Design of the bells

Historical background

Bells of varying shapes, sizes and sounds are found in many cultures around the world.

Musical bells date back to the Chinese Shang dynasty (15th century BC), and evolved as tuned sets through the Chou dynasty (1027 – 256 BC). Bells are also believed to have evolved in Northern India, and are found in the rituals of Hinduism and Buddhism. When Buddhism spread across Asia from around 600 AD, the bells evolved into culturally specific shapes and sounds across China, Korea, Japan and beyond.

European bells are believed to have originated in ancient Middle East. They have been used in Christian rituals from early medieval times and later made a transition to the secular world. The carillon is a set of tuned bells operated from a keyboard and originated in the Low Countries (roughly The Netherlands) in the 12th century. Sophisticated tuning advances were made by brothers François and Pieter Hemony in the 17th century

At the dawn of the 21st century, the European and Asian traditions have remained separate for almost a millennium. In designing the Federation Bells, Neil McLachlan and Anton Hasell of Australian Bell set out to bridge the ancient Asian and European bell-making traditions.

Using modern computer modelling of vibrations, Australian Bell set out to better understand the relationships between physical shapes and the sounds they emit. This use of technology represents a further development in the art and science of bell-making. The bells are uniquely Australian and reflect a community in which Asian and European cultural traditions co-exist and merge.

Physical construction and layout

There are 39 bells layed out as shown below. The larger bells are placed randomly amongst the smaller bells, which are arranged in a grid pattern. Bell number 1 is the largest and lowest-pitched bell, number 2 is the next largest, and so on in sequence, finishing with bell number 39 as the smallest and highest-pitched bell.

The bells are upturned with their opening facing the sky. Each of the bells is placed atop a pole, with the height of the bells ranging from 2 metres to 6 metres. At night, the bells light up with an orange glow. The larger bells are lit by dynamic coloured lighting that responds to the music being played on the bells.

The shape of the bells is integral to their sound and were designed using Finite Element Analysis with shape optimisation software (ReShape) produced by Advea Engineering

The bells are cast in bronze alloys according to the desired timbral qualities. The heaviest weighs 1.2 tonnes and the lightest weighs about 500 grams.

Control System

The Federation Bells are controlled by a computer housed in a control room hidden not far from the bells. As part of a refurbishment in 2012, Spring Innovations designed and created new actuators that strike each bell from within using voice coil technology.

The computer language that the bells use is MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface). Three custom-designed controllers were designed by Spring Innovations and Considered Solutions to translate the MIDI signals into the physical movement of the actuators.

Terry McDermott designed and built software that allows City of Melbourne curators to schedule different musical pieces at various times.

The bells play a test pattern each morning that allows administrators to check that the bells are functioning optimally. Much of the maintenance of the bells is now done via remote control.