Articles in this series tell about the experiments carried out by the early New Zealand pioneers in this field. Very few had the formal training in instrument making to know instinctively which timber is the best; what bore sizes are best for the stocks, drones and chanters; what relationship is there between the differing diameters of these parts and what length should each section be? The mechanics of actually using the machinery to make the parts is relatively simple once we have determined the answers to the above questions.
If we have an abundance of time, timber and an exceptionally fine ear we can carry out our own experiments to achieve the optimum dimensions for that magical sound that is going to set the piping world abuzz. Alas, all too often one or more of these resources is missing and we have to rely on other people’s initiatives.
One legacy the earlier manufacturers have left us, both Scottish and non-Scottish, is their instruments. We all have our favourite looking and sounding instrument and it is natural to want to copy it if we are to dip our toe into the turgid waters of bagpipe making.
At this point the writer wishes to discuss some of the observations and experiments he has been involved with. Many of the people who have been discussed in this series of articles, or who will be discussed in future editions, have been living sources of information. They have been only too willing to pass it on to anyone who is prepared to listen and take it in.
There are also the many relatives and friends of those who have since passed on who have freely given whatever information they have. To these people, whom the writer is honoured to have known, he wishes to acknowledge their input. He hopes that in this article, and others before and after, some of their spirit and ideas can be captured.
During the 1976 National Pipe Band Championships at Wellington, whilst the writer, a member of the Wellington Police Pipe Band, an impromptu ceilidh took place in the Police Pipe Band room in Vivian Street. Most of the band members were present along with Donald Bain, Stewart Cheyne of Rangiora and the late Allan Dodd of Dunedin.
Doddzie, Donald and Stewart were some of a number of people who played the writer’s 1951 Lawrie bagpipe and the most revealing point was each person who played achieved a different ‘sound’ from the same instrument. At the time it was a little puzzling but similar episode over the ensuing years have proven to the writer that even the best instrument is reliant upon the way that the player sets it up and blows it.
At about the same time a Morris Mini owned by the writer developed a hole in the muffler.
This made the car sound ‘racy’ and was allowed to continue until the increasing noise necessitated a new exhaust system. The most noticeable result of this, besides the silence, was a marked improvement in engine performance and fuel consumption. It is not difficult to understand that the engine was designed to have an exhaust system of a certain length and diameter to produce the best performance. Any changes to that will affect the back pressure within the engine and change the quality of performance.
Exactly the same thing happens in the bagpipe drone; as we move the drone up or down, besides changing the pitch, the sound quality changes. All top pipers will have the drone tuning as high up on the slide as possible because the quality of sound is so much better.
Bagpipe manufacturers obtain their own general ‘sound’ by the combination of diameters and lengths of all the sections that make up the drone: this includes the stock. If anyone wishes to modify any of these dimensions, they may do so but there is a limit to how far they can go.
Many pipers have had the drones modified to make them ‘sound like Henderson’s’. It is disputable as to whether this actually happens but there is no doubt that the pipe is still playable. The writer has seen drones where someone has gone too far, and the pipe becomes unplayable; the reeds simply will not go.
One such set came into the writer’s possession some years ago; they once belonged to the late Bob MacLeod of Auckland and were purchased second-hand in the mid 1890’s by his father.
The drones had a number of splits and the bores had been enlarged to the point that it was impossible to determine the original dimensions: they were unplayable. Jack Phillips of Auckland was contracted to repair the drones and restore the bores. All four-tenor drone and the lower two base drone sections were re-sleeved with pacsilon and bored to Henderson dimensions.
The quality of workmanship was first class, and the instrument was at last playable. In the writer’s opinion the quality of the sound was not pleasant; others confirmed this opinion. It was decided that nothing would be lost if experiments were carried out by making new sections to see if the quality of sound could be improved.
One of the best drone sounds that the writer has heard is from a set of MacDougall’s that he had on loan from Charlie Wynd of Papatoetoe, ex Pipe Sergeant in the Black Watch. It is believed that they were made by Duncan MacDougall of Aberfeldy and are now owned by Lewis Turrell of Auckland. The bore dimensions from this instrument were the ones used in the following experiments.
The lower sections of the tenor drones were remade using ebony; the bore is slightly larger than the Henderson and this made no appreciable difference to the sound quality. This proved to the writer that there was little difference between the quality of sound from pacsilon and ebony despite his earlier misgivings. The large bore of the upper section was modified and once again no discernible difference resulted. The tuning pin hole was then resleeved with brass and again no obvious change occurred.
The stocks had previously been replaced and the only part that had not been changed was the inside of the bell at the top of the drone. Special tooling was made up to hold the drone section so that the bell could be bored out in the lathe; a new bell was shaped to the same internal dimensions as the MacDougall’s and inserted into the prepared hole. The result was a dramatic improvement in the sound quality; through a process of simple elimination and experiment a sound had been achieved that is acceptable to at least one person.
It may be argued that the outer surface of the drone sections and the silver and ivory are the only original parts left. This is true but at least the pipe is now playable and that is precisely what the instrument is made for.
For each new part made there was at least one thrown in the rubbish bin. Experimentation can be a costly and time-consuming process. The boring of the internal dimensions is relatively simple in comparison to achieving a good quality finish on the external surfaces. Most bagpipe repairers agree on this point.
There are many people in New Zealand who are carrying out similar tests. Some of them are making bagpipes; others are repairing them, and others still are just plain curious. As time goes on it is hoped that some of their findings can be brought to notice in this excellent magazine.
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