Which drone reeds are best?
From a physical point of view, a reed has to vibrate at a frequency, with a pressure drop across the body and with an air flow requirement. If all drones had the same acoustic impedance, this would be a pretty straight-forward problem of physics. However, if we compare the airflow and acoustic characteristics of sets of pipes from different makers, the differences are pretty clear. These differences mean that there is NO single type of reed that is BEST for ALL applications. Because of the differences in internal design, surface roughness and air flow at operating frequency, different drones require different reeds. (On a personal basis, I've taken reeds that sing in my Lawrie's - and they will not even play in other brands without adjustment.)
There are a large number of options for drone reeds ranging from the "traditional" cane reed to a broad range of partially and fully synthetic reeds. If there were one design that were superior, it makes sense that "everyone" would use it.
Some people will argue that any (and every) "knowledgeable" player uses cane reeds because they have the "best" sound and that synthetic reeds are used only by those who don't really care about the sound quality of their instruments. The sound waves propagated in the drone are probably the result of a filtering of a broad-band sonic impulse from the reed. Cane reeds, with their large, stiff tongues, may indeed generate this impulse better than most synthetics.
However, because of the natural variation in cane reeds and the acoustic/physical differences in drones it can be a very time consuming process to find a set of cane reeds that will sound good and work very well in particular set of pipes. No one has ever said that cane reeds are the "easiest" to set up! Nor should anyone imply that a pipe with cane reeds will always (or sometimes ever!) sound better than the same set with well matched and set up synthetic reeds! Compared to synthetics, cane reeds require more knowledge to set up and (a lot) more effort to maintain - particularly if you expect to reliably play at both inside and outside venues, but, with enough work and after picking through dozens of reeds, you may find a set that has sound better than synthetic.
Synthetic and semi-synthetic reeds are much less variable than cane and sometimes the fixed physical characteristics don't match well with a particular set of drones. However, they do almost always get a player up and going. When a synthetic reed is well matched to the acoustic needs of a drone, the sound can be indistinguishable from cane - and far more reliable. Indeed there are fewer and fewer professional soloists who play cane reeds at top level competitions.
(Note: For those pipes with particular tuning needs, some brands of synthetic bass drone reeds come in long and/or short versions.)
For the less experienced player, the takeaway lesson is that reed selection is a matter of matching the acoustic needs of the drones to the abilities of the reed. For the more experienced player, beyond the purchase of the instrument, experimentation in this area is where you will spend a lot of money chasing after the ideal sound.
An excellent field guide to the many kinds of synthetic drone reeds may be found here.
Now, if you don't have any other reference point and are looking for recommendations, I find EzeeDrone reeds to be the most generally applicable in most pipes and easy to use reed right out of the box, but, after spending their entire life with a bit of paper under the tongue, I find them just a bit too open and they often need to be closed up a teeny bit at first by moving the bridle. Upon playing, Ezees will quickly (after a couple hours) close up and you'll need to open them back up a bit. After about eight hours total, they be completely settled. Don't mess with the angle of the tongue except to move the bridle in little bits.
(Note: Despite this glowing recommendation, I currently play a set of Kinnaird Carbon Fiber reeds because they provide a perfectly blended drone sound in my Lawrie pipes.)
Copyright S.K. MacLeod 1996-2016