July 31, 2002

Tone time

SmartDrone Drone reeds
SamrtDrone Bagpipe Industries, Australia

Reviewed by Scot Walker

Today’s bagpipe player has a diverse selection of drone reeds from a wide variety of reed makers from which to choose. Each maker tries to outdo the other in the attempt to corner the market until the next new and improved model comes out. It can be a very expensive and timely endeavor for the average player, usually taking the advice of the “guru” who is currently making the workshop rounds.

I had not seen or worked with the new “SmartDrone” reeds at all, but had flashbacks to the 1980s with the first inspection. For the players dating back to those years, they first appear to be a knockoff of the Ross drone reed with the Popsicle stick type tongue. The major difference is that the body of the reed is now turquoise in color. With closer inspection, there are differences between them beyond the obvious.

Most important is the sound that they produce. I have played or worked with, via students, just about every drone reed available. My own personal choice may or may not be available to all players, and consequently it is not fair to bring them into consideration when evaluating. I played the tenor reeds for quite some time with moisture free exposure. As playing time passed, the tone stabilized and became smoother and more appealing to my ear.

The bridle on the SmartDrone consists of two elastic bands instead of the usual one, one being slightly thicker than the other. It reminded me of cane reeds with both hemp and a rubber band bridle meant for orthodontist braces, with the rubber band used for finer tuning and tone.

I tried the tenors with both solo and band strength chanter reeds. The band strength reed required a bit more knowledge of reed manipulation, with some minor flexing of the tongue to keep it from stopping. This could create problems for those trying drone reeds with no prior knowledge or experience.

Anyone who has had experience with cane reeds should have no trouble working with the tenors. The bass drone’s sound and manipulation was challenging, which is something that is apparent in most synthetic drone reeds. This required a little bit more finesse in the adjustment phases of the reed. I eventually was able to acquire a tone that I felt was more appropriate for a band setup. With this tone, I noticed that the reeds did not take the amount of air that is apparent in other brands of reeds. The sound pitch can also be changed by manipulation of a plug at the end of the reed. This obviously makes steady blowing an easier task, even for those new on the pipes.

After analyzing the SmartDrone reed, I like the way it allows you to refine the drone sound, especially in the tenors. Good drone stability can be achieved because of the amount of air required for functioning along with ease of striking in and stopping. The buzz sound characteristic of the 1980s look-alike seems to have gone with the subtle changes in design.

Most problems will arise for those playing a stronger band pipe and those looking to adopt a true blending bass drone. I like the fact that the reed manufacturer has a Web site that allows the user to ask questions and gain information quickly. This means no more waiting for the next workshop or lesson to get back on your feet again.

SmartDrone reeds brought back memories of the cane to synthetic drone reed transition and the candid discussions of who had them and who didn’t. With today’s many choices of reeds, with each manufacturer claiming to have the upper hand, consumer choice can be confusing and expensive. The SmartDrone reed is a product that I would recommend for those working through the early years of solo and band development. With the drive and determination that the manufacturer has shown, I’m sure that pipers can expect only better from them in the future.

Scot Walker is one of the best pipers from the United States. He has won most solo awards in the US. A teacher by profession, he lives in Emaus, Pennsylvania.


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