Scottish smallpipes for sessions

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Re: Scottish smallpipes for sessions

Post by Peter Duggan »

Cyberknight wrote: Sun Jun 09, 2024 10:13 am If the drone isn't even playing, you get no benefits from just intonation.
What makes you think that?
For some reason, Irish pipes later ended up with both drones AND regulators - which has always seemed to me to be unnecessary and excessive from a cost perspective.
Listen to any good uilleann piper playing and you'll see they have different roles within the greater whole.
My goal at this point is to learn more about the pipes from people who actually understand how they work.
Good idea!
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Re: Scottish smallpipes for sessions

Post by Cyberknight »

Peter Duggan wrote: Sun Jun 09, 2024 10:59 am
Cyberknight wrote: Sun Jun 09, 2024 10:13 am For some reason, Irish pipes later ended up with both drones AND regulators - which has always seemed to me to be unnecessary and excessive from a cost perspective.
Listen to any good uilleann piper playing and you'll see they have different roles within the greater whole.
My goal at this point is to learn more about the pipes from people who actually understand how they work.
Good idea!
I probably overstated what I meant to say here. I wasn't saying that you get no benefits from having drones and regulators. I was just saying that to ME, that seems excessive. Adding more pipes to your instrument can improve it in various ways, but at a certain point, you get diminishing returns. A large reason I've never bought Uillean pipes is that they tend to cost at least $8,000 for a full set of any quality. And getting a partial set usually means losing some of your harmonization potential.

It seems to me that combining drones and regulators would be an interesting option for people like me who want to save money, while potentially also allowing for some interesting power chord options that the Uillean pipes currently lack (I'm envisioning drones pitched in D, A, and D, with keys that would allow all three of them to change at once). It would also be in keeping with tradition, since regulators originally were just drones with keys. So I think it would be a cool option. I wasn't trying to dis Uillean pipes or imply that there's no reason anyone would want both drones and regulators.
Peter Duggan wrote: Sun Jun 09, 2024 10:59 am
Cyberknight wrote: Sun Jun 09, 2024 10:13 am If the drone isn't even playing, you get no benefits from just intonation.
What makes you think that?
The only rationale I've ever heard for just intonation is that it makes chords sound slightly more consonant. At least, that's what random internet articles tell me (I'm no physicist, so that's about all I have to go on). This comports with my own experience. A triad tuned to just intonation DOES sound ever so slightly less dissonant to me...but a melody line with just intonation doesn't sound any better (in fact, it sounds rather out of tune, perhaps because I'm simply more used to hearing melodies tuned to equal temperament).

At any rate, I think my point about playing in other keys, at the very least, is valid. Playing in G, C, or D on an instrument tuned to just intonation in A just isn't going to sound perfectly in tune. So if you're not playing with a drone, it really seems like just intonation has no benefits and a lot of drawbacks.
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Re: Scottish smallpipes for sessions

Post by paddler »

I think it is important to realize that these instruments were never intended to be fully chromatic in the sense of playing music in arbitrary keys. They are for playing tunes in a restricted set of keys/modes, so there is no need to sacrifice tuning in the way that 12 TET does in order to make no one key any more out of tune than any other. In other words, you don't need to sacrifice tuning in a key you commonly use just to make sure that tuning in a key you never use isn't terrible. You only have to make it work for the desired set of keys/modes. You also don't have to ensure that a given tune when played in one key will sound the same (aside from overall pitch) as it does in another key. The difference between keys can be (is) exploited by composers to express their artistic intent.

A defining characteristic of many kinds of pipes is that they use drones. If you play with a drone then the tuning of intervals between the drone and chanter notes is going to be very apparent to the player and listener. Different intervals are used for different purposes by composers, and this too has implications for tuning. For example, it is much more important that intervals used for consonance and resolution be in tune (pleasing to the ear, not beating, etc ... i.e., just!) than intervals used for dissonance. If you have just intonation and use the instrument to play music in more than one key then the intervals in one key are likely going to differ from those in another key, but this can be taken into account by a composer. For example, if it is known that certain intervals will not sound good in a particular key they can be deliberately avoided.

The above issues mean that the tuning dilemma for pipes is really not nearly as over constrained as that for say a piano intended to play equally well/badly in all possible musical keys. It also seems like a no brainer to use just intonation for the chanter when the instrument will predominantly be played using a single note drone or a related set of drones.
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Re: Scottish smallpipes for sessions

Post by paddler »

Peter Duggan wrote: Sun Jun 09, 2024 3:12 am
paddler wrote: Sat Jun 08, 2024 11:49 pm The thing that confuses me about all this is not the choice of just intonation, but rather why it is so common in piping traditions to maintain the same drone, say A, regardless of the tonal center of the piece of music being played. I assume that it is basically a requirement more or less imposed by the design of the instrument, and that the musical tradition has evolved to match that.
To me, this is related to your point about different keys sounding different. While some pipers do use different drone tunings for different keys, to me it actually weakens tunes written to exploit the standard ones. So, yes, I'd agree the tradition has evolved to match the instrument(s), as discussed here and probably elsewhere before:
viewtopic.php?p=1177155#p1177155
Thanks for that insight Peter! I was beginning to suspect that, and I see it as an example of a composer, or performer, making this choice as a deliberate expression of their artistic intent.

It has been a while since I started to wrestle with my own confusion on this. It all started for me when I was in a flute lesson with Keven Crawford as he suggested that we make it a habit to practice as often as we could playing against a drone. The idea being to help train your ear and intonation. As I started to do this I looked for drones matching the tonal center of the tunes I was playing, but I quickly came across people suggesting to "just use a D drone for everything" (assuming a D flute) and approach this kind of like the uilleann pipes. To me, at the time, this was quite a shock, and made me question a lot of what I thought I had understood about music theory, harmony etc. I'm now quite fascinated by this.
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Re: Scottish smallpipes for sessions

Post by Mr.Gumby »

. To me, at the time, this was quite a shock, and made me question a lot of what I thought I had understood about music theory, harmony etc. I'm now quite fascinated by this.
I remember an instance, over forty years ago now I suppose, playing/busking with a fiddler friend who had a fair amount of classical training behind him. We played the Langstern Pony. When we finished he looked at me bewildered and said that he never thought that would work over the drones (never mind what the regulators were doing))and that it cast the tune in a completely different light for him.

Séamus Ennis - Langstern Pony etc

Séamus Ennis, by the way, was of the opinion that G was the home key of the pipes, more so than D. If you hear the harmonics between his chanter and his drones crackle, you know why.
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Re: Scottish smallpipes for sessions

Post by pancelticpiper »

Cyberknight wrote: Wed Jun 05, 2024 9:13 am
I understand it takes a very long time to learn to play them (Scottish smallpipes) well
I think all instruments take a long time to learn.

With Scottish smallpipes there are multiple stylistic paths you can take. Many players come from a Highland pipe background and play SSPs with the same fingerings and ornaments they use when playing Highland pipes.

But there are other players who don't. I've heard SSPs played in more of an Irish trad style, using the same sorts of cuts, pats, rolls, and crans that work on the Irish flute, whistle, and uilleann pipes.

There's something about the narrow straight SSP chanter bore that makes it semi-immune to fingering variations, so using Highland pipe fingering isn't necessary.

For example "E" on a Highland chanter is fingered

x|xxo|xxxo

and if you change what the bottom hand is doing, say

x|xxo|ooox

x|xxo|xoox

or what have you "E" will be flat. But on SSP chanters the pitch of the note coming out of the highest open hole isn't much affected by what the lower fingers are doing.

This inherent stability is why most crossfingerings that work on GHB or BP chanters don't work on SSP chanters.
Cyberknight wrote: Wed Jun 05, 2024 9:13 am
I enjoy playing with other people.
The biggest issue with using SSPs in a session isn't the volume, but what the chanter is capable of.

You get a fixed scale of 9 notes, with an "A" chanter G A B C# D E F# g a.

It's perfect for the vast Highland pipe repertoire but you'll be very limited to the number of tunes you can play if you stray outside that repertoire.
Cyberknight wrote: Wed Jun 05, 2024 9:13 am I also have a question about tuning: are smallpipes tuned to just intonation? Are there any makers that make them with equal temperament tuning instead?
Pretty much all bagpipes are tuned so that each note the chanter produces is in tune to the drones. It's as true with all breeds of Scottish pipes as well as uilleann pipes, gaita, gaida, cabrette, duda, dudy, and on it goes.

People make a far bigger thing out of Just Intonation versus Equal Temperament than it really is.

The Major 3rd in ET is too wide. It just is. And an acapella choir, string ensemble, brass ensemble, etc is going to narrow those 3rds to be in tune with the other members of the ensemble just as bagpipes has the narrower JI 3rd to be in tune against the drones.

I've played my Just Intonation Highland pipes along with brass ensembles many times and have been quite in tune.
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Re: Scottish smallpipes for sessions

Post by Cyberknight »

Thank you for the insightful comments, everyone! At this point, I'm still on the fence because of the volume issue. But I'm really not concerned about the 9 note range, because, as I mentioned, the Scottish sessions I've gone to play plenty of sets exclusively within that range.
paddler wrote: Mon Jun 10, 2024 1:46 am The above issues mean that the tuning dilemma for pipes is really not nearly as over constrained as that for say a piano intended to play equally well/badly in all possible musical keys. It also seems like a no brainer to use just intonation for the chanter when the instrument will predominantly be played using a single note drone or a related set of drones.
pancelticpiper wrote: Mon Jun 10, 2024 4:02 am The Major 3rd in ET is too wide. It just is. And an acapella choir, string ensemble, brass ensemble, etc is going to narrow those 3rds to be in tune with the other members of the ensemble just as bagpipes has the narrower JI 3rd to be in tune against the drones.

I've played my Just Intonation Highland pipes along with brass ensembles many times and have been quite in tune.
Maybe I'm overthinking this issue, and maybe the difference between ET and JI is too subtle to be that big a problem. I guess my problem is that I hear a lot of Scottish pipes (and, more rarely, Irish pipes) that simply don't sound in tune. Maybe JI isn't the problem...maybe they just aren't in-tune instruments. I hear border pipes that have flat high As, like GHBs. That bothers me (even though I understand the rationale for it). SSPs don't seem to have this problem in most recordings, but they do often have other issues, like extremely flat Gs.

TL;DR: I guess maybe what I'm really looking for is a very in-tune set of SSPs, regardless of what their tuning style is (JI vs. ET).
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Re: Scottish smallpipes for sessions

Post by paddler »

Cyberknight wrote: Mon Jun 10, 2024 9:55 am Maybe I'm overthinking this issue, and maybe the difference between ET and JI is too subtle to be that big a problem. I guess my problem is that I hear a lot of Scottish pipes (and, more rarely, Irish pipes) that simply don't sound in tune. Maybe JI isn't the problem...maybe they just aren't in-tune instruments. I hear border pipes that have flat high As, like GHBs. That bothers me (even though I understand the rationale for it). SSPs don't seem to have this problem in most recordings, but they do often have other issues, like extremely flat Gs.

TL;DR: I guess maybe what I'm really looking for is a very in-tune set of SSPs, regardless of what their tuning style is (JI vs. ET).
As a novice uilleann piper it hasn't taken me long to realize that there are a lot of things I can do, or fail to do, that cause my pipes to play out of tune. For example, too much bag pressure or too little bag pressure (which differs in different directions from note to note), making inappropriate adjustments to the reed in an effort to compensate for the effects of humidity changes, etc. I think it is fair to say that bagpipes take a lot more management and whole lot of skill to play well in tune, much more so than say with a flute or whistle. So I do think that these issues can dominate lesser effects such as the difference between JI and ET tuning.
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Re: Scottish smallpipes for sessions

Post by Cyberknight »

paddler wrote: Mon Jun 10, 2024 10:30 am ...
It surprises me to hear that. I would have thought that, being a reed instrument, bagpipe pitch would be LESS affected by bag pressure than flute or whistle are by lung pressure. I thought this was how free-blown reeds tended to work, and that's why, for example, concertinas don't sharpen in pitch the harder you press them (they just get louder).
Last edited by Cyberknight on Mon Jun 10, 2024 12:09 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: Scottish smallpipes for sessions

Post by Cyberknight »

At any rate, I would also supposed (correct me if I'm wrong) that SSPs would tend to be more in-tune and have fewer pitch problems than Uillean pipes, because they're essentially one-octave instruments, and in one-octave instruments you can basically fine-tune each note (I would think) by adjusting hole sizes. On a two-octave instrument, any change you make to a hole affects multiple notes, so getting the thing naturally in tune would be more difficult, I'd think.
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Re: Scottish smallpipes for sessions

Post by Tjones »

If you really love the sound of the Scottish small pipes, then go for it. The Walsh small pipes are affordable, they’ve been around a long while, and I’ve not read any terrible reviews. Since you play the whistle and flute, you shouldn’t have any issues playing them right off. Saying that ~ if you want to play them in the highland manner, that will take some time to learn.

When playing a chanter and drones, that are in tune with each other; (just) I feel something special occurs with the harmonics that is most often, not picked up by a casual observer, or listener. You can play a drone with an instrument and it can sound good, but if it doesn’t develop the harmonics, you’re missing a special experience. Not everyone was a fan of equal temperament because of the lost of the true harmonics, and it took quite a while to become the standard tuning. So, most of us now, aren’t attuned to listening for the harmonics, but when the pipe achieves them, it’s like stepping up to the next level. That’s probably why Pipe majors are so strict with their tuning and will spend the time to tune everyone in the band’s pipes, so I’ve heard.

The modern small pipes popularity is mainly due to highland pipers wanting a quieter pipe to play indoors, more of a solo instrument and that’s where they shine. It’s very hard to hear true harmonics in a noisy session.

Try them in your Scottish sessions and if they aren’t loud enough for you, you can always sell them, and you have your whistle and flute to play in the session.
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Re: Scottish smallpipes for sessions

Post by pancelticpiper »

Cyberknight wrote: Mon Jun 10, 2024 9:55 am My problem is that I hear a lot of Scottish pipes that simply don't sound in tune.
Highland pipes are like all other instruments, and singers too: poor players and singers are out of tune. Good players and singers are in tune.

If you listen to good Highland pipers you'll hear perfectly in-tune pipes. Ditto the uilleann pipes, Gaia, Gaida, Cabrette, Duda, Dudy, and all other species of bagpipes.

By "in tune" I mean every note of the chanter is a perfect consonance with the harmonics produced by the drones, which are always the same due to the Harmonic Series which no bagpiper can escape.
Cyberknight wrote: Mon Jun 10, 2024 9:55 am SSPs often have extremely flat Gs.
The minor 7th of the scale of a bagpipe chanter in "A", the note Highland pipers call "high G" is tuned 31 cents flat of an ET minor 7th.

Why? Because that's exactly where that note is in the Harmonic Series (the 7th, 14th, etc harmonic).

That -31 "G" is a perfect blend with the drones. If it was any sharper it would clash with the drones.
Cyberknight wrote: Mon Jun 10, 2024 9:55 am I hear border pipes that have flat high As, like GHBs. That bothers me (even though I understand the rationale for it).
The octave of the tonic, the note Highland pipers call "high A", is an odd one.

It's sort of analogous to how Uilleann pipes have two "bottom D's", one a smooth-sounding note that's the same volume and timbre as the rest of the Uilleann chanter's low octave, called the "soft bottom D", and the other a louder ringing note that's full of harmonics, called the "hard bottom D".

On the Highland chanter you could finger "high A" (the thumb-note, the chanter's highest note) like this

o|xxx|xxxo

in other words the same as "low A" but with the thumb off.

This gives a clean pure perfectly in-tune "high A'.

But that's not how Highland pipers finger it. It's not how Highland pipers want their "high A" to sound.

They finger it like this

o|oox|xxxo

or

o|oxo|xxxo

which note has a very distinctive energised tone full of harmonics.

What's odd about it is how the core of the note can sound flat to non-pipers, however the ringing harmonics are in tune with the drones.

For sure many pipers, many very good pipers, overdo the flatness part. But if you listen to the harmonics you'll probably hear what the pipers hear.

Here's a good piper playing a piobaireachd on a fine chanter, note how all the notes ring with the drones.

Warning, at the start he's just tuning up. It takes a while for pipers in competition to get their instruments exactly tuned to their liking.

Jump to 3:52 for the start of the tune.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s8e8hXu8CO0
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Re: Scottish smallpipes for sessions

Post by Cyberknight »

pancelticpiper wrote: Thu Jun 13, 2024 4:54 am
Cyberknight wrote: Mon Jun 10, 2024 9:55 am My problem is that I hear a lot of Scottish pipes that simply don't sound in tune.
Highland pipes are like all other instruments, and singers too: poor players and singers are out of tune. Good players and singers are in tune.

If you listen to good Highland pipers you'll hear perfectly in-tune pipes. Ditto the uilleann pipes, Gaia, Gaida, Cabrette, Duda, Dudy, and all other species of bagpipes.

By "in tune" I mean every note of the chanter is a perfect consonance with the harmonics produced by the drones, which are always the same due to the Harmonic Series which no bagpiper can escape.
Cyberknight wrote: Mon Jun 10, 2024 9:55 am SSPs often have extremely flat Gs.
The minor 7th of the scale of a bagpipe chanter in "A", the note Highland pipers call "high G" is tuned 31 cents flat of an ET minor 7th.

Why? Because that's exactly where that note is in the Harmonic Series (the 7th, 14th, etc harmonic).

That -31 "G" is a perfect blend with the drones. If it was any sharper it would clash with the drones.
Cyberknight wrote: Mon Jun 10, 2024 9:55 am I hear border pipes that have flat high As, like GHBs. That bothers me (even though I understand the rationale for it).
The octave of the tonic, the note Highland pipers call "high A", is an odd one.

It's sort of analogous to how Uilleann pipes have two "bottom D's", one a smooth-sounding note that's the same volume and timbre as the rest of the Uilleann chanter's low octave, called the "soft bottom D", and the other a louder ringing note that's full of harmonics, called the "hard bottom D".

On the Highland chanter you could finger "high A" (the thumb-note, the chanter's highest note) like this

o|xxx|xxxo

in other words the same as "low A" but with the thumb off.

This gives a clean pure perfectly in-tune "high A'.

But that's not how Highland pipers finger it. It's not how Highland pipers want their "high A" to sound.

They finger it like this

o|oox|xxxo

or

o|oxo|xxxo

which note has a very distinctive energised tone full of harmonics.

What's odd about it is how the core of the note can sound flat to non-pipers, however the ringing harmonics are in tune with the drones.

For sure many pipers, many very good pipers, overdo the flatness part. But if you listen to the harmonics you'll probably hear what the pipers hear.

Here's a good piper playing a piobaireachd on a fine chanter, note how all the notes ring with the drones.

Warning, at the start he's just tuning up. It takes a while for pipers in competition to get their instruments exactly tuned to their liking.

Jump to 3:52 for the start of the tune.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s8e8hXu8CO0
Hmm, well, thanks for the explanation. I guess my problem is with just intonation after all. I really dislike the sound of that 31-cent-flat G. It especially clashes when people play in D or G. Even with the drone underneath (in A) it still sounds bad to me when people play in D or G with a very flat G.

Uillean pipes aren't like this, and they sound fine playing a C natural with the D drone. C natural might be a tiny bit flat un Uillean pipes, but definitely not 31 cents flat.

Hence, I once again wish I could get smallpipes that were closer to equal temperament.
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Re: Scottish smallpipes for sessions

Post by pancelticpiper »

Cyberknight wrote: Thu Jun 13, 2024 7:52 am I really dislike the sound of that 31-cent-flat G. It especially clashes when people play in D or G. Even with the drone underneath (in A) it still sounds bad to me when people play in D or G with a very flat G.
With bagpipes the only thing that matters is how each note of the chanter sounds against the drones, precisely because that's how each note is heard.

The key a tune is thought to be in is irrelevant.

I found a tune that prominently features "high G".

If you're able to perceive the sound of the harmonics produced by the drones (which I realise has to be heard in person, because 90% of the tone of the drones is lost in YouTube videos) you'll hear how this piper's "high G" is an exact concordance with those harmonics.

Skip to 1:12 for the start of the tune.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eh5BsCDg6MI
Cyberknight wrote: Thu Jun 13, 2024 7:52 am Uillean pipes aren't like this, and they sound fine playing a C natural with the D drone. C natural might be a tiny bit flat un Uillean pipes, but definitely not 31 cents flat.
C natural is a unique note on the Uilleann pipes, if it's a long note in a tune, even if it's dwelled on for just a moment in a reel or jig, pipers often bend up to it by "uncurling" the top-hand index finger.

As pointed out by the author of The Pipe Music of Willie Clancy, the finger is often left in contact with the chanter, "shading" the note.

Thus the exact pitch of C natural is whatever the piper chooses it to be in the moment, and it's often flat enough to blend nicely with the drones.

I will point out that the -31 pitch of the flat 7th is not the Just Intonation location of that note.

Here's how JI varies from ET:

Tonic 0
Major 2nd +4
Major 3rd -14
Perfect 4th -2
Perfect 5th +2
Major 6th -16
minor 7th +18

When readings were taken from 18 top Highland pipers in 1953 it was found that all of them were using that SHARP minor 7th, the JI minor 7th.

At some point pipers' taste changed and they moved High G down from the JI minor 7th (+18) to the Harmonic minor 7th (-31).

It was probably for the simple reason that the Harmonic minor 7th blended better with the drones' harmonics.

I can well remember listening to top-level piobaireachd competitions in the 1980s and hearing the sharper High G of the older pipers stand out smooth bluesy High G of the younger ones.

I don't think I've heard any top pipers play anything other than the Harmonic minor 7th for decades.

But what of Low G? That took a decade or so to catch up to the pitch of High G. The -31 Low G on modern chanters sounds great to our modern piper's ears.
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Re: Scottish smallpipes for sessions

Post by paddler »

Thanks for these fascinating posts pancelticpiper! I'm intrigued by the fact that the typical tuning patterns I've observed on antique flutes (and many of the most sought after modern ones too) also tend to match the pattern you outline quite closely.
For example, on a D flute you nearly always find the F# and C# to be significantly flat and the C nat is often very sharp. Also, the lowest D is often flat compared to the second octave, but the harmonics pull together when the note is played hard.

I'm now motivated to play a few tunes (in various keys) against a D drone and then against whatever drone is their tonal center and listen for impact it has on how I perceive the tune and tuning.
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