Parts of the Horn: Bell Tail and Bell Flare

This will be the last in a series of posts based on a handout from a Lawson Horns clinic given around 1980.  The materials and processes of horn design and manufacture have continued to develop since then, but I think the information presented in the clinic is still very relevant today.  Depending on your equipment – namely if your horn has a detachable flare and a compatible ringset – different bell flares can be a great way to get more out of your current horn.  Many professionals customize their existing instrument with bells made out of various materials to fit a particular playing scenario.  Here’s the last part of the the handout. (Direct quotes in italics.)

BELL TAIL

The bell tail continues the taper of the first branch and affects:

1. Ease of playing – A long, slow taper from a narrow first branch to a large bell throat gives a free-blowing quality to the instrument. If the bell taper starts at a large diameter and is small at the throat, the instrument will have a centered sound and will be harder-blowing for the player. Many variations are available.

2. Intonation – The rate and smoothness of taper in the bell tail controls the pitch of the harmonics.

3. Timbre of sound – The alloy and its hardness affect the tone and dynamic range of the instrument.

BELL FLARE

1. Shape, size, and thickness – Subtle differences in playing characteristics such as ease of starting notes, dynamic range, carrying power are influenced by these dimensional properties.

2. Stability – The internal dampening characteristics of the bell flare influence the stability of the pitch, ease of starting the sound, and the ability of the instrument to maintain sound through slurs.  Dampening is controlled by allow, weight, and hardness.

3. Dynamic range – For a given alloy, the hardness affects the dynamic range. A softer bell flare distorts at a higher input of sound so that more control of dynamics is possible. Varying the hardness gives different degrees of brightness or darkness to the sound.

4. Tone color – The alloy and its hardness controls the timbre or color of the sound. This color change is most noticeable at high dynamic levels.

5. Protective coatings – Lacuqer and plating slightly reduce the output of sound from the bell of the instrument. The advantages of protective coatings are great in that they prevent deterioration of the metal and eventual shortening of the life of the horn.

The lacquer/no-lacquer debate continues, with notable makers and players taking up both sides of the argument.  In my humble opinion, lacquer on a professional quality instrument is ok, as long as it is not too thick.  However, it does seem that a majority of hand made custom horns are produced without lacquer.  In the end this really is a choice that the individual player must consider based on a number of factors.

New Lawson Horns Website

Lawson Horns has a reputation for producing some of the most well-crafted and acoustically “perfect” horns around.  For those unfamiliar with Lawson horns, the company was founded by master craftsman Walter Lawson (1923-2007), who retired from horn making and sold his business to Kendall Betts in 2006.  Lawson has recently updated its website http://www.lawsonhorns.com/ and the company seems to be in great hands.  Although the website is of course geared towards Lawson instruments, there is also a wealth of information which can be applied to all horns.  For example, the “Customizing Horns FAQ” includes the following discussion on horn tapers.

With two types of tapers, two thicknesses for the bell tail, two thicknesses for the bell flare, five alloys for construction, and five choices of alloys for the bell, you can customize your new Model 804 in two hundred possible combinations – just another reason why Lawson Horns is a leading maker of custom horns!

We receive many questions about how different aspects of our custom horns affect their instruments. Please take the time below to read as many of the most common questions will be answered.

What is the taper?
The taper, or bore of the instrument as it widens, is how quickly the horn moves from the small size at the end of the mouthpiece to the bell.

Why does the taper matter?
Many horns are built in similar fashion, but even a variance of .001 of an inch can have a critical impact on a horn. Our horns are built to the highest standard and years of research have been done to ensure that Lawson Horns are the most efficient horns built.

What is the thickness?
The thickness of the horn is how thick is the wall of tail (or last turn of the horn) and final bell flare. With most horns, this can vary in extremes from .005” on thin, small brass horns to .020” or larger for large orchestral horns.  This thickness is very important to how the horn responds, and more detailed information can be found on our research page.

What are the playing differences between .020” and .016” (Lite) horns?
The thicker wall yields a little louder sound with a somewhat richer overtone series and certainly is more mechanically sound, while the lighter material seems to have a quicker, cleaner response, lighter tone and ‘locks-in’ a little better. Chamber or ensemble musicians may find a lighter instrument fits that style better; whereas, a heavier horn might make sense for larger classical groups, but it must always be kept in mind that the player has enormous control over the instrument’s characteristic sound.

Can I have my horn in one thickness, and the bell in another?
While many players prefer a matched thickness, we can make bell tails and bell flares in either thickness.

Does the alloy selection really make that much of a difference?
Yes, the material of the horn’s composition, particularly the bell tail and flare, has an effect on the sound, response, and feel.

What is ‘Ambronze’?
In 1979, Lawson introduced a new alloy which had been used previously in architecture but never was applied to musical instruments. The result was a strong, workable metal which became one of our most popular alloys called “Ambronze.”

What is ‘Nickel Bronze’?
A search for the alloy that the famous Kruspe nickel silver horn was made from yielded another new alloy to the musical instrument world: Nickel-Bronze. This is the closest alloy available now to the pre-WWII German nickel silver used by Kruspe.

See the links below for other discussions on the Lawson Horns website.

Mouthpieces

Leadpipes

Lacquer, Heat Treatment, etc.

The Edirol R-09HR

After many years of using a variety of minidisc recorders, including products from Sharp and Sony, I finally splurged last year and bought an Edirol R-09HR digital recorder.  Since then I’ve used it to record solo (horn and piano), chamber music (Poulenc Sextet), and large ensemble rehearsals and performances (solo horn with band). So far it has been an outstanding little device – easy to use, but with lots of features.  It is very small, almost the same dimensions as an Ipod classic, but a bit thicker.  You can see it in the picture below.

One of my favorite features is the ease of importing recorded files to a computer, which used to be quite an involved process even with my most recent minidisc recorder.  With the Edirol, you simply attach it via USB cable to your computer, and you can drag the file(s) over for editing in Audacity, Soundforge, etc.   There are several different recording quality settings, with files being stored in either .MP3 or .WAV format.  The higher the recording quality, the more memory required on the included SD memory card.  The card which comes with it is only 512MB, and I recommend buying another card of at least 2GB – the Edirol is compatible with up to 8GB SD cards.  With a 4GB card (my current one) on the highest quality setting (.WAV format at 24 bit/96KHZ), you can get approximately 110 minutes of recording time – more than enough for a recital, chamber music concert, etc.  On the lowest setting (.MP3 at 128 KBS), you can get around 3,990(!) minutes of recording with the same 4GB card.  I recommend a setting somewhere in the middle of these two extremes for normal use.

Recording levels are very easy to set since there are dedicated buttons for adjusting them.  You push the record button once, which puts the device on standby, and you can check the levels on the back-lit display.  There is an automatic limiter setting, but I haven’t had any problems with setting the levels myself – just be sure you set them low enough to accommodate slightly more than your highest dynamic level.  Once the levels are set, push the record button again and you are rolling.  An included remote control allows you to start and stop the recorder from several feet away.  A small built-in speaker gives you a preview of any recorded material, but headphones generally work better for this purpose.  The built-in stereo microphones are excellent, and there is also a 1/8″ microphone-in jack for external mics.

Those are the major features, and needless to say I’ve been very pleased with it.  Battery life is excellent (2 AA batteries), but for long recording sessions there is an included AC adaptor.  Really the only negative comment I have is that there is no built-in way to attach the recorder to a microphone stand, although Edirol does sell a carrying case which will attach to a mic stand.

If you are in the market for a handheld digital recorder, consider the Edirol R-09HR.

Rotor String

Last November I presented a clinic at the Louisiana Music Educators Association Conference in Baton Rouge on the topic of horn maintenance.  I know, not very original, but this was a clinic I thought would be informative and helpful to band directors in the state.  Having given similar presentations in other places, I knew one of the biggest topics would be restringing rotary valves.  What seems a simple task to most experienced horn players can turn into a nightmare for a harried band director, especially right before, or in the middle of, a big performance.  One piece of information I always like to have ready for band directors is suggestions on what types of string to use.  I’ve used several over the years, and I’m always on the lookout for others to try – it is very interesting the effect that different makes and types of string can have on valve action.  Having several recommendations for students and directors is useful, because one kind might not always be easily purchased in a given area, or feasible for the student or teacher’s budget.  One of the most economical is Cortland’s “Greenspot” Dacron trolling line (below).  This brand, or one similar, is usually available from most sporting goods suppliers.  It is light and strong, and I like to use 50lb test or higher.

Another great string is Sufix Performance Braid (below).  It is a little more expensive than the Cortland, but is very fast and strong (mine is 80lb test).  Most players notice a definite increase in valve speed with this string.  It also does not fray easily when cut, so it is a cinch to thread.  One drawback to this string is that it is fairly thin, so you have to be careful to tie several knots to make sure that it doesn’t pull through the holes in the valve lever arm.

My current favorite, and one that I will probably stick with for awhile,  is the string provided with Meinlschmidt valves.  This string combines the qualities of the other two already mentioned, and works great on most horns.  It can be purchased from de Haro Horns in 1 meter increments.  In the picture below you can see that the Meinlschmidt string (on top) is noticeably thicker than the Cortland (middle) and the Sufix (bottom).  Usually the thicker the string the slower the action, but I noticed very little difference in speed between the Sufix and the Meinlschmidt, plus the Meinlschmidt is probably stronger than the others.

A few other strings worth experimenting with are those sold by Osmun music, links here and here, Allied Music Supply, and Yamaha.   For more information on restringing your valves, check out my series of YouTube videos on horn maintenance. [N.B. I recorded this video before trying out the Meinlschmidt string, so it is not included among my recommendations.]

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