My email box surprised me one day when I received this: “Hevia, the inventor of the MIDI bagpipe, and the most famous player of the instrument, would like to introduce you to his new controller, the MBS 300, more advanced, powerful and realistic than ever.” I am clueless how I was on the receiving end of that email.
For the next 20 minutes I was transfixed, watching Jose Angel Hevia videos playing his MIDI Asturian bagpipes…or were they GHB pipes…or were they smallpipes…or were they violins…or were they a piano? Actually, all of them. (Do your self a favor and spend a few minutes at the site.)
Jose Hevia is not well known in US piping circles although he has been a popular hit on Continental Europe, and in South American and New Zealand.
Mr Hevia is an Asturian piper from Villaviciosa, Asturias, a small Principality in the north of Spain. He has helped revived an instrument that was almost dead by the 1980s to one being played by a community of over 3000 players in Spain alone. The Asturian pipes play a full octave and a half , and use a closed fingering system not unlike Northumbrian smallpipes. Drones are tuned to their key, C, for the C pipes, A# for the A# pipes, for example.
I asked Mr Hevia some questions about his piping and musical history, how he came to invent and develop the MIDI pipes and how he views the future of electronic pipes. His experience fascinated me.
How did your music playing start, what instruments and kinds of music? How have you evolved?
I started playing pipes, then flutes and whistles. Of course, when I invented the electronic bagpipe, it became one of my best tools for composing, recording and live concerts. Now, it is irreplaceable.
How long have you been playing the pipes? How did you become interested?
I started playing at the age of ten. I first came into contact with the bagpipes when I was four years old during a procession in Amandi, Asturias, when I was with my grandfather. It was there that the image of a man and his bagpipes had an impact on me. The unity between the pipe player, his music and the instrument seemed magical.
Which pipes do you play?
Asturian pipes and, of course, my midi or electronic pipes.
What is your favorite type of pipe? Key? Version?
No question about this: obviously, I love the Asturian pipes. They are my favorite, especially Asturian pipes in C, great for the soloist.
Do you play bellows blown pipes?
Well, I tried a couple of times but I must admit that I always focused my career on the Asturian pipes. But I do love the sound of Uilleann pipes. So, when I invented MIDI bagpipes, one of the first samples I included were of Uilleann pipes. The result is amazing.
Who has been your biggest influence?
The former Spanish Pipe Major Mr. José Remis Ovalle . He tutored me when I was young.
From looking at your music and write-ups, you are also an”‘Alternative” piper! How would you, for example, be similar to Gordon Duncan? Did you know Gordon Duncan?
I did know Gordon Duncan. A great artist whom I admire much. Well, when you do something different from mainstream piping you are considered an alternative artist. Since my primary stage instrument is the electronic bagpipe, it’s quite clear I differ from others. And given that we are often engaged in a purist traditional world this is not often easy.
I was an alternative piper from the beginning of my career. When I started playing Asturian traditional pipes, only a dozen of old pipers remained in Asturias. Then, I founded my first school that became a Pipe Band, then a second, later a third and finally a fourth pipe band. In those years, I could say that I taught hundreds of pupils. Now, an instrument that almost disappeared in the 1980 has 3,000 players in my country!
For someone interested in hearing your music, where would you recommend s/he start?
When I left pipe bands and commenced my solo career, EMI published my first album “No Man’s Land” in 1998. The CD was a great success. I had been very happy selling a couple of thousand copies yet ultimately the CD sold over 1.7 million copies all over the world. Not bad for a piper. “No Man’s Land” was released in over forty countries and received platinum status reaching the top of the charts in such countries as New Zealand, Hungary, Belgium, Italy, Portugal, Denmark, to name a few. This album would be a good place to start to know me and my music. You may log on to my website, www.hevia.es.
What inspired you to make the leap to crafting your own instrument? Do you have experience making reeded pipes?
The same idea: Going Further! And who knows better than the piper himself what he really wants and where he wants to go? Consequently, I also founded a factory where I designed my own Asturian pipes and these were reeded pipes, of course. I worked day by day with my team to get the finest sound and reach more possibilities for my instrument. We also made Uilleann pipes and Scottish pipes, oboes, among others. Actually, we sold hundreds of them, but this business took me a lot of time and finally I quit to dedicate more time to my musical career.
How did you start getting into the electronic pipe making profession?
Well, I would say that my main profession is piper and musician. When other pipers discovered my MIDI pipes in my live concerts or on the internet they wanted one as well. So, I decided to commercialize my MIDI pipes.
What sparked your interest in your MIDI pipes?
As with other pipes, the Asturian pipes is a very limited instrument. After working with it for many years, I realized that I wanted more than it could give me. For this reason, I started working with one of my pupils, a computer technician, to design what in several years would become a midi pipes.
I had the idea of creating a new all-in-one instrument. I wanted the sounds of different pipes and other instruments playing just one device, and using my personal fingering. After developing the MIDI pipes I continued to add sounds and now it’s like a full orchestra!
In the very beginning it was a real monster, with hundreds of wires, a keyboard that I had to play with my feet. Definitely not something that you could play on stage. So, I worked quite hard and spent a lot of development time and finally found almost what I was looking for. And I say ‘almost’ because I am never totally happy with what I have.
After working with MIDI pipes for almost twenty years, I may confidently say our MBS 300 controller is the most advanced device you can currently find. In 1993 my midi pipes were the only ones in the world. Now, you can find dozens on the market. Ours, however, remains the most versatile and professional.
When did your business begin? Was it part time at first? Is it still?
We started selling our old MIDI pipes years ago, before 2000, but it was a very expensive product. A large sampler was needed. Now, the new MBS 300 controller has the advantage of using a laptop. It’s easy to carry and, more important for customers, far more economical. I do spend most of my time composing new songs and touring with my band worldwide. So, pipe making is a hobby when I am at home.
What are you trying to achieve or provide that other makers don’t?
I am always trying to solve the problems generated in my daily career as a musician. Not only the musical problems but others I encounter in my tours. For example, travel. Carrying my pipes in the aircraft cabin is not easy.
What is the bread and butter of your business, and what do you enjoy doing the most?
I’m very curious. So, I am always investigating continually to refine the instrument. Sometimes I get stuck but when I finally solve the problem I feel great.
What are the most difficult challenges in your business?
Initially the ‘purists’ in our guild were opposed to my ‘diabolic’ instrument. Initially I wasted a lot of time trying to convince them about the wide possibilities of the new device… without result! Now, numerous pipers are interested in MIDI pipes. Now we find several electronic pipemakers world over so we know the instrument has a future.
How many sets have you made to date?
We made 100 units of the new controller MBS 300. Our launch offer provided a complete sound set. It included several pipes of the world and a host of other instruments to these first clients. Now we have few units left and with many interested clients so we are producing another 200 units at present time.
Have you thought of making a bellows-blown MIDI pipe similar to the Uilleann V-Pipes?
Not at all. The most important achievement of our controller portability. My biggest problem has been carrying instruments on planes while on tour. Consequently, I designed folding MIDI pipes . Now, the new MBS 300 controller may be carried in a flute bag, in the cabin of the plane. To add a bellow would mean a step back in the development. Besides, our controller can create the exact sounds as an Uilleann pipe or any other bellows-blown pipes.
Your readers should understand we invented the first midi controller ever twenty years ago. Other MIDI pipes are imitators, but our controller is the most professional and advanced available. It solves many problems presented in other makes. And, it has wireless integrated Bluetooth. The included sounds sets are the most realistic ever and took me quite a long time to create them.
Can you talk about some of the technical challenges in creating your pipes?
That would be quite a technical discussion. I think it is enough that folks know about the MIDI pipes and their possibilities. I do not want to bore readers with technical details requiring deep knowledge of MIDI pipes.
Some pipers are not electronically sophisticated. If someone wanted to buy and use your pipes could you briefly walk through the process? For example, the video on your website is quite varied with your versatile instrument. How would any non-technical person get similar results?
The most important thing is to be a quite advanced piper. Once you dominate traditional pipes, you can start playing MIDI pipes. Otherwise, you cannot exploit the infinite possibilities of this device.Sometimes, when a beginner tries my pipes he’ll say, “It does not sound the same as when it’s in your hands, Jose.” One cannot ask of the pipes what one cannot give them.
MIDI pipes are an excellent tool for the experienced player. Remember, you can adapt the fingering, note by note, to your preferences. For example, you can create the sound of Uilleann pipes but with Asturian, GHB fingering or, indeed, with any fingering you chose. Or these pipes can sound like an accordion, a violin, an electric guitar or any other instrument.
For a beginner it may be also a good instrument if taught under the supervision of an advanced MIDI pipes teacher. For learning purposes our MBS 300 controller may be programmed to sound untuned if not played correctly, forcing pupils to use their fingers in a proper way as well as to press the bag with the right pressure. In this way it imitates any other reeded pipes. Actually, several piping schools have our MBS 300 controller to initiate their pupils on the pipes.
What is your opinion on the current quality of instruments compared to historical instruments?
Instruments are improving daily because pipers are asking for more from them. And, in my case, since we make our own instruments we ourselves can demand more of our instruments.
Have you had and do you have apprentices, associates, employees?
I always worked with a team. The first one was created by Alberto Arias, a computer technician, my Asturian pipes pupil, Miguel Dopico, an electronic technician, and myself. As a musician I demanded more of them every day, requesting more possibilities for the controller. After much research and a lot of hard work we solved these problems and ultimately created the first midi bagpipe. Now, my team is different, other names, but the philosophy of the work is exactly the same.
What are your thoughts about your business after you can’t or don’t want to continue with it?
I never thought when we invented this device almost twenty years ago that, years after, many people would know about it and be interested in playing it. Also I must say that I feel very proud that other makers decided to imitate my MIDI pipes, not only in Spain but in other countries.
Although I consider my work basically complete and since the MIDI pipes are an important part of my live shows, I will go on with research and development for continued improvement with our instrument.
Which musicians do you like hearing most?
I have a collection of very old vinyl records I listen to on a gramophone I bought in a Buenos Aires market on one of my tours. My favourite artists are the old pipers like José Remis Ovalle, el Gaiteru de Llibardon or Carlos Gardel whom I consider a genius.
Michael Simone is a recent and enthusiastic convert to the world of alternative piping who lives in Pennsylvania.