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.

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