Seems Like Cheating on the Uillean Pipes

Seems Like Cheating on the Uillean Pipes

Ok, I’m a long time lurker prodded out of my silence by the Great Lurker Uprising thread (i.e., encouraged to not just read), so here goes - something I’ve never seen addressed in other discussions but which has really bugged me about the Irish music scene since I started.

I’m a novice Uillean piper (about 3 years), but one of the reasons why I was drawn to the Uillean pipes is the wonderful SOUND of the Uillean chanter I’ve heard on contemporary recordings by artists such as John McSherry, Cillian Vallely, Calum Stewart, Davey Spillane, Chris McMullan, to name a few. Their chanters were so clear and bright and full-volumed. I’m not talking about technique or expression (which are top notch on these pipers, as you would expect), but just the sound.

I find from actual play, though, that the Concert D chanter (at least mine and my teacher’s) is nowhere near that clear and bright in person, and my teacher has told me these artists probably use reverb and other acoustic engineering tricks in their recordings to produce that quality of sound. This has left me a bit disappointed (not enough to quit though) and I feel a bit as though I was sold a "bill of goods" by these modern recordings.

Has anyone else noticed this disparity between the instrument played in person with no electronic amplification or manipulation and a modern recording? What to make of it? Is it even honest?

Re: Seems Like Cheating on the Uillean Pipes

i - uilleann
ii - every recording of any instrument ever does this unless you go for historical records
iii - the best pipes sound BETTER live. Howard, O’Briain, Koehler & Quinn, Froment etc. Bad pipes sound bad no matter what. I recently went to a tionol where most of the pipes sounded poor. A fellow Howard pipes owner and I discussed (in private) how lucky we felt to have decent pipes.

Re: Seems Like Cheating on the Uillean Pipes

a clear sound is not going to be made by using reverb. Proper mic selection and positioning, room acoustics, and possibly isolation would be the main techniques to capture the sound of the pipes properly. I wouldn’t want to overdub the pipes (i.e. record chanter only, then overdub drones, then overdub regulators) as there is a certain interaction among all of the pipe elements that would be lost if you went nuts on overdubbing. Clarity is technique driven and the quality of your chanter and reed. I had the distinct pleasure of having some tunes with Paddy Keenan a long time ago and from 2 feet away from me in a nondescript bar in Clare his pipes were, clear, wonderful, and mesmerizing: no studio tricks needed.

Re: Seems Like Cheating on the Uillean Pipes

There’s huge variance when it comes to sound. Two perfectly tuned chanters can sound very different to each other. The overall Timbre of the instrument will depend on reeds and pressure and ability to control the sound by the piper. You can’t beat a good piper on a good instrument in an unplugged setting. Take a poor piper on a poorly setup instrument and he will not be able to produce a recording with any amount of equipment. I would suspect that all of the guys you mentioned will sound every bit as good in person as they do on their recordings. Definitely not cheating in my opinion.

Re: Seems Like Cheating on the Uillean Pipes

Ahh, my work is paying off! Thanks for being the first of hopefully many to be pulled out of lurkdom, JacobitebyName!

I’m not a piper, so this is just an observation from a bit of an outsider. It helps to have a great set of pipes - it helps even more to have a great reed - and the rest of it is down to the "21 year rule". Well, it’s not a rule per-se, but it’s a saying that it takes 21 years to master the uilleann pipes with "seven years learning, seven years practising, and seven years playing" (or sometimes stated "seven years listening, seven years practising, and seven years playing")

So at 3 years in, it’s best not to be too down on yourself. And it’s great that you’re listening to good piping and can use that as a goal! I have played with a few of the pipers you mention, and I will say that they sound that good without studio tricks. For what it’s worth, I play regularly with a piper who started learning about the same time I did, so I have been able to watch the progress over the years. I would say that at about 5-6 years in was where we really started having some fun playing, and the enjoyment keeps increasing from there… So stick with it!

Re: Seems Like Cheating on the Uillean Pipes

It all depends on the chanter and reed, in particular the reed….. the pressure it’s played at is all relevant .

Re: Seems Like Cheating on the Uillean Pipes

As others have said, a great chanter with a great reed do sound that full volumed and that clear and bright in person. A lot of the guys you named know exactly what sound they want and make their own reeds. I don’t, because I hate that fiddley sh ** t, and I’m sure that’s a deep, personal failing but I digress…

Accoustics make a difference in how bright they sound, and good recording equipment will capture the clarity of a well-balanced set. And those guys won’t be using rubbish kit.

Re: Seems Like Cheating on the Uillean Pipes

There are very few studio "tricks" that will improve the sound of the instrument. Reverb was fashionable in the past but most modern players in trad go for as natural a sound as possible, using EQ and effects only to try and replicate the instrument in a nice room. There’s a true saying when it comes to recording, "you can’t polish a shite". - what you’re hearing from the players you mention, with the exception of Davey Spilane’s older recordings is pretty close to what you’d hear in a nice live room.

Re: Seems Like Cheating on the Uillean Pipes

Several of you have mentioned the reed … I’m a GHB piper and I know that the really bright chanter sound (timbre, right, that’s the word . . ) is generally made by the harder reeds: more cane material, harder to blow of course. Whenever I go to buy new GHB chanter reeds, they’re categorized by Easy, Medium, Hard, or in variations of that (Easy/Med).

But I don’t see that categorization with Uilleann (two n’s, got it) chanter reeds. I use Kirk Lynch reeds and I like them a lot (my teachers says they’re very good too) but he’s never offered them in Easy, Medium, Hard versions.

So, assuming hard reed=bright sounding reed, can I get hard (or harder) Uilleann chanter reeds somewhere?

Re: Seems Like Cheating on the Uillean Pipes

Yes, reeds can be harder or softer, but there is no classification system like you find with Highland pipes, and no standardisation. And a reed that works in your chanter will sound like pants in another chanter, and vice versa, and it’s all a black art finding the right reed for any given chanter. And that will change depending on the season, the temperature, the humidity, the altitude (and to the guys who asked me if they could play Highland pipes on the top of a Scottish 3000ft peak, the answer is yes, that level of altitude doesn’t matter, and no, going up there in kilts and kilt shoes is f *’in stupid) and the price of eggs in Govan.

In theory, you can find a brighter, harder reed, but in practice, it will take trial and error from yourself or a reedmaker to find it. And if the reedmaker is in a place with a completely different climate than where you are, he/she won’t necessarily know how it will sound when it gets to you.

Then, if you want to try reeds from a maker who didn’t make your set, good luck. Many of them are leery of reeding sets they didn’t make. Some will, which is useful, especially if they live in your city and the pipemaker doesn’t, but not all by any means. There are a few people who only make reeds and will reed anything. The ones I know of are in England, and if you’re not, as I said, who knows if it will work in a completely different climate.

It’s all quite joyous.

Re: Seems Like Cheating on the Uillean Pipes

Here’s an example of a wonderful sounding chanter played by John McSherry on his CD, "Soma", one of the many tunes that drew me to the Irish pipes:

It’s this great sound that I thought would be readily reproducible on any decent set of uilleann pipes - foolish me.

Re: Seems Like Cheating on the Uillean Pipes

Harder to blow reeds don’t necessarily translate to bright/big sound. Unlike the GHB chanter, UP chanters can have different characteristics in bore e.t.c. Reeds will use different staples e.t.c. I have played beautiful sounding chanters which are easy to blow and poor sounding chanters where too much pressure was needed. There’s no comparison really with GHB (and I play both).

In my experience most good reed makers will at least try to produce the best possible sound from your chanter regardless of who made it. Its worth spending the extra few quid to get it done properly.

Re: Seems Like Cheating on the Uillean Pipes

I know very little about the Uillean pipes. I studied music and studied oboe and hung out with oboe players a little. One thing I heard from that crowd is that to be a great player you almost have to become a great reed maker. They would say buying from other great makers never quite gets you to the sound in your head. At that level players develop a finely tuned ear for the sound they want and the reed is crucial to getting that sound. When I listen to players like Mick O’Brien I always think he must be extremely peculiar about his sound. It’s so good. His pitch is always so good and his tone is always so good. I always think he must spend a lot of time honing his reeds and tuning. I’m sure he also has a great set of pipes and keeps them in perfect repair. As a repair tech that’s where my thoughts go sometimes.

Reverb makes everything sound better if it’s used tastefully IMO. Everyone has there own different idea of tasteful but for me it is about trying to make an instrument sound more natural like it would in a beautiful sounding church or hall. I suggest you experiment with that. I go to a parking garage stairwell with my flute every once in awhile when I really want it to sound beautiful - when I’m feeling a little discouraged perhaps. It is cheating a little. It kind smooths over the little imperfections in your sound.

Re: Seems Like Cheating on the Uillean Pipes

Funny you should mention parking garages, JWiseman. There’s a YouTube video of Chris McMullan playing a couple of fine reels on the uilleann pipes in a parking garage, no doubt for the acoustics of that setting:

McMullan is an amazing player, and another one of the reasons I decided to tackle this challenging instrument.

Re: Seems Like Cheating on the Uillean Pipes

Don’t forget that reverb occurs naturally. The sound of an instrument will be enhanced (or not) by the acoustic character of the room in which it is played. Concert halls go to a great deal of trouble and expense to get this right. Sometimes people record in a particular building in order to achieve a particular sound. Is that cheating?

Artificial reverb is applied when recording in a studio to achieve this effect in a controlled manner. Usually it’s best to use the bare minimum, as a rule if you are aware of the reverb it’s probably too much.

Re: Seems Like Cheating on the Uillean Pipes

Digital reverb is pretty awesome now. I mostly despise the sound of pop music circa 1980-1995 because there just wasn’t enough processing power and memory to create good effects. Not enough 1s or 0s lol. Now it’s almost indistinguishable from the acoustic effect from the digital copy. I think in the 60’s-70’s they used more mechanical reverb (take delay, spring, etc), and room reverb. It could sound pretty good.

The parking garage is good because it won’t generally bother anybody. I think this would be especially important for a piper - no offense of course. I love the pipe but they can be pretty loud. If I heard a good piper in my local garage I would just flip out!

Re: Seems Like Cheating on the Uillean Pipes

I’ve been playing the same chanter for 40 years. I’ve done hundreds of studio gigs.

My chanter sounds different in every recording!

Some of the variables are

1) what microphone is used.

I know next to nothing about microphones, but they look and sound very different from each other. Some looked like normal mics, some were like a huge ball, there was even one gig where the mic was a white plastic human head with small mics inside each of the ears. It was supposed to simulate the way people perceive sound. The best sound ever was from one huge cool-looking mic. They said it cost 40,000.

2) where the mic is placed.

At many studios they experiment with mic placement when I arrive, due to the sound guys having no experience with uilleann pipes.

With the same mic they can get a great variety of timbres by using different placements.

3) electronic stuff.

One thing you can measure is how compressed the pipes are on a particular recording.

Play up and down the scale of the chanter looking at a Db meter and you’ll see the needle moving all over the place (even using normal fingering, without doing any of the on/off the knee stuff).

Now look at a Db meter on a studio recording of uilleann pipes: you’ll see the needle barely moving.

Compression makes the chanter sound smoother.

Then there’s all the playing with the sliders to adjust the various frequencies, which changes the timbre.

Not a timbre thing per se, but sometimes the studio will use AutoTune which makes every note right in tune. This makes the chanter sound smoother too, but it dulls the sound IMHO.

And many other things I know nothing about!

Re: Seems Like Cheating on the Uillean Pipes

I must second Steve Wilson’s experience. At the risk of name-dropping, I played a sesh with Cillian Vallely for about a few months, long ago. It wasn’t an optimal environment, a sports bar, actually, and nobody else would show up most nights,just him, and, er, me. I’ve become a competent player in the meantime but was considerably bereft of much skill in those distant times. I watched him carefully, always listening and sometimes learning. And Cillian, up-close and in-personable-person, was simply brilliant. Likewise Joe McKenna, Jerry O’ Sullivan, Paddy Kennan, Finbar Furey and a few other "celebrity" pipers I’ve played (literally) next to, . These masters of that complex and challenging instrument all sound wonderful, that close, and there are no effects pedals in evidence. Please grant that I’m not star-struck, these guys were simply genius-level colleagues and fellow musicians. They really are that good. Does Lunasa engineer and mix recordings to a professional level of quality? Of course they do, and we wouldn’t expect anything less than that from anyone as brilliant as these people. Is that the source of their essential timbres? No, they are skilled and sensitive artists, with good instruments, well-read and well-reeded. You are listening to the right people.

Posted by .

Re: Seems Like Cheating on the Uillean Pipes

BTW it seems that the OP’s beau ideal of uilleann chanter tone is "bright".

I wonder how many pipers share that ideal.

Personally I prefer a complex dark timbre.

Re: Seems Like Cheating on the Uillean Pipes

I think maybe describing sound is difficult. You’re absolutely right in what you say Richard in that every recording has to be treated differently depending on the room etc. I would guess that what’s in common with most of the players mentioned is that generally they will look for imitating the sound of a good room for reels and jigs. The John McSherry example to OP posted is probably not the best example ad often with slower tunes more reverb than average is used. Of course there are some occasions folk are not looking for that natural sound.
I would guess that rather than "brightness", what the OP is hearing is the complexity and harmonics created by a very well tuned chanter. Similar to hearing the difference between the same flute played by an average player and a very good player. The following note harmonises with the preceding note rather than kills it with the accuracy of tuning.

Re: Seems Like Cheating on the Uillean Pipes

Thank you so much to Jacobitebyname for that stunning McSherry track. I’d forgotten about that

For those who don’t have Irish I thought you might find it useful to know what it means.

"The keening woman" as in a woman crying, wailing and lamenting at a funeral or wake.

I find McSherry’s interpretation magnificent

All the best
Brian x

Re: Seems Like Cheating on the Uillean Pipes

There’s a (vulgar) saying I’ve heard from some sound engineer friends, "You can’t polish a turd".

I got to sit next to Sean Og Potts and Kevin Glacken for about an hour at his bar, "Piper’s Corner", in Dublin. I didn’t play other than one set of tunes. They sounded too good without me. There always will be some reverb present other than some specially engineered rooms designed to absorb all sound - a very weird room to be in indeed. It wouldn’t have mattered. They sounded amazing together.

In practice, I like both wet and dry environments. I like the dry room to hear all the imperfections in my sound with the hope I can make adjustments to smooth out the sound so the tone stays even across the scale. I like the wet room to hear all the glory of the sound singing - to push it out into the room and fill out the space. It’s a glorious feeling when you have your sound dialed in well.

Re: Seems Like Cheating on the Uillean Pipes

"I’m a GHB piper and I know that the really bright chanter sound (timbre, right, that’s the word . . ) is generally made by the harder reeds …. So, assuming hard reed=bright sounding reed …."

Well, my experience varies a bit. I’m a GHBer (well, currently not playing) as well, and I’ve heard some brilliant sounding chanter/reed combinations that did not involve a hard reed. That hard reeds automatically = great sound is a bit old school, IMHO. My accomplishments in Highland piping are very modest, but I once got a 1st in pibroch with a fairly easy reed. The judge, Scott Macauley, thought my sound was brilliant. On that day, at least. :)

Re: Seems Like Cheating on the Uillean Pipes

That McSherry recording is drenched in reverb, and I’ll wager it would be a lot less appealing heard dry, John’s excellence notwithstanding.

Re: Seems Like Cheating on the Uillean Pipes

Hi JacobitebyName Lend an Ear Lend an Ear

Spooky: I am also 3/4 years in as a maker and player I have made a number of chanters
and have I believe made a fantastic chanter and reed to match. I am in the throes of home recording so after much jiggery pokery setting up, have at last got a good representation of how they/I sound. Two large condenser mics (cheap approx $200)500mm apart Through a tascam and into audacity. One track chanter and second track Drones, that I also make
CONCLUSION: After much playing recording and listening. Legato sounds pathetic and i am using cuts and short rolls to break those passages and more staccato. Low D when held for a period of time again sounds pathetic so I am working on a dirty hard D cut from A to break it up. Strangely I thought I was using too much vibrato but because of the instruments nature it sounded none intrusive. Using all the above I am happy that the sound I get is indeed a uilleann pipe. Oh Yeah relax stop gritting your teeth when playing passages in the second octave. Sometimes the mistake I make= the sound I was after

Re: Seems Like Cheating on the Uillean Pipes

Good points Pie-Eyed about recording and listening and re-evaluating your technique.

Because when you’re recorded in studio every little thing can be heard, and you have to work out all the little technique things.

With vibrato I discovered quickly that composers usually don’t like vibrato too wide or too fast. There’s a certain speed that you hear violinists etc do, and a certain subtlety. Many uilleann pipers will play no vibrato on several notes in a row, then play super-wide super-fast vibrato on a single note. I learned to use vibrato in a more consistent way. That meant having to come up with new vibrato fingerings on certain notes, especially on Back D. (Composers never liked my old strong vibrato on that note!) Also I learned to play vibrato the same speed on all notes. The point is that it becomes part of your overal sound, not a jerky thing you throw in every now and then. True all of this stuff isn’t about the timbre of the chanter, but it is about the sound you get.

My chanter isn’t overly loud or bright, but there’s a nice smoothness or evenness over the gamut which sounds good when recorded. Obviously the needs of a (pub) session and the needs of a (studio) session can be diametrically opposed, like when you’re in a (pub) session trying to compete against three accordions and an banjo! My chanter wouldn’t be heard.

Re: Seems Like Cheating on the Uillean Pipes

Just to hear my chanter live, it’s a nice space, and there’s a mic, but I don’t think there’s reverb or anything other than the room’s natural reverb. Sorry that I have to stick to the music there! To match the organist.

This vibrato is faster than what I would do in the recording studio, it’s the way I prefer it. (Composers also usually don’t like the vibrato I do on the note A in the low octave, which I like.)

Re: Seems Like Cheating on the Uillean Pipes

So many great comments! Too many to reply to. It took me a while to figure out that ‘OP’ was referring to me! Original Poster, I presume.

Richard D Cook - lovely tune, I like that a lot. What was it?

The Pie Eyed Piper - I’m stunned that you’re about 3/4 four years in and making your own reeds, chanter, and drones. Plus equipment for home recording. I’ve got a half set of Kirk Lynch pipes, with two KL chanter reeds, and a handmade carrying case. And that’s it.

Re: Seems Like Cheating on the Uillean Pipes

Briantheflute, McSherry’s interpretation should sound brilliant-as he is the composer.
Jacobitebyname said : It’s this great sound that I thought would be readily reproducible on any decent set of uilleann pipes - foolish me.
Yes. And even learning the tune will be a fistfull, since I know of no known transcriptions and will be a wholely
by ear prject.

Re: Seems Like Cheating on the Uillean Pipes

If you are using a Half set try this It is great to play against and helps the chanter stay in tune. I also use it to help tune reeds.