How Are Drum Corps Using Electronics?

New rules allow drum corps to use electronic instruments and sound effects during performance, but will these changes drastically affect what we see and hear on the field this summer? Individual corps share their reactions and show plans.

Photo of the Colts Drum and Bugle Corps by Jolesch Photography

For the 2009 season, Drum Corps International (DCI) debuted several new rules regarding the use of technology such as electronic instruments, amplification of individual musicians on the field and the use of sound effects (though not recorded musical sounds).

DCI recently clarified these rules, indicating that electronic music must be performed live; pre-recorded musical loops and sequences will not be allowed while sound effects and “spoken word” may be used.

As DCI enters its first season with these controversial new rules, Halftime Magazine caught up with several directors to find out whether their corps will embrace these opportunities—or not.

The Blue Devils
David Gibbs, Executive Director
2009 Show: “1930” depicts a nation “standing at the gateway of the Great Depression” following the market crash of 1929. It contrasts an economic storm front with the beauty of American optimism.
Electronics Use: The Blue Devils won’t be explicitly featuring technological use but will utilize some understated electronic effects in addition to regular amplification.

We have the show done, and electronics is a part of that show where appropriate and where it needs to be enhanced. It’s in the show, but I couldn’t even point out one particular effect. We don’t even think about it as a singular issue; it’s just a part of a bunch of ingredients of how we put together this year’s production.

If [technology is] used correctly, it’s going to provide a huge amount of opportunities—enhancement of show concepts. … Used in context with what you’re trying to get across to the audience, the mood and emotions, it provides a lot more tools to create a great show and entertainment package for the audience.

It’s just going to continue advancing the activity. It gives us a bigger paint bucket, a lot of color spectrum. It gives us a lot more options, so we can keep advancing the creative designs of the shows and the effects of the shows for the future.

The audience will dictate. If the audience doesn’t like it—if they don’t enjoy it—we’re doing it wrong or using the wrong tools, and we’ll stop doing it.

The Cadets
George Hopkins, Director
2009 Show:
“Lenny” chronicles the life and work of famed American composer Leonard Bernstein.
Electronics Use: The Cadets will use electronics and sound effects to support its homage to Bernstein but hopes to remain loyal to the music.

We’re still marching bands. People use the word authentic; I always cringe at this. Leonard Bernstein never planned for his music to be on a marching field. You’re always at some level changing the intentions of music.

Why not open those doors? What music might we play if we did have electronics? Drum corps, our musical choices, are very conservative, and occasionally someone wanders into some jazz pieces. As a result, I think, we only appeal to a certain part of the audience. What if it was possible for us to recreate hip hop? What if we could do Led Zeppelin and make it work? What if we could take the best of what we have and combine it with another musical idiom? Maybe we could get kids off the street in urban centers to be more interested in what we do. The lessons that we teach are extremely relevant to them, but the music that we play isn’t.

It’s really going to be support; you’re really going to use the bass part of the keyboard to support the lower [instruments]. There’s a percussion break, and you can sample in a different sound; you can sample in a piano; you can sample in something that sounds like string instruments. You can make it more lush, more appealing.

Another thing that people are using are sound effects, … maybe the sound of wind to open the show.

I think the material we’re using, the Bernstein, is not really something that [would use a lot of electronics]. If we were doing things that are more modern or less known, we’d probably be more experimental. Right now, the 75th anniversary show, to force in electronics seems kind of artificial.

We pretty much wrote the charts without the electronics, and now we’re laying it in. A lot of it had to do with the music but also with the logistics. … I don’t anticipate—I never did anticipate—that [electronics] would be a featured aspect of the show.

I think it’ll be organic and that people will figure out as time goes on what’s appropriate. … I think it’ll be a little bit slow to get around. … If people can find tasteful ways to use the technology, it’ll take off. If it seems like a problem, people will back off.

The Cavaliers
Bruno Zuccala, Director
2009 Show:
“The Great Divide” chronicles the valleys and peaks of the great mountains.
Electronics Use: Using pipe organ and string sounds in conjunction with other sound effects, The Cavaliers will be demonstrating the literal and figurative descent into the canyon and return to the peak.

I think the way that we look at the electronics proposal that’s coming this season is that we’re only going to use it if it enhances what we’re going to do. It’s only a secondary or tertiary focus to enhance the program. As we try new things and embellish the thought process that we have, there may be more parts of the show where we use that in some fashion.

As far as electronics, it’s a tool like anything else. I look at it as something in our bag of tricks that is going to make the show memorable, that the boys are going to like and extend their educational process with. … The show will stand on its own without it.

I think technology is always going to be there for those groups that want to take advantage of it. … Fundamentally its’ still a drum and bugle corps. To move away from our roots is something our fan base wouldn’t be appreciative of.

Colts
Greg Orwoll, Executive Director
2009 Show:
“Fathoms” encompasses the sounds of the high seas.
Electronics Use: Using classic corps sound in conjunction with synthesizers and sound effects, the Colts will draw the audience into the “sounds, colors and hues of water.”

We’re incorporating those new options pretty well continually through the show. We’re being careful not to make it too overbearing, but we’ve really found some ways to do some really neat enhancements. We’re using two synthesizers; we added two spots in the pit just for kids that play synthesizers.

We’re also doing some sound effects. Most of what we’re doing is live off of the keyboards. We wanted to make sure it was a really great experience for the kids playing those instruments.

Given the concept of our show, we’ve been able to take advantage of some really cool things. … The Colts are still going to sound acoustic, but there are going to be some neat little twists in there. … One of the sounds we’re going to use that’s uniquely available this year because of this rule change is the sound of an ocean liner with the ship horn. We’re going to have sounds of the bells on buoy markers. We’re going to have running water [sounds]. And we’ve added waves and SOS signals. Some of the pit sounds, we’re going to enhance it and add to it.

My opinion is that anything used correctly and done tastefully is going to be an enhancement. I’m not one of those—it’s black and white, and this is the coming of the devil or anything.

I’m curious to see what some of our peers come up with. Somebody might just be out of the box. There’s going to be one corps that the other directors are going to point to and say that’s not what we meant.

Everything evolves. I was one that was opposed to this. Now that it’s here, we’ll jump on it just as much as anybody. … If we’re going to do it, we might as well do it well.

As much as anything, we’re trying to explore the colors, pitch and hues that you’d experience in the water. Different depths—not only the colors changing— but the sounds changing. We’re using electronics to really try to enhance that experience for our audience as well.

Phantom Regiment
Rick Valenzuela, Executive Director
2009 Show:
“The Red Violin” is based on the 1998 Canadian film with the same name.
Electronics Use: Phantom Regiment will retell the story of the treasured violin with rich red hues and a traditional corps approach.

As of right now, we have no plans on using electronics other than the amplification stuff we use now. We’re pretty much happy to use what we have at our disposal.

It’s been on the radar and on the board for a long time. There are strong positions for it as well as against it. I know some of our staff that are for it, and then there are a few of us that have been opposed to the stuff including amplification just because of our take on drum corps. I’m not against change. Who knows? Maybe we’ll use it in the future.

If we do DO anything, it’s going to be very minimal. And would take place during the corps warm-up.

Some corps are going to use it well; some corps will use it horribly. That’s how amplification went. … It’s going to take awhile to figure out.

About the Author

Eddie Carden is an editorial intern for Halftime Magazine. He is a recent graduate from the University of Southern California (USC), with a major in public relations and neuroscience. He has been playing the trumpet since the fifth grade and served last year as the drum major for the USC “Spirit of Troy” Trojan Marching Band.

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