The Impact of Amplification

Though controversial when first introduced in Drum Corps International, amplification and electronics are here to stay. Five years later, what is the impact of amplification in corps and how has it evolved in the high school and college realms as well?

Photo by John Matter

Marching bands are loud. Not as much of a problem when sections play in sync, but what about discerning that one intricate mellophone solo in the middle of a football field?

In the past, soloists had to sacrifice some musicality to make themselves heard or end up lost in the ensemble sound. But as of 2009, Drum Corps International (DCI) has allowed the use of amplification in field shows, giving soloists an easier time projecting their quieter parts. Even more drastically, DCI also permitted the use of electronic instruments such as keyboards and guitars, giving groups an opportunity to fundamentally change the traditional “drum corps sound.”

How have these changes played out over the past five years—for the performers, judges and audience—in corps as well as high school and college band?

I CAN HEAR YOU NOW

Including electronics in a field show does not mean simply adding a keyboard player; it also means allowing a whole new collection of sounds that the ensemble can utilize. For example, the lower range of the keyboards can compensate for missing voices in the brass section and can be particularly helpful for smaller ensembles that lack the full complement of musicians required to cover every aspect of their music.

“If you lack the low voices necessary to give the ensemble its foundation, then even one synthesizer can really fatten up the sound,” says Fred Steiner, director of bands at Palos Verdes Peninsula High School (PVPHS) in Rolling Hills Estates, Calif.

Though obviously helpful for soloists, the primary purpose of electronics is to reinforce the preexisting sounds of the rest of the group. “The main reason that we use electronics is to bring out the colors of the percussion section without distorting the sound,” Steiner says. “We have chiefly used electronics to amplify the marimba and vibes in our front ensemble. But we have also used up to three synthesizers, electric bass, guitar and wireless microphones for woodwind soloists out on the field.”

For groups with the complete range of instrumentation, amplification may be necessary to bring out the sound of the front ensemble. For example, the Madison Scouts Drum and Bugle Corps in Madison, Wis., amplifies its mallet section to ensure that those sounds can be heard over 80 brass musicians. “When players are trying to play loudly, they often end up playing with very poor technique,” says Chris Komnick, executive director. “Amplification allows them to play as they naturally would.”

With the advent of electronic reinforcement in marching organizations, the front ensemble has become a much larger element in field shows. Capable of both supporting the musicians on the field and creating swathes of musical effect on its own, an electronically-aided percussion section can contribute to a show in greater ways than ever before. “The percussion section is really 50 percent of the musical soundscape you’re hearing,” says Scott Director, published composer for symphonic bands, wind ensembles and marching activities. “There’s such a huge variety of rhythms, textures, tones and ways that they blend and balance between the front ensemble and the winds.”

Front ensembles have access to virtually any instrumental sound, opening up new options for composers to make certain parts more transparent. For example, rather than requiring the entire band to play simultaneously, a single section can play a line accompanied by the front ensemble, allowing a unique tone to stand out.

MORE TO CONSIDER

From a judge’s standpoint, new instrumentation and sounds mean new material by which they can score a performance. In addition to the traditional front ensemble arrangement of mallet instruments and drums, electronic instruments also factor into the overall effect of the section. While one keyboard player doubles a tuba part, another may be creating string effects. Because it is possible for an instrument to emulate any other instrument, judges must be prepared to grade flexibly. In this way, the possibilities are both endless and two-fold.

Still, a performance’s final scores will depend upon how well it is executed, regardless of its new bells and whistles. “Music judges need to approach electronics in the same way that they would approach the entire ensemble, listening to their contribution, accuracy, balance and blend and considering them as part of the whole presentation,” Director says.

A NEW AGE

While marching bands and drum corps fortunately do not Auto-Tune their musicians, show designers have access to a huge range of tools with which they can write a story in music. “It’s a whole world of unlimited possibilities,” Director says. “[Show designers] can use samples, sound effects and narration to add a whole new layer to the general effect.”

As the modern music industry displays, electronics have nearly limitless potential when it comes to creating a new sound. “We don’t have any preconceived notion of ‘how it’s supposed to be,’” says Gary Locke, director of marching band at Riverside (Calif.) City College (RCC). “We want to always offer the students as many opportunities as possible. If you have a talented keyboardist, he or she can play in the marching band now, and we can get a new musical texture or color.”

Technology in drum corps and marching band does not end with amplification or electronics. Digital mixing programs allow bands to rebalance the various electronic instruments throughout the performance. Wireless microphones allow musicians to play their solos while remaining on the field as part of the visual package. Prerecorded sound effects can conjure up a particular mood or theme; such was the case for Huntington (W.V.) High School.

“Our show last year was basically a storytelling show,” says Josh Reed, music arranger and front ensemble coordinator for the Huntington High School Marching Band. “We recorded some vocals and a rocking chair, and we used bass guitar and synths for string and organ sounds. These electronic elements really tied the whole show together.”

MIXED RECEPTION

Electronics and amplification have received mixed reviews since their inception. In cases such as RCC, electronics allow guitarists, keyboardists and even singers to play a part in a marching band or drum corps performance, introducing new flavors of sound to the stadium. Smaller groups use electronics to compensate for incomplete instrumentation, achieving a full band sound despite having fewer members.

“We started doing stuff that hadn’t ever been done before in a marching band,” Locke says. “In the early 90s, we played music from Tower of Power, and for that we had to have electronics. We needed drum set, guitar, bass and organ sounds.”

Rather than sticking with the traditional marching band show, RCC aims to catch and keep the audience’s attention with something unexpected, like rock tunes on a football field. “If anything, we’ve attracted more students and a bigger audience because what we do is just more accessible. I think that adding electronics just makes it more interesting to watch and to listen.”

Though electronic equipment provides a set of tools, when used poorly, it can easily detract from a band’s effect. Overused sound effects or unbalanced instruments can harm a performance more than amplify it. “Where I have seen electronics used most irresponsibly is to add a false bottom to the sound,” says Curtis Tarver, marching band alumnus and writer for 80minutesofregulation.com. “Sometimes it is very egregious that it’s a synthesizer giving that bass line that I would rather hear come from the tubas.”

Furthermore, drum corps have a traditional brass-and-percussion sound that is heard nowhere else; some worry that integrating sounds and instruments from outside the realm of drum corps takes away from that identity, eventually leading to a loss of that unique persona.

“I’ve heard the idea that including instruments like synthesizers leads to more creativity or innovation from drum corps, but I see the opposite,” Tarver says. “If show designers can elicit that same feeling without using sampled sounds or keyboards, then it really comes from a more creative place.”

Sometimes, less really is more. “Overusing electronics can really just take away from the effect,” Reed says. “If it gets too overbearing, audiences will realize that the show doesn’t have much substance.”

Logistically, incorporating electronics into a field show brings its own difficulties. A state-of-the-art set of electronics equipment, even just to give a soloist a microphone, can be rather expensive. More complexity means more chances for something going wrong. Rain or lack of power can be obstacles to performing the full show, and just operating and moving all the equipment around adds another layer of complications to the already elaborate machine that is a field show.

“My initial reaction to electronics in drum corps was negative,” Tarver says. “Now that I have experienced it, I don’t have the same level of dislike. I can view it as a positive thing, but personally I prefer the acoustic instrumentation.”

GOING AND GOING

Originally it was high school and college marching bands that utilized electronic equipment in their field shows, unburdened by the boundaries of the classic “drum corps sound.” While drum corps innovated in design, musicality and performance, marching bands experimented outside the traditional realm. Clearly, they have proven that electronics can work and evolve the already-unique world of marching arts.

“One driving factor behind the use of electronics is that shows are getting fairly sophisticated,” Komnick says. “With that sophistication, we can put a lot more stylizing and sound design into our show and just create a better experience.”

Whether for better or for worse, the incorporation of electronics and amplification into marching bands and drum corps will remain a topic of contention. Equipment and tools are just equipment and tools; it is up to the bands to put them to use.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Samuel Sweetnam is a junior at the University of Southern California (USC) majoring in mechanical engineering. He played trumpet for three years in the Palos Verdes Peninsula High School Marching Band in Rolling Hills Estates, Calif., and became a drum major in his senior year. Sam continues to play trumpet as a member of the USC Trojan Marching Band.

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