Tone Wheel and Tone Cabinet Service Company - Maas Rowe Carillons and Electronic Carillon Facts


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Tone Wheel and Tone Cabinet Service Company

Electronic Carillon Facts
Paul H. Rowe

Published by Maas-Rowe Carillons in the interest
of harmony in the carillon industry.

Dedicated to the memory of Bourne G. Eaton, PhD., whose musical ear, clear mind, and honest criticisms inspired the development of the Symphonic Carillon®

Among the finest adornments of a church or public building a carillon is unique. The bells ringing out hymns and familiar melodies from the tower, widen the church's scope of influence.  Their tones bring a bond of unity to the congregation and build goodwill in the entire community.

Before the invention of the electronic carillon, only larger churches could afford a set of bells, and only wealthy donors could afford a set of bells, and only wealthy donors could know the satisfaction of giving a carillon to their church.  Now even the smallest church can enjoy the advantages of a carillon, and donors of modest means can give their church the inspirational beauty of the "Memorial with a Voice."

While the majority of carillons being installed today are electronic, it is not anticipated that electronic carillons will replace the cast bell carillon.  As is the case in many other fields, the traditional and the new each have their place in our expanding civilization.  The path of progress lies not in holding that only one is right, or that one is superior and the other inferior, but in the recognition and development of the inherent good characteristics of each their limitations, so that each may attain perfection in its own right rather than at the expense of the other.


Ever since the discovery of the ring of one stone upon another, the sounds emitted by struck solids have fascinated man.

Stone bells, usually suspended slabs of jade are still found in the orient today.

After the discovery of metals, bells in a multitude of forms were developed over the centuries.  The tiny spherical bells that were sown to priests garments, the long tube-like bells of the Chinese, the great temple gongs, are but a few examples of the wide variety of bells which all have at least one feature in common with modern carillons whether electronic or acoustical -- the tone source is free vibrating struck metal.

The term "electronic carillon" is really a misnomer.  The word "electronic" gives the impression that the tone is generated by an electronic device.  Actually all electronic carillons on the market today use the ancient principle of vibrating struck metal as a tone source.  "Electronic" refers only to the amplification system which builds up the sound to a volume that can be heard from the church tower.

Nevertheless, the term "electronic carillon" has pretty well established itself in our language as meaning an electronically amplified struck metal carillon, and it is in this sense that it is used in this booklet.


In the Christian world bells are used either as a signal or as a musical instrument.  The call to worship, the prayer bell, the hour strike, are all signals which have become part of our life.  In the chiming of hymns from a carillon at vesper time, or joyous ringing of Christmas carols the bells are used as a musical instrument.

It is apparent that different requirement are made upon bells for these two distinct applications, and this fact has long been recognized by both bells founder and electronic carillon manufacturers.

A signal bell must have a distinctive quality and usually great carrying power.  A musical bell must, above all, be musical.  To appreciate this distinction one need only compare the booming voice of Big Ben, the London signal bell, with the clear musical beauty of the Symphonic Carillon® at the United States Naval Academy.

Bells, like people, must be suited to their task.


A carillon is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as "a chime of bells".  A chime is a set of musical bells on which melodies can be played.

The tones of any musical instrument must be reasonably definite notes if melodies are to be played on it.  In bells this requirement presents a curious problem.

The tone of a bell consists of several notes sounding together like a chord struck on a piano.  Rachmaninoff recognized this when he wrote his Prelude in C Sharp Minor, in which chords of six notes struck solidly together produce an imitation of the ringing of great bells.

Remove this chordal quality from a bell and you lose the most outstanding characteristic of bell tone.  Bells so purified sound very musical and sweet; the celesta, organ harps, and orchestra bells are examples of these pure-toned bell instruments are the Vibrachord® and the Harp-Celeste.

If the notes comprising the chord of a bell are not in harmony, clash discordantly, the bell would not be suitable for musical purposes, although tone could be very bell-like and quite acceptable as a single bell.

The carillon builder has a challenge to produce bells which find a happy middle ground between pure harp-like tones and the unmusical clangor of the signal bell.  Fortunately this is not like steering a course between Scylla and Charybdis.  A certain amount of dissonance is usually considered unavoidable in a carillon, and a tone that is too pure and harp-like will offend the ear only if heard so long that its sugary sweetness cloys.  However, anyone responsible for the purchase of a carillon should be fully aware of the nature of the instruments he is considering and should have a clear understanding of what to expect, tone wise, from one he selects.

It should be remembered that the most clangorous tones may sound the most bell-like because of their resemblance to un-tuned signal bells which we hear far more often than we hear carefully tuned carillon bells.


While bell founders unhesitatingly refer to groups of their bells as "chimes"; much confusion has been created by at least one electronic carillon manufacturer claiming that it alone has electronic bells, while the products of other manufacturers are "only chimes".  Obviously such claims assume the listener is naive enough to believe that in these modern days only one manufacturer has the ability or the intelligence to provide a bell-like instrument.

In the hands of a high-pressure salesman, the statement that other manufacturers' products are "only chimes" can be an effective tool to promote the sale of musically inferior electronic carillons.  It instills an unfounded fear that the purchaser of a more musical sounding instrument would be getting "only chimes."  Let us took further into the basis, or rather lack of basis, for this statement, lest we, like the admirers of the emperor's new clothes in Hans Christian Anderson's tale, base our decision to purchase on a non-existent virtue.

Carillon builders have for centuries striven to make their bells musical, to give them a long-singing clear quality devoid of excess clangor.  While many bell founders mastered this art, many more did not.  As a result, bells of poor tone have been quite common, and early attempts to use chimes of bells as a percussion stop for pipe organs were not too successful.  Organ builders soon learned to tune free-suspended rods or tubes to produce tones over the musical scale.  These became quite popular as a substitute for chimes of bells and acquired the name "organ chimes" or "cathedral chimes."  These are basically rods, even though those of large diameter are often hollow to reduce weight.

Another form of rod-type bells which acquired the name "chimes" because groups of them are used to play melodies, are clock chimes, commonly used in mantel clocks for the Westminster strike.  These clock chimes are rods secured to a heavy metal block at one end.  Every electronic carillon on the market today uses either form of this clock chime or a modified free-suspended chime.

All the "chimes" in the sense that they are rods, and not cup-shaped bells.  Modern tuning methods make it possible to tune these chime rods to almost any tone structure, and each manufacturer has his own concept of what the tones should be.  When amplified through powerful speakers in a church tower they take on much of the character of bells, but none sound "exactly like bells."

To call those which are more pleasant to listen to "chimes" should offend no one.  But to call only those which are the most clangorous and least musical "bells", is to ignore the progress which has been made in the tuning of bells.  And to buy an unmusical carillon for fear of getting "only chimes" is something like seeing emperor's new clothes in full color.


A decision to purchase an electronic carillon should be based upon the particularly merits of the electronic instrument.  Aside from lower cost, what are these particular virtues?

Great carrying power is one feature.  The volume of sound produced by an electronic carillon of moderate power can equal that of a large carillon of cast bells, and electronic carillons are available which are capable of a volume far greater than that of any carillon ever cast.  Loudness alone can of course, be as much a vice as a virtue.

An outstanding characteristic of the electronic carillon is the relative ease with which the bell rods can be harmonically tuned.  The harmonic tuning which brings the tones comprising the chord of a cast bell harmony is a difficult art.  A bell is tuned by cutting away metal at carefully selected locations.  If carried too far, there is no practical way to put the metal back.  The bell must either be recast or  accepted as "within tolerance." Tolerance is an economic consideration.  A cast bell carillon with all of the tones of each bell tuned within very close limits is far more expensive to produce than one allowed a wider latitude in tuning.

In an electronic carillon the tuning is accomplished by cutting each tone rod to length, adding weights to the rod at selected points, bending the rod, and by cutting grooves in it.  Usually a combination of several of these is used.  If too much metal is cut away, the rod is simple discarded and a fresh start is made on a new one.

Here then is the most important advantage of the electronic carillon: it lends itself to easier control of the make-up of the chordal structure of each bell tone.  It is not necessary to understand the principles of bell tone.  It is not necessary to understand the principles of bell tuning or tone development in order to judge how well this has been carried out.  Most of the people who hear a carillon know nothing of campanology and care little about how the bells are tuned.  Their reaction will be based simply on what they hear, and they will either be pleased or displeased.

Another characteristic of the electronic carillon is that it can be build economically to a relatively low-pitched register, so that the compass of the instrument includes tones of the same pitch as those of large deep-toned cast bells.  The importance of a cast bell carillon is judged more by the size of the largest bell than by the number of bells it contains.  This is undesirable because a single "bourdon" or bass bell weighing several tons can represent a greater investment than twenty small bells in the top octaves of the carillon, and the large bells certainly have the most impressive tones.

In the electronic instrument the lowest-toned bell is hardly more expensive to make than the one for the highest note.  As a natural consequence most 25-note electronic carillons are made in a deep-toned register like the lowest octaves of a much larger cast carillon.  Bells corresponding to the high-pitched treble bells of the cast carillon are found only in electronic instruments of wider musical range.

Still another feature of the electronic carillon is that it is possible to control the length of time each bell rings after it is struck.

In a good cast bell carillon great care is taken to give the bells a singing quality.  In the treble bells this is not always carried out as well as it should be, resulting in a short-voiced tone that is more of a clink than a ring.  This is not always the bell founder's fault.  The tone of a good bell is sometimes ruined by clamping it too firmly to a too-rigid support.  A bell is a self-sufficient vibratory system and rings its best when free-suspended.  In this regard a bell is more closely related to a free-suspended chime rod than to the fixed-end rod of the clock chime.  

The rods in an electronic carillon inherently ring long enough, and the ring time is easily adjusted by various damping devices which exercise precise control on the decay time of each bell rod.


It is possible to tune the rods of an electronic carillon to almost any tone structure.  This is demonstrated by the number of different-toned electronic bell instruments on the market today.  The number of different tonalities available may well confuse the prospective purchaser and cause him to wonder why so many.  Why not just tune electronic carillons to exactly the same tone structure as a cast bell carillon and let it go at that?  This is a good question.

The tuning of cast bell carillons has been pretty well standardized, but even in this venerable industry there are considerable differences in both opinions and practices.  Bells of the same note from different foundries do not sound exactly alike.  Often marked tonal differences will be found.

Were it possible to exactly duplicate the tones of a cast bell carillon, the question would still remain "Which carillon would we duplicate?"

When Louis A. Maas and J. W. Klein developed the first commercially successful electronic carillon in 1933, they recognized these problems and decided that the instrument would have a better future if not restricted to an attempted imitation of its cast bell counterpart.  Subsequent research and development resulted in their company marketing several different types of electronic bell instruments.  Since then, nearly all other manufacturers of electronic carillons have followed suit.  It is interesting to not that one electronic carillon manufacturer who a few years ago unsuccessfully tried to have a standard written for electronic carillon tuning through the American Standards Association, now markets at least six different-toned bell instruments for church towers.

The differences between the variously tuned electronic carillons lie largely in the chordal structure to which each rod is tuned.  Cast bells are generally tuned to a minor chord, and most electronic carillons manufacturers produce instruments so tuned.  Many listeners will quickly point out that some notes of a minor tuned carillon sound decidedly flat.  These listeners are quite right.  Certain notes, notably the tonic, dominant, and subdominant of any major scale do sound flat when played on bells which are each tuned in a minor chord.

This is due to the harmony being a semitone different from that which we are accustomed to expect.  In any musical scale, we expect to hear major harmony with certain notes and minor harmony with other notes.  Minor tuning is something you can get used to, and carillons so tuned sound fine to people who have lived with them for years.

Long before the invention of the electronic carillon, some bell founders tuned bells to include major third instead of the usual minor third, thereby providing the tone structure of a major chord in each bell.  It is estimated that over 60% of all electronic carillons are tuned in this manner.  While major-tuned electronic carillons sound less like cast bells than the minor-tuned instruments, they have the distinct advantage of sounding proper harmony on the most important notes of a major scale.

Since minor tuned bells are right for some notes and major bells right for others, you will probably ask "Why not provide both kinds, so that all notes can be played in tune?"  To do this with cast bells would be very expensive since it requires twice as many bells, and involves other difficulties.  In an electronic carillon, the cost is not prohibitive, and this is precisely what is done in the Symphonic Carillon described in the next chapter.

In addition to electronic bells which are tuned to accurate major or minor chords, some are tuned to false chords, unintentionally due to inadequate tuning processes or intentionally to make them sound "bell-like" because of their tonal resemblance when struck one at a time.  The dissonance which results when melodies are played on a carillon of poorly tuned bells should be sufficient warning to the prospective purchaser to resist the salesman's insistence that bells are "supposed to sound that way."


Since music is the primary purpose of a carillon and since electronic bells can be so readily tuned to any desired chord structure, the Symphonic Carillon was bound to be the ultimate form of electronic carillon.

Like many major inventions, it is of such logical simplicity that it seems strange it took so long to invent.

After many years of manufacturing single keyboard carillons, during which time Maas-Rowe engineers brought the tuning of both the major and minor tuned instruments to the highest degree of perfection, Paul Rowe recognized that both types of tuning were necessary to achieve the fullest musical beauty in a carillon.

In 1949 he combined a major-tuned carillon and a minor-tuned one with separate keyboards to give the player the choice of major or minor bell for each note.  Much additional development was necessary before two types blended into uniform character and became tones in a single instrument -- the melody flowing between the two keyboards so smoothly that each seemed to demand the other to follow it.

In 1950, a minister visiting the Maas-Rowe factory to purchase a major-tuned, heard the experimental Symphonic Carillon being played.  He turned to Mr. Maas and said "That is the instrument I want; those bells have a stateliness such as I have never heard before."  Within a month we installed the first Symphonic Carillon at his church.  It had a range of 50 bells, 25 tuned major and 25 tuned minor.

In later models the range increased to 64, then 74, and finally 100 bells.  The instrument is now made in 74 and 100 bell models.

An automatic key selector enables the carillonneur to play the Symphonic Carillon® from a single keyboard by turning the selector to the key in which he desires to play.  Some musicians find the key selector unnecessary and prefer to play the instrument direct from the two keyboards.  For this reason, both the dual keyboards and the key selector are now standard equipment on all Symphonic Carillons.

We will not attempt to describe the tonal beauty of the Symphonic Carillon.  A recording selected from our list of Symphonic Carillon recordings will quickly reveal how clear and beautiful an electronic carillon can be, when it is built to conform to basic laws of music and harmony.  We suggest you listen to the Symphonic Carillon before buying any carillon, regardless of price.


Electronic carillons are available from 21 bells to over to over one hundred bells, and with amplification systems ranging from 40 watts output power to several thousand watts.

The number of bells and the size of the amplification sound projection system, are the two basic factors which should control the price of any electronic carillon.

The amplification system is rated in "watts output power." If a system is rated at 60 watts output, this means the amplifier will deliver 60 watts of power to the outdoor sound projectors.  It also means that this power can be delivered without appreciable distortion.

A system rated at 120 watts will deliver twice as much power to the loudspeakers as a 60 watt system.  This does not mean that the bells will be heard twice as far.  The actual distance at which a carillon can be heard depends upon many factors, such as the height of the tower, the topography of the surrounding country-side, the amount of traffic and other background noises present.  Any one of these may have more effect on the range than doubling the output power would have.

The most popular Maas-Rowe carillon has 25 bells and an amplification system rated at 120 watts, equipped with 4 directional sound projectors.  A carillon of this size can include major and minor tuning.  Price of a carillon system depends upon the installation work involved, such as the wiring for the speakers and the mounting of the speakers in the tower, or on the roof of the church.  Accessories are frequently added. For example, a 44 note Harp-Celeste, or a Vibrachime is desired instead of the Harp.  

In addition, there are automatic call to worship ringers to ring the bells at preset times for services; the Westminster strike, which tolls the hour and the familiar quarter melodies; and the Angelus ringer.  Any or all of these can be added.

Because Maas-Rowe is the only manufacturer marketing minor tuned bells, major tuned bells, tubular chime carillons, and the Symphonic Carillon, you can expect from Maas-Rowe the most carillon value for your money regardless of which type you select.  You can also expect impartial factual information on all types of carillons from your Maas-Rowe dealer.  Most established organ dealers are franchised Maas-Rowe dealers.  Feel free to write us for the name of your nearest dealer, or for full information on your products.

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