Flat Pipes
Vive la Differance

By Craig Fischer

There is often some confusion surrounding the difference between concert pitch pipes and flat pipes. Here's my attempt to unravel the mess.

"Concert Pitch" is the term used to refer to the sort of pipes which were made and played by Leo Rowesome and his father Willie before him amongst others. These pipes were made very prominent by modern high profile pipers such as Liam O Flynn and Paddy Keenan. Most of these are built to play at or near modern concert pitch with lowest or key note D, hence their title.

The term "Flat Pipes" is usually used to refer to any set of pipes at a pitch lower than A440. They are also commonly called B pipes or C pipes or so forth, depending on the modern pitch of their keynote.

These terms are quite misleading. The most important differences between these two sorts of pipes are in the size of their bore, and the details of the reed which they use. It is useful to differentiate between them with this in mind. For brevity I will call the reed end of the chanter bore the "throat" and the furthest end from the reed the "exit", the chanter bore being approximately conical between these two points. From now on I'll refer to the concert pitch pipes as wide bore pipes and the flat pipes, as narrow bore ones.

The narrow bore Irish pipe chanters which were made in the late 18th century and which continued to be made for a large part of the 19th century had a throat bore of about 4mm and an exit seldom larger than 11mm. The reeds, which were made to suit them, or which they were made to suit, had head widths of 9.5mm to 10.5mm and staple bores of the order of 3.2mm. They shared these features with their close relative and plausible ancestor, the pastoral pipes. Chanters made by John Coyne had throat sizes as small as 3.7mm., possibly to suit a slightly shorter and lighter style of reed than those of other makers or maybe to suit a reed of the same length but stronger.

Narrow bores were made, and are still made, in many different pitches ranging from a keynote of modern Bb to higher than modern D. They were made in this range from the very earliest times of their existence. Interestingly, many of the pastoral pipe chanters have a lowest note of about modern C, and the keynote of an Irish pipe chanter of the same size, i.e. without the foot joint of the pastoral pipes, would be about modern D. Geoff Wooff says that old Irish pipes made in this pitch are quite common, often not bearing a maker's name. This is another curious feature which they share with the pastoral pipes, many of which are unbranded. Before this century there was no universal pitch standard. One pitch for A in late 18th century London used by the oboe maker Collier was about A423. In the mid 19th century Theobald Boehm made his metal flutes at A435, and there were many and varied standards. They varied by country, region and town. The pipes made by Coyne, which were played by Seamus Ennis, are now widely known as a C# set, but these would probably have been pitched in D by their maker to a lower pitch standard than is now in use. It is unlikely that a chanter which we would now identify as a B or as a C was designed to play in a pitch exactly the same as modern B or C.

A common pitch standard in the early 20th century was A453, now known as OP or Old Philharmonic pitch. The physicist's pitch standard of C512, often referred to in text books, gives an A of about 431 Hz. Some instruments of the Taylors appear to be in about this pitch and some in OP pitch, as are many of those of both Willy and Leo Rowesome.

There is some latitude in reeding up a pipe chanter. With a few contortions in the reed department for sharpening, and the use of bore wires or rushes for flattening, a chanter in A453 can be squeezed up to A466 for modern Eb or down to A440 for D. Many of the designs now being produced as "concert pitch" chanters are in fact copies of chanters pitched at A452 and either slightly modified or not at all modified. Any accurate copy of a 1930's Rowesome chanter is most likely designed for this pitch. This points out that many of the earlier narrow bore chanters were also "concert pitch" and some of the later wider ones were not.

Towards the end of the 19th century the environment in which the pipes were being played seems to have changed. It is hard to know now whether louder designs of chanter were evolved to suit larger performing spaces or whether simply, because louder designs were available, they could then be used in this way. Whichever was the chicken or the egg, the Taylor Brothers are credited with first producing chanters with a larger bore and using a stronger reed to make a greater volume of sound.

Some of the chanters produced by the Taylors were of similar type to the earlier ones, having throat bores of 4.25 mm. They are almost identical to the early narrow bore "D" chanters. They also produced chanters which were monsters alongside of these, with throat bore sizes of 5.2mm and exit sizes of 13 to 15 mm. I have heard the massive regulators which were built for these sets described as car horns, and I can't help but wonder if pipers of that time who were used to the narrower type of chanter, thought similarly about the noise that these chanters produced. Rowesome wide bore chanters typically have throat sizes around 5.4mm and exit bores of 13mm lending weight to the idea that they were originally copied from the Taylor's larger bored design. Up until the time of Willy Rowesome, it seems that there was nothing as large as this made in Ireland.

This development is reminiscent of the transition from the earlier simple system flutes to the Boehm system flutes. Boehm made a double assault with the development of his instrument. Not only did he take a lead from the experimental flutes of Nicholson, which had much larger fingerholes and mouth holes than their immediate predecessors, but he also introduced a very sophisticated chromatic key system appropriate to the art music of his era. Players of the older instruments were slow to abandon them, mostly on the basis of superior tonal qualities and in spite of the fact that they had to struggle with a key system which was inadequate to the musical demands of their day. There were many elaborations of the key system for the simple system flutes before the end of the 20th century. Fortunately for those who appreciate traditional Irish music, nobody has yet successfully grafted Boehm system keywork onto the Irish pipes and despite the widespread availability of Boehm system flutes, simple system flutes of a type made from about the 1830's to the 1860's are still the flutes of choice for this music.

To further confuse the terms concert pitch and flat pitch, since about the time of Willy Rowesome some lower pitched chanters have been made with wider bores. These are commonly known as "broomhandles" because of their unwieldy proportions. Due to the wider bores, the larger fingerholes have to be further apart than those of an older design to play in the same pitch. The outside diameters also have to be greater. I have seen them in pitches as low as Bb. These might be known as concert pitch Bb chanters to make the situation even less clear. A C chanter by Harrington made in the middle of the 19th century has a throat size of 4.1mm, a length of 411mm, an exit bore of 10.9mm and an average fingerhole size of 4mm. This plays close to modern C. A C chanter by Willy Rowesome made early this century has a throat size of 4.4mm, a length of 408mm, an exit bore 12.7mm and an average fingerhole size of 5.3mm. This plays sharp of modern C. A comparable wide bore C chanter designed for A 440 would be about 420mm long.

The Rowesome chanter is superficially louder than the Harrington but the Harrington, having a reedier tone due to the smaller fingerholes and brighter, lighter reed, is more pervasive and has greater carrying power.

The wide bore chanters of the late 19th and early 20th century. have come to be the most common type due to their volume and availability. They are played in crowded places where Irish pipes would never have been played. But in line with the current preference for earlier types of instruments in other musical fields, it is worth examining the cost of this adaptation. The changes from the earlier design to the later one are those of "vertical magnification". It is as if a graph of the bore were drawn and then magnified uniformly along the diameter axis. To match the larger throat size, the fingerholes are also increased in diameter. This gives a bore with generally lower impedances and so a stiffer reed is needed to match it. All of this makes an instrument with more fundamental and less high harmonics in it's overall spectrum. The sound produced has a tendency towards that of the Highland bagpipe, a famous example of a wide bore larger fingerholed instrument. Unfortunately, because the fingerholes on wide bore chanters are larger and often more uneven in size than those of their narrower bored counterparts, the cross fingerings do not work as well. Since the sound has relatively weaker high harmonics the tone is not as piquant and the possibilities for harmonic shadings using various cross fingerings are reduced. Some other more subtle differences involve a shift in what is known as the cut-off frequency of the instrument, a property closely related to the way sound is radiated from woodwind fingerholes.

The price for greater volume is a rather heavy one to pay, and in this day of widespread amplification and good pickup and microphone technology, maybe the disadvantages of less acoustic power from the narrow bore chanters are not great compared to the benefits of the increased expressive capability which they offer.
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