old saucepan until they have all melted and mixed together.  Be careful – the mixture is highly inflammable and very hot, so leather gloves are a good idea to prevent burns to your hands.

Seasoning the Pipes Bag

With the bag cover removed and all of the removable parts taken out, the bag will just have its stocks in place.  I seal the drone stock holes and blowpipe stock hole with blue tac, and have another piece of blue tac ready to seal the chanter stock hole.

When the seasoning is ready pour about 250ml or the mixture into the bag through the chanter stock.  With a good pouring container this is easy if done with care (remember to wear your protective gloves).  If you need to, you might find a small funnel helps.  Now seal the chanter stock with the blue tac and manipulate the bag to spread the seasoning throughout the bag.  I start by holding it seam edge down and tipping the bag back and fore to spread the seasoning along the inside of the seam.  Then I’ll hold the bag flat and spread the seasoning over the internal faces of the bag.  You can often tell if you’ve reached all areas by feeling the temperature of the leather – it will be warmer where the seasoning has reached.  If needed I add additional seasoning.

Inflate the Bag and Leave to Cool

Next, lay the bag flat and rub/massage the leather so the top side of the bag moves against the bottom side.  This will help ensure the seasoning is fully distributed.  Pay special attention to the seam area.  Next, inflate the bag.  You can do this by refitting the blowpipe and using the bellows.  I inflate it to a high pressure and keep it at that pressure to help force the seasoning into the pores of the leather from the inside. This should be easy to do now as the bag should be fully airtight.  I’ll leave the bag like this as it cools.

Once cool and I’m happy that it’s airtight, I’ll remove the blue tac and carefully clean any seasoning from the holes in the stocks.  This is important as the seasoning will have congealed like soft butter now and needs to be kept away from the reeds when the set is re-assembled.  When clean, the set is re-assembled and is ready to play.

For more information about Northumbrian Pipes contact Kim@Northumbrianpipes.co.uk

How to Adjust Northumbrian Smallpipes Cane Drone Reeds

Cane Drone Reed

Northumbrian Pipes usually have cane chanter reeds, but the materials used to make the drone reeds are quite diverse.  Composite reeds often have brass or wooden bodies and either plastic or cane tongues.   Wood and metal tongues have also been  used and recently, people have experimented with carbon fibre.  The quest is on to find the material combination which gives the most stable drone with the nicest tone.

Although composite drone reeds can be very stable, many people find them rather loud and have described their tone as being perhaps harsher than reeds made from natural materials.  For this reason, many people still prefer the tone and volume only achieved when using cane drone reeds.

Cane drone reeds do take some practice to make and set up properly.  However, when set up they should stay in tune and play at an appropriate pressure indefinitely. However, environmental factors or knocks may lead to the need to make small adjustments from time to time.

The main reason you might wish to adjust your drone reeds is that they aren’t playing at a comfortable playing pressure.  You will know this because they either shut off and fall silent after you start them up but before you reach normal playing pressure, or that they don’t sound or start up at all.  It is possible that the problem you’re having with them might be temporary so do give them a chance to settle to your playing environment for a couple of days before making any adjustments.  Before you make any changes it’s wise to check a few things-

  • Is the drone airtight – make sure there are no leaks where the drone meets the stock, where the slide meets the standing part or around the tuning beads or piston.
  • Is there any damage to the drone – check for cracks and breaks.
  • Is the reed seated firmly in the drone?

Sucking Through a Cane Drone Reed

Rolling a Cane Drone Reed

Once you have made these checks it’s worth checking to see if you can coax the reed to play before you make any adjustments.  To do this, remove the sliding part from the drone and suck.  You can adjust your sucking pressure and try to get the drone started.

If this doesn’t work, try rolling the reed vigorously for a few seconds between the palms of your hands.  After this, repeat the sucking process.  It’s worth repeating these two steps several times before moving on.

Adjusting Playing Pressure.

As cane is a natural material, it is affected by temperature and humidity and the aperture between the tongue and the body of the reed may open or close. If this happens, the pressure needed to make the reed sound will change and the reed will be out of balance with the pressure needed for the rest of the set.

 Opening the Tongue Aperture

Opening a Cane Drone Reed

If the reed starts to play at low pressure but then shuts off before full playing pressure is reached, the tongue has closed and needs to be opened slightly.  This can be done by gently lifting the tongue until slight resistance is felt. Repeating this a few times will open the tongue and increase the air pressure needed for the reed to play.

 

 

Closing the Tongue Aperture

Closing a Cane Drone Reed

If the reed doesn’t sound properly at playing pressure, the reed may have opened, the pressure needed is too great and the tongue needs to be closed slightly.  Hold the reed horizontally in front of you, with the reed tongue on the bottom as in the picture on the left. Hold the tongue closed with your thumb and gently warm the hinge area of the tongue. This can be done by holding it about 15cm above a candle for a few seconds. When the reed feels warm (but still comfortable to touch) move away from the heat and keep the tongue held closed for 30 seconds while the reed cools. This should reset the tongue in a more closed position and reduce the air pressure needed for it to sound.

Be patient

You may find you have to repeat or combine these operations over a few days until things stabilise, and you may also find that the pitch of the drone changes with the pressure.  That’s fine, because you usually need to set the playing pressure before setting the pitch.  However, if you are using a reed that previously was fine you will probably find that the pitch is still within the acceptable range for the drone and you can retune it by adjusting the drone sliding part.  With patience, hopefully you will have coaxed your cane drone reed back to its rich, soft tone.

If you need any more information please contact me on Kim@northumbrianpipes.co.uk

How to Look After Northumbrian Smallpipes

‘Rules’ for looking after Northumbrian Smallpipes

A well maintained set of Northumbrian Pipes will last a lifetime. If they are played, handled and stored correctly you will protect them from damage and they should only ever need minor maintenance to keep them in top condition.  However, it’s important to inspect them regularly and carry out a few checks to head off any problems.  There are also a few ‘rules’ it’s wise to follow to help avoid accidents.  Do remember that your pipes are very fragile so look after them well.

Storage

Northumbrian Smallpipes are safest when stored in a case. The delicate drones and chanter can be protected wrapped in clean cloths and inserted into plastic tubes. I recommend you use these whenever your pipes are not being played. Protect your pipes from excessive cold and heat, avoid storing them in direct sunlight or extremes of humidity.  Never put them down where they might be damaged.  People have put them on chairs where they have been sat on, or on beer tables in pubs where they have been spilt on.

If you are moving from one environment to another, the change might affect the reeds and they might need a short amount of time to settle down and play in tune.

Handling

Support the Pipes and the Stocks

Always handle with care. Handle your pipes by the two main stocks (the Chanter and Drone Stock) near the bag, and always support the chanter.  Do not let it dangle freely as it may fall from its stock and break. Do not lift the set just by the bag, the drones or the chanter.

Regular Checks

The joints holding the drones and chanter into their stocks should be tight enough so nothing moves but not so tight that they jam. Check them often.  The drone slides should slide easily to tune them, but should be tight enough to be air tight. The end caps are all held on with bindings and are not usually glued (unless you have a Burleigh set). With any set, some compression of the bindings is may occur and they may work loose. As the joints are made from wood and wood changes size with humidity, over time the bindings might loosen too. If they do you can wind a length of cotton thread (usually waxed lightly with bees wax) to make them hold again.

 

Following these simple ‘rules’ will prolong the life of your pipes and hopefully avoid any damage.  For more information about Northumbrian Smallpipes contact Kim@northumbrianpipes.co.uk

How to Adjust Northumbrian Smallpipes Chanter Reeds

Northumbrian Pipes Chanter Reed

Once set up in the chanter, a Northumbrian Pipes reed will hopefully be trouble free. However, they are affected by knocks, temperature and humidity and they made need some settling in time in a new environment.

The Chanter reed is made from Arundo Donax. This is a natural material. There are two vibrating blades and the opening between them is carefully set. This opening may open up or close down, or the pitch may change slightly depending on the environment you play in. This is normal and one of the challenges all Northumbrian Pipers live with!

If either your chanter reed goes out of playing condition for any length of time they may need some minor adjustment.

 

 

 

The reed needs to be positioned correctly within the chanter so that the chanter plays in tune. This can be confirmed by checking the octave between the top and bottom G notes.

  • If the top G is too sharp compared to the bottom G the reed needs to be positioned further out of the chanter.  You may need to add a couple of wraps of waxed thread around the Staple (the metal tube) at the base of the reed then re-insert it in the chanter.
  • If the top G is too flat compared to the bottom G the reed needs to be positioned further in to the chanter.  You may need to take away some of the thread wrapped around the staple.

There are two vibrating blades and the opening between them at the tip is carefully set. However, this aperture may open up or close down, or the pitch may change slightly depending on the environment you play in. This is normal and one of the challenges all Northumbrian Pipers live with!

If the Chanter will only sound at high pressure the aperture has opened and needs to be closed slightly.

Before you make any changes it’s wise to check a few things-

  • Is the Chanter airtight – make sure there are no leaks where the Chanter meets the stock, the end cap, from your fingers or the key pads.
  • Is there any damage to the Chanter or Chanter Stock – check for cracks and breaks.
  • Is the reed seated firmly in the Chanter?

Closing The Aperture of a Smallpipe Chanter Reed

Northumbrian Pipes Reed Adjustment

Hold the metal wire bridle around the base of the reed and gently squeeze your fingers and thumbs together. This will close the aperture slightly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If the Chanter reed cuts out before full playing pressure is reached the reed has closed and needs to be opened slightly.

Opening the Aperture of a Smallpipe Chanter Reed

Northumbrian Pipes Reed Adjustment

Hold the sides of the metal wire bridle gently (you might need some pliers). Gently squeeze and the aperture will open slightly.

 

 

Both of these operations are very delicate and it’s easy to damage a reed is they are done too roughly.  Ideally, the first time you do this you will be guided by someone who already knows how to do it.  However, if you are careful you can learn to do this safely and if done properly either or both can be carried out, testing the reed as you go, until you have the reed adjusted to your liking.

For further information about Northumbrian Smallpipes contact Kim@northumbrianpipes.co.uk

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