A Plastic Uilleann Pipe Chanter Reed

Copyright 1997 David C. Daye
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OK, a decent first uilleann pipe chanter plastic reed is going. Here's how.

I've kept coming back to the fact that cane is stiffer vertically (along the fibers) than horizontally, and how can we make composites to replicate this, etc. etc. Sometimes the inverse of a question is a better question: The inverse side of 'stiff vertically' is 'flexible horizontally' and this is where I got some results.

I had an article sent me by Assistant Professor of bassoon Artemus Edwards, Univ. New Mexico in Albuquerque published 1973. The Professor has been recording with plastic bassoon reeds for many years. What he does to make the plastic reeds better, normally fit only for student use, is to treat the homogenous blades by putting drips of styrene glue on them in certain areas. He scrapes it off before it melts through and thereby weakens the plastic along the line of the drips.You guessed it--vertically, 2/3 of the way out towards each edge.

Now I'd been musing for a while about some hi-tech processes of adding microribs onto plastic blades to stiffen them vertically, or cutting micro grooves into them to weaken them horizontally. So here's this orchestral "loose cannon" who's going around dripping glue onto reeds in a somewhat imprecise fashion. And as we all know, cane itself is rather variable. So I thought maybe this isn't rocket science--and for a first attempt, it isn't.

I made up a basic Casey Burns style chanter reed, as he has described in workshops and on the Internet, using styrene plastic from 1 quart yogurt or other food containers. This material carries a recycling code of #6 in the U.S. I gave it the David Daye variant: I superglued a 2nd layer of "AY" onto the outside of each blade, over the tails and up 1/2 way between the staple top and the lips, so that the 'heart' above the staple doesn't collapse under the stress of tying. I found that the thin styrene material was too weak to support proper vibration without this 2nd layer extending rather far up the blades; it played like an excessively scraped reed, with a sunken back D, flat overall pitch, and inability to jump the octave.

But before tieup, I go to the top 1/3 of the blades with a sharp razor blade and put 20 or 30 very very fine grooves maybe 1/4 to 1/2 way deep, into inside surface of the plastic using a sharp razor blade, then a quick touch of #600 paper to debur the grooves so the blades will close. I avoided the 1/8" out near each blade edge to simulate the stiffer cane u.p. reeds have there, it being bark or sub-bark in that region. I have not tested to check whether this is a good, bad or irrelevant idea.

Click here to recieve a small (40 kb) diagram of the reed's construction. Additional facts: The reed has the usual string binding over the blades, not illustrated. There is no bridle (control wire or metal stri) on this reed because there is no reason for one. Once an artificial reed is adjusted it will not change (wooden chanters will change slightly with humidity especially back D it would seem). Despite the 2nd reinforcing layer of plastic, the blades still contain less internal volume than cane reeds (since they bend differently under the binding) and therefore tune slightly flatter on the 2nd octave than blades of similar dimensions. Therefore a slightly larger diameter staple and/or somewhat larger and/or shorter blades may be required than for cane.

It is possible that the grooves are irrelevant although I never got a plastic chanter reed to function in the 2nd octave without them. In my opinion the 2nd layer extending rather far up the blades, and the grooves, together are necessary to allow the reed to have entirely ordinary dimensions of width and length (both overall and blades alone). Unlike any other plastic reed I have made, this one gives virtually the identical "crow" to the cane ones (same 2-tone pitches of high G' and either the low G below it or the C below it depending on how the tongue is positioned in the mouth when inhaling through the staple). There is a slightly plastic type of tone to the crow but I have built only one such reed and have fine-tuned it only for 3 minutes!

Without any sanding at all, the reed played in a wood Quinn chanter and the Penny-Chanter. Soft and hard bottom D, both octaves, no funny notes, all the usual suspect sound effects (barks, pops, hairy-chest Riverdance wails). The tone at close range is indeed somewhat "plastic-like" but it works. At any distance away, and through common stage caliber sound amplification equipment however, it sounds very plausible. Click here to recieve a large (300 kb) sound file recorded through a professional dynamic microphone sampled at 22 kHz mono. I think it may already be good enough for some types of stage or festival use in a wood chanter.

By experimentation you can find the correct curvature of plastic to finish up with the elevation (opening at the lips) that's right for you. I used the uppermost part of the 1-quart container and got a reed of upper-medium strength with almost no sanding. I imagine that with experimentation, a level of grooving and/or sanding can be found to yield ideal results.

Casey Burns wrote me to say that the "#6" is a styrene plastic very similar to sheet styrene plastic sold in hobby or modelmaking shops. It is very heat-formable so he feels that a form could be bent from aluminum beverage-can or some other material to make any desired curve or a compound curve to make blades of almost exactly the desired shape rather easily. Sanding and/or grooving would finish the process.

I suspect that this grooving technique may be useful in most any type of artificial double reed, not only for uilleann pipe chanters. It may even help for artificial single reeds such as bagpipe drone reeds, saxophone, etc.

"Your mileage may vary!!!"

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