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Gary West has had considerable experience in recording (not only his own album, but also for the School of Scottish Studies at the annual LBPS competitions), and more recently in broadcasting Pipeline for Radio Scotland.

The following comments are based on my own experiences of playing smallpipes within various live and recorded contexts over the past fifteen years or so.

Although I don’t play Border pipes, I suspect that most of what I say below would apply to those also. I’m no technical expert - far from it! But I’ve fallen into most of the traps that there are to fall into along the way, so I’m only too aware that playing through a PA system can bring woes as well as joys!

If you’re considering amplifying your instrument, the first thing to ask yourself is, why? Do you really need to? If your pipes have been set up well and you’re pleased with the sound, it’s unlikely that a PA system will make them sound any better, only louder. As soon as you introduce amplification equipment (and usually a sound engineer to operate it) you are im- mediately passing on a good deal of the control of your performance to somebody else. That person has the power to make or break that performance, so don’t automatically reach for the microphones just because they’re there. Test out the venue by playing acoustically first.

Get somebody to stand at various places in the room, especially right at the back of course. Can they hear your playing clearly? If so, there may be no need to use the PA. Remember though, that there will hopefully be an audience to consider, and clothed human bodies are very good for soaking up sound. They also tend to generate a fair amount of noise them- selves (coughing, blethering, chair scraping and the likes) and so you have to allow for that. Also, what is the likely behaviour of the audience? Will it be a formal, hushed reception, or is it more of a pub gig, with rattling tills and wagging tongues?

If, all things considered, you decide that you do need to use the PA, then forget everything I’ve just said and think positively! You’re going to have to put your trust in the engineer of course, but despite the odd duffer out there (very odd on occasion) by far the majority of en- gineers are very good, and will do you proud.

By now, most of them will probably have dealt with smallpipes at some point anyway, so they should have a fair idea what they’re doing. Do make sure they provide two micro- phones on stands for you, though, one for the chanter and one for the drones, as they’ll sometimes try to get away with just a chanter one. Don’t let them! You’ll lose the whole sonic integrity of the instrument of course, so be firm on that one.

Microphones vary enormously in quality, and in general you get what you pay for. A cheap mic will give a cheap sound, but I’ve rarely come across anything too bad. The provider of the equipment (usually the engineer) also has a reputation to build and protect as well as the


musician, and few will risk that by providing bad equipment. The bog standard mics most often encountered (e.g. Shure SM57 or SM58) are fine and do a very good job for live per- formance. (You should expect something a bit more luxurious in a recording studio, how- ever - more of that below.) Don’t place the one for your drones too close, as most of us move our drones a little when operating the bellows, and this would cause them to sound irregular, as well as producing horrific banging noises if the drones actually hit the micro- phone, causing great offence to audience and engineer alike.

Twelve to fifteen inches is probably a reasonable compromise. You can afford to get closer in to the chanter mic, however, although not too close. Four to six inches would be reason- able in most cases. And one very important point: don’t do that very annoying thing of thumping or blowing into the microphone to see if it’s working. Leave that to drunk uncles at weddings.

Ideally, you should be able to sound check with the PA system before the audience arrives. Take advantage of this to make sure you’re happy. In most cases, you’ll have the benefit of at least one monitor speaker which is directed at you rather than the audience. If you’re not used to this it can a bit off-putting at first, as you’re hearing the sound coming towards you rather than going away from you, but you soon get used to it, and if you’re playing with other instruments then they are invaluable. With more sophisticated PA systems, you can ask the engineer to give you your own ‘mix’ in your monitor, which, if you’re playing with other musicians, need not necessarily be the same as theirs.

You may be able to have your own instrument louder in your own mix, for example. A monitor also allows you to hear the effect that the PA has on the tone of your instrument. All these knobs and dials on a mixing desk can actually make a huge difference to the sound, so at the sound check listen carefully to the balance between chanter and drones, and the over- all tone that’s being produced.

A common trait is for the chanter to sound rather harsh. If you feel this to be the case, just say so, and the engineer should be able to make the necessary adjustments. The same goes for a dull, ‘muddy’ tone. The important thing is to make sure that you’re comfortable with the sound and the set up, so that the PA does not detract in any way from your performance.

If you find yourself playing for some kind of recording, then most of the points, above still apply, but there are some other issues to consider too. While some recordings are made at live events, what I have to say here relates to a studio context. Here you have no immediate audience to consider, although that can be rather strange too. Most of us rely on the feed- back of an audience to help build the ‘feel’ of our performances, and the adrenaline rush that comes from a large sea of faces listening to your every note can certainly help to con- centrate the mind and the mood. The absence of that feedback, in my experience, is actually the hardest thing about studio recording, rather than any of the technical issues. (Although the red light going on and the words ‘recording now’ in your headphones certainly go some way towards compensating for the lack of audience on the adrenaline front, that’s for sure!).


Another requirement in the studio is patience. As your playing is being captured for poster- ity, the engineer and/or producer will not rush into letting you begin until they are happy that everything is right. They’ll probably try umpteen different mic combinations and posi- tions, and might even move you around different rooms until they get the set up they’re looking for. But make sure you’re happy too. Get them to record a little bit of your playing and then listen back to it to make sure that it’s acceptable from your point of view. In most cases, they will record the sound fairly ‘dry’ - that is with virtually no natural reverb as this is easiest to work with when mixing. At the mixing stage, fancy EQ gadgets can replicate the sound of just about any type of room providing it starts off ‘dry’. (Incidentally, if you’re recording has other instruments on it too, it’s important that they all sound like they’re in the same room, otherwise the whole sound will come over as totally false and fabricated). I usually ask for just a touch of reverb in my headphones while, recording, however, as it feels much more natural to me. The headphones are the equivalent of the monitor speaker at a live concert, although they’re also the channel through which the engineer will communi- cate with you.

If you’re playing with other musicians, the producer may well ask you each to record your piece individually rather than all play together ‘live’. This is a skill which some people find very hard to get to grips with. The idea is that one by one you record your parts, and that performance will be played back through the headphones of the next player who’ll play along, and so on. In order to give a common reference point, a ‘click’ track or audio metro- nome is sometimes added to the headphone mix. Again playing to this can feel very unnatu- ral. In fact, it is very unnatural as it tends to discourage natural tempo shifts. The secret is to learn to keep the click at the back of your mind as a reference, but not to let it get in the way of playing naturally and with feeling. If you think that some recordings sound too clinical and rigid, over-reliance on a click track may well be the cause.

The reason producers like to work this way is to give them maximum control over the final sound. When recording ‘live’, each player’s instrument will spill onto the other micro- phones, and this makes it very difficult to-control . e final mix. It also means that if one player makes a mistake, everyone’s performance is ruined, and that is a pressure which many of us like to avoid if possible. A compromise is to record small groups of two or three together, each partitioned off in a different comer of the room, but ideally within direct sight of each other. This gives the best of both worlds, as it feels a little bit more natural to the players, but still gives the technical people the control they need to produce a top quality recording.

A final point about working in recording studios. Some people are of the opinion that this kind of piece meal method of making music is false and even ‘cheating’ and that the task of a producer is to capture the live sound of a performer as accurately as possible. Personally I disagree with that view. If you want an accurate reproduction of a live performance then it’s quite simple - you record a live concert. But a studio recording is a very different entity and gives a very different product. If there is software software available to repair performance mistakes (and there is!) why not use it? If the technology allows you to multi-track your


to multi-track your pipes and make them sound like fifteen sets playing counterpoint and harmony, then why not? Nobody accuses film makers of ‘cheating’ by using special effects, heavy editing and actors who might need a dozen takes to get the scene absolutely right. And yet these same actors still have to produce a performance on demand if appearing in a stage play. That to me is just the same as for musicians. Live and studio performances are two very different creative processes.

To sum up, PA systems and recording equipment are well developed and are very useful - indeed essential - in certain circumstances. They bring advantages and drawbacks, and for a live performance, always start off by asking yourself whether you really need amplification. If you do find yourself using it, then take advantage of its capabilities, but don’t let the equipment get in the way of what you want to do. And like anything else, the more you do it, the easier it gets. Hopefully!




Vicki Swan & Jonny Dyer


You turn up for a sound check half an hour before a gig - on time and in tune. The engineer looks blankly at you when you mention Scottish Small Pipes and, after much head scratch- ing and grunting, hands you the mic saying ‘where do you normally have it?’.

So; where do you put the mic? (or mics if you are really really lucky). Individual sets of pipes will have different behaviours and time spent experimenting will give you the sound that you want but the following points will be a useful guide based upon my experiences over the past few years.

  • Chanter using 1

On stage, the objective is to pick up as the sound from the whole chanter without bleed (bleed is where unwanted sound is picked up by your mic - whether it be the guitarist next to you, the sound of your bellows or your foot tapping). The simplest arrangement is to place the mic level with your right hand middle finger pointing towards your left hand index finger. This catches all the sound of the chanter whilst making allowances for the fact that the top notes tend to be louder than the bottom ones. You want to get the mic as close to the chanter as you can - though making sure that you wont catch it with your fingers during one of those more flamboyant moments.

  • Chanter using two microphones

Having two microphones allows the sound to be picked up more efficiently and lets the en- gineer deal with any tonal differences between your top and bottom notes. Bleed is also re- duced because the individual mics have a smaller catchment area. Move the first mic down an inch or so (so that is below your right hand little finger) and point it towards your right hand index finger. Place the second mic horizontally facing your left hand middle finger.


As before, make sure that they are as close as possible to the chanter without getting in the way.

  • Drones mic

We often don’t get the luxury of a drones mic and, to be honest, don’t miss it. There will always be a bit of bleed from the drones to the chanter mic anyway. However.... if you are blessed with a drones mic then it should be placed in front of the longest drone, facing backwards and slightly towards the other drones. This will give you the best balance of sound and again ... minimise the amount of bleed and feedback. As before, the mic should be as close to the drones as possible without being in danger of touching them. Check that the normal movements of filling the bellows doesn’t wave the drones too close.

  • You and your microphones

Having set your mic(s) up the way you want them, you now have the responsibility of keep- ing yourself in the same position. Due to the way that microphones function, doubling the distance between the sound source and the mic will effectively halve the amount of sound being picked up (and therefore halving the distance will double the sound). For example, if you were playing into one mic (as described in ‘1’) and you leant forward, the chanter would get closer and lower to the mic. Your top F - A notes would be deafeningly loud, all other notes would disappear completely and your playing would be accompanied by clicks and bangs as your fingers started to hit the mic. This volume change can be useful if inten- tional: moving forward half an inch to play slightly louder when you have the tune and back again when you have a counter melody etc. Not controlling your movement however will sound appalling and guess what - there is absolutely nothing the sound engineer can do to help you!

  • Mics in the recording studio.

Essentially, the same rules apply as in a ‘live’ setting except that the mics do not need to be in such close proximity to the instrument because bleed can be eliminated using physical barriers (sound boards / different rooms). Noisy foot tapping can be reduced by wearing socks or, failing that, nailing said feet to the floor.

There are two schools of thought as to whether chanter and drones should be recorded simultaneously or separately. The ‘simultaneous’ argument is based on the premise that the acoustic instrument sounds fine and balanced through design so why change it. The ‘separate’ argument points out that there always be bleed between the two sets of mics which means that post production of the sound (adding acoustic effects, tuning, changing the harmonic pattern etc.) is limited. The decision is ultimately in the hands of you - the piper. If you want to considerably process the sound then you will have to record the drones separately. However, if you are looking for a realistic sound - a fair representation of your instrument, then it may be easier - and simpler - to record both together. I have tried both ways and much prefer to record the drones and the chanter together.

When playing the pipes it is the pressure on the bag that keeps the drones and chanter in tune. As soon as you take away one, it becomes very hard to keep the instrument under con- trol. Even with the drone track being played in your headphones it is still extremely hard to keep in tune and indeed, depending on how your pipes are set up, the instrument itself may not cope with the lack of pressure needed to play at pitch. As if recording wasn’t stressful enough already!



John Roy


I have been playing bagpipes for about ten years now. I started with the Highland pipes and then the Lowland [small]pipes. How I first got interested in Lowland pipes came about when I sent off for some Highland piping CD’s from Shepherds, and they, by mistake, sent me the Gordon Mooney CD O’er the Border. I decided to listen to it. What was this strange sound ? I was hooked. I have since purchased several sets of pipes mainly from Herriot and Allan.

When I play the Highland Pipes in Public I get plenty of noise and plenty of attention. When I play the smallpipes in a public place the sound may be much sweeter but is dissi- pated to a squeak, subject to the size of room and the number of people in the room. And if you play outside, forget it. Numbers of People or their clothes seem to be the biggest ab- sorbance of sound, and if playing the pipes to more than a handful of people, some sort of amplification is needed.

My first attempt at amplifying smallpipes was with an ordinary microphone. This worked to a degree, but you have to stay totally still with the chanter 3 inches (75mm) away from the mic. If you get carried away and move a little then you are the only one who gets the pleasure out of the music. By keeping so still it also gives the impression of being totally unemotional to what you are playing.

My next attempt was three clip-on collar mics. One taped to the top of the drones and the other two taped to the chanter - one on the underside about in the middle and the other at the lower end. This was because the higher notes seemed to reproduce louder than the lower notes, but I think that was down to the mixer and amplifier that I used at the time. The big- gest problem I had was what the experts call ‘feed-back’, which is if you put a microphone near a speaker you get a high pitched squeal - which deafens even the dead. But apart from nearly breaking my neck with the wires everywhere, it was not a bad sound.

At this stage I started to play with reverberated sounds and this put a whole new dimension to the smallpipes. With the deep echoing noise and high pitched tunnel notes, reverberation gives the player a totally different and modem instrument with a more natural sound than a keyboard can produce. I found that tunes that sounded pretty ordinary and unnatural became quite exciting when amplified and reverberated.

My latest attempt at amplification is using a hands free VHF unit from a singing kit I bought my daughter to perform in a karaoke competition. I connect a clip mic with a battery boost to the pocket unit (the transmitter) which I tuck into the pipe bag, and plug the Re- ceiver into the amplifier/mixer/reverb unit making sure the unit is behind the speakers. I then clip the mic to the chanter with a clothes peg fixed to a couple of lollypop sticks. I can then dance around playing and jigging getting the unusual mood sounds I want and getting all the attention as well.


All Equipment except the amplifier is of the cheaper variety and is easily available from Maplyn Electronics, Tandy Stores, or any good electronics firm.