During a conference in Barbaste in 2012, Robert Matta gave a detailed demonstation of his manufacturing technique for his boha reeds. After numerous experiements, he determined the dimensions and measurements that best suited his bagpipes. Only a few materials are required, just a Plexiglass body and a strip of carbon fibre or cane. Then, having assembled the reed, all that is required is to vary the thickness of the carbon fibre or cane strip to refine the setting.
In the following instructions, manual alternatives have been added for those that do not have the necessary tools.
· Plexiglass tube: 7mm external and 5mm internal diameter · Cylindrical stem•: 5mm aluminum · Carbon fibre strip of longitudinal fibers* (cut from the tube of a kite or a tent pole) or cane (Canne de Provence - arundo donax) ·
Polyester thread: 0.5 mm approximative diameter
* carbon fibre comes is a wide variety of forms and binder. Blades or tubes consisting of longitudinal fibres are fine.
**Small dimensions require precise tools such as those designed for model makers:
· Workbench mill · Cross feed table vice · Calibrated vice · Belt sander · Metal saw · Flat file · Scalpel · Garden secateurs/prunding shears (anvil cutter with a flat bed) to cut carbon fibre without making shards or splitting cane. · Super glue · Precise measurement tools such as verniers or calipers
Making the body of the Reed
The reed bodies, regardless of whether they are for the chanter or the drone, have the same dimensions. Therefore it’s good to make them all together as this will save you a lot of time.
Making the flat reed bed.
The width of the flat (4 mm) determines the depth of the cut.
Keep a margin to realize the angle of the following step. The width of the flat is 4mm (+/- 0.2mm) and 28mm long. Note that plexiglass tubes do not necessarily have a regular inside diameter. The flat should be on the thickest side.
A possible manual method•: Paste some sandpaper (180 -150 grade) on a hard and flat surface. Sand with careful and regular gestures. Your objective is a flat and rectangular surface with a smooth aspect.
Manual method•: Take a scalpel and insert and cut into the thinnest part in the center. Then, cut very thin slices towards the sides. If you have a Dremel and are skilled in using it, you could use a circular saw attachment. The ends of the finished aperture can be round or angular but the dimensions have to be precise.
The reed tongue: cane or carbon?
The choice depends on the available materials, the ease of use, the search for specific tones but both materials give similar results. Carbon is more stable to humidity, more solid but more difficult to work. The fibre can cause irritation, even eye injuries. Cane is simplier to work, neutral to the touch but needs to ‘rest’ between the each stage of making. The adjustments are more time consuming.
Making a cane reed tongue.
Producing the carbonfibre reed tongue
To manually cut carbonfibre to the specific thickness, place the strip on the edge of a hard surface and press firmly with a sharp blade. Strips of various dimensions can be obtained from model maker shops.
Adjusting the reed body and assembling
Make sure that the reed body is 38mm long with a 2 mm plug. Slightly widen the end of the body, to create a flare, by using a scalpel (see Stage 6 on the diagram) and then sand off.
Place the reed tongue on the flat surface of the tube, paying attention to any natural up-turning curvature in the strip. The following steps are key in making a successful reed.
When in place you can test the reed by placing it in your mouth and blowing. The resulting sound must be easy and clear, using a reasonable pressure without any odd sound or blockage. The reed must always sound when blown through. From now on, one can get the sense of the potential of the reed.
The length of the tongue, as well as its angle, can impact greatly on performance and range of notes which can be obtained. The ligature will determine both of these factors. A length of 17.5mm for the vibrating part of the tongue is desirable.
These dimensions correspond to Robert’s current chanters. With different drills it could be necessary to slightly modify them. This is confirmed by the measurements of the G-reeds made by Alain Cadeilhan (Kachtoun).
Adjust the reed to the chanter
Wind the thread around the base of the reed so that it fits tightly into the bore of the chanter. Glue the thread with a touch of Superglue, wrap two times around the thread with teflon (carefully flat). The reed must slide easily without being forced whilst also staying firmly inthe chanter. Blow with the mouth and adjust the fundamental note by moving the reed in or out. Work on the inclination/angle and the tension of the ligature to approximate the scale, to ensure power, clarity, roundness and stability of sound . It’s possible to do several differne things to improve the sound; each of them will have a greater or lesser impact on sound, stability, tone etc… think well before acting.
For example, if the scale is too extended (the highs are too high) then the strip is too stiff, so you can reduce the thickness (which will be irreversible) or tighten the ligature towards the heel to lengthen the vibrating length (which is reversible). Reducing the thickness of the strip is also necessary if one wants a ‘round’ sound or to make it easier to sound. On the contrary, lengthening the vibrating strip can make notes unstable or screechy. Proceed with light touches, cut with sufficiently long rests in between to allow the reed to stabilize.
These steps are a guideline and you will need to make both subtle and personal adjustments to suit. Different pressures on the bag will also have an impact. So you will have to make many reeds which, by default, will present slight differents and only you can decide which is the best approach. Sharing your experiments with other manufacturers could help a lot.
Regulating the scale
Robert Matta’s method consists of removing the material off the strip to adjust the notes. For each note there is a corresponding zone on the strip; The bass notes towards the thread, the high notes towards the plug. The thickness of the strip by the thread has the most influence on the general equilibrium of the reed, so one should adjust the low G first. Use a scalpel for the scraping with a gentle, little, successive touch. Cane reacts more quickly than carbon by doing that. If the range becomes too high and short, one may have to change the strip. As soon as the range gets close to the right sound, put the chanter into the bag to continue the adjustment. Close off the hole of the drone with an 8mm wooden plug and take your time in between two adjustments. Continual adjustments can ‘tire out’ the reed so it is best to leave a gap of 24 hours between stages when working with natural cane. When you think you have almost set the reed as well as you can, do the same to the drone reed in the same way so that it reacts to the same pressure as the chanter reed. Put the reed into the drone and adjust that two reeds (chanter and drone) so that they sound G together. Then fine tune each of the chanter notes against the drone G.
During a playing session, the reeds can go out of tune but then will stabilize in the long term. This is particulary true for cane reeds which are very sensitive to humidity. Overtime the fibres will become used to this process and will stabilise and so, for this reason, you must look for reasonable results which correspond to the age of reed. In time, the reed will become more and more reliable and there will be less movement. If the reeds have been correctly made, they will tend to be balanced throughout the playing session. A regular and precise pressure will be enough to make the sound round and balance out the tuning. Whilst the plexiglass body of the reed is not sensitive to humidity, it does react to condensation. Adjusting the set up with the mouth, or when it is cold, droplets of water can form inside the tube that can affect the tuning and range. Moreover, impurities can accumulate in the body of the reed especially under the strip. To resolve this, clean the inside body of the reed with a cotton wool bud. Clean the underneath of the tongue by sliding a piece of fine paper along the length of the tongue. Do this gently in order to not damage the fibres of the tongue.
And now…. To your scalpels!
Observations from Fred Vigouroux:
I have experimented with making idioglotte reeds (from the same piece of cane) and those with tongues since 1993; Cane, elder, plastic, carbon, aluminium and plexiglass. I have achieved mixed success with the idioglotte cane. Robert’s demonstration allowed me to make a G chanter play with a comfortable pressure after a dozen attempts.
Plexiglass is easily glued with superglue but this glue is aggressive. One should use a very minimal amount. Plexiglass is very sensitive to abrasion, is easily polished (fine sand paper). Both plexiglass and carbon fibre strips can be found on eBay.
The incline of the strip and the equilibrium of both reeds, seem to me, the most subtle to master. The search for the the right cane is a challenge: Humming, warm, supple, biting ,nasal, powerful… My attempts have produced very different results. Experience has shown that one has to search from the very first stage of making, a certain freedom in the vibration of the strip while varying the opening( inclination, stiffness etc.).
This article was first published in Boha! 30-Bohaires de Gasconha 2012 English translation: Robert Matta, Frédéric Vigouroux & Jane Moulder Photos from Yves Pouysegur and F. Vigouroux, drawings F.V.