Bagpipe Showdown: Acoustic vs. Electric

I've played acoustic pipes for 20 years, and electric pipes for 2.

I'll touch on all of the advantages and disadvantages that this new technology has shown me and why I appreciate both acoustic and electric pipes. I really want the piping and drumming world to welcome this new technology, because it has so many benefits for extending the reach of our unique musical culture.

 

Acoustic:

Pros: 

There is no guesswork here; the pipes are a crowd favourite. Be it legion members, army/navy/air force, cadets, or anyone with a little slice of Scotland buried in their hearts, they are all out there waiting to be delighted by your acoustic pipes.

 

 

[Photo Credit: Robby MacNeil. Seaforth Highlanders]

Will you bring them along to the pub, to the party? Camping? Travelling? Of course you will. Nothing could possibly go wrong (and if it did, it'll be a good story for the beer tent.) Acoustic pipes can travel, and it is an instrument that can provide entertainment for large spaces with no amplifiers, speakers, etc. You can reach audience sizes in ways that other acoustic instruments may have trouble with.

In Canada, the US, and the UK predominantly, there is strong history of the bagpipes used in war, celebration, and ceremonies of all kinds. Traditional bagpipes tell their listeners that they are or could be part of something momentous and of import and significance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


The vibrations from a well tuned bagpipe resonate strongly, and it is powerful. The feeling of having a piper playing as they slowly move towards, past, and away from you is completely unmatched due tot the pipe's volume and 4 different harmonious resonance (the bass drone, two tenors, and the chanter).

Acoustic bagpipes are incredibly responsive. Before I had tried electric pipes, I didn't appreciate it; but now, I can feel the bag filling; the drones coming to life, growls becoming a brethren trio; their foundation a platform for the chanter to cry out as a leader in the new quartet, telling stories of breath, pressure; subtle movements of the wrists to the piston like pounding of the fingers, conducting the explosive pressure firing from open holes. The excitement of unforeseen slips and slurs taking us on Celtic journeys.

Our pipes have character too; who was the manufacturer; when were they made, who owned them; do you oil them, what have you replaced? How throaty are your drones when you start them up? Tell me how they just lock when they're tuned right. How do your tassels and bag cover and drone wood grain match?  The character of acoustic handmade instruments is a special journey of frustration and maintenance that keeps us talking about them. The pipes are our partners, after all. We'd best learn how to complain while still favouring them :P

Cons:

Don't be telling me there's no cons to these wailing monsters. If it isn't inconvenient for you, it surely is for someone on your block!

First of all, you don't play in B flat; you play in bagpipe. It is its own key. Last I checked, a concert b flat is 466hz. We've been sneaking our pitch up for a hundred years, and maybe if we didn't have other tuned instruments and technology, nobody would have noticed. But they did, and we do. We're hanging out in a band setting around 475 and up. It makes me laugh to hear us call out pipers 'you're flat!'.  No, we're all sharp as hell, and he's less sharp than you. Furthermore, your practice chanter is probably closer to A than B flat, depriving your ears of ever really surrounding yourself with consistent pitch. 

 

It makes it hard to play with other musicians that have less flexibility in their tuning. We can do it, but it requires a special chanter and drone reed extensions to reach down to 466. We've built music vehicles that are somewhat isolating. I'm not saying it can't be done; but every other musician generally has to accommodate the piper, it's never the other way around. They are also exclusive in that others with non-amplified instruments cannot actively jam with you in smaller more intimate settings. When you walk in to a small little living room jam session and blow the door off the house, the other musicians are basically denied the floor. It can sometimes just be the 'you' show when you're the piper in an acoustic jam space of non highland acoustic instruments.


Inconsistency between pipes is both a character pro and a unison con. Other ensembles have less trouble reaching audible unison; for band contest, however, it seems like there's a prize for just being able to keep it together, as it takes so much teamwork and consideration for time played, wet/dry blowers, weather conditions (humidity), solid/porous surface being played on, direct/indirect sunlight, etc etc etc.

We definitely have our challenges. Now for the fun part; I get to talk about a side of piping that I bet a lot of you have discounted, but other have been excited by and just haven't pulled the trigger. There are lots of young pipers out there that might not get everything they need out of the traditional competitive scene. I was one of them. Let me tell you what these electric pipes have done for me. This will be somewhat of a review of two types of electric piping products for Faegerstrom and RedPipes.

Electric:



 Fagerstrom built this electric chanter, and I used it until it no longer functioned. It was $400 CAD, and I really pushed its limits.

Features ( and my commentary)

  • Highly portable. Sure. A+ in that regard.
  • Contains all the electronics as well as the battery: no extra box to plug in. I wish that they had not done this. An external box would have allowed for more batteries and a stronger current. Many times I would attempt to jam with this instrument only to have it's signal fail, as it would be powered by a singe AAA battery.
  • Uses standard Ø3.5 mm stereo earphones (not included): perfect to play on buses, trains etc. Ideal for the commuter. Yes. And that's it. Once you used a 3.5mm to 1/4 Jack adapter, there was almost no chance that the signal would be strong enough to b played through sizable speakers. Headphones were the most this instrument could handle.
  • Authentic bagpipes sounds. Slurs were not playable. C and F notes were playable, as was a piobaireachd high G.
  • Built-in metronome. 
  • Adjustable contact sensitivity. Was not intuitive or useful. The main issue being that using metal contact points would inevitably not suit a humid environment; humid hands; cope well with natural hand oils; temperature.
  • Pitch adjustable within a two octave range.This was so cool. Bending the notes down to their desired level was something that required patience and could only be done by cycling through preset keys or slowly bending the note up or down to it's desired depth at a fixed rate. Not musically integrative but still cool and useful.
  • Recording capabilities, with variable playback speed.This made me laugh. The way to control this function requires you to hold a certain fingering while playing with the back connector/buttons, which, to do with any sense of musical performance or timing, was a nightmare at best. You would never be able to end your recording on the beat or start it as soon as you activated the function; it was a feature meant for a bigger model of instrument with less compact internal commands.
  • MIDI output (cable included).This. This. This. This. MIDI had me pretty excited, I'll tell you. HOWEVER: You can't play audio out and MIDI out at the same time. Also, the cable that came with the instrument failed after ( 1 year ). Is there a replacement cable on their site as a sold accessory? Nope. Can you buy this weird cable anywhere? (3.5mm male to MIDI out) Nope. You can order it from China, I did this. It was $20, took months to get to me, and....no, it didn't work. No North American suppliers of this cable, no quality control. This was my most important feature; I could make electronic music with this function, and the resiliency of a crappy cable cost me the entire instrument's value to me.
  • Touch controls for all settings.As I mentioned before, compactness has it's drawbacks, and you might as well have not included some functions.
  • 1 year warranty.Mine lasted about 2 years before connectivity issues rendered it unplayable and the factory reset command didn't work.

In case you thought you could get proficient on this instrument and impress people; think again. It is novel, but nobody wants to see you not working hard to blow your bagpipes and just finger some black stick with metal connectors on it. They want to see a majestic outlandish instrument do things they have never dreamt of. I did eventually find a small speaker that suited it, and it would work for performing for several minutes at a time in a drum circle environment, but overall, the technology needed to improve before this was a viable purchase, in reflection.

Enter: RedPipes by Rolf Jost

Merli RedPipes by Rolf Jost

Why yes, that IS a matt black wooden droned bagpipe with a leather bag and a dragon head mounted on the front with LED eyes in a super badass case. Since you asked.

 

Now this is something that both traditional and new crowds are into. An instrument that looks impressive and makes the person playing it look even more impressive.  These electric bagpipes require you to blow them ( if you like); to blow steadily(if you like); and to have proper fingering (whatever fingering that is; do you play gaita? or huemmelchen? How about  a Mittelalter/Schaferpfeife? No problem!) 

Customized bag? Done. Extra fingering holes for different playing styles? Done. Adjustable blowing difficulty? Done. Built in speakers? On some models, yeah. Not mine :( but possible, yeah :)

 Can you tell that I'm excited to talk about this instrument?

It uses 3 AA batteries, so my electric signal is not a problem for playing on big sound systems. In fact, I got just that: ^_^

It has dedicated outputs for line out and MIDI. What does this mean? It means....everything! Through 2+ years of studying, I can run MIDI to my computer and be playing a synthesizer at the exact same time as my bagpipes; I can seat an entire orchestra of classical instruments; play as an entire pipe choir; play heavy bass synth leads like you hear in electronic music (and through these speakers, OMG, is it ever a treat...)

You know when you can play all the parts to a piping suite? Imagine doing that live, just you; except all the chords, the strings, the harps, the brass section, and pipes; all capable of changing key and building volume and playing staccato and sounding just incredible; and having a backing track of drums keeping you on tempo (that maybe you wrote yourself as well!) I can't do everything I want to with my setup; but I now have the POTENTIAL to.

For example: Pedals

I control my volume. I still have a headphone monitoring output for solo playing with no other attachments.  I loop myself play at different octaves. I sway my line out signal from side to side just slightly, giving my pipes an alien feeling. I control my entire backing track set, from starting stopping loops; adding reverb and delay; activating synths; and controlling the parameters of my other pedals, all with this MIDI foot controller. My whammy pedal even allows me to play chords, harmonies, have chorus like effects, and reach across a span of 8 OCTAVES. With the programming I have done, I can go up and down scale like it were a grand piano. Because that is exactly what I now have; is the grand piano of bagpipes.

I have a few tracks you can check out at 

My BandCamp Page

These were actually created with live bagpipes, but I post produced them in studio.

otherwise, here's a short video of a drum track I arranged , where I am controlling harmonies and octaves:

 

 

I lost my blowing stamina several years back, along with several jobs in a row, to chronic tonsilitis. When I had my tonsils removed, I lost all the strength in my throat and mouth to keep the bag even inflated. I was out of it for a couple years, and it has never been the same.  There are lot of pipers who let piping DEFINE them throughout their lives that have lost the capacity to blow a tough reed and stand in position in the circle for hours on end, but still have fantastic fingers. Gi' 'em an instrument that still commands power and prowess in their musical field. This instrument is a prime candidate.

 

I'll get more into the producing aspect of writing Celtic electronic music another time, but I assure you that I have lots of musical and written material coming. I'm about to start touring Canada performing, and will be adding skills to my repertoire.

Leave a comment if you:

1) Want to know more about these pipes or my piping style

2) Want to suggest a venue for me to stop by (BC/Alberta until August, then Ontario and the East Coast after August)

3) Would like lessons in electronic piping/drum design/composition.

4) Or if you just want to say hi!

 

More to come.

 

 


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3 comments

  • You mentioned that you teach, do you offer courses online? Maybe using some form of virtual communication (.e.g. Skype) or videos perhaps? There is absolutely no one I can find that teaches this instrument within a few hundred miles of me.

    Also, would you recommend Redpipe for a beginner? I like some of the features you listed in your article, it seems like the electric pipes might be a good place to start.

    • Edward Hamilton
  • where did you get the redpipes and how much are they

    • Lesley Woods
  • Hi !, first , I wish ye a very prosperous new year
    I’m Breton, have played in bagad, pipe band, competed in solo contests, and been teaching the pîpes since 1997
    I’ve been playing since 1969 and still am a fan of late Muirhead and sons PB, I just controlled their pitch by that year from a recording = 467 hz, which was a TRUE Bb, but so many pipers ignore the pitch of this Time, they throw me stones when I refer to it, while <i know that I’m right, and by that time the sacrosaint note called A was at the same pitch as a Bb, because Ai A# so a1/2 tone sharper than A natural and Bb is a 1/2 tone lower natural B, thus same picth = 467 hz, I know that the pitch has regurlarly raised since the 70’s, but I feel pitiful that nowadays pipers deny this evidence, They prove there, their gaps about the evolution of our pipessame for the leather bags, many nowadays pipers had never played such bags, but the uses change back to leather, for the reasons tthat you know
    To finish with, YES, from a certain age, one can lose blowing sthrength , linked to different reason, I’m 67, have very gud fingers but less blowing strength, so I MUST play easier reeds and thus, electronic pipes may be an exit door , personally I also play bellows blown SSP
    That’s all
    Have a nice day
    Jean Michel

    • JEAN JEAN MICHEL PLATEN