The use of technology—as simple as metronomes during rehearsal and as involved as electronic instrumentation—can improve field shows, fix problems and add excitement for audiences and performers. With huge selections of available technology and widely varying philosophies on how to use them, each individual group must examine the options and tailor technology to improve its program.
Photo courtesy of Western Carolina University Marching Band
When the Western Carolina University (WCU) “Pride of the Mountains” Marching Band—this year’s winner of the esteemed Sudler Trophy—takes the field, the winds and percussion have some powerful backup. A full-fl edged mobile rock and roll band, the “Soul Train,” towers above the field and delivers its huge sound and distinctive style to the screaming home crowd.
Marching band technology has come a long way since the roots of the activity, and nowadays, groups use a whole slew of electronics, software and other technological tools to improve their bands and explore new territory in show design and performance.
The Basics: Metronomes, Tuners, Speakers
Metronomes and tuners are a staple of marching music ensembles everywhere, and for good reason. These rehearsal tools help bands practice efficiently and effectively and prevent bad habits.
The Southridge High School Marching Band from Beaverton, Ore., uses the Dr. Beat DB-90 metronome. “Every rehearsal, we warm up with it,” says director Todd Zimbelman. “On the field, we plug it into an Anchor MegaVox, hold it behind the drum line and travel with it.”
In addition to just using the simple click of a metronome, Southridge adds more technology to bring their rehearsals to the next level. The band programs its show music in MIDI file format and amplifies the tune through speakers while learning drill. “It’s amazing how quickly you can put drill and music together,” Zimbelman says. “It’s a huge advantage and speeds up learning.”
Tuners, and the process of tuning up, are familiar to concert bands and wind ensembles everywhere. The Tarpon Springs (Fla.) High School Marching Band, a recipient of the 2008 Sudler Shield, tries to take the same approach that it uses in the concert hall to the field, with a couple concessions for the unique outdoor venue.
“We have our principal clarinet player tune with the tuner and then sound the pitch,” says director Kevin Ford. “We bring the winds in and match his pitch as an ensemble. During the warm-up process, we pull out our principal players and get a read on where the average pitch center is for the temperature that day. We generally take the average of their pitch center and use that when we tune the ensemble. We do adjust the pitch center outside to accommodate the climate conditions.”
Nowadays, seldom does a competitive band take the field without microphones, amplifiers and speakers.
Some bands don’t just stop there though. They borrow musical instruments and concepts from another musical style and setting. Integrating various genres on the field adds a fresh twist to the marching activity, getting the crowd and the performers pumped up.
WCU takes this concept to the extreme. “We actually have two additional ensembles on top of the normal marching band,” explains Matt Henley, assistant director of athletic bands and percussion instructor. “One is a more traditional pit down front, but all of that is wired up and has its own sound system. We actually have soloists that come down front; we even had a DJ come down and do some scratching. Then we have another section that’s entirely separate, the rhythm section, and it’s on a set of scaffolding, and it definitely has our largest sound system. We call it the Soul Train.”
The Soul Train consists of electronic instruments, such as guitars, keyboards and drum sets, allowing the band to play rock, funk and other non-traditional marching music. “It’s the glue for a lot of our show; they’re playing a lot of our rhythm section,” says Jon Henson, assistant director of athletic bands and Soul Train instructor. “Everything you’d find at a live rock and roll concert, we have out there.”
To the WCU band, the Soul Train is much more than a fancy toy or an attention-catcher.
“It allows us to play genres of music you couldn’t normally do with a marching band and do things that a normal college band wouldn’t even try,” Henley says. “We are able, therefore, to bring students into the band that wouldn’t normally have that opportunity.”
According to director Bob Buckner, the Soul Train allows the band to explore many unique styles. “I love it; I love doing it,” he says. “I’m over 40 years in the business. I’ve taught marching bands and drum corps, and this is really the most exciting thing I’ve been a part of. There are a lot of different things you can pull off with it.”
While most bands might not have the resources or inclination to go down the same path as WCU, amplifying soloists and pit instruments and using synthesizers to shore up weak sections are common practices that any band can do.
At Tarpon Springs, every marimba and vibraphone in the pit has two microphones set up above it, one for the high end and one for the low end. These are connected to a mixer and then to two large speakers.
“For our front ensemble students, it allows them to play with better control and technique,” Ford says. “The amplification of mallet instruments prevents our percussionists from having to abuse the instruments for volume.”
On the Computer
For drill writers, the age of graph paper and hand-written drill charts is over. Drill writing software, such as Pyware, has taken its place, offering advantages to both the writers and the performers.
Showing the drill being executed is one of the big advantages, especially for visual technicians and others who teach the drill to the performers. In addition, students can download and print out personalized drill charts and coordinate sheets.
Music writing and rehearsing software also assists directors, instructors and students. “I write all our own music using Sibelius 5,” Zimbelman says. “It’s very easy and intuitive; you can almost figure it out without the manual.”
One of the features offered by Sibelius 5 and the new Sibelius 6 is dynamic parts. “If you change a note in the full score, it automatically changes that note in that instrument’s part and vice versa,” Zimbelman explains. “It used to take hours to format and fix all the parts; now it does all that for you.”
Other software helps students with individual practice, giving them immediate and accurate feedback. The WCU band is analyzing the benefits of SmartMusic. “Students can play along with it, and it will tell them when they’re playing it wrong,” Henson says. “It’s a great tool for students.”
Finally, some bands use office assistant software to keep track of logistics and operations. The WCU band uses a program called Charms Office Assistant, which allows teachers to organize student contact information, manage inventory, assign uniforms, track attendance, and coordinate trips, fees, fundraisers, form collection and more.
The program saves directors a lot of time in an already-hectic marching band schedule. “When you’re looking at six hours a week of rehearsals, you don’t want to spend a half hour on announcements,” Buckner says.
As with all software, usability and a good feature set are key considerations. Ford says that his main criteria for selecting software are user-friendliness and whether the features will benefit his students in the learning process.
The Role of Technology
With more marching bands using software and incorporating electronics, most directors agree that technology is here to stay. Where they might differ is why and how they should incorporate this technology into their programs.
One concern is not losing touch with the roots of marching music. “You still want to sound like a band,” says Buckner. “There are several places in the show when we have just the winds play ‘dry,’ with no other sounds … and it’s amazing.”
Some ensembles embrace electronics because of the wealth of options it provides. “The electronics have allowed us as designers to expand our sound palette and use various colors of sound throughout the program that would not be possible with battery percussion” Ford says. “We explore at least 200 different colors and sound combinations in an 11-minute musical production.”
Other groups try to use electronics just to support and complement the band, with a few splashes of color for effect. “We try to keep a natural sound with our amplification,” Zimbelman says. “We want it to be more felt than heard. For other electronics, we did some sampling this year. It gives us new options for cool effects, and the audience enjoys it. We try to use it creatively and artistically.”
Whatever the reason for using electronics, foresight and planning are key. “We took a long-term approach to attain all our electronics,” Ford says. “We implemented a five-year plan to purchase the electronics we thought would be necessary for our musical productions.”
“Today we are teaching digital kids,” Ford adds. “Electronics are infused in every aspect of their lives. We see it as our responsibility to educate our students by providing quality examples of how the use of technology can complement and enhance musical compositions and performances.”
About the Author
Haili Sun is a sophmore majoring in aerospace engineering at the University of Southern California. He has been playing the oboe since seventh grade, served as a drum major for the Oregon Crusaders Drum and Bugle Corps in the 2007 season and marched four years of snare drum for his high school marching band and winter percussion ensembles. He is currently a member of the drum line in the USC Trojan Marching Band.
Meet the Manufacturers
Centrum Sound Systems
Manufactures the popular MegaVox portable speaker as well as a variety of other portable sound systems and microphones.
Produces a long-established series of synthesizers, a wide assortment of tuners and metronomes for all situations and the widely-used TM40 combination metronome/tuner.
Offers a respected line of powered all-in-one mixer/amplifiers along with a selection of active and passive speaker systems.
Peterson Strobe Tuners
Offers professional tuning equipment, hardware and software for all types of players, skill levels and performance needs from stage to studio.
OnBoard Research Corp.
Manufactures the CenterPitch Universal tuner for use with trumpet, trombone, saxophone, clarinet and string instruments as well as the Beatnik Rhythmic Analyzer, a percussive practice pad with built-in metronome and analyzers.
Produces the well-known Dr. Beat line of metronomes as well as microphones, mixers and a wide selection of electronic instruments including keyboards and drum sets.
Specializes in producing microphones and microphone-related accessories such as monitors and wireless setups for a wide variety of settings and purposes.
Offers a full line of electronic instruments and audio equipment from speakers and mixers to synths, tuners and accessories for all its products.