Time and time again I marvel at the novel and illogical processes pipers adopt for solo drone tuning, including in the highest solo grades. In many cases, they get their drones in tune more by luck than by design – or they fail to get their drones properly in tune. Here I present three different processes which I believe totally logical and reliable in getting drones in tune. I am sure there are others, but I also see many that just don’t make sense.
Firstly, it’s important to understand the goal of a drone tuning exercise. The goal of tuning a set of drones is to end up with all three drones playing an ‘A’, the tenor drones exactly one octave below low ‘A’ on the chanter and the bass drone one octave below that. Any consideration of blending with other notes on the chanter (even high ‘A’) is a CHANTER tuning topic, not drones. Yes, soloists, including myself, play all sorts of tuning phrases when warming up and tuning – but listening to any note other than low ‘A’ (even high ‘A’) against the drones is a CHANTER tuning activity.
Secondly, it’s important to understand that the tuning of a drone to play an ‘A’ is a very simple thing – there is no mystique or magic sound to listen for. When two sounds are playing an identical note, or a note exactly one or more octaves apart, they have a constant sound; when they are slightly different, they will go “wah-wah-wah” (for the physicists, these are interference “beats”). When the two sounds are a long way different, they will go “wah-wah-wah” a lot faster. So, to get two notes to match, you need to move one pitch so that the “wah-wah”s slow down and then STOP. I now describe that point where they stop (not ALMOST stop, but completely stop) as sounding “black”. You are not listening for a particular sound – you are listening for a complete LACK or ABSENCE of the sound of “wah-wah”s.
And a third and final tip. When you are moving a drone slide, play a high ‘A’ while your bottom hand is off the chanter. Other notes can produce “wah-wah” effects which may distract you from the real job. Also, make sure you maintain normal blowing pressure and the chanter sounding while moving slides. Even though you are not actually listening for a “wah-wah” sound while moving the slide, a flat high ‘A’ can influence your movement of the slide and just make the process more difficult.
The three processes I describe here are suited to the following situations
- A general process suitable for anyone who can readily reach their drones.
- A process designed for those who can’t easily reach the top of their bass drone to stop it.
- A process for those experienced and capable at tuning drones and who, like me, prefer never to stop a drone.
Process #1 – a general process for most pipers
Step #1 – get a tenor drone in tune with low ‘A’. I normally do this with the outside tenor, but it really doesn’t matter which tenor drone is first.
To do this, stop the other two drones and play low ‘A’. If there are no “wah-wah”s, the drone is in tune. If there are some “wah-wah”s, the drone is not yet in tune, so play high “A” and move the drone slide. (You can figure out which way – up or down – to move the slide by varying your blowing pressure, but trial and error works fine and the pressure based approach is perhaps a more advanced topic.) Then play low ‘A’ again – no birls, grace notes or “fiddly bits” – just a long low ‘A’. If there are no “wah-wah”s, the drone is in tune. If there are “wah-wah”s, the drone slide needs further movement. Play high ‘A’ and do it all again.
Keep doing this until there are no “wah-wah”s when you play low ‘A’. When the “wah-wah”s are gone, the drone is in tune – i.e. it is playing a true ‘A’, matching the low ’A’ of your chanter.
Step #2 – start the bass drone, leaving one tenor stopped. Play high ‘A’ and adjust the bass drone until the “wah-wah”s disappear. You don’t need to test it with low ‘A’, because you are hearing the “wah-wah”s made with the tenor drone, which you have already tuned to ‘A’. The bass drone is now playing a matching ‘A’.
Step #3 – start the middle tenor drone, play high ‘A’ and adjust the middle tenor’s tuning slide until the “wah-wah”s disappear. You don’t need to test it with low ‘A’, because you are hearing the “wah-wah”s made with the other two drones, which you have already tuned to ‘A’. This drone is now playing a matching ‘A’.
Step #4 – check how it all sounds with low ‘A’. If it sounds “black” (no “wah-wah”s), congratulations – good job. If not, either you did not complete the above steps correctly, or your chanter has changed pitch during the time you spent tuning. Note – the biggest cause I come across for a set of drones being out of tune using this process is the first tenor drone not being tuned correctly to low ‘A’ – you must get rid of the “wah-wah”s completely before proceeding to the other drones.
Process #2 – for those who can’t reach the top of their bass drone
It is best to read and understand how to do process #1 before reading about process #2.
Step #1 – stop one tenor drone
Step #2 – play high ‘A’ and move the bass drone to match the sounding tenor drone (get rid of the “wah-wah”s happening between the two drones).
Step #3 – play low ‘A’ and test for “wah-wahs”s. If there are still some “wah-wah”s, move the tenor drone slide and go back to step #2. Do it all over and over until there are no “wah-wah”s when listening to low ‘A’.
Step #4 – start the other tenor drone, play high ‘A’ and adjust that tenor drone until the “wah-wah”s are gone.
Step #5 – check how it all sounds with low ‘A’. If it sounds “black” (no “wah-wah”s), congratulations – good job. If not, either you did not complete the above steps correctly, or your chanter has changed pitch during the time you spent tuning.
Process #3 – for experienced drone tuners
This process allows tuning to be done without stopping any drones. This was how I learned to do it when drone reeds were all made of cane. I have always assumed the reason to do it this way was because, when you stop a drone reed, it actually changes the characteristics of the reed slightly by holding the tongue firmly against the body of the reed while you are tuning. This may have been the case with cane reeds more so than the modern plastic reeds. It may then take a minute or so for the reed tongue to free itself up again once restarted.
This process also has the advantage of all drones being adjusted right through the tuning process, so the effect of chanter pitch change is minimised.
Step #1 – play high ‘A’ and tune the two tenor drones together – you need to develop an ability to ignore the “wah-wah”s coming from the bass drone’s involvement to do this.
Step #2 – keep playing high ’A’ and tune the bass drone in with the tenors. At this point, all drones are playing the same note, but maybe not yet an ‘A’.
Step #3 – play low ‘A’ and listen for the “wah-wah”s. If there are some, play high ‘A’ and move a tenor drone slide. Go back to step #1 and do it all again. If there are no “wah-wah”s, you’re done – enjoy. Make sure you play a long, clean low ‘A’ when listening for the “wah-wah”s.
As I said at the start, there are other processes you could use to tune drones. However, before you decide on one, make sure you can see how all drones end up being matched to an ‘A’ by the process. Otherwise, your chances of getting a good result are not high.