This article summarizes the most common designs of bells, chimes, and carillons. Maintenance requirements are
included to help create an awareness of the need.
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 after our alcoholic father left us.
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 given to the Smithsonian Institute. 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.
In the photo at left, a new 60-watt driver is resting on the girder at the base of the Sunsphere at a height of 176 feet.
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 probably 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 major manufacturers have captured this tonal irregularity by sampling real swinging cast bells.
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 the tracker action of a mechanical 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 bronze or aluminum. Commonly 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 is commonly mounted on the organ console for playing the chimes. However, electronic circuit boards are now available to allow the chimes to be played on any organ manual (keyboard). 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 real cathedral chimes. I have successfully integrated electric and electropneumatic cathedral chimes. 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 bells 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 cassette tapes. 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 fall off when the glue deteriorates, and stick on the tape head or wrap themselves around the capstan or pinch roller, causing a real mess as the tape unit continues to operate with no stop signal.
Compact Disc systems and Solid-State storage are now being offered by all manufacturers. These high-quality systems offer lower cost, increased reliability, and lower maintenance needs. You can choose from basic systems that just play bells and hymns on a programmed schedule, or advanced models with MIDI capabilities for recording your own custom melodies and storing them for later manual or automatic playback. 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. Maas-Rowe continues to offer their mechanical bell rods with their digital systems, allowing manual performances using a keyboard, and the Westminster chime.
Originally, carillon amplifiers used vacuum tubes, and the control systems were mechanical clocks (such as the Verdin clock pictured here). Fitted with slotted rings around the clock face at 15 minute intervals, pins can be inserted to actuate switches as the ring rotates around the clock face which is powered by a very accurate synchronous motor. These switches trigger relays that activate the tape drive and amplifiers for specific functions on weekdays or Sundays. 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 or stretching.
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. Purchasing new tapes (which are still available on a limited basis, but very expensive) is not cost-effective. Unless the carillon has historical or sentimental value, I recommend replacing the system with a new one.
Another popular system manufactured by Maas-Rowe employs miniature tuned bell rods. 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 would record 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 others had gone to “digital” bell sounds. Their confusion was caused by some sales reps who told them that CDs (yes, compact discs) are made with analog signals, just like vinyl records! I was shocked that these reps were intentionally misleading people for their own personal gain. I guess they were told they would have to change the needle periodically, too! Haha! This gives people the misconception that because a CD-based system is less expensive than one with Integrated Circuit 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, ready to take advantage of your lack of technical knowledge. So do your homework before signing any agreement.
Most, if not all, electronic carillon manufacturers have moved away from CD-based systems, partly because the cost of solid-state storage has become more economical, and partly to eliminate a mechanical system is more likely to fail than IC storage. If you only need to play pre-recorded music and bells to announce the time, like the Westminster, then a CD-based system will do the job. If you want to play live music from the keyboard, and record your own melodies, then solid-state storage (and the complex electronics that directs the information in and out of them) is 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.
However, some manufacturers have inferior bell sounds on their samples, so you are strongly encouraged to compare before you buy! Chime Master, Maas-Rowe and a few others have high-quality bell samples. 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.
All major carillon manufacturers now offer several models that directly or indirectly replace the mechanical clocks and tape drives in ALL carillons. Imagine getting this much reliability and scheduling versatility for a fraction of the cost of a complete system. And most of them 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 and strikers. And the new systems can hold thousands of melodies, synchronize with the Atomic Clock, automatically adjust for Daylight Saving Time, include a 10-year backup battery for stored programs, and include a handheld wireless remote control.
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!
Some related websites are listed below:
Guild of Carillonneurs of North America
Yale University – fascinating reading – bells around the world