The Case for the Tube-Style Manometer

Animated discussions often spring up in our Dojo U student community about the merits of different types of manometer.

In case you’re unfamiliar, a manometer is a device that measures and indicates air pressure. For bagpipers, manometers are a vital practice tool to objectively measure and improve the steadiness of airflow through the chanter and drone reeds as you blow and squeeze the bag – ultimately, to improve the sound and tone of your bagpipes.

Here at Dojo U, we strongly advocate – some might even go as far as to say ‘preach’ – for pipers to use the analog tube-style manometer (also known as a water manometer) when they’re evaluating the steadiness of their blowing throughout the blowing cycle.

Several other kinds of manometer exist, such as the mechanical gauge-style manometer, with a visual gauge that either sits directly on the instrument or can attach to a music stand or other surface. I’ve seen entire bands use these before to measure and identify issues in the steadiness of their tone as they play in the circle.

More recently, other ‘high tech’ options have entered the market too, which use electronic gauges placed inside the bag that send data to a phone app to display and record the changing air pressure.

Recently, student discussions have been very active on this topic, with several valiant defenders of the mechanical and electronic style manometers going to great lengths to list their many benefits.

However, while the flashy features of these more complex gadgets may satisfy some of the reasons you’d want to use a manometer, and they can be fun to play with, at Dojo U we think it’s important to always go back to our ‘simple tools’ commandment, which tells us that the simplicity of the analog variety is best.

Let’s examine why by seeing how each kind ­– tube, gauge, and app – stacks up against a few key features you’d want from a manometer.

Can you identify the ‘sweet spot’ easily?

Tube styleGauge StyleElectronic / App Style

This one’s an easy one – one of the most basic requirements of a manometer is that you can easily identify when you’re blowing at the sweet spot. All three manometer styles will show this clearly. However…

Can you mark the sweet spot easily?

Tube styleGauge StyleElectronic / App Style

And here we reach the first drawback of the two complex varieties – while you may be able to see the differences easily, you can’t easily mark them as your reed shifts in pressure each time you practice. While you may be able to use a gauge or app manometer to measure that you’re blowing steadily at a certain pressure, by marking the sweet spot, you can also ensure you’re blowing steadily at the best possible pressure to maintain great sound. Only the tube-style allows you to easily do this – just a quick adjustment of a few zip ties to do this in seconds. Lo-fi and effective.

Can you easily see the steadiness of your blowing and spot ‘mental blowing anomalies’ (MBAs)?

Tube styleGauge StyleElectronic / App Style

Given this is the main function of a manometer – to easily see rise and dips in pressure – it probably goes without saying that all three styles do this just fine.

However…

Can you analyze your blowing or MBAs in an advanced way?

Tube styleGauge StyleElectronic / App Style

Now this is where it gets a bit deeper.

How many components are there in the physical blowing cycle on the bagpipes?

The answer is four: blowing in, transitioning between blowing and squeezing, squeezing, and transitioning between squeezing and blowing.

On a regular basis, where exactly during the physical blowing cycle do you become unsteady?

Is it during the blowing? Is it during the transition from blow to squeeze? Is it during the squeeze? Or is it from between the squeeze and the blow?

The water manometer can help us very clearly visualize that and start to pick up on the patterns: “Oh, every time I start blowing in again after the squeeze, I noticed the water in the tube dips a little bit!”

Will a gauge clearly show you this? A valiant defender of the gauge is going to say that it will.

However, a gauge will not clearly show this anywhere near as clearly as a water manometer, which is incredibly sensitive to dips in pressure with a bobbing water line as the slightest dips in pressure. On a gauge or app, while you’re also focused on the tune and sound and tone, you’re likely to blink and miss it!

Can you clearly record yourself and your manometer in the same shot?

Tube styleGauge StyleElectronic / App Style

Now this is a big one.

As we know from many other posts and courses here at Dojo U, recording yourself is an essential way to objectively assess your playing so you can rapidly improve your playing.

And of course, being able to record with the manometer in the shot with you as you play is also important – not just so you can review your own playing after the fact (and without myriad other factors distracting you from the manometer’s reading at the time) but also so you can submit your recording to others for feedback, which is exactly what every Dojo student has to do to pass Phase 3 of our Freedom Phase program.

However, the manometer being in shot also serves another purpose – recording yourself using the manometer without looking at it at the time, so you can review recordings to see whether you were blowing steadily when you were using it ‘blind’ – this can be a great test of your perception of how steadily you blow, because while it can seem ‘easy’ to blow steadily when you have an instant visual reference, sometimes you want to check after the fact that what you thought sounded steady was actually so.  

The tube-style manometers are great for this, with the colored liquid giving an instant visual reference and easily maneuverable to position it in shot, and visible from both the camera and player when hung between the two. Gauge and electronic manometers are difficult to both view and record at the same time because they can only face one way (to the player or to the camera), and can be difficult to record effectively because of how small the screen / face is - especially if they’re attached to the instrument itself.

Plus, electronic ones that require a phone to record data present a second issue… I don’t know about you, but I use my phone as my recorder. To do both at the same time, you’d need to have a second recording device, which is possible, but annoying!

Is it portable?

Tube styleGauge StyleElectronic / App Style
Well…

Portability is often listed as one of the big downsides of the water manometer. But is it though?

Now, granted, with a tube-style manometer you can't march around particularly easily, if that’s your definition of ‘portability’ – and if you’re trying to measure pressure while marching, the other two styles may have a slight advantage, I’ll concede.

However, what many students mean when they say tube-style manometers aren’t portable is actually that they find them hard to transport, which is breathtakingly false. In fact, for two years at Oran Mor, having a tube-style manometer in hand was a mandatory prerequisite to enter the practice facility!

Tube-style manometers are incredibly portable between locations – just carefully roll it up, bring along a coat hanger or hook to hoist it on, and you’re good to go. Now of course, if you insist on stapling it to an enormous backboard it’s going to be a bit more challenging to cart around, but if you follow the simplest instructions to make one, it’s literally just a bunch of plastic tubes you can pack up and take anywhere!

And I can hear the valiant defenders from here, bringing up the Windex thing – yes, tube-style manometers use Windex, and yes, sometimes spillage is an issue. But transport it carefully and you’ll have no issues – plus, if it does spill… it's Windex. It makes things cleaner. Win-win!

So, just to satisfy those gauge and app fans…

Does it operate without Windex?

Tube styleGauge StyleElectronic / App Style

No, the tube-style doesn’t operate without Windex or some other kind of liquid. I’ll give you that one.

Does it promote good posture?

Tube styleGauge StyleElectronic / App Style

Now we’re back on track! So, anyone who’s been around Dojo for a while knows that poor piping posture is one of my pet peeves (say that five times fast!).

Picture each kind of manometer we’re considering. First up, the water manometer – given you can choose the height you hang this, there’s no risk that it will adversely affect your posture, because you can easily line up the sweet spot on the tube with your eye level for ease of reference.  

However, the gauge-styles are a tricky beast – many are mounted on the blowstick, which isn’t ideal – if you picture how you’d look trying to stare at a tiny dial on your blowstick the whole time you’re playing, you’d quickly see how craning your head down is going to lead to some bad habits and probably a strained neck as well.

For the app and gauge style ones with a movable gauge (such as the ones that you can place on a music stand or the like), you could argue that you can move them to a position that’s ok for your posture. However, given you need to be able to monitor and view a small screen or dial for your measurement, I can’t imagine too many people who use the gauge or app style are prioritizing their posture as they're using it.

Can you get super-vivid, rapid feedback?

Tube styleGauge StyleElectronic / App Style

So, what do I mean by this one? Well, put simply, and elaborating a bit on the ‘easily visible’ points above – nothing can come close to competing with the water manometer for super vivid, rapid feedback.

If you're blowing unsteadily, the tube-style manometer’s gonna let you know.

When I’ve played using the gauge-style manometers before, I’ve often found that they're way too forgiving and don’t make it clear enough that you’re not blowing steadily. While the water in the tube will bounce around like a kid on a trampoline, the gauge may only shift slightly on the dial.  

App-style ones have a similar issue, in that they’re displaying data on a screen, not showing instantly the exact dips and issues in your pressure. And I imagine (though to be fair, I haven’t tried more recent offerings) they also aren’t necessarily simultaneous with your action – with any digital transmission there tends to be a delay, as we all discovered trying to embrace band practice online in 2020! – so it makes analyzing your issues that much harder in real time.

Can you operate three drones while using?

Tube styleGauge StyleElectronic / App Style

Aha, valiant defenders! Here’s one for you – another downfall of the tube-style manometer!

Or is it…?

Now, the simple answer here is no – you can’t operate all three drones while playing with a tube-style manometer, because by the nature of their design, they must be plugged into one of the drones (several gauge-style manometers that have an ‘external’ gauge dial are in the same boat, by the way…).

Here’s a counter-argument: in my opinion, those who are truly ready for three drones shouldn't really need the manometer on a consistent basis anymore anyway.

Once you’re at a stage where you can competently balance all three drones well, a manometer should be a tool that you occasionally use to workshop specific issues and check in on your steadiness. However, you wouldn’t be spending too much time plugged into a manometer once you were this advanced as a player.

Dojo students who have been through our Bagpipe Freedom process, will know this well – mastering steady blowing with the manometer is a vital skill to pass Phase 3, so those who progress to Phase 4 are so familiar with the process and feeling of maintaining that kind of steady pressure that they don’t really need a manometer regularly any more.

By that stage, it’s more about understanding the concept and applying it as needed.

Does it adequately crush your soul?

Tube styleGauge StyleElectronic / App Style
??

So obviously this one is a bit facetious, but it’s also true: the water manometer is an unforgiving mistress, and crushes your soul like nothing else.

Anyone who’s used one knows that feeling – when they first get started, they’re usually convinced that they blow pretty steadily. Once they get started on it though, they realize quickly they're not even remotely in the same hemisphere as what any self-respecting piper should be aiming for, let alone what a judge or quality bagpipe teacher will be looking for in tonal quality.

This is a good thing! Trust me, what you want is a tool that's going to be completely honest with you – that crushes your soul – and that gives you all the details on when and where any issues occur, simply and easily, in real time, so you can continue to move forward quickly.

The apps and gauge may offer some of this, but considering all of the points already discussed above, they don’t do it nearly as clearly, visibly, rapidly, or allow you to record with them in shot so you can analyze your blowing objectively and at the same time as your blowing cycle on screen.

The other styles may be more forgiving, but ultimately, to improve we want to be given the whole truth, brutally, so we can face our issues and move past them.

The tube-style manometer is cruel – but ultimately, it’s to be kind.

Can you see your ‘moving average’?

Tube styleGauge StyleElectronic / App Style

As we touched on earlier, the tube-style manometer gives you a moving average of what you're doing.

What does this mean? Well, if you have a giant surge in your blowing, the liquid inside the tube can’t help bobbing back and forth for a little while. Which means you can look back in time, a little bit – which is useful if you ‘blinked and missed it’, or got distracted, and then can look back to see an indication of what might have happened.

Being good at keeping that moving average steady allows you to make very subtle difference changes across your blowing, and teaches you how to adjust to be a really steady blower.

Is it inexpensive, easy to assemble, and does it operate without a battery?

Tube styleGauge StyleElectronic / App Style

This one’s a no-brainer. A tube-style manometer is the shining example of a ‘simple tool’. A few bits of tubing, some windex, a cork and a coat-hanger, and you’re ready to go!

Anyone can make one, anywhere, with access to very few, easy-to-acquire parts.

There’s no battery required, or maintenance, save topping up your Windex every now and then.

Could you build a gauge manometer yourself? Maybe, but you’d still need to buy the gauge itself, and those suckers can get expensive.

And the fancier the gadgetry, with apps and programming and data collection, the fancier the price tag, maintenance, and cost for parts and repairs, too.

With a water manometer, you can make every single component of it from scratch, it works every time, and it’s extremely simple to troubleshoot any issues.

That's it. It's as simple as you can get.

So, in summary…

Let’s weigh up all those ticks and crosses for an average score here in terms of pros and cons for each style of manometer, considering all of the pros and cons. To be fair, I’ve given any uncertain or ‘wishy washy’ sections a half point…

RequirementsTube styleGauge StyleElectronic / App
Can you easily identify the ‘sweet spot’?
Can you easily see the steadiness of your blowing?
Can you analyse your blowing in an advanced way?
Can you easily see ‘mental blowing anomalies’ (MBAs)?
Can you analyse MBAs in an advanced way?
Can you clearly record yourself and your manometer in the same shot?
Is it portable?Well…
Is there a risk of bad posture?
Can you easily mark the ‘sweet spot’?
Can you get super vivid rapid feedback?
Can you operate three drones while using?
Does it adequately crush your soul???
Can you see your ‘moving average’?
Does it operate without a battery?
Does it operate without windex?
TOTAL12.56.56.5

Take our word for it – as a beginning or intermediate player, the tube-style manometer isn’t just the kind you should be using, it’s also the only kind you’ll want to use once you get used to it.

Take Action

If you're a Dojo student, make sure you've worked your way through our 11 Commandments of Mastery course, and then start looking at our Tune of the Week each week as part of the Bagpipe Freedom program.

If you're not yet a Dojo Student, we'd love to welcome you! You can take the 11 Commandments course, which covers simple tools and 10 other essential mindset shifts to prepare yourself for mastery, or explore our monthly membership options and join us as a student, where you can vary your repertoire in a guided way with hundreds of other pipers around the world cheering you on!

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