Drone tuning is actually a reasonably simple process, not a mystic art. Yet I see so many pipers, including many A grade soloists, who approach it in a way that makes no sense and often produces poor results.
This post is about common mistakes in the drone tuning process, not a tutorial on how to tune drones.
Over the years, I have watched many soloists learning to tune their drones and others who are experienced at it. It always surprises me how experienced players can make it look so complicated and how those learning find it so challenging (partly because experienced players make it look so complicated).
There is only one goal in drone tuning: to ensure each of the drones is sounding an ‘A’, pitched to exactly fit with low ‘A’ on the pipe chanter and therefore with each other.
Anything else you do while tuning drones is generally about testing your blowing pressure, checking instrument stability, chanter tuning and/or feeling “at ease” with the instrument before performing. Most pipers play “tuning phrases” while tuning their drones – this is for those latter reasons, not for actually tuning their drones.
So, if that’s the goal, where do pipers go wrong?
Some common mistakes
1. Never playing a long enough, uninterrupted low ‘A’ to actually hear if the drones are in tune with it.
In this mistake, the low ‘A’s played while tuning drones are either extremely brief (perhaps half a second) or are continuously interrupted by classy sounding embellishments, such as birls and repeated grace notes. This issue is common in A grade solos I have judged.You need to play a totally uninterrupted low ‘A’ for at least a couple of seconds for your ear to detect the variations you are listening for. And as you get very close to being in tune, even longer.
2. Not trusting your ear.
I have watched learners tuning their drones and sometimes they get the first tenor droned tuned just spot on – but because they can no longer hear the drone sound fluctuations that come from being out of tune, they think they must be wrong and I have watched many set about UN-tuning that drone so that they can hear it. Once your ear tells you the fluctuations are gone, trust your ear – it is (most likely) in tune.
3. Tuning to notes other than ‘A’.
I have seen pipers in upper grade solos tuning with excruciating thoroughness to ‘C’ or ‘D’. In these cases, the instrument is invariably not accurately tuned with ‘A’. In THEORY, tuning to ‘C’ should work (not so much ‘D’), but in practice, by setting your drones to ‘A’ by harmonically matching with ‘C’ inevitably means you will relegate the setting of your low ‘A’ to be part of chanter tuning, which is far from desirable. Low ‘A’ should be the base for everything else you do in tuning your instrument.
4. Tuning low ‘A’ by moving chanter tape after drones are tuned
On one occasion, I saw an A grade soloist tune drones without listening to very much low ‘A’ and then finish by tuning low ‘A’ to the drones by moving chanter tape. Compared with tuning drones with the tuning slides on the drones, this is a very coarse adjustment and unlikely to readily produce an accurate result. Well, guess what – it didn’t.
5. Tuning accurately before the instrument is warmed up
Playing a bagpipe with drones untuned is an unpleasant experience, for piper as well as listeners. I always tune my drones as a first step before playing my pipes. But while they are still not warmed up and settled, I don’t go for the finest of accuracy, because this is a self-defeating exercise. If you take the time to do accurate tuning at this stage, by the time you have finished tuning your drones, your chanter is likely to have shifted its pitch enough for you to be (accurately) out of tune already. Get them reasonably tuned first go round, then after 5 or 10 minutes playing, it makes sense to go for more accuracy.
6. Tuning 2nd and 3rd drones before the 1st is tuned correctly – the “creeping cacophony”
I often watch pipers tuning their drones and they get the first drone ALMOST right, but actually it did really need to be a bit better. Then I watch them try to tune their bass drone to that and hear how it all sounds against low ‘A’ – not very good, but “It must be good because the two drones are together”. Then finally the third drone is introduced and it’s almost impossible to get it set right, because the sound of the other drones against low ‘A’ is just not good. The first drone needs to be at least close enough to support how accurately you want your total drone set to be tuned.
7. Tuning another piper’s drones with your ear right next to the drone being adjusted
Drone tuning is based on hearing the way two sounds work with each other, such as the sound of low ‘A’ with the first tenor drone being tuned. If your ear is so much closer to one than to the other, it is difficult to hear how the two sounds are mixing together. Stand back a little from both sounds – if tuning two tenor drones, stand away a little, and roughly between them.
8. Moving the tuning slides too little at a time
Learners often believe they need to take VERY small adjustments at a time when tuning drones. It’s very hard to hear changes to how the drones are interacting with each other if you move the tuning slides in excruciatingly small steps.Over time, one learns how much is a good amount to move a tuning slide at a time, but don’t be afraid to take reasonable sized steps – let’s say 3-5mm at a time to start with.
There’s a broader piece of learning in this discussion. It is very unwise to do what the expert players do unless you understand WHY they do it and can see WHY it makes sense for you to do it. Even if it works for them, sometimes this is by luck rather than design. It’s not a given that the “skilled” players get everything right all the time. Furthermore, what works for them may not work for you.
As an example, I tune my drones without stopping any of them and usually produce a good result. But this approach is a hangover from an era of all cane drone reeds and probably isn’t that relevant nowadays. I do not suggest anyone copy my drone tuning process.