I can think of no instrument that has been infiltrated with gadgets to the extent that the highland bagpipes have been. There was a time that everyone played pretty much the same setup: cane reeds and sheepskin or hide bags, possibly with a tube trap. The reason for this was simply because it was all that was available.
Disclaimer: the information in the above paragraph is what I’ve been told, since my piping career doesn’t include that period.
When I started learning something about the pipes, it seemed like the the marketplace was just beginning to explode with toys and gadgets intended to make the piper’s life easier: synthetic bags, high-tech drone reeds, a myriad of moisture control systems, complex blowpipe valve systems, tone enhancers, drone valves; the list goes on.
Synthetic drone reeds range from very simple models that look kind of like a cane reed to wildly complex engineering marvels made from carbon fiber that require their own toolkit to adjust.
Synthetic bags eliminate the need for seasoning, which is great because that stuff is nothing less than disgusting. I think there are still stains on the carpet at my parents’ house from my early attempts at seasoning, and every day that I don’t have to go through that process I’m thankful. Some folks complained that they don’t have the heft of a hide bag and it feels like they’re playing a balloon, which led to hybrid bags with a layer of leather over a synthetic bladder to make them heavier. Zippers allow us to access the inside of the bag, and grommets mean we can tie our stocks in with hose clamps and a screwdriver.
The biggest downside of a synthetic bag is that it doesn’t absorb moisture the way a sheepskin or hide bag does, so you have to find some way to deal with the gobs of spit that you’re blowing in. It would be fairly straightforward to catch pretty much all of the moisture, and there are several variants on the idea of passing the air through a container filled with a desiccant material that is effectively cat litter. The problem here is chanter reeds are still made of cane and therefore require some moisture, so any system has to absorb SOME of the moisture but not ALL of it, and since the local conditions affect it so much they have to be adjustable. There are usually provisions for altering the amount of desiccant in a chamber or tube that leads to the chanter, and getting just the right amount is something that takes many hours.
There’s also a ton of little gadgets that you can find at a piping shop: tone enhancers to enhance the tone of those synthetic drone reeds; drone valves to make starts and stops easier; a clamp that covers three holes on the bottom hand so there’s no false tones while tuning drones; a thumb stop to correctly position the thumb on the back of the chanter; blowpipe valves incorporated into the blowpipe.
In the 15 years I’ve been piping (yikes; has it been that long?), I’ve tried a bunch of this stuff. I’ve always played synthetic drones reeds; for a number of years I played a synthetic bag with a constantly-changing line of moisture control devices; blowpipes with integrated valves;
For all the gadgets on the market, I’ve found myself moving to a simpler setup. I now play a hide Gannaway bag with a simple water trap made from a tube of corrugated plastic. The seasoning is easier and less messy than it used to be, and isn’t required all that often. I’ve eliminated the complex drone reeds in favor of the easy-to-use and relatively inexpensive eZee Drones. They were among the early generations of synthetic drone reeds, and in my opinion they’re still among the best out there. A simple leather blowpipe valve is all I need, though I do keep a more technologically advanced backup on hand for emergencies.
I’m happier for the simple setup. Everything in my setup works well, and I don’t mean that it works well enough: I mean it works well. There’s a beauty in simplicity; as any good engineer can tell you, simple things don’t fail as often, and when they do they’re easier and cheaper to repair or replace than their complex counterparts.
Simplify: you should try it sometime.