Better Tuning for Intermediate Pipers

Copyright 1998 David C. Daye, all text, image and sound files presented here.

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This essay is for players of any sort of bagpipe. Specific details are for Scottish Highland pipes (or Irish warpipes; the terms are interchanged here) and Irish uilleann pipes.

It presumes that you can tell when sounds are out of tune and that you can get your pipes sort of close most of the time. It also presumes that you have practiced tuning enough to have learned to tell the difference between being slightly and greatly out of tune. If you have real trouble hearing whether a sound is in or out of tune, or guessing how bad the error is, this essay won't help. You need more time or assistance getting the basic ideas before trying these suggestions.

The Basic Problem

An e-mail question came to me recently:

>I'm looking for guidance on tuning the GHB. (My teacher just sent me home
>and told me not to return until I tuned the pipes properly.) It isn't 
>pitch... I have a good ear. It's method. He insists that while tuning, after
>warming up, I blow (as hard) as I would when playing. I try to keep the bag
>pressurized as when I'm playing, with 2 of the drones stopped while tuning
>the third. Am I missing something ?? How do good pipers go about tuning if 
>not as above ??
>Lost and expelled.....

If there is a selection available, I'd shop for a new teacher. This is really very simple to teach, and the typical student never willfully refuses to improve. I was just teaching this same subject at my last lesson with a grade 4 adult who made big progress in just one week in his ability to tune "into the future" so that his pipes sounded good at the end of a 2-tune set.

If you can always hear when it's out of tune then there's no doubt you'll learn to be a good tuner. But if you're new at piping it will be complicated by the chance of serious irregularities in your blowing, for example a big difference between your tuning pressure and your playing pressure for the warpipes, or insufficient coordination between bag and bellows for the uilleanns or other smallpipes. These make it difficult for a learner to get into tune even if s/he hears the resulting problems well. Fortunately there are tricks and methods!

The quality of your tuning is necessarily a spiralling kind of process. You can't really tune very closely if you're not blowing accurately, and you can't blow very accurately if you can't get your pipes into good tuning. So you get the tuning as good as practical now, work on learning to control the pipes, then you can tune more accurately, then blow more accurately.

Some of the problem may also be the intonation or tuning of individual notes on the chanter. But unless notes are badly off, you can't fine tune the chanter till you've gotten well along in learning to control the blowing and the overall tuning.

Maintaining Pressure While Tuning

You're right about trying to maintain your playing-pressure pressure while tuning. In most cases we tell learners to blow a bit harder than they think they should, while they are tuning. The reason is that a new player often misjudges the effort, because they're reaching around and oriented in a posture different to the playing posture. The muscles aren't quite as strong as they are in their regular playing position. There is also the distraction of working on the drone.

Apart from attempting to blow more accurately while tuning, the other strategy used by all good pipers is not to rely on the sound you hear while reaching around tuning to be their final guide. They'll postpone their final assessment until they're back into their normal playing posture.

Get a drone tuned spot-on, as best you can tell, and then get into normal position and begin playing a few phrases of a tune or scale exercise. Learners might pick a phrase that ends on low drone-note such as Low A for the Highland/Warpipe or bottom D for the uilleann pipe. If you hear any out of tune-ness or beating between the chanter and drone, then you didn't get the tuning right. But the drone can only be either sharp or flat, there isn't any complexity to this, so give it a small adjustment in one of the 2 possible directions, and test again in your real playing position.

The odds (especially from your comments) are that you're blowing easier while you tune. This would make a well-tuned drone appear flat at the higher pressure of real playing since the chanter rises a bit more under pressure than a (stable) drone will. This is especially true of the uilleann chanter which responds more to blowing pressure on some of the 1st octave notes. So following the odds, tweak the drone slightly shorter and retest.

Sometimes you will have guessed wrong, and the beating will speed up, indicating that the tuning has become worse. Every musician who plays a tunable instrument does this all the time. If you can hear the problem, simply retune in the other direction.

By making the final evaluation only under actual playing conditions, even a new learner can get the tuning a lot closer, and to a certain degree this sidesteps the need to learn to blow spot-on during tuning.

Basic Blowing Pressure While Playing

It's possible you're blowing the chanter too hard or too soft while playing. It's difficult to describe proper pressure, and this basic concept itself is a bit different for warpipes and uilleann pipes.

Blowing Warpipes

For warpipes, the top 2 notes should be slightly quieter than the others. If they are louder, you are blowing too hard for that reed, and the top notes and gracenote will be too prominent. If they are very much quieter you will probably experience the chanter going momentarily silent with some frequency, which means you are blowing to weakly for that reed. Gracenotes and top notes will be too hard to hear. In either case the tone will suffer as well. If you can connect a microphone to a tape recorder with a needle type loudness meter, you can see the loudness changes as you test different blowing strengths for the same reed.

Blowing Uilleann Pipes

For the uilleann pipes there can be no single correct pressure since different pressures are required to play the different notes. The drones must be steady enough to hold tuning over the range of pressures. Probably the easiest way to test this is to play the drone in the pipe, both easy and hard, while checking against the sound of another instrument or a tuning meter.

Even though a range of pressures is used on the uilleann pipes, there must not be individual notes requiring very different blowing than those just above or below. Pressure should gradually increase coming up the scale, continuously through the 2nd octave. Also, it should not require a great pressure increase to play in the lower 2nd octave for example. In sum, a very smoothly-changing pressure should be needed for the uilleann pipes.

This is always a somewhat flexible proposition because the uilleann chanter and reed are set up to rise and fall a bit on each note, especially in the 1st octave, with pressure variations. This helps the chanter to be kept in tune when alternate fingerings are used, or the chanter is lifted off the knee, for tonal effects and emphasis. While 2 warpipers will blow a single chanter almost identically, 2 uilleann pipers may blow the same chanter so differently that they can be identified simply playing a scale.

Diagnosing Uilleann Pipes

This is a lifetime proposition that has sunk many a promising uilleann piper, but a few very basic notions here:

Because of the loss of the pipemaking apprenticeship tradition, and because of the growing use of uilleann pipes in mid-continental regions that undergo rapid and drastic weather changes, it cannot be assumed than an uilleann pipe--even an instrument made by a renowned maker present or past--is properly configured and adjusted. For example I was led to invent my Penny-Chanter primarily by the numbers of very badly configured pipes I encountered in North America. In some cases the instrument has serious faults and can never be set right. In other cases it is "simply" a matter of getting control of reed adjustments and managing the humidity and temperature of the instrument in an uncooperative climate.

The pressure configuration of an uilleann pipe can be very difficult for an isolated learner to get under control or even to diagnose. If there any question about the instrument--which there should be every time the instrument is strapped on during the first year--I recommend a very careful diagnostic session.

The new or uncertain piper should fill up the bag, which gives maximum comfort and control to the new uilleann piper, and test just a few adjacent notes at a time only playing notes as a part of a scale rather than playing any dance music. The full bag will minimizethe complication of bag-and-bellows coordination, and the simple scale playing will minimize the distraction of finger work.

Even if the piper finds the 2nd octave very hard to hit or hold while playing tunes, it is possible that the equipment itself is fine and that the piper is merely inexperienced. If the reed and chanter are badly adjusted, no amount of care will make the 2nd octave comfortable nor make an isolated unstable note steady. However if the pipe is able to play comfortably when played slowly, in short spurts of a few seconds' length, when the bag is filled and the instrument is blown with great care, then the instrument is probably set up reasonably well. Then the piper needs to practice careful blowing on simple tunes.

Better tuning will follow as these problems are brought under control.

How Warming-Up Affects Tuning

Warming-up is not purely a matter of heat (and moisture for warpipes), it's also a matter of reed shape. All double reeds have a large surface area, and as they're played in any sort of bagpipe, they will temporarily deform a tiny bit under pressure. Not enough to see, but enough to change the tuning of the chanter. Even uilleann pipes go through this warmup and they're powered by bellows, taking no hot air from the breath. Some pipers believe that body heat against the bag is a factor but this is minimal. The ffects are exactly the same changes we get by squeezing the reed a bit, which proves that it's an actual slight contraction of the reed.

So when you tune, especially when the pipes are fresh out of the box, your reed will be slightly expanded compared to its shape when engaged in a long playing spell. This larger internal volume inside the reed creates a flatter 1st octave. Highlands only have 1 octave but the uilleanns have 2, and opening up the reed either with the adjustable bridle or by setting the pipes down to "cool" flattens that first octave but not the 2nd. The Highlands simply go flat when rested even in high temperatures and humidity when there is little actual "cooling."

The chanter will always be flatter during tuning than during playing, so you have to actually tune the drones a bit sharp of true, knowing that the chanter will rise to meet it within a minute or two of starting. Otherwise you sound perfect when you begin to play, and except for a few rare days (usually damp) you'll always begin to deteriorate right away.

I'd suggest going back to the original setting up, when you decide the one drone is finally in correct tune when you test it by playing, and then tweak it sharper enough to make one or two beats per second against the low A. Set the res of your drones to match that tuning. When you first start to play you'll find a need to blow a bit hard so that the chanter is not flat sounding, but it will improve in a min. or two and you won't need to retune for quite a while.

Advanced Tuning Tips

Retuning Notes on the Chanter

If an individual note sounds out of tune, but others are in tune, then as with the drone it can only be either sharp or flat. Using just one drone as a reference, tune the drone slightly sharper or flatter and see if the note improves. If the note is better with the drone sharper, then it too is sharp, and if better when the drone is flatter, then it is flat.

At this stage we do not consider any permanent alteration to the chanter or reed.

Individual sharp notes are easily fixed by adding tape across the top edge of a hole. Usually only 1/4 to 1/3 of the hole needs to be covered to fix a flat note. If more, then the reed is badly mismatched to the chanter. Alterations to the reed or sometimes even the chanter may help, but their diagnosis and execution are beyond this paper. This is true of all holes. If the low G is sharp on a Highland pipe, the top edge of one or both of the sideways "tone holes" below the fingers can be taped flatter.

Do not discount the chance that the bell note itself (Low A on the Highland and bottom D on the uilleann) is out of tune. This is moderately common among Highland chanters and almost universal for uilleann pipe chanters. The reason for bottom D mistuning on the uilleann chanter is not the maker's fault but rather its great sensitivity to reed variation in changes of air. In a steady climate however the extremes of variation are avoided.

Flat notes cannot be fixed individually. Some pipers believe that taping the undersides of holes will sharpen them. This is not true of the Highland pipes with a possible rare exception of reeds that are very unstable. Taping the undersides of uilleann chanter holes is likely to affect the 2nd octave more than the 1st octave note. The E and E-flat holes are sometimes bottom-taped not for tuning, but to tame instabilities common in modern concert D chanters that can lead to squeals or howling.

When one note is flat, the only solution is tape all the other notes--unless the hole is near the top of the chanter. Since an in-or-out repositioning of the reed affects the highest notes more than the low ones, you can push the reed in till the flat note is brought more in tune with the lower notes. Several of the top end notes will probably require taping to bring them down, since the moving of the reed will have sharpened them more than the bottom notes. The drone will need to be reset to the chanter since all the notes will have been sharpened.

"Tuning Into the Future"

The amount you have to "mis-tune" your pipes to get them to come out right when performing will vary with the weather and the age of the reeds (new reeds are less stable than old) and the amount of warmup you've had.

Ideally the pipes need to be set up in the same air in which they'll be played (indoors for indoors, in the shade outdoors if performing in the shade, etc.) However we must occasionally tune up in different circumstances than we'll be in for playing so here are a few suggestions to test:

  1. Heat -- Warmer air changes the acoustic load inside the bore making the 1st octave sharper, moreso towards the bottom. Tune in an opposite way if you warm up in colder air.
  2. Cold -- Colder air makes the 1st octave flatter, moreso towards the bottom. Tune in an opposite way if you prepare in warmer air.
  3. Short Performance -- do not warm up the pipes for a long spell if you are going to perform only a short tune, for example a wedding march or funeral air. Play for about 30 seconds, and tune quickly. Put the pipes down for several minutes, and if you must wait a while till playing, check but only occasionally and set the tuning quickly at the end of about 30-60 seconds' playing.

Playing With Orchestral or Electric Instruments

To avoid a lengthy musicalogical discussion, let us admit that the tuning of any bagpipe is different to that of "conventional" instruments because of the drone. Each of our notes is set to blend perfectly with a drone, playing in only that one musical key. The other instruments are adjusted to be somewhat out of tune with a drone on certain notes, which is a tonal drawback, in order to be able to play in many keys without any of them sounding any worse. This is called "Equal Temperament" and is a mathematical compromise that we pipers do not need to make. There are circumstances in which they come closer to our "Just Temperament," for example the singers making certain chords in barbershop quartet singing.

When playing with such instrument you will find their 3rd and 6th notes quite sharp compared to your chanter and drone. These would be C and F on the Highlands and F# and B on the uilleanns. Usually they cannot flatten their notes, so we need to rise partway to their pitch, and expect to tape a few of our other notes, to get closer while retaining some of our unique flavor.

Hope this helps!! Take things a little at a time and if you're having trouble hearing, try backing your drones into the corner of the room to bounce the tone back towards your ears; also listen to yourself tuning on a tape and see if that can help you also.

David Daye

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