Carving Chanter Holes

 

A Letter On Carving Chanter Fingerholes

 

(This article is from http://www.hotpipes.com/tuning.html.)


On December 21, 2004 we received the following interesting letter from piper Andrew Fuller of Adelaide, Australia regarding our now-modified blanket recommendation in this essay to not carve chanter holes in order to achieve desired tuning:

Dear Sirs,

I read Mr Seeler's article "Tuning the Bagpipe" with great interest. It is indeed a well researched article and is also very entertaining and witty. Thank you.

I'd like to make one comment, however, regarding your statement that "many chanters" have been ruined by carving/removing material from the holes and that carving should be avoided. No doubt many chanters have been ruined by excessive practices, however from a band perspective my experience with carving holes has been a very rewarding one and I'd encourage you to research this more as you will discover it is 'the norm' in this day and age.

I've played with several grade one pipe bands, most notably Victoria Police Pipe Band (1998 World Pipe Band Champions), and the tune-up regime has, with a few subtle differences, been the same in every band. Victoria Police (Vic Pol) was regarded as having a very "broad", "accurate" and "powerful" sound and yet we didn't play 'big' gut-buster reeds. The power of the sound came from the accuracy of tuning and the harmonics we achieved.

It has been my experience that every top grade band, for as long as I can remember, has carved holes (mostly undercut) to achieve the desired tuning. This practice, in the hands of the right person, is very effective and quite safe. When Strathclyde Police were dominating the pipe band scene their Sinclair chanters had holes that were so big one could barely cover them and yet the sound was sweet and deadly accurate.

The Sinclair chanters (at Vic Pol), after individual testing, were carved typically on B, C, D, a bit on E, F and a bit on High A. The other notes were typically needing to be flattened once the 'balance' of each chanter had been identified. The carving was overdone to allow for some scope to further sharpen the note by lifting the tape. Tape was then used to control the size of every hole and we would then seat the reed in its optimal position to ensure that

holes were not over-taped
tape coverage was relatively equal on each hole
the chanter felt and sounded 'free' and vibrant
the scale was harmonically accurate against the drones
desired pitch was achieved

Those responsible for tuning the Vic Pol pipe corps would always tune their chanters against their drones to get the intervals correct and a harmonic effect on every note. Electronic tuners were never used to set notes on the scale, it was always done by ear. Tuners were only used for setting the drones of the whole pipe corps en masse.

Carving holes also enabled the band to work around variable playing conditions (ie wet, cold, hot, dry etc.) but note due to the design and physics of the chanter (thicker walls at the top and thinner walls at the bottom), temperature is conducted at differing rates eg the bottom hand will usually change quicker than the top hand due to there being less material therefore faster conductivity of temperature. In fact, all notes move at differing rates due to the taper of the internal bore of the chanter which gradually thins the walls towards the bottom. This is why tuning to Low A, when the pipes have come straight out of the box, can be risky (especially in cold conditions). Low A (bottom hand in general) climbs in pitch quite quickly during the initial warm-up period and this can result in 'tail-chasing' if the piper is inexperienced and has put all his or her eggs in the Low A basket - ie they tune to Low A but the top hand sounds sharp against the drones so they tape-down the top hand notes without realising the bottom hand is actually flat (but won't be for long!) which eventually results in a bottom hand that then gets up to running temperature (and would have balanced-up with the top hand had it been left to settle) and a top hand that is now flat (because it was flattened when it was actually more accurate than the bottom hand in the beginning). Sometimes E is a better reference point when first starting up as it rarely changes at the rate of Low A due to there being more timber/material at that point of the chanter. It also allows the piper to gain a better appreciation as he or she can hear the bottom hand coming up to meet the drones that are tuned to E as they warm-up their pipes.

There are no two reeds alike but generally speaking there is a certain position in the reed seat that will best suit a particular reed/chanter marriage. The opposing view (of driving a reed into the seat to lift certain notes and to avoid carving) can have a dampening effect on the overall tone of the chanter. This is because the reed can sometimes be 'strangled' and cannot vibrate as freely if it is seated well into the throat of the chanter. It can also lead to that dreaded double tone on F that pipers fear.

Carving holes allows each individual note to be isolated from the others and enables accurate and fast tuning with more options available at the time as opposed to uncarved holes that still ultimately rely on reed manipulation. In Vic Pol we almost forgot what our chanter reeds looked like because it was virtually all done with tape, 'cold steel' and a reed of good tonal quality. Furthermore, the less tampering with a reed the more likely it is to last longer than a reed that is constantly handled, plus it is more likely to remain stable and reliable and in the end that's what this caper is all about.

I've done my best to make sense but it's a topic that always promotes healthy debate. This subject can also indicate the 'vintage' of each of the protagonists. I've always subscribed to the 'horses for courses' debate when it comes to solos but for bands I have experienced the pinnacle and would not sway my views.

I hope this has provided another point of view.

Cheers and good piping!

Regards

Andrew Fuller
Adelaide, Australia