Thursday, December 6, 2012

The benefits of bell-front horns

Most people have no idea that Sousaphones began as bell-up horns. In fact, when someone sees an old "raincatcher" today, they may not even realize that they are looking at a Sousaphone. But once the bell-front design was introduced in 1908 by C. G. Conn (shown at left), it wasn't too long before it came to dominate the Sousaphone market - and there has been no other kind of Sousaphone made for over 80 years now (with one brief exception - stay tuned).

Why did the bell-front design become so popular? In reading the earliest notices about Conn's new Wonderphone instruments (referenced a few posts below), the following benefits are mentioned:

  • The sound can be directed at the audience (although that is exactly what Sousa didn't like about Helicons, whose bells point somewhat forward, and this gripe gave rise to the original Sousaphone with its upright bell).
  • Soloists will sound better (but I'm wondering . . . were there any Sousaphone solos back then?).
  • The appearance of the horn will be more attractive (although this is surely subjective - but hey, people do seem to like big shiny things, and few things are bigger or shiner than a Sousaphone bell!).
  • Being adjustable, the bell can be turned in any desired direction (expect upwards, of course).
  • For example, if the horns are put in the front rank of a marching band, their bells can be pointed backwards so that the rest of the band can hear them (this was actually mentioned, although I've never seen a photo showing this approach).
  • On the other hand, if the horns are put in the rear rank of a marching band, with the bells pointing forward, everyone else can hear them quite well (which is the approach seen regularly to this day).

Interestingly, one thing that was not mentioned at all is how a forward facing bell could help in the process of recording. After all, these bells did come to be known as "recording bells" - at least in connection with tubas.

As far as I can tell, the bell-forward design was a particular hit with marching bands, but eventually began to be the horn of choice in concert and dance bands as well - even though Sousa, that most famous of band leaders, never made that switch himself (more on that next).

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