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Even church bells go digital; Computer: Reproducing the sound of carillon bells is less expensive than the real thing.

Many churchgoers at houses of worship across the country think they are hearing the soft ringing of old bells, when what they are really hearing is a computer. Yes, even the church bell is going digital.

"It has no moving parts but the exact same sound," said Paul Kozlak, a contract salesman for Schulmerich, a bell manufacturing company based in Sellersville, Pa., 40 miles northwest of Philadelphia.

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The digital bells "reproduce the sound of carillon bells exactly," Kozlak said.

The Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, the world's largest gothic cathedral, has used Schulmerich mechanical bells since the 1970s while its bell towers are under construction. But for many small churches, it comes down to money. If they did not have Schulmerich, they wouldn't have any bells at all.

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A full 20-bell set of carillon bells can cost as much as $500,000, said Don Lundquist, an administrator at St. John. The digital Schulmerich carillon costs $8,000. And the mechanical system sells for a mere $5,000.

"Most new churches can't afford real bells," said Trudy Faber, professor and chairman of the music department at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio. "We have a Schulmerich at my church. It rings three times a day, and people can't tell the difference from the real thing."

Since ancient times, bells have been a spiritually and historically important part of religion and society the world over. The first known bells date to the 11th century B.C., when the Chinese designed large barrel brass bells with ornate designs. In the digital age, you might think this old musical art form would be fading like a lonely chime into the night. But Faber says the 1,000-year-old tradition is still meaningful to many.

"The new technology hasn't pushed out the old," Faber said. "The use of electronic bells is not really expanding."

But that's not what the people at Schulmerich and their competitors are banking on. After years of engineering, Schulmerich developed True-Cast bells, a new digital system that delivers an even more accurate replication of real bells than its earlier mechanical system. It can imitate the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia or Big Ben in London. With the radio remote control, an operator can tinker with the sound from hundreds of feet away.

And its repertory is enormous: the largest library of carillon music in the world with more than 2,000 selections.

The mechanical Schulmerich resembles a giant standing xylophone. Sound is produced when a hammer strikes 12 steel rods and is amplified throughout the cathedral by a speaker system.

But the real question is: Are the parishioners fooled?

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"For most services people are, even though ours aren't state-of-the-art," Lundquist said with a laugh.

Of course, there are still people who ring bells the old-fashioned way, with ropes. The centuries-old method of "change ringing," is still widely used in England. Ringers are trained to pull the ropes at a designated time.

They have to be strong enough to pull bells weighing thousands of pounds.

The sound? Well, Faber says the old carillon bells like those at Exeter Cathedral in England emit an incredibly full sound as if coming from the heavens. As she recalls from one recent visit: "Outside, you couldn't tell where they were coming from."

Pub Date: 03/29/99



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