How to leard to blow the bag

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Glenarley
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Tell us something.: My family has been making pipes and reeds for over 25 years both Uillean and GHB. I am being asked to share pass on information on to other pipers in this open environment.

Re: How to leard to blow the bag

Post by Glenarley »

Reed Pressure Selection – More ambiguities from the Black Arts Peddlers

Keeping in mind, the GHB design playing pressure is about 28” H2O or 1 psi. This is a fact of physics based on the length and strength of the traditional cane drone reeds and the bore diameters and lengths of the older benchmark pipe sets. The Mech Engineer that did the sums for me is a very serious German University educated engineer so I take his figures as verbatim.

With both Uilleann and GHB reeds that we make, we call the softer reeds “players reeds” because you need to be a fairly steady player to play well with them. This is also true with, for example, clarinet reeds as only a player with good embouchure control can play well up and down the octaves with a softer reed so the also rans will resort to firmer reeds and will most often never achieve a great result. With the bagpipe, there is no substitute for good bag control.

Also keep in mind, the GHB is not manufactured to any known standard apart from the Mixolydian mode scale and that the drones and chanter tune an octave apart, everything else is up for interpretation and subjective preference.

This can make chanter reed selection very problematic and this is the area where the Black Arts have a strong foothold so, to break it down to the processes. Cane is a living breathing organism and no two pieces are identical so there will always be some natural variations the piper will be faced with.

I will by-pass reed cane selection as you might as well believe in unicorns as believe in some of the fluffy fairy tales told about the cane selection process so, the cane blades are cut to a recipe and tied to a staple. The staples are a whole unicorn farm on their own so once again, I will by-pass the staple recipes and just focus on the processes.

Once the cane has been tied to the staple it is under stress so the newly tied reeds are usually tossed in a box to settle for a week or two before being tested and, (allegedly) graded. Some reed makers heat the reeds to speed up the stress normalisation process whilst some soak the reeds briefly before setting them aside to rest, whatever the process used, the expected result is stress normalised reeds that will be more stable sooner than they otherwise would have been.

The reed maker will now, (allegedly) grade the reeds by strength and make them available to pipers however, the grading process would seem to be a bag of chooks. There are no discernible standards in the grading process and there is a plethora of terms used by different reed makers to describe the different strengths with no clear standard or measurement used. I see this lack of any measurable standard a product of incompetence and commercial greed.

The last two packs of cane reeds I bought for clients were rated as medium however, the ridge-cut set ranged in pressure from 36” H2O to 62” H2O and the molded set 31” to 52”. This was the pressure straight out of the pack dry. Keeping in mind that reeds drop about 15% in playing pressure from dry to moisture normalised, a reed at 50” dry will end up at about 42” once normalised. Most reeds will take from 5 – 10 minutes of playing to reach maximum moisture content of approx 24%.

With the wildly ranging pressures it is obvious that none of the reeds in the two packs I was sent had been graded to any quantifiable standard and unless you are FMM or the like, this result would seem to be the norm. In stating this, I am led to believe there is at least one cane reed maker that does grade to a measurable standard however, this could also just be an urban myth.

When I contacted the ridge-cut maker I was told the reeds may have altered in shipping or the wild variations were possibly climatic due to the different climate in Australia. If either statement were true there would be some level of consistency, but there is not. The end result from the maker was, I would need to blow them in, squeeze the very hard reeds and scrape them if they did not settle down after a couple of weeks of blowing them. What a load of crap. I ordered medium and got mainly hard. I ordered a box of apples and received some potatoes as well.

To wit, clarinet reed makers grade reeds with a strength number and while different makers do vary with their stated strengths, there are comparison tables to level the playing field and each maker is consistent with their own products. Are cane GHB reed makers just too incompetent to do something similar?

The molded reed maker was a bit more helpful and suggested I buy the Shepherd reed setting tool and use it to squeeze the reeds after attempting to blow them in. Apart from that advice and the obligatory scraping the reeds advice, there was no other explanation given for the wild strength variations in the tray of “medium” reeds I was sent.

If the reed makers actually knew jack squat about reed making and were not just monkey see, monkey do exponents, they would have been able to offer reeds that met the stated requirements. Furthermore, if they knew their stuff they would be producing and offering reeds that were made to an objective standard rather than the current random lucky dip system of alleged reed grading.

The last point that seems to prove the monkey see, monkey do process is that none of the cane reed makers in the GHB mob that I can see, offer reeds with the pressure and pitch readings in objective measurements, such as numbers! The pitch is the critical value to match the chanter and yet, it is never stated. Oversight or incompetence?

I make synthetic GHB chanter reeds and up to a couple of months ago, like cane reeds, my plastic blades were also put under stress when tied to the staple and like cane reeds, I had to allow the reeds to stress normalise for a few days before setting the pitch and pressure to the piper’s requirements, so I was also faced with an unwanted material variable however, that has now changed.

One of the plastic engineers provided me with a new material that does not have any obvious memory problems so the reeds can be finished at the same time they are tied. Because I can now provide very accurately set reeds with practically no normalisation variables, pipers are able to be specific to within two inches H2O of their preferred pressure and this has revealed an interesting pattern.

From the last 100 reeds I sent out, I only had one request for a reed stronger than 30” and when the piper was sent the 32” reed with four softer reeds to compare, she rejected the 32” reed for a 26-28” reed instead. Almost all the reeds I sent out were under the nominated pressure originally matched to the cane reeds the pipers were playing. Probably 70% of the reed requests I get are in the 26-28” range, right in the design pressure range of the GHB as identified by the mech engineer.

Some of the mature aged pipers were wanting to play softer reeds for their comfort and chanter balance and because they still had reasonable bag control when the reed was not too hard, they were producing a much steadier tone. This was not possible with most the cane chanter reeds because cane tends to get very bendy when it is very soft and this requires a high level of bag control to maintain a decent tone. Because they can no longer play the available firmer cane reeds, many were resigned to sliding their beloved pipes under the bed to retirement.

Because of the outstanding stability of the new plastic, I have some older pipers in their 80’s that are still able to play their pipes, drones and chanter, something that was beyond them with trad cane reeds. Some are playing reeds in the high teens, something almost impossible with cane.

I am sure there are a couple of reed makers out there that would be prepared to risk the commercial suicide and manufacture reeds graded to an objective standard. Based on my personal experience, any reed makers that did this would make a killing $$$.

Drone to chanter setting was the second most common reason given to me for wanting softer chanter reeds so I will cover this in a different post.

Cheers

-G
Glenarley
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Tell us something.: My family has been making pipes and reeds for over 25 years both Uillean and GHB. I am being asked to share pass on information on to other pipers in this open environment.

Re: How to leard to blow the bag

Post by Glenarley »

Reed Pressure Selection – Reed Maker Follow Up

I received an email from a Reed Maker and he felt some of my assertions in the previous post were unreasonable.

I phoned the emailer and had a chat with him and while he was rather unhappy with my assertions in the post, he was polite and pleasant to speak with.

The main points he raised were mostly very reasonable so I will address them. I will use the nominal cost of a reed as being US $25 to make the points relevant and give them context. The other factor is that we are using the aggressive, (currently fashionable) ridge cut reeds as the reed being referenced.

He did agree that reeds in excess of 45” H2O dry would exceed what would normally be considered “MED” by most pipers.

If the reeds were to be graded to a standard such as a numeric standard as used in orchestral reeds, the cost of each reed would have to increase by not less than $10.00 and more likely $15 because of the extra time it would take to grade the reeds to a specific standard.

I do not see this as being unreasonable considering that making the reeds is time intensive through manual labour. We all deserve to be paid for our time and if we used the minimum wage as a guide, the numbers seem ok.

The second point he makes is that a large percentage of the reeds he ties will be over 45” all the way up to 60”H2O and as it is rare for anyone to ever knowingly order reeds over 45”, he would end up with many reeds that are unsalable under a reed standards system. If he spent time to blow and manipulate the reeds, where possible, to make them compliant with a numbered grading system, his time would once again, have to be added to the reed cost. Notwithstanding this time spent to make reeds compliant, he believes there will still be many reeds made that will never be sold under a standards system.

This is where I disagree.

On the cost matter, from the last two trays of ten med reeds I purchased, the ridge cut tray had four reeds over 48” and one at 45. Based on the current costing and having four unusable reeds, I have spent $100 for goods “not fit for purpose”. If I was provided six reeds at 45 or under at an extra cost of $15 per reed, ($40 per reed) I would have spent $240 to get six usable reeds compared with spending $250 for ten reeds with only six actually being usable (med reeds).

Am I being asked to pay for a product that the manufacture knows is “not fit for purpose”? Am I also being asked to pay for the reeds that are not up to standard as a result of the makers manufacturing process and quality control. I believe the customer is entitled to receive the goods they paid for in good faith. If the maker is sending reeds known to be “not fit for purpose”, where is the good faith on the part of the seller?

Standards in manufacturing are created and enforced for a reason and I don’t see why GHB reeds also cannot be captured by a standard. The cost is not an issue based on the current numbers and pipers and piping would be the big winners. To pay a bit more to get what you ordered seems reasonable to me.

I deal with many pipers and I am always surprised to find how many have next to no reed skills. In the case of these ridge cut reeds, scraping is not an option unless you scrape off the ridge to soften them which defeats the purpose of buying ridge cut reeds. Squeezing the hard reeds may (or may not) soften the reed a little but this still means you were provided a “not fit for purpose” product which still may end up as firewood despite your best efforts.

If reeds are to be sold with grading, specify the grading in quantifiable values or, just sell the reeds as many do only clearly state it is a “lucky dip”. The buyer can then make an informed choice, $25 for the “lucky dip” or $40 graded to a specified standard, how hard can it be?

At the end of the day, while not going as far as to say they are charlatans, I do believe there is the monkey see monkey do component in the reed making industry and that the vagaries currently used by many to rate the reeds they on sell is no accident. I also believe that if standards were introduced, the number of reed makers would shrink and the quality of reeds would improve, as would the number of happy pipers, and listeners.

Cheers

-G
Glenarley
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Tell us something.: My family has been making pipes and reeds for over 25 years both Uillean and GHB. I am being asked to share pass on information on to other pipers in this open environment.

Re: How to leard to blow the bag

Post by Glenarley »

The Issues with Strong Chanter Reeds

In the 1950’s when the GHB pipe band movement started to prosper again, the bands, being competitive were driven to stand out from other bands in competitions. When skill was not an option, the easiest method to do this, while crude and lacking any real class and finesse, was to make louder noise. The easiest way to achieve this high noise level was through the use of harder chanter reeds so the bands got their pipers to play hard reeds.

This had a negative effect on the other reeds, (drone reeds) because while it was easy to make harder, (stiffer) chanter reeds, the drone reeds of that time were cut cane and cane only possessed a limited level of mechanical strength. This is one of the primary reasons the design pressure of the GHB can be established at around 1 psi (aprox 28” H2O) so if chanter reeds were to be used at pressures exceeding 28” by any significance, the drone reeds would shut down. This was more pronounced with the bass reed because the longed blade had more mechanical advantage than the tenor reeds.

To play stiffer, louder chanter reeds, stiffer drone reeds were essential but as cane had the mechanical limitations of a natural material, solutions were needed. This is where the Black Arts myth of “special” cane seemed to become popular. Because someone found a harder cane reed that was more tolerant to higher pressure and by coincidence, this cane came from a particular source, e.g., Spain, France or California, another Black Arts myth was born. The facts do not support this myth but as it happens, the truth is the hierarchy of one. Yes, it is possible to find harder cane in a stand of cane but this is true of any stand of cane and is not necessarily true to a country or region.

The cane drone reeds could be bruise set or flame (heat) set and while this could work, it was not a reliable fix to the strength problem. The sporran hair jammed under the reed tongue was a common fix as was using a bent paper clip pushed up the reed. Both these methods helped to stop the reed from shutting off at higher pressure but there was a cost.

Both methods put pressure on the reed tongue giving it a little more mechanical strength but they also stopped the reed from fully sealing. Because the reed did not fully seal the reed was less likely to stay closed because of the pressure differential no longer having the integrity of a good pressure seal. The biggest disadvantage of adding mechanical leverage to the reed is that the reed uses more air both from the leaking seal and that the reed was held open further than would be the case without the devices. The reeds generally became more buzzy than hummy. The biggest down side was the extra effort required to play the pipes as you needed muscles in your crap to blow these high-pressure pipes and this was beyond the physical abilities of many pipers. You started to see pipers with big bull frog cheeks and swollen necks as a result of the exertion required.

The biggest change came in the sixties when Hardie decided to raise the chanter pitch. This would allow a pipe band to stand out from other bands as the higher pitch would make the band sound brighter. The biggest advantage was that the chanter could now be played at a pressure closer to the fundamental design pressure making the pipe easier to play and control, especially the drones. The down side of this new chanter design was the cost ($) as every piper in the band would need one of these chanters. At that time, the pipers in a band would have been playing their own chanter so a band with matched chanters was a new concept but because of the competitive nature of pipe bands, the bands with the money adopted the matched higher pitched chanter concept.

Now this is when the rat started to chase his own tail. As more bands adopted the matched higher pitched chanters, the only way they could stand out from other bands was to again increase the chanter volume through harder reeds which put them back on the high-pressure drone reed treadmill. They were back to where they came from only now, they were a lot poorer with the expense of the matched chanters and, the physical abilities of the pipers were back in the forefront.

The situation changed when the synthetic drone reed was introduced around the seventies. These early reeds used a flat cane tongue on a synthetic body so the strength of the natural cane reed was no longer an issue. The flat tongues could be made to whatever strength was required simply by making the tongue thicker. The bands could now play stiff, loud chanter reeds and because they could now control the strength of the drone reeds, the issues with drones closing off could be more reliably controlled.

Now the biggest issue was again the physical strength and stamina of the piper and this was not easily fixed. The bands still wanted to stand out from other bands but if they could not find enough pipers with the required strength, the rich bands lost their advantage and this has led us to the current situation where the bands are jumping onto the increase pitch merry-go-round. Keeping in mind that the pre sixties bands were all playing Bb (466 Hz) chanters with drones designed to play at that pitch. Pipers were now being expected to play a set of pipes at a pitch their drones were not designed to play at so the synthetic drone reeds, with their wide configuration ranges, were soon adopted as the norm however, the chanters were still confined to a narrow range cane reeds with a dependence on specific chanter/reed matching.

Raising the pitch has the down side of producing edgy bright tone in both the drones and the chanter and now many bands sound like fingernails down a blackboard, they have lost the tonal humm they had at the lower pitch. When the chanters were pitched at Bb, it was as close to having a manufacturing standard as was possible considering all the different chanter manufactures. With the chanter pitches up in the mid to high 480 Hz range as is the case, the chanters are further away from complying to any manufacturing standard and this has made matching a reed to chanter a significant problem. Now more than ever, reed knowledge and skills are essential else it is just a case of monkey see, monkey do.

More so now with the high chanter pitches, a chanter that is in good balance at 28” H2O could be 8+ Hz out of balance at 33” H2O so now the pressure and pitch of the chanter reed must be matched to both the piper’s playing pressure and the chanter. As cane has so many variables due to its natural organic construction, reed brands that work well in one brand of chanter will not work at all well in another brand of chanter, even at the same reed pitch and playing pressure.

While the competitive edge of pipe bands has put pipers on the increasing pitch merry-go-round, it also seems to be one of the contributing factors in the current decline of young pipers taking up the GHB. The need for the bands to stand out has made the mastering a difficult instrument nearer to impossible for all but the stubbornly wilful, and with the Nose Tapping Black Arts thrown into the mix, a further decline, in my view, is imminent.

Because I supply synthetic chanter reeds to match the piper’s preferred playing pressure, I have a clear view into where the comfort zone is located in the pressure scale. Very few pipers want to play reeds above 30” H2O when selecting reeds from me personally and there is very good reason for this. Chanters go out of balance very quickly as the playing pressure increases past fundamental design pressure and the air supply to the drones also increases to very demanding levels the higher the playing pressure. Some drone reeds are much more efficient than others so while you can find some better options, the overall comfort and physical ability of the piper has to be considered as the primary concern.

I supply reeds as low as 20” H2O to some of my aged clients and while these pipers will never again play for a top-level pipe band, because they have a setup that will play where they are comfortable, they can keep doing what they enjoy doing. In a wedding or funeral, these older pipers still sound like a GHB even if they are down a few decibels, and the people they are playing for just appreciate the sound. It should also be noted that, while aged, many of these aged pipers can still play well when they have a setup that allows them to concentrate on playing the tune instead of fighting to keep the equipment running.

The GHB is a pressure instrument and the art to sounding good is to set the pressure of the reeds to suit the piper, the chanter and the drone set. They are not mutually exclusive.

A good piper can play a stiff reed but with the obvious disadvantages, why would he/she bother. The opposing curiosity is that a less skilled piper will prefer to struggle with a stiffer reed because they do not have the skills or bag control needed to play a softer reed.

The GHB produces the sound it does because of pressure control, poor control, poor sound.

Cheers

-G
Glenarley
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Tell us something.: My family has been making pipes and reeds for over 25 years both Uillean and GHB. I am being asked to share pass on information on to other pipers in this open environment.

Re: How to leard to blow the bag

Post by Glenarley »

Same hole, different rabbit.

This thread was sent to me for comment but it seemed to be questioning some aspects of my last post. I try to avoid quantifying stupidity but as this is a very common theme sent to me, I will offer up my views. Hopefully they will encourage logical analysis.

This is not the complete thread but as some of the comments were just directions to other comments, I left them out.

Statement:
“At my pipe lesson today we were discussing cane vs synthetic reeds and how cane reeds just seem to have stronger overtones.”

“Has anyone done a study of the overtones of cane and synthetic reeds looking at the strength and the overtone profile over the frequency spectrum that they can share with us?”

Responce1:
“As was noted some years ago... "Nothing sounds like... cane."”

Responce2:
“I just did a very quick, non-rigorous survey of a couple cane reeds versus several synthetics in a Chris Terry tenor drone, mouth blowing (so no bass drone was tested). Using a 480 Hz reference chanter pitch, the 240 Hz fundamental and 480 Hz 1st overtone are about the same amplitude, regardless of material. The 2nd overtone, E at 720 Hz, is fairly minimal regardless of material, along with the 3rd and 4th (another A at 960 Hz and a C# at 1200 Hz), though there's some variability in how low they were. The 5th overtone, the second E at 1440 Hz, seemed to have a fairly large difference. Cane had a rather large amplitude 5th overtone E. From those synthetics sampled, those that exhibited the largest 5th overtone were the closest to cane in overall timbre (overtone reeds and redwood reeds).”

Responce1, in my view is just plain dumb! “Like stating nothing sounds like a Mustang.” Without listing the year and model.

I have a collection of dumbness from this poster as recognised by his/her 3 periods after every phrase. The poor writing literacy skills can be forgiven as not everyone has had the same access to education but, if you know little, say little. Two ears, one mouth.

To give some context, when I was receiving harsh criticism over my synthetic chanter reeds when compared to cane, I sent a tray of different cane chanter reeds and 4 of my synthetic chanter reeds to the uni lab for analysis. I wanted an objective assessment.


The report came back as inconclusive as it was found the difference between different cane reeds was of a similar range to the difference between the synthetic reed and an individual cane reed. The uni tech would not provide an answer if I would not specify the exact cane reed to be used so inconclusive was the finding.

With regards to cane drone reeds, thin walled or thick walled cane? Hard cane or soft cane? Dense or sparsely fibered cane? All produce a different sound.

This responce1 comment suggests something special about cane drone reeds. I would think it shows his/her reed/piping skills are as poor as his/her literacy skills. The comment does not pass the pub test and could send the uninformed down that rabbit hole which only harms the craft.

Responce2 is also what I see as another dumb line of commentary although this person does have literacy skills. Has a definitive point been made? No. This person seems to be wanting to use tech talk to define the subjective variables of cane.

If you play an A on the chanter and the same octave A on a piano, they sound different despite both notes being an A. If I put the piano A into my software and tell the software to make the piano A into a GHB A it does so by moving all the overtones around. You can see the comparison as it is doing it.

Where Responce2 states “those that exhibited the largest 5th overtone were the closest to cane in overall timbre” is also just dumb in my view as it fails to account for all the different types of cane and synthetic reeds. The dumbest part of this tech word salad (love that term, thanks KH) is it also fails to consider preference.

Some pipers like those loud brassy edgy sounding drones while other like the more hummy sound from less edgy reeds. Trying to compare overtones in a reed sound as an absolute is just plain lunacy and it only serves to confuse and mislead the less skilled wanting to learn this craft. Again, same hole, different rabbit.

The thread poster should spend more lesson time learning good technique as you can pontificate all you want about overtones and comparisons however, at the end of the day, if it does not sound good to your ear, it does not matter what others might think. You will get little pleasure playing a pipe that you don’t like the sound of, so why do it?

The Pied Piper story has a moral, apply it to your piping and don’t just be another one of the sheeple.

Cheers

-G
ghbping
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Re: How to leard to blow the bag

Post by ghbping »

Hi Glenarly

I have been following your post for quite sometimes as I found the information very helpful and useful.
Where did all the informations come from and Is there a particular book/journal that I could buy so that I could refer to it when I need? I love to have some sort of reference handy at any time. Thank you.
Glenarley
Posts: 100
Joined: Mon Jan 04, 2021 2:20 am
antispam: No
Please enter the next number in sequence: 8
Tell us something.: My family has been making pipes and reeds for over 25 years both Uillean and GHB. I am being asked to share pass on information on to other pipers in this open environment.

Re: How to leard to blow the bag

Post by Glenarley »

Ghbping

Mostly in my head and alot of test data and contemporaneous notes.

Cheers

-G
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