Setting up cane drone reeds

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Setting up cane drone reeds

Postby andymay » Fri Oct 04, 2013 3:42 pm

Hi Forum!

My own general preference for drone reeds is for the old-fashioned 'all-cane' type. This is mostly because I prefer the sound of them and, in my experience, they have not proven to be less reliable than other types which i have tried. Additionally i find that they are in some ways easier and more predictable to adjust.

All this being said, i can accept that they're a pain to set up in the first place.

Recently i've had a few sets of drones to reed/set up, different makers, and been attempting to refine my thinking on how to set up drone reeds.So i thought i'd post some thoughts to see what other people reckon!

My early experience was that there were several ways to achieve a change in pitch, air consumption etc, and so a good result was usually only achieved through trial and error with bridle position, wax blobs and flicking and rolling reeds in the hands. I'm starting to view these processes as having seperate roles to play in how the reed performs -

!. Bridle position/reed length.

Andy Watchorn passed me a great tip from some Swedish pipemakers he'd met which is to listen to what the reed does under pressure because it's telling you which way its bridle should go. If the reed rises in pitch then shorten the reed with the bridle, if it sinks then lengthen the tongue. It is quite possible to get the reed to the magic point where a change in pressure across a reasonable range may alter tone or volume, but not really pitch. SO i am trying to use the bridle to control stability, NOT pitch. This can lead to a drone which is nicely stable but playing the wrong note. In which case it's worth moving onto -

2. Wax Blobs

More wax = flatter, less = sharper. If you think the bridle is in the right place, but the drone is still too flat with no wax blob, then perhaps the reed is too big. Make a smaller one!! But if it's stable but too sharp, get working with the sealing wax. I find it's safest to melt the wax first onto a piece of wire, and then apply it to the cane, rather than the more adventurous method of attempting to drip wax directly onto the reed in an appropriate quantity....

3. Flicking, rolling

If the reed is shutting off too easily then flicking the tongue open a few times will probably help. It seems like the cane remembers - to an extent - and will stay 'more open'. I think the rolling between the palms is a good idea to help the top and bottom of the reed to conform one with another, give a more stable and smooth tone. But i have gone over to using HEAT to close a reed. Hold the tongue closed and pass the base of the reed through a lighter flame, and the tongue will be re-set against the body, probably ready to start flicking it open again. Heat also works to set the tongue in an open position, but generally this seems to leave the reed too open.

If the reed sounds too fluffy/airy

then it's probably too 'powerful' for the drone bore/exit hole size. Could be that the reed is too large a diameter, or that the toungue is too stiff. Try thinning the root of the tongue and see if a nicer tone is achieved?

Generally

The most stable and better sounding reeds seem to be those which on start up play another note and then 'drop' or 'jump' to the correct pitch. Don't really know why, but it appears to be the case!

Very much thoughts-in-progress, i may have ditched all of these ideas in 6 months....

Anyone want to agree/disagree/comment?

Cheers
A
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Re: Setting up cane drone reeds

Postby Francis Wood » Fri Oct 04, 2013 5:35 pm

Hello all,

Some reflections on preferences here:

I know that some people prefer composite reeds for the simple reason that they do not understand all-cane types. For others, (including me) the reverse is true. But I've always thought that the usual composite types were too loud, perhaps because of an excessive internal volume, and that an early design had simply been copied and repeated without further thought and development. However, that's no longer true because a lot of systematic and successful design work has been done, which has been described here by Mike Nelson and Richard Evans.

At present there are three kinds of drone reeds to consider, all-cane, old-style brass & cane, and brass & plastic.

Of these, I find conventional brass & cane the least satisfactory, both tonally and in their ease of adjustment. The very thin cane tongues seem too insubstantial, and for that reason they seem too delicate to allow easy adjustment by heat, and so thin that they are vulnerable to transient changes in temperature, humidity or abuse by inexperienced players. My experience of all-cane reeds (compared with an admittedly limited experience of other types) is that they are easier to adjust and that it is easier to teach the skill of adjusting them. I also find them capable of stable behaviour.

I am impressed by what I have heard here about newer drone-reed designs. Absolute (or near enough) reliability is going to be beneficial for many players including beginners and those more experienced players who are both uninterested in the principles of adjustment and oblivious to the effects of neglecting this. I'm always astonished at how numerous that latter group is! A further benefit may be to those players who perform professionally, sometimes in atmospherically challenging circumstances.

A fairly philosophical question arises here about how perfect we need these things to be? In the past, musical tone had to be generated by the physical vibration of wood, cane and gut and air in varying combinations. That is no longer so because of electronic facilities. Yet our culture still chooses to create music on very imperfect acoustic instruments. Indeed there has been some retreat from the mechanically near-perfect instruments of the later 19th century towards earlier forms, baroque flutes and oboes being good examples. Northumbrian smallpipes in their present form are the invention of a single individual, Reid, working in the early part of the 19C. There was development of the pattern during this career. Further development has happened since then and even currently, but I raise the question: how far can this go without the pipes ceasing to be either Northumbrian or smallpipes?

This is moving rather away from Andy's observations (controversy fails here because I agree with everything he says!) but it helps to explain to myself why I prefer cane reeds for reasons additional to their apparent efficiency and reliability.

Francis
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Re: Setting up cane drone reeds

Postby Francis Wood » Fri Oct 04, 2013 9:21 pm

A few more thoughts, in no particular order . . . .

I've encountered a few earlyish sets by David Burleigh that clearly haven't been out of their box for decades but which have cane drone reeds that sound excellently without further adjustment. This seems to me to be a good pattern to study.

The Swedish Method seems to be a good principle. Moving the bridle changes both the operating pressure and the pitch, and is therefore a complex manoeuvre. Having only one desired outcome may be better, following this with a different procedure (i.e. heating) to rectify any other effects. Heat from a flame is probably better than rolling and warming with the hand, which works but has a temporary effect. I prefer the relatively cool flame of a spirit lamp and adjust the effective temperature by how rapidly I pass the reed through it.

The advantage of sealing wax is that it melts easily, has quite a good bit of mass (does it have some mineral content as well as shellac and colour?), is durable and yet easy to remove if the amount needs to be adjusted. Mass at the tip of the reed tongue does seem to lend stability. I apply it with a heated nail held in a wine cork.

That initial 'jumping to the correct pitch' is what you hear at the beginning of Tom Clough's 78 sides.

A drone reed, like any other reed is an unstable (or should that be bi-stable?) device whose instability is predictable and controllable. To function satisfactorily it needs to be completely airtight in its closed state. Using a sharp knife to cut and lift the tongue is a skill that isn't easy, and often fibres are lost or compressed or displaced, leading to a leak of air that disturbs the function. That operation seems to work best when it's done fairly decisively. Sometimes when it hasn't gone well, I've superglued the cut and formed the tongue on the other side, and (with luck rather than skill), that often works fine.

The question of what is a traditional smallpipes drone reed is quite tricky. Are brass reeds untraditional? They were described as in use by 'professional reed-makers' when Fenwick wrote his tutor in 1895, only 21 years after the death of James Reid. Although was he correct in this? And just how many 'professional' makers of smallpipe drone reeds were around in 1895? And are cane reeds 'traditional'? There are references to the early use of elder twigs which seems far more probable than the use of arundo donax in such small diameters. Unlike chanter cane, in use for many other wind instruments, this would would have very limited availability. It is hard enough to procure even these days.

Francis
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Re: Setting up cane drone reeds

Postby Richard Evans » Tue Oct 08, 2013 5:52 pm

I would love to be able to make all-cane drone reeds but it's a skill I have never developed. The cane is so expensive that half an hour's practice costs me several pounds! I'm full of respect for those who make it look easy.
If I made a historical replica, clearly the correct type of reeds would be essential. However, our own pipes are not historical replicas and they are made using modern methods to be as reliable as possible in a wide variety of climatic conditions, in the hands of often inexperienced players. In those circumstances, for me, synthetic wins every time!
What would be interesting would be some 'listening tests', comparing the same drones with various types of reed.
Cheers
Richard
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Re: Setting up cane drone reeds

Postby andymay » Tue Oct 08, 2013 10:02 pm

Hi Richard,

Valid points you make there of course, and I have seen first hand a set of your pipes work straight out of the box after travelling halfway around the world. Fair play.

Serious question though - how different do you think your current drones are dimension ways to a typical historical set? (if there even is such a thing....) Have you modified your design to suit the type of reeds you make?

Cheers
A
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Re: Setting up cane drone reeds

Postby Richard Evans » Wed Oct 09, 2013 7:48 am

The bores in C&B are 1/8 inch (3.2mm) for the small drones and 9/64 (3.5mm) for the large, I think.

Our current bores are 3.0mm for small drones and low G tenon, and 3.5mm for low G slide and low D both parts.

So the main difference is low G tenon reduction. Having said that, I have put our reeds into a good number of DB sets without problems.

How does that compare with what you're using Andy?

Cheers
Richard
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Re: Setting up cane drone reeds

Postby pipemakermike » Wed Oct 09, 2013 10:03 pm

Very interesting Andy. All the traditional pitch sets I have made have cane reeds. I was lucky to purchase a good stock of drone reed cane in the late 70's so I had no incentive to tread the path of composite reeds. I would agree with all that has been said. One small addition is that the tongue of the reed can be opened slightly by rubbing the tongue firmly with a hard smooth tool - I use the handle of a scalpel - this will often open the reed slightly and is less risky than the open flame method for the tweaking player. Another trick I found was to lick the cut (not the split) which makes the crushed fibres relax and makes for a better seal.
The only time I have fitted traditional composite drone reeds is for the concert G set I made for Joe Hutton. I did reduce the bore of the drone standing part a little and that seemed to take the harshness out of the sound.
One area where there is room for some experimentation is in the internal volume of the reed body. The Highland pipe composite reeds have the facility to change this internal volume and I have an idea which may make this possable on the small pipe drone reed. Has anyone else tried this? I did have a short try back in 2000 when I was searching for a reed design reliable enough for the schoolpipes but didn't have time to test it properly so didn't implement it (see picture). I have just started a bunch of trials to see if I can find any evidence of change to the tone or usability when the internal volume is altered.


Image
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Re: Setting up cane drone reeds

Postby Richard Evans » Thu Oct 10, 2013 2:18 pm

pipemakermike wrote:One area where there is room for some experimentation is in the internal volume of the reed body. The Highland pipe composite reeds have the facility to change this internal volume and I have an idea which may make this possable on the small pipe drone reed. Has anyone else tried this? I did have a short try back in 2000 when I was searching for a reed design reliable enough for the schoolpipes but didn't have time to test it properly so didn't implement it (see picture). I have just started a bunch of trials to see if I can find any evidence of change to the tone or usability when the internal volume is altered.


Francis mentioned internal volume maybe affecting sound volume of synthetic reeds. I make the reed bore 2.5mm for small reeds and 3.0mm for the large, ie, a bit less than the drone tenon bore, and I think this keeps drone volume reasonable. Another variable is the size of the milled slot under the tongue. Making this smaller reduces drone volume but I feel that a narrow orifice should not be used as a limiter like this, it increases pressure sensitivity.

I have never understood the screw adjusters on many GHB reeds. Moving the screw in say 4mm surely just reduces the air column length so raises the pitch the same as moving the slide in 4mm? Or what am I missing?

Richard
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Re: Setting up cane drone reeds

Postby iain allen » Fri Oct 11, 2013 7:07 am

The tuning screw the end of most GHB drone reeds is to adjust where the drone tunes on the pin.
The usual idea is that the tenors should have a couple of winds of hemp showing and the bass has about an inch of the bottom pin showing.

Iain
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Re: Setting up cane drone reeds

Postby pipemakermike » Fri Oct 11, 2013 8:20 am

Hi Ian

Thanks for the info. One thing you could clear up for me is the relationship between the distance moved by the tuning screw and the change of length of the drone. Is it a linear relationship i.e. move the screw 5mm and the drone length changes by 5mm
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