Fully charged, solid and sleek
identical to a typical normal-length practice chanter. Feeling the holes under the fingers makes a big difference.
The three-way navigation wheel is elegant and easy to use. Like some, I tend to ignore the manual whenever I get a new piece of kit. I like to figure out things on my own and trial-and-error my way around. It took me a few minutes of pushing the wheel up and down, trying to turn the chanter on, before finally caving and consulting the manual. Pushing the wheel IN, immediately the instrument is brought to life.
The manual is kept open.
From the home screen there are five options. “Instrument” brings up three choices: GHB, Practice Chanter, and Smallpipe. I do hope future updates will also include the option to change keys in the small pipes, as B, C and especially D are popular keys. I can’t see myself using the Practice Chanter setting too often, but some may find it useful. It does sound less real to me than the other two.
A handy built-in metronome ranges from 30-300 bpm. It does help to practice with the metronome coming through the same set of headphones, and it felt easier to “lock in,” perhaps for that reason. It’s a basic metronome, but it works and does offer a few accent combinations.
Advanced takes you to the sensor settings, including an ALR (ambient light regulator) setting for playing outside in the sun for example, which naturally would affect the chanter’s sensors. Being January in Canada, I did not play outside.
I’ve struggled in some way with every electronic bagpipe I’ve played. Most use some sort of body capacitance sensor – metal contacts that sense when you’re touching them, and play the appropriate sound accordingly.
Unfortunately, capacitance sensors are susceptible to moisture levels, whether wet or dry.
Frequently I would be playing in front of hundreds, or even thousands of people, and the sensors would short out from even a slight sweat. This would cause notes to stick, or not play at all. I could be playing a solo section, and my (anonymous) electronic bagpipe would just play low-G. Rage!
Needless to say, the optical motion sensors on the Blair Digital Chanter make so much more sense if only for that reason. What also separates it from the rest is the ability to tweak each sensor and tailor their sensitivity to your preferences.
While the sheer number of potential combinations could seem overwhelming – 198 levels (-99 to +99) for each of the eight holes – it is a remarkable feature that allows anyone to customize the way the holes react to finger speed and even skin characteristics. It took about five minutes to get it to where I didn’t detect any difference between what I felt I was playing and what I was hearing. My settings all hover around +9 to +16, for reference.
I did find myself having to adjust the sensors each day. Maybe the ambient light was a bit different in the studio, and maybe the temperature of my hands affects the sensor as well (blood flow?) but once set it performed very well.
Maybe others won’t feel the need to tweak anything, and they’ll start enjoying the chanter right out of the box, but I would suspect most will want to fiddle a bit and make it truly theirs.
Fun fact: I plugged in 198 sensitivity levels over 8 notes in a permutation calculator, and it spit out over 50-trillion potential combinations. 50,768,602,708,824 to be exact. Staggering.
As for the sound, the Blair Digital Chanter doesn’t disappoint: this is the best sounding digital bagpipe instrument I’ve heard or played. It’s actually somewhat hard to tell it’s a digital instrument if you’re listening to a recording of it. While most, if not all, of the other kinds out there use some sort of wavetable synthesis (generating a bagpipe sound from scratch), the Blair Digital Chanter uses sampled sound, which means it’s effectively playing back an actual recording of a real, breathing instrument. The result is a sound that’s clear, full, and finally in tune, even the high- and low-G, which are full and “cracking,” as we say. Satisfying. There’s a nifty vibrato setting as well for some more expressive playing.
The high-A though is a little too keen for me. It is in tune, but comparatively thin. I prefer the broader, slightly flat “ringing” high-A. Perhaps that will be remedied by the promise of being able to upload new sounds, although the “Update” section of the manual doesn’t address this yet. It is one feature that was mentioned when the product was announced and one that I am very much looking forward to.
A useful feature for many will be the MIDI capability of the Blair Digital Chanter. I frequently use Garageband to record ideas and production framework. All I had to do was plug the chanter into my laptop with the supplied cable, and when I opened Garageband it was immediately recognized as an input device. I played around with several different instruments, including a Wurlitzer, a French horn section, a synthesizer pad, and Latin percussion.
The Wurly was fun when playing jigs and reels, even with full execution, but the French horn and pad obviously don’t respond well to gracenotes, taorluaths, etc. Those things just aren’t natural for these types of instruments, and they don’t fit. Recording a nice melodic line however was easier with the chanter than trying to play it on a keyboard (as a piper), or worse, inputting each individual MIDI region, which I have had to do. The drawback is that you are limited to the range and pitch of the bagpipe scale: nine notes plus C- and F-natural. I couldn’t figure out how to change octaves, which would be useful. The most fun was playing the percussion sounds, which sounds odd at first but if you watch the video review you’ll see what I mean.
So, for those who are looking for chromatic scales, playing in every key, etc., this instrument doesn’t offer that . . . yet. What it does offer is solid, real sound that is enjoyable to play and listen to, with almost infinite customization options, and great build quality. There is tremendous potential in this package that I believe will appeal to many, even those who think they’ve heard it all.
Matt MacIsaac is the pipe-major of the Grade 2 400 Squadron Pipes & Drums on Ontario and a sergeant in the Canadian Forces> He has been a member of the Grade 1 78th Highlanders (Halifax Citadel) and Spirit of Scotland in both 2008 and 2016. Among many prizes, he has won the Silver Medal for piobaireachd at the Argyllshire Gathering (1999) and the B-Grade Strathspey & Reel at the Northern Meeting (1999). He is an accomplished guitarist, whistle and flute player, too, and is a member of acclaimed fiddler Natalie MacMaster’s touring band. Originally from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, he now lives in Stayner, Ontario, and operates Matt MacIsaac Music.