I've recently taken up
playing the whistle again after playing mostly flute for the last 40
years. No problem with supply - plenty of whistles in the cupboard stretching
back to the early 1970's! Surely they won't have "gone off"? No
visible sign of a use-by date....
Having interrogated the
contents of the cupboard, I settled on one of these as having the tone I
prefer. Having a relatively large bore (13.6mm) gives a nice
amount of body in the low octave, but without making the second octave
The instrument has long since
lost its label, but I feel it was probably a Soodlums, or a Waltons,
which were perhaps the same thing anyway. Puzzled by the two black
buttons attached to the body? See:
Tin Whistle Buttons
But as I settled in to
playing, I felt all was not right. The D scale sounded strangely
compressed, and then there was a large jump from C# to the next D.
Tunes that ran down to the low D at the end were particularly
unsatisfying, as the low D wasn't as low as I'd have liked.
Now, you have to remember I'm
a flute maker/researcher, so I have come across a few weird scales before.
And this is a cheap commercial instrument, rather old, and plainly
cylindrical. Maybe this is as good as it gets? Or maybe I
should just lash out and by a new whistle for the new millenium?
Still, let's have a quick look at it....
I fired up Flutini, the
second of my RTTA systems, and it answered the
call. The navy blue trace shows what we were up against.
Indeed the upper notes of
each octave were so flat they registered not as themselves, but as a
somewhat sharp version of the semitone below! You can see that
they fell below -50 cents, top B limping in at about -76 cents - three
quarters of the way to Bb!
About now you might be
reaching for the phone to yell "Just Intonation" at me in person.
Is it possible that the old whistle is tuned for Just Intonation, rather
than the almost universally accepted Equal Temperament? I say
"almost universally accepted" as pipers stick with Just Intonation
because they have a drone they must harmonise with, where the rest of us are
probably more likely trying to blend in with other Equally Tempered
So let's investigate.
The thin brown line on our graph shows how many cents deviation Just
Intonation in the key of D would require. Forget that for an
explanation - it would be harder to play my poor whistle in Just
Intonation than it would be in Equal Temperament! We have to face facts -
this is just a bad-tempered whistle.
The Fife Stages of Grief
My emotions quickly traversed
what we refer to technically as the fife stages of grief:
Surely this can't be happening? This is a popular,
commercially-available mass-produced item. Surely they got it
right before making millions of them? But my other tuners,
hardware and software,
confirmed what Flutini had found. What the tuner was
telling me was exactly what I had heard. And a second example of the
whistle exhibited exactly the same results. Time to move on
Anger. Why on
earth did they leave it like that? And who can I poke with the sharp
end of a whistle?
Hmmm, not much scope for taking it back to the shop. The shop is
in Ireland, I'm in Australia, and it was probably forty years ago.
Depression. I really
liked the tone of that whistle. And now it's gone from me. Sob!
whinging. You've got a drill haven't you?
Always look on the bright
side of life....
The good thing about this
situation is that:
there isn't a lot at
stake - a 40-year-old tin whistle doesn't owe me very much.
You can hardly make it worse.
Looking at the instrument, it's
certainly clear that the holes are pretty small, especially given its
relatively large bore. So, I kicked off assuming that the bottom D was
to be my reference, and I'd try to bring all the other notes up to that
pitch, or at least closer to that pitch.
I encountered no problems actually enlarging the holes, but
then again, I have a mill with a three jaw chuck to hold the work.
Doing the same on the kitchen table with a battery-operated hand-drill might
have its moments. If you do this at home, have someone standing by to
catch the fingers.
I increased the size of the holes in 0.5mm
increments, withdrawing the instrument from time to time for testing against
my bench tuner. When I thought I was getting somewhere, I ran it on
Flutini again, to take advantage of all the benefits RTTA
brings. The red trace showed great improvement, but also that there were still
improvements to make. A few more enlargements lead to the
mustard-coloured trace. As usual the Law-of-Diminishing-Returns was
kicking in. A 0.5mm increase in a 5mm hole produces a much bigger change
than in a 7mm hole.
I still felt that the low D in particular was too sharp,
so at that stage I abandoned the notion of just trying to bring the
other notes up to it. I was very conscious of a limitation in
increasing the size of hole R2. I could imagine a situation where
the hole would extend too far around each side of the tube, not letting
me cover it reliably. So far no problem, but if I went too far
there, it would be hard to recover from. And by now this was no
cheap outdated commercial whistle, this was a much-loved custom-modified
So, I decided to flatten the Low D a bit,
which I did at first with a small blob of poster putty, replacing that
with a blob of soft solder once the principle had been proven.
Having done that, a few last enlargements led us to the Green trace.
I've copied the graph down for your convenience....
Essentially, we've pulled the Low D into the middle of the
range, and closer to its neighbours, and sharpened low B a little to pull
high B up.
What does it all mean?
Let's analyse the improvements at the various stages:
Deviations ref. Low D
Range of deviations
As you can see from the table above, the Green trace
actually has a wider gap between the sharpest and flattest notes than
the Mustard trace, but they are better balanced around our reference.
So the Median or Average deviations are much smaller, and that's
probably what counts in general, providing there are no stand-out
really-bad notes. Given that our worst notes are now better than
the best notes on the original were, I think we can relax.
Changes so far
Here's a summary of the physical changes:
|Increase in area
|Solder blob inside end
Wow, hole area increases of up to 84%. They didn't get
that anywhere near right!
We've made some very worthwhile improvements! A tip-to-toe deviation of
72 cents has been reduced to around 27 cents (2.7 times better), but perhaps
more importantly, the average deviation is now 3.2 cents rather
than 36.3 cents, 11 times better! That's gotta help!
whistle is now much nicer to play (it's handy to have her sister instrument
available to compare it to). Gone is the sense of scale compression - the
second octave soars rather than limps. And a run down to low D doesn't
leave you treading water.
One danger of increasing L1 this
much is that the oxx ooo C natural gets too sharp. You can improve
this by playing long C natural notes as oxx xox. While this fingering
might look complex, it's actually only one finger off middle D.
I don't rule out tweaking it some more, although we're starting to see
the limitation that is innate to cylindrical instruments - the second
octave always tends a bit flat, particularly at the top of the tube. Any further tweaking would probably
need to address that question, and we'd be getting into the
Grandfather's Axe paradox - three new handles and two new heads, so is
it still Grandfather's axe?
So, I think that's probably
it for now. And maybe I should still go out and buy a really nice
whistle? Or even make one?
Try this at home?
And although I warned you about trying this at home,
there's no reason you shouldn't, providing you take sensible care.
Make sure to secure your whistle while drilling, and remember your drill
will try to screw itself into the hole rather than drill out the hole.
Hands make very poor vices, so use a vice or some other hands-free way
to hold the whistle in place. Rather than drilling out the holes,
you might prefer to file them larger, or use a Dremel type tool to
enlarge them. Whatever you do, proceed with caution - you need all
your fingers to play!
And of course, don't assume your
whistle needs retuning. It is quite likely that Soodlums revisited
their tuning more than once, so yours might be quite different to mine.
Download Flutini (totally free!) and use it to
check whether your instrument needs any work first. And if it
does, some of the above will probably guide you.