(See also Explanations and Options, Articles and Notes for Newbies)
The uillean pipes are one of the most vibrantly satisfying instruments, and one of the most difficult to play and maintain. If one is dedicated and proceeds intelligently with proper guidance, one can make steady progress and enjoy a quality experience of a profoundly rich tradition. Also, this is perhaps the best time ever to take up the uillean pipes in terms of availability of pipes and knowledgeable help. (See Notes for Newbies)
Any musical experience will be helpful and knowledge of related instruments, although potentially confusing initially, can be a great help in the face of what, for many, is overwhelming. One of the main challenges in switching from another related instrument is to apply one’s self sufficiently to the stylistic differences. For example, I recommend mastering “closed” playing early on to break the habit of the “open” technique of these other instruments. As another example, the angular style of Highland piping may need to be revised in the light of the more flowing swing of Irish music.
I started with a Rowsome chanter design and drones and regulators designed after scrutinizing many sets. Over the years, I made alterations in an attempt to fix small but chronic problems. A few years ago, I decided to reassess the chanter design and went back to measurements of Liam O Flionn’s Rowsome chanter from a drawing by the original owner, Sean Reid. I reintegrated this into a new design based on all my experience to date.
I have always aspired to a high level of aesthetic and ergonomic elegance with an eye to minimalism. This affords an unusual level of symmetry and lightweight playability. I’ve maintained a vision of professionalism in design, workmanship and attention to detail that, until recently, was rare among pipemakers. I have also not shied away from innovation. My many years as a professional piper lend insight into the practical considerations of the demanding player. Examples of this are the tuning slides on the chanter and regulator reed seats (including an extended one incorporated into a removable reed compartment on the bass regulator), the quick release clips on the bellows straps, the twist style shut off valve on the chanter top, the oversized ergonomically shaped stitched leather bag, ergonomic chanter hole placement and scalloping, chanter key placement optimized for convenience and speed, trombone style tuning slides on the larger drones, an A drone with separate switch, an E key on the baritone regulator and wooden dowel type drone reeds. Some of these are subtle improvements; some are more significant, while many prove invaluable in the face of day to day, professional level piping.
My chanters are designed with a slightly slower taper in the bore, leaving the upper bore a little more open than most, stabilizing the back D and facilitating tuning of the second octave. The tuning slide also affects the accessibility of the “hard” D. The holes are on the large side of normal, allowing for variations in fingering without throwing off the tuning, enabling a wide range of tonal expression. (See Explanations and Options)
Although there are some subtle qualities that will follow a chanter through different reeds or a given reed adjusted differently, they are primarily eclipsed by reed variability. It is quite easy to adjust a reed to be loud or soft and/or bright or mellow. My chanters are no different in this way. My reeds are more carefully made than most and consequently will sound less muffled than some. With proper adjustment they can be sweet yet vibrantly rich. Whereas a few advanced pipers prefer extremely hard resistant reeds, many neophytes prefer reeds that are too easy and lacking in depth and stability. A certain amount of body is necessary for dynamic expression and certain techniques like staccato in the first octave lower hand. It is not necessary for a reed to be intrinsically resistant, though. I prefer reeds that are responsive but gutsy. My reeds can be easily adjusted for any preference. (See Notes for Newbies)
Reed styles vary tremendously. Thirty years ago, the reeds I saw most often were quite similar to mine, in that they had relatively small thin heads. In recent years, other reed styles have become popular. As an example, Paddy Keenan’s reeds evolved in a context necessitating few tools and large tolerances, producing a massive reed. In theory, with experience, any reed style can be made to work. The most oft quoted peculiarity of my reeds is the lack of a collar. This is much less significant than typically imagined. It is a minor preference of mine, fitting into my minimalist inclinations, and has very little bearing on anything. Adjustments in reponse are made by simply squeezing the lips or sides with the fingers. There are some who believe that it is impossible to make a properly tuned reed using a reed staple out of commercially made tubing. Countless successful reeds to the contrary, the proof is in the pudding. Many times I have successfully fit one of my own reeds to a reputable chanter from another maker. Although hand rolled staples certainly work, they are clearly unnecessary. (See Articles and Notes for Newbies)
A reed can last indefinitely if left in unchanging moderate humidity and temperature. This is rarely the case. The demanding piper will require small but regular adjustments to the reeds to keep the pipes in ideal tune, tone and responsiveness throughout atmospheric changes. It is these changes, coupled with the skilled or unskilled attempts to correct for them that take their toll. The longest time I’ve had a chanter reed before deciding to replace it was seven years. Most of my drone and regulator reeds, however, have been with me for the bulk of my 30 years as a piper. (See Notes for Newbies)
There is no particular advantage to playing left-handed even if you are left-handed. The only conceivable reason might be if you are already accustomed to playing left handed on some related instrument like the whistle or flute. Even if that is the case, given that instruments must be made especially for left handed playing, it is in your interest to accustom yourself to playing right handed. In any case, it is possible for us to make them either way.
At first, fingering a chanter of any size is awkward for everyone. However, even children can get accustomed to playing a normal sized chanter, given time. Although flat-pitched chanters are significantly longer and demand a larger stretch, I’ve seen 12 year olds playing C and B chanters effectively. It simply takes getting used to.
The keys that are most convenient on a given chanter are that of the tonic (D for a D chanter) and the 4th (G for a D chanter) as well as the related minors and modes of those two keys: E minor, A minor, B minor, D mixolydian (major 3rd, flatted 7th) and A mixolydian. Irish musicians use “minor” to refer to the Dorian mode which flats the 3rd and 7th. The C key (referring to the lever, not the scale) allows you to play the second octave C natural, which doesn't expand the keys available. The G# key allows you to play in A major. The F key allows you to play in D minor. Assuming a D chanter, these are the convenient, likely expressions given the traditional context. The Bb key is the odd man out in that it rarely comes up in a traditional context. It does surface occasionally, perhaps in playing in G minor. Accordion players and fiddlers sometimes play in odd keys because they can. It is not convenient to function this way on the pipes, although in theory, one can play in any key on a fully keyed chanter, scale range issues aside.
Having said all that, a keyed C# chanter would conveniently play, in order of ease, C# major and mixolydian, F# major, D# minor, G# minor and mixolydian, A# minor, then G# major, C# minor, then F# minor lastly. Transposing this down another half step, a keyed C chanter would play, in order of ease, C major and mixolydian, F major, D minor, G minor and mixolydian, A minor, then G major, C minor, then F minor lastly. Transposing this down another half step, a keyed B chanter would play, in order of ease, B major and mixolydian, E major, C# minor, F# minor and mixolydian, G# minor, then F# major, B minor, then E minor lastly. Transposing this down one more half step for a Bb chanter, you would get, in the same order of convenience, Bb major and mixolydian, Eb major, C minor, F minor and mixolydian, G minor, then F major, Bb minor, and then Eb minor. Bb is the lowest key that chanters are generally made. Got all that?
A few things to bear in mind are:
Miking the chanter in the middle, around the G hole, and 20 degrees off axis to the piper's right will minimize air blasts from the holes and balance the back D with the front holes better while still pointing away from monitors and mains.
Different mics have different off axis characteristics/colorations. The safe thing to do is to use them on axis.
Due to phase conflicts and off axis response, the fewer mics the less confused the sound. Thusly, it may be preferable to use one mic for the whole thing in quiet circumstances and two mics in most situations - one on the chanter and one on the drones, with the regulators being picked up by both.
Most mics as well as PA speakers have a significant peak in the low to mid treble from 2-10 Khz. that will make a bright chanter cut through like a serrated edged knife to the ear. There are a few notable exceptions. Bringing these frequencies down a few db with the sweepable mid EQ set to 8-10 Khz can leave it nice and warm and still airy on the very top. This also works well for drones if you don't want them too buzzy.
Omni mics have a more natural frequency response and fewer colorations but are a problem on stage as opposed to recording. Cardioid mics may be less colored than hyper-cardioids.
Monitor placement in relation to mic placement is critical. Also, minimizing monitor level is critical to sound quality as well as feedback.
Keep the drones out of the monitor because you don't need to hear them to hear what you’re playing. I n noisy situations tune by pressing your ear to the bag.
For live applications I use three mics from Crown, an LM 301A for talking/vocal/whistle/flute, a modified GLM 200 for the chanter and a GLM 100E for the drones. The LM 301A is a hypercardioid, small diaphragm electret condenser on its own gooseneck that I mount directly onto a short 26” stand with a small base. It has very clear natural sound, good directionality, and comes with a unique pop filter and built in cable with low cut switch. The GLM 200 is also a hypercardioid, small diaphragm electret condenser with captured cord which I have modified for a flat, smooth response. I clip it onto a cable clip, right on the vocal mic stand at mid chanter level. The GLM 100E is an omni version of the 200 with it’s own battery supply that I make myself using premium parts. I clip it onto the middle regulator tuning-pin or onto the bass drone slide. Taking care to avoid the direct wind flow of either the bass or baritone drones. I am able to keep the circuit extremely simple by running it on batteries, single-ended, omni, thus allowing for extremely transparent sound at a low price. It is also excellent for fiddles, as an internal guitar mic, or for recording almost anything. Since it is omni directional, care must be taken to keep it out of the monitor mix, as well as away from any monitor speaker. The 200 can be used instead for feed back prone situations. The GLM200 is also excellent for clipping directly onto accordions. This configuration is very lightweight, compact, low profile and excellent sounding at a relatively low cost and fits easily into my pipe case.
For recording, the recommendation is context dependant. The AKG Blue line is very good for the price and very transparent and neutral sounding. A coincident stereo pair of the cardioid version placed about one foot in front and slightly to the player’s right of the chanter picks up a nice natural image of the entire set. I mostly record with a Crown SASSP stereo mic custom modified by me, with built in mic preamp.
All these mics and more, as well as other home and pro audio equipment are available for purchase from me. Please inquire for prices.
There are a number of old masters that are required listening and a number of inspiring younger players as well. There are also a number of CDs by groups and non-pipers that are of significance. I have cherry picked the follow list all of which are available for purchase from me.
The Drones and the Chanters - an anthology including “the big three,” Seamus Ennis, Willie Clancy, Leo Rowsome, as well as, Tommy Reck, Paddy Moloney, Dan O’Dowd and Peadar Broe.
Anything by Seamus Ennis, Willie Clancy, Liam O Flionn, Paddy Keenan, Robbie Hannon, Brian MacNamara,