We have all heard the perfect set of drones, being played by a truly great piper, with chanter and drones set up, tuned, and being blown perfectly. To take the music to this level takes years of practice and study. It also takes considerable skill and talent. You may not be able to take your instrument quite to those levels however you can tune your chanter and drones to a very respectable degree just by following a few basic principles and by practicing regularly.
Tuning is not just about drones and it's not just about the chanter. It's about both and it's about a whole lot more. It's about the bag; it's about what's in your bag (canisters and ehnancers and plugs and whatever!); it's about our reeds and the make of your bagpipe and how you blow and how you feel on a given day. Tuning is very personal and is a direct expression of the pipers.
We will assume that your chanter is in perfect tune, although I'm not sure how to achieve this without constant reference to drones that are perfectly in tune and rock steady. We have covered how to set-up a chanter earlier and we should probably bridge that page with this one.
Tuning drones is nothing more that blowing your bagpipe to pitch and then adjusting your drones to produce a harmonic sound that blends perfectly with your chanter and with each other. In the simplest example, you want to eliminate all of the "wha wha" that the drone produces when out of tune. In a more sophisticated sense you want to create a wall of sound that envelopes the piper.
Never try to tune your drones without sounding the chanter fully. Make sure your chanter is fully blown and then listen and adjust your drone.
The sound off your bass drone is the most important of the three drones. It needs to be rich, full, warm, and dynamic. Search for a bagpipe with a superior bass drone and then search for a reed that brings out the best. Don't be afraid to try a cane bass reed. You'll be surprised!
Play simple tunes that allow you to listen to the harmonics while tuning. If required to blow a single note (most often Low A) most pipers will blow flat. If you tune the drone to a bagpipe that's being blow flat, what happens when they blow up-to-pitch? You've got it! The drones are out-of-tune!
The picture above. Games day in Waukesha, WI with Celtic Nations Pipe Band. I've played my bagpipe to the point where everything is settled, tuned my drones, and now the pitch is being checked by PM Ken Heeshen on an old Korg tuning meter. Next the band will play simple 4/4 marches while Ken goes around the circle and, using the tuning meter, tunes all the drones to the same pitch.
Now go back and listen to some of the sound files for SJNMA Pipe Band. This was extremely challenging as warm-up time was minimal. It was necessary to pre-tune each bagpipe prior to the boys rushing into the room before a performance. It was a bit of a guessing game as I would tune the drones to a particular pitch that I thought we would achieve. The boys would come in, we'd have a quick tune or two, I'd do one final tuning of the drones and we'd be gone. Of course, in a competition level band, much more time and care is taken to achieve the proper chanter and drone sound around the circle.
The two sound files above are with the Niagara Regional Police Pipe Band, the best "tone" band I played with over the years. These clips were recorded in 2000 and we were a band of old men. I think the cummulative years experience among the pipers was about 450. We stopped counting when it got embarassing. Anyway, PM Al Ash and the entire team did a great job cranking out a fabulous sound week in and week out. Perhaps not as refined as bands today, but rich and powerful. I think my proudest moment came in 2000 when we marched up to the line playing 6/8 Kenny MacLeod. The sound was spectacular. I remember Ian Speirs standing on the sidelines as we passed yelling to his bandmate to shut up and listen. It was a privilege to stand in that circle. I know all of us wished we'd had a few years back, but still is was a pretty good run.
I stumbled upon the "script" for our "beers and cheers" performance at Schenectady in 1999. We were generally ill-prepared and used the trip down to put something together. This year we tried something different that went like this...
"Dancers - enter with Bolero, tossing flower petals. Dance to Willie Tait and John Patterson. Pauline will dance solo to drummers fanfare. (whips crowd into frenzy). All dancers join in for Clumsy Lover. All Dancers join in for Strathspeys ‘n Reels.
Band exits with Summerside. Drink beer. Collect money. Get on bus. Drink more beer."
That pretty much sums it up.