December 31, 2006

Updated: St. Laurence O’Toole returns to sheepskin bags and cane reeds

The Grade 1 St. Laurence O’Toole Pipe Band of Dublin has decided to switch back to a sheepskin pipe bags and cane drone reeds setup through its pipe section. The band had been using synthetic bags and mostly synthetic reeds since 1989.

The band’s primary objective in the switch back to all-natural materials is increased volume.

“This has been really evident at practice,” said a member of the band. “I mean, when you have drummers commenting on it then you know something has changed. This should give us more body on the top-hand.”

The SLOT pipe section had been using Ross synthetic bags and the Ross Canister moisture control system. Several of the pipers in the band apparently have never played anything but synthetic bags and reeds.

The current pipes|drums Online Poll indicates an overwhelming adoption of synthetic reeds by pipers worldwide, with less than 10 per cent of all pipers saying that they currently play cane reeds.

The synthetic reed market since Geoff Ross produced the world’s first non-cane product in the mid-1980s has been a boon to the industry. There are currently more than a dozen varieties of synthetic drone reeds on the market. The synthetic pipe bag market has less choice so far, with only a few makers dominating the industry.

A synthetic pipe bag can last for many years and cost far less than a sheepskin bag, which generally lasts no more than two years. Top-quality sheepskin bags are priced around $350 and need to be seasoned several times during the year, further adding to the cost and maintenance hassle.

The band also reported that Andrea Boyd of Antigonish, Nova Scotia, has joined. Boyd enjoyed a highly successful season in Scotland in solo piping competitions.

The Grade 1 Alberta Caledonia Pipe Band has also returned to playing sheepskin bags, according to sources with the band.


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  1. Sounds like a job for Myth Busters”. I am not convinced that there is a discernible difference in chanter volume or top hand clarity with synthetic versus natural bags. I do think that the natural bag feels more comfortable

  2. I am one of those people who has never really played anything but hide, and since the 80s, sheep. Have, of course, used other bags, helped students and friends set them up, and have even tied on” [what is the correct term?] Ross bags

  3. With all respect Iain, I think that a scientific study of this is reasonable. Lets face it, judges ( at least some) claim to be able to tell the difference between cane and synthetic drone reeds. That has never been put to a scientific, double-blinded test. But, it has the possibility of afecting judging decisions. Likewise, if their is a perception that natural bags enhance sound” then that could be reflected in the scores. I would challenge someone who has no idea what is being used to differentiate. If indeed they can

  4. Haven’t FMM and SFU played cane and sheep for years? I guess when there aren’t companies broadcasting it like the chanter and drum makers do it’s hard to know what they have under the bagcovers. With Shotts slipping it makes sense that grade one bands should go after what the Really Big 2 are playing.

  5. Myth regarding the hassle, a simple 10 min seasoning once a month and regular playing keeps the bag permorming well. No drying cat litter, split hoses, leaking zips, split stock retainers, etc. My bags are being played in many leading grade 1 bands, and every grade inbetween including Novice Juvenile, and nowhere near $350.

  6. I don’t believe the volume problem is caused by the synthetic bag itself, but rather the tubing, hoses, boxes of litter, and all other the miscellaneous contraptions that are placed within the synthetic bags.

  7. Iain and others. I am in agreement that the hide/ sheepskin bags have a lot going for them, comfort, ease of stopping drones at cut-off and so on. I played them for years. However, the question was, does a sheepskin bag really give a louder, clearer top hand sound? It may, but I am not willing just to take someones word for it. Andrew, do I sense an article by one of your experimental sound guru’s ??

  8. I do agree that it would be very interesting to see some studies on differences in sound between the bags. We know that drones and chanters make a difference. But could anyone explain how and why different bags make a different sound it would be of really great use. Maybe not only quality of the bag but also size could be of importance. Or maybe it is as already stated, the cannisters and tubes that make a difference ? Anybody out there who knows ?

  9. Not sure science is much help here. So much depends on the player’s ability to make the sound. Some players are better able to make their best sounds on one type of set-up over another. Some listeners appreciate some sound qualities over others. Play what you like. Leave science to the laundry soap people.

  10. Listeners of PlanetPipe might be able to scroll back to about this time last year, when they did a back-to-back comparison of the same Grade 1 band on sheep and then not. Very interesting discussion and comparison. Not scientific, to be sure, but maybe all that you’d really need if you’re not already sure? Or, maybe not. Bring on the lab coats…



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