The Great Highland Bagpipe

Originally published by Bandwidth Magazine. Cowritten by Chris Scharf.

There are a lot of negative stereotypes about bagpipes. For some it is simply the tone, which is often compared to a screeching cat. An out of tune screeching cat, to be exact. For some it has more to do with musical style; the thought of bagpipes conjuring images from a march or dirge. For some its simply the thought of a war-painted Mel Gibson who may or may not be wearing anything underneath his man-skirt, or “kilt”, as Scotsmen generally prefer.

These days, however, bagpipes are both used for traditional and modern music, appearing as featured or regular instruments in many bands including Korn, Mudmen, the Dropkick Murphys, and ACDC.

The instrument itself is more complex than many others. The chanter is the melody-maker of the bagpipes. It has ten holes that create the scale from high A to low G. It contains a double-bladed reed made primarily of cane that vibrates to create sound. The tuning is adjusted by moving the reed to either lengthen or shorten the air path. However, to tune single notes rather than the entire instrument, holes can be adjusted with tape or, as a last resort, physically gauged.

The long pipes that sit on the shoulder are the drones; two tenors that play the chanter’s lowest G, and a bass plays the same note an octave lower. They have cane or synthetic reeds (synthetic stands up better to extreme temperatures) that consists of a tongue, body, and end screw.

The tongue vibrates, causing a steady tone, and can be changed in both pitch and strength by lengthening or shortening the amount of tongue that vibrates. The body is hollowed out to allow air to flow through, and holds the tongue in place with a bridal. The end screw allows you to adjust the pitch of the reed by either screwing it in to shorten the reed, or unscrewing it, lengthening the reed and flattening the sound. Any adjustment will cause the drone to tune differently, so each drone reed needs to be tuned individually but in such a way as to keep it equal to the others.

The bag itself was traditionally made from the skin of goats, sheep, cows, and even dogs, stretched and saddle-stitched to create an air-tight reservoir. These days the material is rarely made from animal skin, although there are still bags being made of cowhide with an inner liner. The majority of modern bags are made of Gore-Tex, which can stretch while remaining air tight and waterproof.

Some bags also come with a moisture control system inside the bag to maintain the correct moisture and humidity levels via a box that contains a moisture-absorbant material such as kitty litter. While effective, it does nothing to ameliorate the cat comparisons.

The final component is the self-explanitory blow pipe, which allows the piper to fill the bag with the air necessary to create sound. While originally the player would have to trap the air with their tongue while inhaling, modern blow pipes have a valve to trap the air inside.

The drones, blow pipe, and chanter are all made of the same material, most often African Blackwood due to its density. It provides a warmth and power that is desirable to pipers, but is very expensive. A less expensive alternative is a plastic called Polypenco, which is of a similar density.

Since sound comes out of both the chanter and drones, recording a piper requires two microphones. Producer Dan Brodbeck has a very elegant, refined method, recommending that they be recorded “outside and as far away as humanly possible”.

For engineers who actually want to be able to hear the instrument in the recording, the chanter can be recorded with a Rode NT-1 for a bright sound, a Shure SM57B for warmth, or a Studio Projects C1 to emphasize crispness and clarity. For the drones, an ATM 125, Studio Project C4, or Rode NT-5 works nicely when placed 6″ from the bass drone to capture both the instrument and some room tone.

The distinctive timbre of bagpipes is the factor that brings both distinction and, at times, dislike. They have a unique sound that, it seems, you either love or hate. While derogatory descriptions abound among dissenters, the cat comparisons are completely unfounded. Bagpipes create a rich, warm, polyphonic sound that can be held indefinitely with correct air management techniques. Cats, on the other hand, periodically must stop their screeching in order to breathe.

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