Recording adventures how chris richmond captured the sounds of historic church bells a sound effect gas works park fireworks

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Luckily any wind blowing during the day would ease off after dusk, which was always a blessing, but all these factors combined meant that the locality was dead quiet- an ideal recording environment until a lone car approaches and passes, leaving a trail of noise behind that lasts several seconds until the car is long in the distance.

With the final chime, I then let the recorder run for several seconds afterwards, stopping the recording at an appropriate point long after the diminishing sound of the bell is completely inaudible. Sometimes this ends up extending somewhat when another car passes just after that last chime. It’s unavoidable and a great nuisance, but if you can’t revisit to try again, at least you still have a potentially useable file with a decent tail length to edit.

My second observation was that every subsequent hour during the evening, the length of the chiming would increase, allowing for longer takes, but at the same time, the traffic and ambient noise would decrease, meaning that the recordings would be potentially cleaner too.

Not every visit has resulted in a successful recording. There was one particular occasion where I stopped off at the coastal village of Brancaster late one night on my way back from a recording session at the town of Kings Lynn. I knew that the church had a tower clock and I had about twenty minutes to wait before the hour strike and it was pitch black.

I waited, and waited, keeping a careful eye on the clock on both my mobile phone and on the car dashboard. Experience had already taught me that there were variations of sometimes several minutes between the striking of each tower clock, but after ten minutes, I gave up.

One afternoon, I had set up my recording equipment in the churchyard ready to capture the chime with several minutes to wait, recording the bustling ambience of the village as traffic passed and two local school buses stopped to release their respective mobs of hyped-up schoolchildren.

He explained to me that he was waiting for the three o’clock strike because at the strike of every third hour, the bells would play the tune of an old hymn and he had driven down especially to hear it- apparently, he often did, as it played a different tune each day.

Once I arrived, I would then have to get the recorder out of the back of the car and make a sneaky dash up the churchyard in the pitch black before setting up, hopefully before the start of the Westminster Quarters, which the clock would also chime.

One Thursday morning, I arranged to meet the two churchwardens, Robin Combe and Mick Gill, who let me into the tower to take some recordings. After climbing a tight, dusty spiral staircase, I was faced with a rather cramped clock room with the clockwork ticking away at the far end of the room.

Across the room from the clock was a large, horizontally-mounted metal barrel with dozens of small metal wedges protruding from it. The wedges line up with a row of metal levers mounted in front of the barrel, linked to wire rods coming down from the ceiling.

There is, however, a much smaller 12-bell carillon at the Shrine Church in Walsingham, which plays an octave higher by means of an electronic striking mechanism, which has the ability to store hundreds of different tunes without the need of clunky mechanical barrels.

I was aware that a few of the churches held practice nights once a week and rang for services on Sunday mornings, but my ignorance had not considered the fact that there was much more to ringing church bells than just getting a group of people together tugging the ropes.

You could hear the bells in the chamber above, but their sound was rather dull through the floorboards, with much of the noise coming from the clattering rope guides along with the occasional shout from Sue as she instructed the bell ringers with commands.

As the ringers pulled their ropes down in order, she would periodically shout phrases of bell-ringing jargon that made absolutely no sense to an outsider like me, but the more I watched, the more I learnt and began to pick up what certain terms meant.

Towards the end of the session, I went back outside to take some recordings of the bells while they were still practicing, and the final piece of ringing consisted of “rounds” getting faster and faster until the tower sounded as if it was resonating with all the combined frequencies of the bells- a truly mesmerising sound. After a while, the striking of the bells became more dynamic and softer until they rang no more. This was soon followed by the nine o’clock chime as the ringers finished and made their way out of the tower back to their cars.

Because during ringing, the bells are stood facing upwards, they have to be “rung down” at the end of each session so that they don’t pose a threat to anyone’s safety, as if the bells were to accidentally fall from their upward position, a loose rope attached to a freely swinging bell is dangerous for several reasons.

Ringing down consists of gradually decreasing the swing of the bell until it no longer has the momentum to keep swinging and ends up facing downward. There is an art to achieving this in peal, which involves the ringers keeping in the same order throughout and halting their bells at the same time by counteracting the weight of the bell with their body weight on the end of the rope.

There are two strokes to learn- the backstroke (holding the ‘tail’ end of the rope) and the handstroke (holding that striped, fluffy elongation known as the “Sally”). My instructor was a wonderfully patient man called Peter, who was very encouraging.

After learning both strokes individually, I put them together and started ringing the bell completely on my own- under close supervision of course. However, I caught the Sally too early, which resulted in it hovvering for a split second before the rising rope was snatched through my hands, causing it to burn as my arms went flying up towards the ceiling.

Usually, the ringers have breaks between ringing, in which it is easy to ask to go and check on the recorder and make final gain adjustments before letting it run for the remainder of the session. Some towers allow time for the less experienced ringers to practice their bell handling technique, leading to some wonderful isolated recordings of single bells tolling.

Whilst the ringing is in progress, it can help with annotating the recordings if you note down the time and, if possible, the name of the method the ringers are performing- it might all sound the same to you, but this information could make all the difference to that one person looking for a specific sound- especially if they are familiar with bell ringing.

Currently I don’t have a satisfactory way of eliminating this. Cutting the high frequencies is certainly not practical, due to the deterioration of the upper harmonics of each bell strike. Therefore the hiss has to remain as a necessary evil. Churchyards are just too quiet at night!