This article summarizes the most common designs of bells, chimes, and carillons. Maintenance requirements are included to create an awareness of the need.
A new 60-watt horn driver is resting in front of my shoe.
I have always enjoyed bell music. Back in the sixties, when I was a teenager, my grandfather bought an old courthouse clock, probably at one of the many auctions he attended. The dial face was twelve feet in diameter! He propped it against one of his workshops ( he was a safe and vault technician, and always tinkering – James R. Giles – Knoxville, TN). My mother and sister and I lived with our grandparents during this time.
Grandpa built a shed to protect the huge clockworks. I would get the mechanism turning by winding the big counterweights, and watching all the parts turn and spin – fascinated by it all. He told me he wanted to figure out how to make it play the Westminster, but it had no bells. He asked me to someday help him figure out how to do it. We never pursued this, unfortunately. After his death, many of his old time-locks and safes were sold to the Smithsonian. The rest were auctioned, including that old clock. So, here am I, servicing carillons and chimes, and even an occasional Tower clock!
A bell can be anything that resonates when struck. Some say it’s only a bell if it has the classic “bell” shape, while others limit it’s qualification to certain metals or alloys. You will encounter a variety of bell types in this article.
You may have heard of a “six bell peal”, or a “chime” of bells, or a “carillon”, and wondered what distinguishing characteristics apply to a particular type. The number of bells is the main determining factor. Bells can be categorized in many ways, but for the sake of brevity, we must limit this article to the most common types. I will begin by describing real cast bronze bells and their mechanical controls. Then I will describe how current technology has expanded into the bell world to enhance control of real bells, and to imitate them with an electronic counterpart when real bells are impractical (either physically or economically).
One bell is just a bell. No rocket science here. However, it can either be fixed, with its clapper controlled by a rope, or swinging, with a freely hanging clapper, in which case the entire bell is swung back and forth by use of a rope. Many churches have a single bell mounted in the steeple to call the people to worship, and for special occasions. In 1926, the I.T. Verdin company invented the electric bell ringing device. Before then, all bells were rung by hand. The availability of electricity opened the way for these marvelous devices, and many existing bell towers were equipped with electric bell ringers.
A group of two to eight bells, tuned to a particular scale or chord, is called a peal of bells. The three bell peal is the most popular, with the four bell and six bell peal next in popularity. These are swinging bells, each having its own natural rhythm which is determined by its size and weight. A continuously changing pattern of harmonious sounds is created. Most peals use a major chord of at least the first, third and fifth notes.
Today, fixed bells can be equipped with electric bell ringers, which are then wired to a keyboard for manual playing, or interfaced with a new electronic carillon control system to strike at the same rate as a swinging bell of the same size. This imitates a peal of swinging bells very well. However, if you’ve ever listened closely to a swinging bell, you discerned a slight difference in tone between the two sides of the bell when struck. This difference is lost when the electric bell ringer is used because it strikes exactly the same spot every time. The I.T. Verdin Co. tried to create a more realistic effect by alternating the pressure of the strike from loud to soft each time. The latest digital sampling techniques, used by Chime Master for instance, have actually captured this tonal irregularity by sampling real cast bells. You should hear the Swinging Angelus Bell! It is amazingly realistic.
The next graduation is to a chime of bells, which consists of nine to twenty-two bells, usually arranged in a diatonic scale. The bells are fixed instead of swinging, and struck by clappers connected to a keyboard console with cables. We would equate this type of control with a tracker action in an organ console. The “keys” on a mechanical action keyboard are called batons – long wooden handles, a few inches apart, struck with the fists in most cases – not what an organist or pianist might expect. An electrified chime keyboard, which looks just like an organ keyboard, utilizes electrical key contacts to send signals to the electric bell ringers. We could compare this to an electric action in the organ world.
A variation of the cast bell chime is a rack of suspended tubular bells, either hollow or solid, usually brass or aluminum. Mounted on a wall, these bells are quite attractive. The graduated lengths can be arranged in one of many patterns to suit the architecture of the building or wall. Called cathedral chimes, they are available in 20, 21 or 25 note arrangements. This is where a slight blur in boundaries occurs. Remember that I said chimes have a maximum of twenty-two bells? Then why isn’t this called a carillon? I don’t know anyone with a satisfactory answer, but I think the twenty-five note cathedral chime is simply an expanded version of the twenty-two note system, because two full octaves are easier to play. The numbers are not cast in stone, you see.
A miniature keyboard, mounted on the organ console, is used to play the chimes. However, electronic circuit boards are now available to allow integration into any organ system. The chimes, old or new, can be controlled directly from the organ keys. A “chime” stop can be added, or an existing stop that isn’t being used, such as an old electronic chime stop, can activate the cathedral chimes. I have successfully integrated cathedral chime which were over forty years old using one of these boards. Another update: Several manufacturers now produce a digital chime board, available especially for church organs. All the sounds are in the board, so no actual chimes are necessary. This option is also popular with churches displaying inoperative cathedral chimes that may cost more to refurbish than they are willing to spend. They can retain the beauty of the real chimes without the expense of maintenance. Some of these boards sound very authentic, while others are less realistic. Shop around. Advantages are cost, space, and maintenance.
This Deagan electro-pneumatic chime had not been heard for fifteen years when I interfaced it with the Rodgers 830 electronic/pipe hybrid organ at Bethel Orthodox Presbyterian Church in the enchanting little town of Oostburg, Wisconsin. Now the organist can choose the built-in electronic chimes or the real thing with the flip of a switch. I configured it to play on the Great manual, using the Carillon drawknob. My able assistant (NOT the guy in the Hawaiian shirt!) is Corey Smies, who grew up in the church, and is now an organist in Madison, WI.
A carillon (care’-uh-lahn, not ca-rill’-yun) is a system of at least 23 bells tuned to a musical scale. A carillon usually has a keyboard console complete with pedal clavier, and is controlled by cables connected to the clappers. It is commonly interfaced with a clock to automatically toll the hour, and play a short melody. One of the very early automatic controllers, manufactured by Deagan, utilized a cylindrical metal drum with small metal lugs extending out from the drum, just like a music box movement.
But the drum was about three feet long and eight inches in diameter! As the drum slowly rotated, the lugs passed over a row of switches connected to electric clapper solenoids to strike the individual bells, thus playing a tune.
Please be aware that electronic carillons are not considered true carillons by some. The most common disagreements are (1) they have no physical bells, or (2) the bells (bell rods or tubes) are not formed in the classic “bell” shape.
Tape cartridge carillons were very popular in the fifties, sixties, and seventies, and are still in use today. Early tapes were large, bulky, and had poor sound reproduction characteristics and more wow, flutter, and “tape hiss” than modern cassette tapes, which were used primarily in the eighties. Also, the old continuous loop tapes had metal foil detectors glued between songs so the system would know when to stop. These little pieces of foil are now coming off because the glue is failing, and they stick on the tape head or wrap themselves around the capstan or pinch roller, causing a real mess.
Compact Disc systems and Solid-State storage are now being offered by all manufacturers. Maas-Rowe also still offers the unique sound of struck chime rods with their digital systems, too. Chime Master offers a variety of high-quality systems, including CD-based units, which are very affordable and reliable, and several solid-state (IC storage) models with keyboard capabilities for recording your own custom melodies. Chime Master CDs, which are manufactured in their own factory, imbed control data along with the bell music data to shut down the system if an abnormal condition is detected. Some manufacturers do not include this vital monitoring, and their CD-based system will continue to play a damaged CD no matter how terrible it sounds. Replacing a tape system with a CD or IC system eliminates tape problems (hiss, stretching, and breakage), greatly increases number of selections, improves reliability, and allows more versatility in programming.
Originally, carillon amplifiers used vacuum tubes, and the control system was a mechanical clock (such as the Verdin clock pictured above). Fitted with a a number of rotating slotted rings around the clock face, pins are inserted at specific time slots to actuate switches that control the power to the tape drive and amplifiers as the slotted ring rotates around the clock face. Each ring controls a specific function, such as Weekday music, Sunday Music, Westminster, etc. Early tape drives lacked precise speed control, resulting in a subtle “warped record” sound (for those old enough to have played warped vinyl records!). Severe sound warp (dragging) is usually an indication of tape slippage.
Lack of maintenance is the most common cause of this condition, resulting in a buildup of iron oxide on the pinch roller, which reduces its ability to grip the tape. Tape stretch is another source of this sound, having many potential sources of trouble within the complex tape drive, and storage/handling conditions. Purchasing new tapes (which are still available on a limited basis, but very expensive) is not cost-effective. The money should be directed to a carillon fund for new equipment, instead.
Another popular system, manufactured by Maas Rowe until the early eighties, employs metal bell rods in the place of recorded bell sounds. Pins inserted into the rotating dial face of the mechanical clock pass between several pairs of electrical contacts, depending on the particular function desired at that time. This starts a small motor turning very slowly, which drives several cam disks mounted in its frame. Several electrical contacts are also mounted to this frame, each associated with its own cam disk. Each disk, which has notches cut into it, rotates, driven by the motor, to open and close its contact at precise times, causing a particular bell rod to be struck. The number of disks and contacts in each cam frame varies, depending on the number of bells it controls, and the tune it plays. A small spool of wire, called a solenoid is energized with a voltage, causing repulsion of a small tubular striker rod which is resting in the hollow center of the spool.
The striker rod moves up to strike the end of a thin metal bell rod. This rod is tuned to a particular pitch with certain bell overtones, or harmonics, designed into it. A tiny microphone, critically placed near the other end of the resonating rod, picks up the small vibrations and transmits them to the amplification system. Bell rods are much less expensive than cast bells, requiring less space and bracing, while still producing a distinctively clear tone with a natural decay. This system is mechanically complex and requires a large area for the many cabinets that house the bell rods and the digital electronic control circuitry. Periodic adjustment of the bell rods is required to assure consistency of tone. Lubrication of moving parts, such as the mechanical clock and cams, is also important, as is cleaning of the contacts.
The Sunsphere in Knoxville, TN, houses the largest model of this type in the area. It was installed by Maas Rowe Carillons for the 1982 World’s Fair. All of its 246 individual bell rods of Major, Minor, Flemish, Symphonic, Bourdon, Harp, and Celeste tuning are housed in attractive wooden display cases. The Harp and Celeste bells are suspended horizontally and struck in the center of the bell rod from below. The other bells are suspended vertically from a small string with a spring tensioner. The lower end of the bell is held in place in the same way, and struck from below. Six 185-watt amplifiers drive eighteen 60-watt speakers, which are mounted on the girders beneath the golden sphere. A cassette tape unit records the digital control signals (not the audio sounds), then, upon command from the clock, sets up the stops and plays the actual bells. Therefore, no sound quality is lost through reproduction. A two manual console, with stop tablets, thirteen pedals, and a locking top, allows ease of playing for those familiar with organ consoles. Remote control of the Inside and Tower speakers is also available at the Console.
DIGITAL vs. ANALOG?!
I have received a number of email inquiries from confused individuals who were trying to weigh all the factors involved in the selection of an appropriate electronic carillon for their church. They would ask which was better, “analog” or “digital” as it applied to musical storage, and why some manufacturers chose to stay “analog” while the more advanced companies had gone to “digital” bell sounds. I was confused at first, because all modern electronic carillons, that I am knowledgeable of, employ digital sound storage! After asking a few questions, I quickly ascertained the source of their misguided reasoning. Every one of them had been told by the sales reps from a well-known electronic carillon manufacturer that CDs (yes, compact discs) are made with analog signals, just like vinyl records! I was shocked and appalled when I learned how these reps were intentionally misleading people. I guess they were told they would have to change the needle (stylus) periodically, too! Ha! Ha! The reps touted their technology as “digital”, and erroneously called Chime Master’s Compact Disc systems “analog”, inferring different levels of performance here! This gives people the misconception that because a CD-based system is less expensive than one with IC storage, it must be inferior in some way. This is simply not true. Just because a company’s market is churches, don’t assume they abide by ethical values! Ruthless sales representatives are out there, attempting to take advantage of your lack of technical knowledge. So do your homework before signing any agreement. By the way, Chime Master is so sure of their products that they will give you a complete system on a thirty-day trial period – no strings attached! If you don’t like it, you just send it back. Chime Master even pays the shipping!
The reason Chime Master offers a CD-based system is because some situations have simpler needs than others. If your church or synagogue or town hall only needs to play pre-recorded music and bells to announce the time, like the Westminster, then there is no need for IC storage. If you want to play live music from the keyboard, and record your own melodies, then ICs, (and all the complex electronics that directs the information in and out of them) are necessary for storage and retrieval of the melody information. CDs already contain all the music you’re going to play, and you can’t change it. ICs are empty storage devices that you can fill with your own music, then play it back on command. This is why CDs are much less expensive per megabyte of storage capacity than ICs. It’s just that simple!
A digital bell sample contains exactly the same numbers, (zeroes and ones) regardless of the storage device. The numbers will produce exactly the same waveform, which creates exactly the same sound, whether read from a CD or IC. Other factors can affect the sound quality of the digitized waveform, but the storage device is NOT one of them. Please beware of any sales rep who stoops to such dishonesty, sacrificing his integrity for a few dollars. The company offering an honest product at an honest price does not need to deceive the public to stay in business.
So if you compare one of Chime Master’s solid-state (IC) data storage systems to one of their CD systems, I guarantee that you cannot discern the difference in sound quality or tonality! The same holds true with Maas-Rowe’s CD-based systems, and any others that use this technology. However, some manufacturers have inferior bell sounds on their samples, so you are strongly encouraged to compare before you buy!Just because they’re “digital”, doesn’t mean they’re realistic or high quality bell samples. Ask the reps about their SAMPLE RATES, because this value will affect the realism and clarity of the bell sample when it’s played back. Right now the highest sample rate I know of is Chime Master’s Millenium series, which runs at 48 kHz (kiloHertz) with 24 bit resolution.They also have 64 voice polyphony, which is better than any other carillon manufacturer that I know. This means 64 notes can be ringing at one time before the “oldest” notes are cut off so the new ones can continue ringing.
Chime Master now has several carillon models that directly replace the mechanical clock, control switches, relays, and tape drives in ALL older carillons employing player rolls or tape drives. Imagine getting this much reliability and scheduling versatility for a fraction of the cost of a complete system. And it can be mounted in your existing carillon cabinet!
Or if you have real cast bells or the Deagan tubular tower bells, you may choose a controller that actually rings them automatically. The bells will sound exactly the same as before, because they are the same bells! So the cost of upgrading just dropped to a fraction of a comparable new system. And the Chime Master unit holds up to 2,000 melodies (with room for 2,000 custom tunes you record), automatically adjusts for Daylight Savings Time, includes a 10 year backup battery and a handheld wireless remote control, and is protected by a 5 year Parts & Labor Warranty.
Today, a cast bell carillon can be automated by incorporating a controller and a relay interface panel, available from some carillon manufacturers. Automation of bell ringing functions increases the carillon’s usefulness and versatility, while simplifying the schedule of the “bell ringer” (carillonneur). For example, Chime Master’s system automatically compensates for Daylight Savings Time, and changes the tune selections to coincide with special holiday celebrations (Independence Day, Christmas, Easter, Hanukkah, Lent, St. Patrick’s Day, etc.). The volume level can even be programmed for specific time periods! A user-friendly control panel simplifies program changes and offers a keylocked manual override. It also checks for programming errors, such as overlapping active time periods, and alerts the programmer. The wireless Remote Control is great for adding a special touch to any ceremony or celebration when timing is uncertain. Chime Master is the only company whose digital controller is designed to interface with any manufacturers’ bells, amplifiers, and speakers, as far as I know.
An optional Chime Master keyboard (or almost any standard MIDI keyboard) provides the user with the capability to record custom tunes for automatic playback. The carillonneur can also practice in privacy by playing the digitally sampled bronze bell sounds imbedded in the system’s memory, instead of ringing the real Tower bells.
This article does not attempt to include all system designs or manufacturers.
If you are interested in annual carillon maintenance, please inquire. The annual fee is determined by your proximity to my closest maintenance customer, and is quite reasonable when I have other customers in your area. Your carillon will receive a thorough inspection, operational checkout, cleaning of all switches, relays, tape heads, capstans, pinch rollers and belts, and lubrication of all moving parts such as clock gears, capstans, pinch rollers, and motors. Minor repairs can be done as well for a small additional fee. Call your manufacturer for the cost of in-house belt replacement alone! You’ll probably be shocked. One prominent manufacturer charges over $600, IF you ship it to them – and they offer NO warranty on old equipment!
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