Tag Archives | cane reeds

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

How to Make Northumbrian Smallpipe Chanter Reeds

Northumbrian Pipes chanter reeds have been in demand a lot recently.  Quite a few people have ordered them and I’m also making them for sets I’m fettling and the sets I’m making too.  I usually make them up by doing each step in batches as it’s quicker than making them individually.

Gouging the Cane

Thinning the centre and Shaping the Ends

With the cane split the first step is to gouge the cane to the required thickness.  Then I need to thin the centre part as this will be form the lips of the finished reed.  Once this is done the reed slip is folders in half.  At the same time I’ll shape the ends as this is where the cane will be fixed to the staple.

The staple is a piece of metal tube which plugs the reed into the chanter.  The staple is inserted in between the shaped reed ends and then whipped on with thread.  Once this is done I’ll leave the reed to rest for 24 hours.

The next step is the thin the lips of the blades through a combination of sanding and scraping.  This takes some time and every reed is different so there is no set thickness or measurement to work to.  Instead, I test the reed by sucking through it until it sounds right.

Finally, the reed is finished off by testing it in a good chanter and any final sanding is done until it plays well.

If you’d like more information about how this is done, then you can watch some videos showing these steps here.

Contact Kim@northumbrianpipes.co.uk

Folded Cane Slip and Staple

Northumbrian Pipes Chanter Reed

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

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