Electronic Carillons

A vintage electronic carillon history from Bells of America.


The History of
Electronic Carillons

Electronic carillons – uniquely American musical devices.

Electronic carillons are a uniquely American musical device primarily installed after World War II in the United States to emulate tower bells.

Some of these electronic carillons strove to replicate cast bronze bells using recordings, while others projected bell-like tones created through different techniques.

Effects of the World Wars on traditional bronze bells.

Before World War I, the United States boasted many bell foundries that forged traditional cast bronze bells for towers and steeples. With metal shortages resulting from international conflict, many foundries were retooled to make weapons. In some cases, raw materials used to make bronze bells were redirected to other manufacturers for war-time purposes, creating shortages of essential bell metal alloys such as copper and tin which comprise bronze.

The World Wars also ushered in major manufacturing advancements of electronics. In a post World War II environment, the bell foundries and their unique art of cast bronze bell casting techniques mostly evaporated in the United States, with Europe primarily retaining the knowledge. European countries slowly resumed the gradual production of bells again.

Jeff Bezdek, founder and President of Bells of America, working a bell system at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Bellmead, Texas.

Raw materials used to make bronze bells were redirected for war-time purposes.

What is a Carillon?

A carillon is a musical instrument comprised of bells typically made of cast bronze. A bell in a carillon produces a singular note.

Carillons, chimes, and peals.

Bell instruments of more than 23 bells are typically considered “carillons".

Instruments from 11 to 22 bells are considered “chimes”.

Eleven bells are the minimum quantity with which basic musical arrangements can typically be played.

At 23 bells or more, carillons can play more complex musical arrangements.

Bell sets with less than eleven bells are typically used in peals of bells for Change Ringing or rung randomly at varying speeds for celebratory purposes. Peals typically chromatically complement one another within the musical scale so that the random or timed pealing blends harmoniously.

A carillon contains at least 23 bells.

What is campanology?

Campanology is the study of bells. It encompasses the technology of bells – how they are cast, tuned, rung, and sounded – as well as the history, methods, and traditions of bell-ringing as an art.

Jeff Bezdek, founder and President of Bells of America, studies the Angelus Bell at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Waco, Texas.

Post War Advancements
of Electronic Carillons

Electronic carillons created space efficiency, allowing for modernist tower designs. The Space Needle featured the world's largest carillon in 1962 – the 538 Bell.

The influence of electronics, architecture, and modernism on electronic carillons.

In addition to the art of bell casting leaving the United States, the post World War II period ushered in an era of electronic progress, architectural experimentation, and an embrace of modernism.

Churches, colleges, universities, schools, temples, and other civic institutions embarked on ambitious new building designs. Architects designed bell and clock towers with modern and streamlined profiles. Traditional gothic concepts that had dominated the past were often shed.

These new designs coincided with the efficiency in space that electronic carillons offered compared to their traditional cast bronze counterparts of previous generations. Saved space allowed for a more streamlined and fluid architectural form in tower design, with less massing required for a cluster of physical bells and their related ringing and mounting equipment.

Space Needle carillonneur.

Organ Chime
Electronic Carillons

Early electronic carillon design.

Early electronic carillons were simply organ chimes that utilized microphone pick-ups. Organ chimes are metal tubes consisting of copper or bronze-like alloys that are typically hollow.

The length of the metal tube dictates the length and diameter of the note that is created when struck. Orchestral chimes, wind chimes, and doorbells are similar in tonality. One manufacturer used aluminum as its principal metal alloy in tube manufacturing. Another company manufactured its chime tubes with plugs at the bottom.

Electric damper options.

Several electronic carillon companies also offered electric damper options on many of their early chime sets. This function would allow a keyboardist to mute a chime's overtones by depressing a pedal, not unlike a piano string damper but functioning entirely electrically.

Other optional mechanisms did the dampening automatically with an adjustable delay function after each note was depressed or by flipping on a toggle switch as needed.

Suspended chime tube applications.

Each electronic carillon company boasted a more desirable sound over the other with some products being more resistant to cracking due to manufacturing differences.

In carillon applications, tubes were often suspended where they normally would be in an organ, loft, or on a wall within a church sanctuary.

Each tube would be outfitted at the factory with microphonic electro-acoustic pickups. These pickups would feed into a mixing vacuum tube pre-amplifier. This amplifier would accentuate a fairly imperceptible signal by several thousand times and transmit the enhanced volume over a wire from a secondary higher-powered amplifier to tower or roof-mounted projection speakers. Thus these apparatuses were the beginning of the American electronic carillon lineage.

Early electronic carillon from the US Naval Academy featuring amplified organ chimes.

Organ chime carillons suspension striking mechanism and damper.

Chime rods in free-suspension, employing amplification of an electronic organ.

The Evolution of
Electronic Carillons

Electronic carillons – from amplified organ chimes to struck metal tuned rods and bars.

As electronic carillon technology evolved music experimentation followed. Multiple companies all came out with variations of metal rods tuned to create bell-like harmonics. In a similar application to organ chimes, these metal rods were struck by individual solenoid strikers. The striker plunger might be tipped with a hard point all the way to a padded felt tip creating broad variations in tonality and brashness on the attack.

Small units were often described as Carillonetes with minimal keyboards. The larger instruments often were played from an organ-like keyboard console with the smallest sets providing basic liturgical simulated pealing bell functions, tolls, and the Westminster Chimes.

Struck rod tonalities offer new sounds.

Several companies manufactured struck rod tonalities and promoted the new sounds as Flemish, English, Tembrel, Celesta, Quadra, and Minor Tierce bells. Various bell voices were contained in individual cabinets that were often hung on the wall.

Technician tuning a chime rod.

Early struck rod electronic carillon.

Organ-type electronic carillon consoles.

The largest organ-type electronic carillon console systems were often integrated directly into an organ-type console. Several pipe organ companies manufactured the large wooden consoles for various electronic carillon manufacturers. The stops, keys, and pedalboards were typical to pipe organs but with custom engraving for stops and controls. Smaller systems might only contain twenty-five notes of one of the voices.

Self-contained struck rod electronic carillon console with the keyboard.

View of struck rod chimes mounted in the back of the console.

Detail of chime rods in self-contained  console.

Electronic carillon console keyboards.

Smaller electronic carillon consoles would often have a small keyboard attached to the organ console that would swing out for the organist to play the chimes. Some exceptions involved a hardwired stop with the carillon directly integrated into a pipe or electronic organ.

Several companies provided installations with a double keyboard attached on a swinging hinge point with two ranges of two different bell voices.

Inside view of an early electronic carillon keyboard console.

Electronic Carillon
Speakers and Amplification

Traditional reflex speakers by Bells of America.

Modern reflex speakers by Bells of America.

Reflex speakers impact the evolution of electronic carillons.

Reflex speakers were a game-changer for electronic carillons. Traditional outdoor speakers were often trumpet-like horns.

Early carillon speakers were five to six feet long and required a fair bit of space to be able to point a speaker in each direction.

Electronic carillons typically have speakers pointed north, south, east, and west at a minimum. Some of the largest electronic carillons may have eight to sixteen speakers.

The reflex horn design involved folding the trumpet-like traditional speaker into sections. By folding the horn shape inside of itself, a more compact footprint could be obtained.

Additional power could and still can be obtained by adding adapters to the backs of reflex horns to mount multiples of speaker driver magnets. One speaker can conceivable have up to four powering driver magnets on the back of each horn.

Harp Bells and
Electronic Carillons

Fluid, bell-like voices for electronic carillons.

Several electronic carillon manufacturers built harp accompanying voices to buttress carillon bass melodies. These fluid, bell-like voices were often called Harp Bells, Magnaharps, and Vibrachords.

These harps were essentially electronically amplified small vibraharp bars. The harp unit was typically in a forty-nine note format with a few exceptions at sixty-one notes.

The round bars were struck in the same way as their conventional units but the sound was fed into a unique tube-powered amplifier that contained an electronically generated adjustable tremolo.

Many of the carillon recordings made for electronic record and tape players had the harp in accompaniment unless otherwise specified.

Vintage electronic carillon sales literature.

Electronic Carillons

Early phonograph – a record-based automatic player electronic carillon.

Automation demand for electronic carillons.

While many electronic carillon companies sold stand-alone instruments that had to be manually played, the electronic age also ushered in a desire for broad automation for many of the electronic carillon installations.

Types of electronic carillon automation.

Every electronic carillon manufacturer documented in this history had some sort of optional automation system. The simplest systems typically provided only a simulated swinging bell that was programmable for Call to Worship or Sunday School.

The typical next upgrade provides programmable Westminster Chimes or hour strikes. Nearly all of these basic automatic clocks used a 24-hour dial with metal pins to actuate the circuits necessary for a timed ring.

A secondary day wheel often accompanied the 24-hour clock to help separate out programming parameters for various functions.

Advanced electronic carillon automated systems.

The most complicated electronic carillon automated systems typically used punched paper rolls to play the carillon instruments in live form. One company actually took automation to a new level by introducing a way for a carillonneur to record keystroke information on magnetic tape for the mechanical clock to trigger for automatic playback.

Celesta Chime electronic carillon automatic roll player – Chicago Tribune Building.

Automatic roll player electronic carillon.

Reel-to-reel electronic tape carillon.

Vintage carillon automatic clock.

Prerecorded Taped
Electronic Carillon Music

Magnetic tape recordings.

The evolution of the electronic carillon truly gained momentum with the advent of magnetic tape recordings. Most automatic players of carillon pre-recorded carillon music were record players.

The nature of records in the 1940's and 1950's inherently had compromised fidelity. In addition, the regular playing of the records caused them to wear down from needle wear. Snaps, crackles, pops, and skips were common.

Magnetic tape cartridge systems.

Later, reel-to-reel with automatic return and eight-track continuous spool cartridge systems were created. Many of these systems still function today. The cartridges often utilized magnetic foil to trigger a sensor indicating the end of a song.

One company’s tape players detected the absence of music to activate their trigger. Many of the tape-based carillon systems employed a counter that could be adjusted for the number of songs that were to be played.

The cartridges were formatted in such a way that each contained a predetermined quantity to be played. A technician recording the music from master tapes would add the magnetic strips in the proper location for the automatic player according to the order that they received from the customer.

Later tape units evolved into cassettes. These units were often notoriously unreliable. Ironically, many of the older, larger tape units are still working while the younger cassette decks are defunct. The larger size simply made the units more reliable and easier to maintain.

Many of the carillon systems allowed for multiple tape decks allowing for many songs and applications to be played through detailed programming of the automatic clock.

Electronic carillon continuous spooling tape cartridges for by various manufacturers.

Inside a continuous spooling tape cartridge.

Reel-to-reel carillon tapes.

Reel-to-reel carillon tape packaging.

Magnetic tapes evolve to digital.

Carillon instruments in the 1990s onward essentially were digital instruments using bell arrangements recorded onto CDs with CD units essentially replacing tape players. The systems evolved from CD’s to bell samples encoded onto individual chips and played using MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) player code.


Electronic carillon digital memory cards.

Custom carillon selections.

Carillon companies often provided their carillonneur to record custom pieces of music such as collegiate Alma Matters. In addition, some customers used carillon systems to play TAPS for military and memorial applications.

Some carillon systems were even used for tornado and civil defense warnings by playing prerecorded siren sounds on separate magnetic tape cartridges.

Vintage electronic carillon records.

Interior speaker.

Most of the electronic carillon systems provided for a monitor speaker located on the primary cabinet as well as a sanctuary speaker located typically in the organ loft.

The interior speaker was typically capable of being actuated from the keyboard location with optional volume control for adjustment. Having an interior speaker provided multiple solutions to issues. It allowed a keyboardist to practice without being heard outdoors.

The speaker allowed realtime monitoring of carillon projections by mirroring the outdoor speakers. It also allowed the audience and congregation members to enjoy the tower bell sounds indoors.

Vintage electronic carillon manufacturers without live trademarks and carillon-related federal registrations:

J.C. Deagan, Inc.

Stromberg-Carlson Company

Earle J. Beach & Son

Norton Chimes


Gerhard Finkenbeiner


Disclaimer: In developing this history we were careful to pursue due diligence and omit manufacturers names with live trademarks at the time of publication as best as could be determined as of 08/18/2020. Should a registration status change, please contact us.

The original draft of the electronic carillon history was an extensive documentation of which companies developed which technologies and when. We appreciate the lineage of experimentation and innovation by those who came before us.

The owners, managers, engineers, musician, and technicians that innovated new sounds and new technology are truly to be admired and appreciated. It is American ingenuity at its best.

Feel free to contact us for specific questions regarding a vintage carillon model and the upgrades that we may offer for it.

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