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Lindsay System Chanter Part One - The Preamble

I received an invitation to write about my chanter for Chanter some months ago and have been slow to take it up due to the status of my project. I’m waiting for a breakthrough in plastic reed design, and am involved with two separate reed makers to this end. The following article provides an interim insight into the work that’s been done so far.

Description of the Lindsay System Chanter

Here is a description as an introduction for those who haven’t already heard about my chanter, or read about it/watched videos online: it is a chanter for Scottish Smallpipes and it is nominally pitched in “A”, and provides a range of two octaves beginning on “D”. The full range is as follows :

D3, E3, F#3, G3, A3, (Bb3), B3, (C4), D4, (D#4), E4, F4, F#4, G4, G#4, A4, {B4, C#5, D5, E5, F#5}

The chanter uses no keywork, and retains the typical fingering and intonation for an “A” Scottish Smallpipe chanter. The additional notes above High “A” and below low “G” are obtained by the addition of a double hole for the right hand thumb, and a hole for the left hand pinkie. These are open when at rest, so these fingers are free while playing within the nine note range (as they typically would be), only coming into play when the “new” range is in use.

The range enclosed within curly brackets is within the upper register. This is accessed by using the high “A” hole as a speaker. It, and the chanter as a whole, has been specially adapted to provide for good intonation and ease of access to the upper register.

The semitones shown in round brackets are provided by the addition of a double hole in place of High “G”. Opened together, these sound High “G”. If only the upper hole is uncovered, then the pitch of low “A”, “B” or “D” is raised by a semitone (also “C#” is raised to an alternative “D” with a slightly different tone). This is similar to the “flea hole” found on Duda and Gaida, which would not normally work on a narrow low pitched chanter of this kind. The use of a double hole design here allows a more limited range of semitones in this way than could be achieved on the Duda. However the double hole fully opened on “D” (both holes) provides a good F natural, and covering it on High “A” gives G sharp, completing a “chromatic” octave and allowing the chanter to play music written for Border pipes with that range (including those that play to High “C#” or High “D”).

The Development Process

The seeds of this design were sown very early in my piping journey. As a relative latecomer to piping at 18, I was already singing songs with the guitar. I began with the chanter, moved on to a set of pipes my father had in the loft, and very shortly after that constructed an early experimental Smallpipe out of two chanters (one taped to low “A”) - and was instantly hooked on the sound.

Tunes were another matter though. Although my father had played pipes when he was younger, he only infrequently played the chanter during my childhood, so my early experiences of music making within our family had mainly been of fiddle, some accordion & singing. My parent’s record collection at the time leaned more towards fiddle & accordion than pipes (I’ve early memories of getting in hot water aged about five, for scratching a country dance band record by pogoing to it). My own collection at that point included The Corries, The Old Blind Dogs, Planxty, Silly Wizard, the Tannahill Weavers and so on alongside Nirvana, Pearl Jam & The Pixies. As a result of course, some of the tunes I had in mind when I picked up the pipes, weren’t playable on them (although obviously I wasn’t really looking to play “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on them). Some tunes could be transferred to the pipes though and there was, of course, plenty of new music to be discovered. The wish to play that familiar music, without changing the essence of the instrument, began there.

My early notions about how this could be done were clumsy and never saw the light of day. Some cheap practice chanters were casually drilled and filled, producing one that had 10 finger holes, and would play from low G to high C# before entering a fairly unpleasant upper register at High “D”. Other sketches included fantastical arrangements of keywork. I kept my fantasies mostly private at this point. However conversations I did have with pipers and pipe makers, along with my own experiences in playing the pipes, helped me to understand the issues better. I began looking at pipe plans online in 1999 and I discovered and printed out Mike Nelson’s influential Northumbrian pipe plans. I later contacted Colin Ross, who kindly provided me with a good quality set of Scottish Smallpipe plans. I was also gifted a beautifully drawn set of Highland Pipe plans by a friend of my father, Donald Robertson of Bannockburn near Stirling.

The first real breakthrough began in about 2005/2006. About 2000 I’d been given a Hungarian Duda by a visiting professor and friend of my father, and having played alongside Border pipers in sessions, I began to wonder about the possibility of adding a “flea hole” to the Smallpipes in order to allow them to play a similar range. In addition to this, I’d been experimenting in the context of a Bhangra group called PHD - “Piping Hot Dholies” - now “Dhol & Pipes”. The experimentation consisted mainly of arranging Panjabi songs taught to me by vocalist Dharam Singh (son of the late Waliti Singh). Many of the songs, it seemed to me, would sit better relative to the drone if I had access to some semitones. After discussing this idea with Sheena Wellington, I was advised to apply to the Arts Trust of Scotland, and the result was a grant for a set of flea-hole Smallpipes to be researched and constructed by Nigel Richard & Alan Waldrom of Garvie Bagpipes.

The pipes turned out beautifully, in the key of “C” with a full set of semitones, including a low “B” natural. They also had a very assertive and throaty kind of tone, good for playing in groups (although less so for sessions due to the key). However, the construction of these pipes posed almost as many questions as it answered, and set the ball rolling towards 2014 and the “Dreaming Pipes” project, which I’ll describe below.

Family life took over at this point and I took a step back from playing the pipes (and by extension from investigating them) for a couple of years until around 2009/10, when while resident in Muthill, by Crieff, I found the time to reopen the archives and begin again. It seemed that the best way to proceed was to decide in advance what range I wanted my pipes to be able to play and then proceed backwards from there. This approach was well rewarded.

The range I settled on was from low “D” to High “B”, which roughly matches the core range of the “D” whistle & Uilleann pipes. Within this, I wanted to enable the pipes to play a C natural at least, and was fairly certain that (by using the flea hole design tried previously) they would be able to play other semitones too.

In the beginning I didn’t have access to pipe making equipment and instead planned to collaborate again with pipe maker Alan Waldrom who had set up shop in nearby Stirling. As before, I didn’t say too much about what I had in mind but talked to Alan about possibilities and purchased a seconds-quality chanter to use for experiments. I was aware that asking a pipe maker to carry out R&D is usually met with a “no”, for good reasons, and it would probably have bankrupted me. So instead I resolved to get as close as possible to a working design by myself before asking a maker to try to construct one.

Believing from the reading I’d done on acoustics that the material an instrument is made of is not as important as the dimensions, internal surface smoothness & so on, I decided to try constructing “model” chanters out of plastic and brass hobby tubing. This provided a quick & cheap way to experiment with a wide range of design options. Simulation of hole depth was achieved by attaching short lengths of tubing to the side of the main “chanter”, and beeswax (what else?) was used to ensure a perfect seal around the parts. Digital callipers were used to measure and record in a combined diary/journal, which was sort of semi-scientific and makes very entertaining reading now.

Amongst the early options I explored, was the idea that there might be some way to use a very shallow taper to bring the upper register down to the point where it meets with the lower. I was encouraged by reports that some didgeridoo players interfere with the taper of their instrument, to reduce the “toot” note from a 12th over the fundamental to (reportedly) a 10th or even an octave. I guessed, correctly, that reducing it to an octave would transform the “small-pipe” into a “big-pipe”, so instead went looking for a way to explore the “no man’s land” in between the two, as the didge players had allegedly been doing. One of the materials I relied on for these experiments was a bag of broken sections of fishing rod, kindly donated to the project by PD Malloch’s angling shop in Perth. The results were interesting (although not really useful), and later experiments after I discovered 3D printing (see below) were equally so. I notice that the Spring 2017 issue of Chanter contains a question and very full answer on this subject, so I’ll say nothing more about it for now, but may write more in future.

The other parallel line of investigation I was following at the time proved far more fruitful. Being prejudiced against keys, by this point I’d excluded all possibilities that relied on them. However I was naturally very interested in finding a way to link the lower and higher registers. The old idea of the ten-fingered chanter certainly offered a way to do this. But this seemed to mean a permanent disruption to the fingering system and a total relearning of technique, so I rejected that. The solution to the puzzle began to materialise as I experimented with extending the scale downwards to “D” in other ways. Remembering the party trick of clamping a chanter (it usually has to be one with tuning holes for low G) between the knees to sound a lower note than “G”, I began to look at ways in which the resulting note could be made more predictable and tuneful, or even tuneable. At first this was achieved by adding a short section of tubing, connected to the “chanter” at the bottom end that would sound a low F# or low E if the chanter was “stopped” on the knee. Obviously the chanter couldn’t have tuning holes for this to work. The low “E” in particular proved interesting. I hoped that it would also allow a High “B” to be sounded, and of course it did.

Things began to move on more quickly at this point. I remembered that, some years before: Andy May had showed me a chanter he had made, which doubled back on itself altogether in order to reach a low “A”. I began to consider the chanter being stopped at the bottom & doubling back on itself. Initially, this was still just to provide one additional note. At the same time, I moved back to Glasgow, and discovered MakLab, a 3D printing & makers lab with an open membership based at the time in The Lighthouse (they’ve now moved to premises in Charing Cross, Glasgow). The first of its kind that I’m aware of in Glasgow, it had opened in I think 2012 or 2013, very shortly before I moved back and when I discovered it, it was relatively quiet. I realised the opportunity was here, and took out a membership right away. Over a couple of short weeks, I learned to use Google SketchUp, and condensed everything I’d learned very rapidly into the basic first draft of the design as it now stands. The “back bore” was connected to the “main bore” right behind the low “A” hole (effectively “drilled” straight through), to allow low “G” to be placed where the right hand thumb could easily cover it. A second smaller hole was placed immediately above that, allowing the right hand thumb (the most agile appendage after all) to take care of low F# too. The hole for “E” was taken as close as possible to the resting position of the left hand pinkie, in mid-air, by means of a dog-leg of tubing (which now takes the more robust and visually appealing form of a hole through a block, similar in style to a key-block).

After drawing and redrawing the little “D” chanter several times, while virtually living inside of it in Sketchup, I felt closer to it than I had to any chanter I’d ever played. Watching it being slowly built, in day-glo green PLA, on the bed of the Ultimaker was a spiritual experience. Glasgow saxophonist and owner of Tchai Ovna tea house Martin Fell happened to turn up at this point for a look round MakLab. The chanter was approaching the end of the two or three hour print process as he stooped to peer into the machine. “What’s that?” he asked. “A chanter” I replied. He paused. “I’m looking at the future” he said, finally… which probably says as much about 3D printing as anything to be honest. But to me at that particular moment, it sounded kind of like “One small step for the smallpipes, one giant leap for bagpipe kind”.

The above tells most of the story of how I arrived at the design of my chanter. The next article I’ll write will tell the story of what happened after that, including the project’s journey to and through Kickstarter as “Dreaming Pipes”, the ensuing development of the version 1.0 and version 2.0 Lindsay System Chanter, the development of the optical pickup system, and most importantly the experience of creating and developing the playing technique and repertoire of the new-born instrument.