Mobel: A Belfry and Good Ringers in your Pocket?

Reviewed by Chris Haller

“Hey, Mister, I think your phone is ringing.”

She was right. My iPhone was steadily ringing Bristol Surprise Major as I walked in the cool Boston, Massachusetts (USA) air from one tower to another last Sunday. Ringers walking with me, as well as the lady passerby, heard the clear, lovely music and smiled. I had found yet another happy use for my newest iPhone application, and it would not be the last use for Mobel I discovered that day.

Mobel is a ringing simulator, for both tower and handbells, for the Apple iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad. It is now available from the Apple iTunes App Store. It follows in the tradition of the earlier ringing applications Abel (for PCs) and Mabel (for Apple Macintosh computers), but it is more… well, mobile. I think for my needs it may be the best of the bunch. My ringing situation is unusual: I live 178 miles from my nearest tower, so I have to travel far to enjoy ringing that isn’t just a bit of handbell ringing. Let me tell you some of the adventures I’ve had with Mobel in the last few weeks of testing and trying it out.

First off, of course, I tried it out on myself. It opens by default with “Current Settings – Plain Bob Minor – Plain Course”, and you can start playing with it right away by touching the obvious buttons Start (it rings rounds until you proceed) and Go (at the next handstroke, a quiet male voice says “Go: Plain Bob” and at the following handstroke, the bells start to ring changes). At any point thereafter, you can participate in the ringing by tapping the screen to ring the bell rope image at the bottom right. If you know the method, it takes only a little practice to get your bell striking fairly accurately, but you may get on the wrong stroke in early stages of muddling about. No problem, just omit one tap and you’re back in sync. If you stop ringing your bell, Mobel will ring it again after a few blows. Press Rounds or Stand if you don’t want to finish the course.

While you are ringing, five of the current rows scroll near the bottom of the screen, or 14 rows if you hold the phone on its side. My competitive spirit made it difficult to pay attention to them while I was striving for accurate striking, but handy Pause and Continue buttons made it easy. While the ringing is paused, a Help screen is available which suggests other actions. You can Stop, of course, or tap Show to see the blue line for the method you are ringing, or tap i to open the Settings screen where all the foundational controls are yours: tower or hand bells, how many bells, what method to ring, how fast, do you want the plain course or a touch, and so forth. The simplest ringing available is Plain Hunt, but if you want complex you can choose from over 17,000 methods, or make up your own, and you can splice them, and you can call the bobs and singles yourself. It could get addictive, like a video game.

By this time I knew enough about Mobel to be a danger to other ringers, so I took it off to our local handbell practice. As I expected, people liked Mobel and thought it would be useful. I put Mobel on my wife’s iPad (looks great on the larger screen), and a few days later, I was demonstrating it on both platforms to interested people a thousand miles away at our North American Guild AGM. Here I easily found several seriously interested ringers. Some asked me where they could get a copy. One or two even suggested that the availability of Mobel might tip the scale for them to finally get an iPhone.

Later, while exploring the Cathedral grounds, I fell into conversation with some local parishioners who asked me questions about bellringing. Most Americans know very little about it. I was able to show them rows of changes forming on the iPhone screen simultaneous with the sounds of the bells ringing to form those rows, which they found very interesting and instructive. They told me they had learned a lot in a short time, and were impressed with the skills of their local ringers. One young lady said she intended to attend evening practice as a result.

I too learned a lot about Mobel during the few days spent at the AGM, partly to try to answer ringers’ questions about it. I dipped into the built-in library of over 17,000 methods and tried out the handbell features more fully. I tried calling short touches myself, just to be sure I could.

A few weeks later, I was invited to ring in a peal in Boston, far from home as usual, and I used Mobel to warm my brain up to simulate ringing the method in advance. (Good thing I did!) The next day after ringing for service we were in the throes of a Sunday afternoon practice session, and I was asked to ring a local special challenge called Purple Cyclic Bob Major. (I am not making this up.) There was only one printed copy available, and that was being passed frantically among the people who had actually rung the method before. I glanced at the paper as it was whipping from one hand to another and knew I had no chance of ringing it without some study. I pulled out my iPhone, and someone said, “Oh, I don’t think it will be on there.” But I soon found it (spelled Purplecyclic) and brought it to the fore so I could look at it while others were ringing it. This, I thought, was in itself a fine reason to own Mobel, but when I double-tapped the blue line to see alternative visual representations, I discovered that the logic of the method becomes obvious when you study the grid: roughly, make places the first half of each lead, then dodge (except not with the treble) until the lead ends. I showed this grid to some of those who had just finished ringing it, and they were happily astounded to find that there even was any logic to the method, much less that it could make the ringing so much easier once you knew the secret.

As you can tell, I am very happy with Mobel. If you are a change ringer, this app was designed for you, and I believe you will find it well worth the price (£5.99 in UK, $9.99 in USA). It does not, of course, replace the experience of pulling a bell rope or ringing two handbells in the company of other capable ringers, but it can be a powerful assistant in training the mind for ringing methods from plain hunt on four bells to the most complex methods on larger numbers of bells. By training yourself in this way, you can practice many aspects of ringing without wasting valuable group practice time, and make significant progress between practice meetings. The developer, Chris Hughes, has been quick to respond to suggestions by adding features and improving the user experience during pre-release testing.

From conversations with others, I do have a few minor suggestions for future features. A couple of folks asked for place notation to be visible at all times upon user request. Others asked for accuracy scores, as in Abel and Mabel, to keep score and motivate improvement. I hear that simple scoring of striking is planned for the next version [it's in version 1.1.0].

The iPhone is a capable and evolving platform, and who knows what the Mobel app will look and feel like in a few years? I highly recommend Mobel to anyone who aspires to become a better ringer, and to explain what change ringing is to people who have never heard the sounds.

Reprinted with permission from The Ringing World, 3rd December 2010.