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Great Highland Bagpipe Chanter in Poly (Delrin)
The Great Highland Bagpipe chanter discussed on this page is a specialized instrument; if you are interested in upgrading or replacing a regular chanter, this isn't what you need - see instead the J. Dunbar Ltd. chanter offered by us here or contact us for ordering information for a wide variety of chanters by various makers.
Also: Several of our customers made false starts when trying to set up a pipe so that the A is at 440hz by purchasing a R T Shepherd "Orchestral" chanter. This chanter is indeed in concert pitch, so it is not entirely incorrect to refer to it as an A440 chanter. But all this means is that the scale it plays is in concert pitch, and the keynote of the chanter (to which the drones are tuned and where we're looking for an A) is B-flat. This critical distinction is not mentioned on the Shepherd web site.
In our essay on bagpipe tuning we discuss the gradual rise in pitch of the modern Great Highland Bagpipe (GHB). While nominally in the key of "A" today's GHBs are in fact pitched far higher than the standard concert pitch of A = 440 Hz ( Hertz, or cycles per second), to the point where A = 470 Hz and beyond is common in new instruments. The reasons for this climb into the stratosphere are varied - in general, pipe makers have been following the demands of pipers and pipe bands. Bagpipes are by nature solo instruments (or are most often played with other bagpipes) so the absence of a standard pitch, such as has been employed worldwide for over a century in orchestral instruments, is not a great problem. However, there is an increasing use of pipes in settings with other "conventional" instruments, and musicians, composers and conductors often get a nasty surprise when they discover that the GHB, despite what the music looks like on paper, won't tune down to the expected pitch. We get letters regularly from non-piping composers and conductors asking how to meld a GHB into their works - the answer is that it's not possible in most cases. |
So, one major reason to set a pipe up in concert pitch is to be able to play with conventional fixed-pitch instruments. But another reason concerns the sound of the pipe. Many pipers have never heard an older lower-pitch GHB, and when they do hear one a common remark is that it sounds like a different instrument. Is it better? That's a matter of taste, as far as we're concerned. One can talk about the rumble of the lower pitch, or about the electric crackle of the higher, or about differences in the perceived loudness (higher pitched sounds are perceived as louder by most people, even if they aren't) and so on, but "better" is not the issue here. The lower pitched GHB has a different sound, and it's one that is very attractive to many people.
No amount of reed-juggling and/or taping of finger holes will drop a modern GHB chanter down into anything close to concert pitch. Furthermore, antique chanters often used a reed that differs in size from modern ones. Thus, obtaining (or copying) an antique chanter doesn't solve the problem, unless one is (or has available) an accomplished reed-maker as well. So, one of the first requirements for a practical modern concert-pitch chanter is that it uses a standard commonly available GHB reed.
None of the dozen or so major pipe-making firms have an A=440 Hz chanter in production, but several smaller firms and individuals have filled this void to one extent or another. We've always been interested in these low-pitched chanters - in fact, the GHB heard on our Bagpipes of the World album is an antique concert-pitch instrument. So, we decided some time ago to offer an A=440 Hz chanter here, but it had to meet a number of specifications. We wanted a Delrin (Polypenco) chanter that can be supplied reliably by a top-notch maker, and (importantly) that uses a standard modern chanter reed. It took a while to find a source, but we succeeded and are now offering such a chanter by the American bagpipe maker MacLellan Bagpipes, a firm well known for their conventional instruments (though the word "conventional" applies here only in regard to overall form and tuning - some of Roddy MacLellan's pipes incorporate decorative work in silver and other materials that makes them fabulously unique).
Possible scenarios begin with just adjusting the pitch of the reeds themselves. That may do the trick, with luck, but perhaps not. It also raises the issue of having to readjust the reeds when switching back to a conventional chanter. As every piper knows, messing around with a working reed (drone or chanter) is risky, and can lead to an attack of the dreaded Reed Horrors, accompanied by hair loss, insomnia and loss of job and friends. So even if your existing reeds can be coaxed into producing a lower pitch, if you're planning to go back and forth a second set of reeds, dedicated to the lower pitch, is perhaps in order.
Next, or rather instead, is the use of drone reed extenders - short tubes that fit between the reed and the reed seat, effectively lengthening the bore (and thus lowering the pitch) without adjusting the reed itself. A set of drone reed extenders can be seen in the photo below. Made by Dunbar, these can be purchased from us. Depending on the pipe it may or may not be necessary to remove these when switching back to the regular Highland pitch chanter. It may be necessary, again depending on the pipe/reed combination, to double-up a set of these to gain enough length to tune down to concert pitch. If reed extenders do the job, they're probably the easiest and cheapest way to go.
Finally, if all else fails, some reed makers now make "oversized" drone reeds designed for concert pitch. We carry these here at the Universe of Bagpipes. A set is shown in the photo below, with a set of regular size reeds on the right for comparison.
(Note: The reeds shown above, by Mark Wygent, are unfortunately no longer available. However, we can provide oversize reed sets by EzeeDrone to do the job. )
The A440 Chanter
In considering a “concert-pitch” chanter it is important to realize that there are significant differences between setting up a pipe chanter to play solo (or setting up matched chanters to play in unison in a band) and setting up a chanter to play at a particular pitch, in this case at A=440 hz.
When setting up a solo chanter all that really matters is that the chanter is in tune with itself - that is, that the intervals between its notes are proportionally correct, and that thus the various notes will be in harmony with the (properly tuned) drones.
The solo piper needs to concern himself only with this “balance” of the chanter. The ideal situation, rarely achieved, is that a particular chanter is balanced as issued by the maker and remains so. But in reality there are a large number of variables that can throw things out of whack. For instance, it is probable that whatever reed the piper is working with differs from the one used by the maker in designing, fabricating and “voicing” the chanter. Then there are environmental factors - altitude/barometric pressure, temperature and humidity all affect not only the reed but also the acoustic properties of the air column inside the chanter. Additionally, playing style - in particular the degree of air pressure supplied by the piper - will create differences. Resonance generated by other parts of the pipe can play a role as well.
Rough balancing can usually be accomplished by moving the reed up and down, because such movement has a greater effect on the high notes than on the low ones. For example, the high and low A can usually be brought into balance by this alone. But the other notes may then require individual attention. That fine balancing process is outlined in my article Tuning the Bagpipe on this site, and is covered in great detail, with full instructions, in the excellent Jim McGillivray videos available through us. It is a logical procedure, and like many things around bagpipes a bit tricky but not inherently very difficult.
But with a concert-pitch chanter yet another factor is introduced. Required here is not only balance but also absolute, fixed pitch. We no longer have the luxury of not caring where the top or bottom pitch ends up, so long as the intervals are correct. So now, for example, the low A cannot be moved up or down in pitch while balancing the chanter - it must stay put, at 440 hz, and everything else must be tuned to it. Some of the usual balancing procedures will not work under that restriction, and the entire process becomes more complex and requires care and patience.
A valuable aid in setting up a concert-pitch chanter, or for that matter in balancing any GHB chanter, is an electronic tuner designed specifically for the Highland bagpipe. An inexpensive tuner such as the Korg 30 is helpful but limited, as its intervals are not appropriate to the Highland scale. Unfortunately, available dedicated bagpipe tuners are very costly, running into hundreds of dollars. However, there is now a low cost alternative that we are experimenting with and plan to review in detail in the future.
Pitch Pipe Bagpipe Tuner
(reduced size screen shot)
This is a very slick software-based tuner called Pitch Pipe Bagpipe Tuner, the work of a brilliant piping software engineer in Ohio, that runs on your desktop or laptop PC, and even on some PDAs. We are not selling this software here, and are not connected to the company - we just think this is one of the best things to come along in quite a while. Pitch Pipe Bagpipe Tuner, including a free trial version, is available directly from the designer’s Web site at pitchpipetuner.com. Let us know what you think of it, and have fun!
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We can offer modest discounts on quantity purchases of some items - feel free to inquire.
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International Shipping: If you're not in the US or at a US military address, please email us for shipping options and costs. We ship something overseas just about every day, so we can offer advice based on experience. We send most medium-size packages (practice chanter outfits, electronic pipes, Kitchen Pipes, etc.) by postal Global Priority Mail, which costs only very slightly more than ordinary airmail and is safe and fast.
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Universe of Bagpipes
P.O. Box 447
Albion, California 95410
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Always feel free to ask questions and thanks for your interest!