Spun vs. Hand Hammered Bell Flares

schmidbellsFor quite some time I’ve wanted to try a different bell flare on my Engelbert Schmid double horn. The wide variety of sizes, alloys, and other features available on these instruments was one of the reasons I purchased one. It’s taken a few years to get around to it – I bought the horn in the spring of 2011 – but I finally decided which type of bell I was looking for, and was able to find one used for a very reasonable price. The original bell that came with the horn was brass, medium size, spun, with lacquer. I know this seems like a lot of terms to describe a bell, but each factor has an effect on the sound of the instrument. My new bell is also brass and medium-sized, but is hand-hammered, un-lacquered, and has a garland (or kranz) on the outer edge (see picture at left) .Ok – so what difference does this make?  Looking at Schmid’s website, here are some explanations about spun vs. hand-hammered bells.

Spun bells are pressed from a disk. The sound is good, healthy, you could say modern. If you strike the edge of the bell with your finger it makes a bell-like sound, more so than a hand hammered bell. Pressing it out of a disk makes the material thin at the screw ring and leaves it thicker towards the edge of the bell.

Our hand hammered bells are cut out of one piece of metal bent into shape and at Engelbert Schmid soldered on one seam without “Zwickel”. They are then hammered into the symetrical shape. Only in the last operation are they put on the press bank and, by turning and pressing, fitted exactly to the bell form. Because of the necessary stretching of the material due to the flare of the bell it becomes thinner towards the edge of the bell. At the screw ring it stays thicker than a spun bell and therefore is more resistant to sweat.

Because hand hammered bells without a garland can be bent easily, you should not lift the horn by the edge of the bell. With Engelbert Schmid bells it is no problem to restabilize a bent bell edge. Stability was probably the original reason for adding garlands, not sound. Hand hammering stresses the material to a great extreme, which changes the structure, and definitely changes the sound a bit. The crucial factor is that the material becomes thinner towards the end, farther from the energy source, and therefore vibrates better with the sound. A hand hammered bell sounds more old fashioned, darker, than a spun bell. The thin end of the bell produces a very warm center to the tone in piano, and at the same time a more pleasant brassiness in fortissimo. The hand hammered bells are available with or without garland.

And now lacquer vs. un-lacquered:

It is not possible to say that lacquer does not affect the sound. With a thickness on the inside and outside of 0.02 mm, this plastic-like covering accounts for approx. 10 % of the total material. Unlacquered sounds a bit more centered, which some people find brighter, some darker, some smoother and some harder. My observation and feeling is that lacquer dampens the high overtones, and also the extraneous noise in the sound, causes the horn to sound clearer, for some brighter, although it is acoustically darker. My experience is that the difference is minimal and that 50 % of hornplayers sound better on a lacquered instrument. The lacquer is more resistant to sweat than the metal and the horn will last longer if it is carefully polished when it is relacquered. It also prevents your hands from turning green. A shiny horn also makes a better impression on the audience. In my eyes the advantages of a lacquered horn clearly outweigh the disadvantages. The combination screw bell/lacquered sounds good, perhaps even better. It is definitely not important for a hornplayer´s tone. The deciding factor is the players concept of sound.

And finally, the effect of a garland:

With a weight of only 100 grams, the tastefully decorated garland from Engelbert Schmid does not deaden the sound. The garland causes a bit more resistance, and a somewhat rounder sound that gets brassy later, but more suddenly. Without the garland the transition to a brassy sound is more even. About 50 % of hornplayers sound better with the light garland from Engelbert Schmid.

This is all good information, of course, but doesn’t answer the question of what is right for a particular player and/or situation. That decision, in my opinion, is the responsibility of the player (or the player in consultation with a teacher or colleagues). In my case, I liked several things about the spun bell – for one, it was very easy to play, and easy to blend with lots of other instruments. However, it didn’t always have the carrying power that I was looking for, and to my ear, something was just missing from the sound. I didn’t want to go with a bigger flare – I think the medium size works well for the kinds of playing I do – but I wanted something with a bit more “oommph” to the sound. After months of looking, I came across a medium, hand-hammered flare with a garland. Here’s a short clip of me performing an excerpt from Susan Salminen’s Fanfare for Horn and Timpani, Op. 33. I won’t tell you which bell I’m playing on just yet (unless you cheat and skip ahead), but hopefully you can hear a difference between them. These excerpts were recorded in my teaching studio on a Zoom H4n, placed approximately 8 feet in front of me.

Bell #1

Bell #2

Which one did you like better?  Which one seemed to have more substance and ring to the sound?  To me it was #1, the hand-hammered bell (#2 was the spun bell). I’m not an acoustical engineer or metallurgist, but I would suspect that the improvements are due to the added weight from the garland, and the properties of the hand-hammered bell. The absence of lacquer probably affects the sound somewhat, although Schmid uses a very thin lacquer. Initially the heavier bell felt like it required slightly more effort to play, but after a couple of weeks I’ve gotten more or less comfortable on it. For now I’m keeping the spun bell, just in case I ever want to switch back for a particular work, or to have a comparison with the hand-hammered bell.

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