Tinwhistle Manufacture Enters the Digital Age

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How it’s New York: Instrument designer Jerry Freeman’s tweaked tinwhistles have become popular among the region’s Irish trad players.
How it’s Irish: The tinwhistle (variously known as feadán, feadóg, cuisle, pennywhistle, tinflute, flageolet) has been a mainstay of Irish music for centuries.

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L.E. McCullough (l), Jerry Freeman (r) at CCE Mid-Atlantic Fleadh, Parsippany NJ

L.E. McCullough (l), Jerry Freeman (r) at CCE Mid-Atlantic Fleadh, Parsippany NJ

JERRY FREEMAN IS THE world’s only full time, professional tinwhistle tweaker.

And now he’s going full-tilt 3D. The tinwhistle world may never be the same.

A longtime fan of Irish traditional music, the Coventry, Connecticut-based craftsman had heard many tinwhistle players over the years speak of their relentless search for a Generation brand tinwhistle that would produce a consistently excellent tone.

The problem was that the Generation had, since its early 20th-century inception, been a cheap, mass-produced instrument … you could buy two Generations, to all outward appearances identical, and one could be Good, the other Poor.

Or both could be Poor.

Or both could be Good — and the chance of this happening would approximate the odds of buying a winning Powerball ticket and being hit by lighting while simultaneously being voted winning Bachelor and/or Bachelorette.

You get the point.

"The Tinwhistle Boy" by Charles Spencelayh

“The Tinwhistle Boy” by Charles Spencelayh

The other point is that, until the last three decades or so when innovative artisans in the traditional music field began to produce high-quality, handcrafted tinwhistles, the Generation’s ubiquity and inexpensive price made it the tinwhistle most players usually encountered and could most easily afford.

Freeman saw the chance to provide a service to the world’s tinwhistle community. In 2003, after much collaboration with and feedback from established players, he created an instrument he called a Tweaked Generation.

“Tweaking” a tinwhistle is much like “setting up” a guitar or fiddle or “voicing” an organ pipe — the process of making fine adjustments and modifications to get the best possible performance from the instrument.

Freeman’s tweaking approach involves altering the soundblade, ramp and windway of the plastic tinwhistle mouthpiece, or fipple. The result is an overall better-sounding Generation with a more dynamic and cleaner (less buzzy/raspy) tone.

Freeman has since developed four varieties of these adapted whistles, each with a distinct set of tonal charateristics — Blackbird, Bluebird, Mellow Dog and Tweaked Generation. He estimates he’s tweaked close to 20,000 instruments and is most certainly the world’s only fulltime, professional tinwhistle tweaker.

Yet, tweaking remains a slow and laborious craft. Freeman believes the emerging technology of 3D digital printing can render the process scientifically precise and infinitely scalable. Instead of producing batches of 25 or so whistles by hand, using the latest technologies will allow him to scale up and make 2,500 or 25,000 in a single production run, with higher quality than he can achieve by hand.

Dr. Sina Shahbazmohamadi expweriments at the UConn Digital Musicology Group (photo: Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

Dr. Sina Shahbazmohamadi experiments at the UConn Digital Musicology Group (photo: Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

To this end, he has enlisted the aid of the University of Connecticut Digital Musicology Group in Storrs, Connecticut. Under the direction of Dr. Richard Bass, Dr. Sina Shahbazmohamadi and Dr. Robert Howe, the UCDMG has achieved worldwide acclaim for using advanced CT imaging to create exact replicas of rare historic instruments.

They will make high resolution CT scans of Freeman’s whistleheads and create CAD computer files that  precisely reproduce the tweaked mouthpiece geometry via 3D modeling software. The resulting digitally precise virtual models will be used to generate 3D printed prototypes and then, when the
final designs are complete, full-scale production runs. That means high
quality tinwhistles will be available for the first time in large quantities
at low prices, readily available to aspiring and seasoned players alike.

“I’ve heard the same story many times,” Freeman says.

“Someone takes an interest in Irish music, buys a tinwhistle and begins learning to play. After a short time they give up, frustrated by the cantankerousness of the instrument and unsure whether the problem is their playing or the whistle itself. I’ve lost count of how many people have told me, ‘If I’d gotten one of your whistles 20 years ago, I would have been playing 20 years by now.’”

The goal of the digital printing project is simple — to put good-quality, affordable whistles in every music store and Irish gift shop. The result:  good whistles in a selection of voicings and keys readily available to every player, ensuring that a learner’s first experience with the instrument is a fulfilling one. Notes Freeman:

“Having a good instrument makes a difference in how many people stay with the music and go on to become lifelong players.”

A new crop of lifelong tinwhistle players is already on the rise, as Freeman’s tweaked tinwhistles are helping young musicians win prizes in Irish music competitions around the world.

Last year’s 2014 All Ireland under-12 tinwhistle championship was won by Iarla McMahon, 10, of County Down, playing a Freeman Bluebird. Fifteen-year-old Keegan Loesel of Chester County, Pennsylvania, has won several North American competitions using Freemans.

Jerry Freeman (l) discusses crowdfunding strategy with Lúnasa's Kevin Crawford (r).

Jerry Freeman (l) discusses crowdfunding strategy with Lúnasa’s Kevin Crawford (r).

A growing number of tinwhistle teachers and Irish music associations recommend the instruments. Every year, the Mid-Atlantic chapter of Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann asks Freeman to make his whistles available at their events, as does Swannanoa Gathering’s Celtic Week, with a special nod toward encouraging beginning students.

Freeman has initiated an Indigogo.com crowdfunding campaign to raise money for the precision CT scanning, needed computer hardware and 3D modeling software, prototyping costs and tooling for mass production.

In the end, says Freeman, it’s about strengthening and deepening the music for generations to come.

“For people worldwide, the tinwhistle is their entry instrument into traditional Irish music. A better, affordable and widely available whistle will put more music in the world and give more people the joy of making their own music.”

For more information, contact Jerry Freeman at jerry@freemanwhistles.com. * * *

 

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