Drone Sound

by Ian Whitelaw

This thing, we call drones, exists in all things. In the office,the fluorescent lights, when turned on, produces a drone sound. A pump, when running, produces a drone sound. An airplane, when flying, produces a drone sound. This "drone" is something special to our beings. It is not an accident when we feel a "rush" when we experience a beautiful pipe. Why is it beautiful? Chanter? Maybe. Drones? Maybe. Combination of the two? Absolutely. The drone for all intents and purposes is a hum…and we all know a "hum". Accompaniment… For some reason, we seem to equate drone sound with volume. Not true. In fact, if the drone sound is louder than the chanter your pipe will reflect "dullness" or un-balance. The truly "great pipe" consists of a very quiet drone and chanter. Key word? Balance. Vibrant, responsive, tuned chanter, coupled with "two male tenors and a bass" in perfect harmony. The chanter (the female) makes the pipe and the drone makes the pipe.

Of course the only combination is wood, wood, and wood. Translation? Cane drone reeds, cane chanter reeds, and wood chanter. The make is not important at this stage. This is not to imply that the plastic products that are flooding the market are not functional and in some cases, practical. What I am saying is that the "craft" of the instrument is in grave danger of being lost…all in the interest of "keeping the drones in tune"…Incredibly, at a recent piping school when I instructed, I had a student ask me what was in my pipe case- (it was a cane bass drone reed)-he had never seen one before. Just imagine the "horror" of this! At this point I would say that the plastic reed phenomenon is upon us and probably here to stay. The purist, who I clearly attach myself to, says that the drone sound that"sings", that "cries", that "hums" is produced by cane reeds. We, as pipers, I feel, regardless of our competitive nature, our "lack of practice time" due to "real lives" and "real jobs", we owe it to our ancestors and the gods/goddesses of music to at least know how to correctly manipulate and set a cane reed.

Interestingly enough, what I was taught as a "neophyte" is nothing close to what I do with the reeds today. The bridle, tied properly, holds the tongue "open" NOT CLOSED. Tying the bridle is the key. This, consisting of black-waxed hemp, when properly applied in "just" the right spot , acts as a fulcrum, opening the tongue of the reed. Much like a "rough focus" on a camera - this is the function of the bridle. The fine-tuning comes in the form of a small, dental, and elastic band. The orthodontic elastic bands are the answer. To sum up, apply force to the bottom part of the reed and "fine" tune it with an elastic band. Tried, proven and true. Not to mention easy. And, clean.

As "neophyte" or beginner players, we are fed the usual "truths" that drones, cane drone reeds take "some time" - loosely translated, two weeks - to get the reeds to work. Absolutely not true. If I am not able to get drones to work within 10-15 minutes…two words…forget it! Beginners may take a little longer. But, if you do as I suggest, success will be yours. It’s about physics. Trial and error, patience and dedication to the craft. Without being technical, drone sound is about mellowness, blend, smoothness, richness, greatness and sound. At the end of the day, sound is the thing.When it’s on, your audience has their eyes closed, completely captivated by the sound. Mellow drones, harmonics, blend and clarity. As with all things, balance is the key. The question is: "How do we achieve all of the above?" Technically speaking, a good, well tied hemp bridle. Do not be put off by the inquiries by the US government customs officers as to the reason you are importing hemp. Just answer, "Dude, It is string." (True story) Keep the inside of the drone clean and polished, like a rifle barrel or a mirror. (For all the pacifists out there, I am personally afraid of guns and have never seen the inside of a rifle nor do I wish to). Keep the drone stocks clean so that air goes in straight and without turbulence, keeps the drones steady and full. Only let air go through the drones tongue. Put hemp around the seat of the reed, this is a trick to keep the drones steady, very useful for the solo competitor in the group.

Henderson and Mac Nulty drone reeds are my personal favorites. Great quality always and long lasting. My solo reeds are nearly 4 years old and still as lovely as ever. If your drones or stocks crack…fix them! Bore oil??? Never! Never! Never! Wood actually likes moisture. Only if you feel like it, oil the outside of the drone. I must admit, in 35 years of piping I have never oiled and have never had a crack. Knock on wood! No pun intended here! Best drones? Henderson. Some Mac Dougall, but don’t be fooled, some junk there. New pipes? Naill. The modern day "Henderson". The inexpensive (note: I did not say cheap) are just as good as the very dear, just the ornament is different.

Oh, and another thing. Always treat your pipes like your best friend. Keep them warm, never in the trunk of your car, never in the cold, never in extreme heat. Protect them, cuddle them, and love them and they will always "bring you home".