Part 1: Evaluating electronics — Directors, designers see creative options, expense with electronics

by Mike Ferlazzo, DCW staff

The use of electronics has had both a profound and polarizing effect on drum corps since amplification was first permitted by Drum Corps International in 2004. And legalizing electronic instruments this summer has further turned up the volume on the great electronics debate.

Some of the top drum corps designers support further electronic exploration to move the activity forward — similar to the introduction of keyboard instruments or B-flat horns — while providing new educational opportunities to young people who already use electronics in their musical performance activities. Electronic effects have been legal in the top competitive high school marching band circuits for years.

“Well, it just gives us a bunch of different textures and voices we couldn’t use before,” said DCI Hall of Famer Michael Cesario, program consultant for the Colts. “The other pageantry activities have been using them for awhile. I don’t think they use them all that well. I think there are all kinds of stuff that is yet to be discovered. Boy, are they going to be mad when they hear that. I think there are things that we can bring to the use of those [electronics] that other people haven’t thought about yet.”

Many drum corps purists have thought about electronics over the past five years and expressed their displeasure through angry Internet posts, petitions at DCI Championships, t-shirts, bumper stickers and vocal reaction to corps using the most electronics. Some fans openly booed in movie theaters during this year’s “The Countdown” show in May when the electronic instruments rule change was mentioned.

Dan Potter, host of’s “Field Pass” podcasts, detailed some of this summer’s anger when he read an e-mail by William Coleman on the July 3 show.

“I went, I thought, to a drum corps contest in Rome, NY. Instead, I’d found I went to an entertainment outing,” Potter read from Coleman’s e-mail. “Guitars, amplifiers, etc. clogged my inner ear membranes so that the main ingredient of the evening — drum corps — could not be seen, heard and enjoyed. I cannot think of the day when you self-serving idiots allow the woodwind element into DCI. And I’m not looking forward to hearing about the same as I will not be attending any more contests while present ignorance is the norm.”

That type of animosity is the exception and not the norm. But corps creators don’t see what all the commotion is about since electronics are simply meant to enhance traditional drum corps, not radically alter it.

“It [implementation of electronic instruments] isn’t just a gag,” Cesario said. “It isn’t just so the lead trumpets don’t have to play. We’re going to play lead trumpet no matter what, meaning that drum corps is not going to stop playing our horns for this stuff. What it is is what other sounds, textures and tonalities — what other kind of tambours — can we get that weren’t available to us before?”

“From our standpoint, it just allows us some additional sounds that help portray what we’re trying to do and also adds to the overall richness of the ensemble,” said David Glasgow, executive director of the Bluecoats. “It’s amazing that some of the things that I’ve heard so far have fit so well, yet we’ve never been able to do it before.

“So, it’s funny, once you hear it within the context of everything, you’re like, ‘Wow, I never heard that before, but man, I sure would miss it if it were gone.’ So that’s what I’ve kind of noticed. It’s really kind of added another layer of depth to the musical production.”

Breaking the electronics barrier

This isn’t the first time synthesized electronic sound has been used in a drum corps show. It’s just the first time it’s legal.

At the 1985 DCI World Championships, the Boston Crusaders used a synthesizer for their    percussion feature, Axel F, the techno instrumental theme from the 1984 film “Beverly Hills Cop.” The percussion arranger at the time, Paul Pitts, decided the performance would be more effective if an electronic keyboard was used to play the main theme.

But because the use of electronic instruments was illegal and could result in up to a four-point penalty — and possibly be banned from further performances — Pitts and the Crusaders decided not to risk using the keyboard until the end of the season. They used it in championship prelims and were assessed a two-point penalty, which cost the corps one spot in the final standings.

But since Boston managed to break the electronics barrier, other attempts to make electronic instruments legal in the ensuing years all failed to pass. That is, until George Hopkins, director of The Cadets, made a successful proposal in January 2008.

Hopkins has largely become a lightning rod for much of the electronics debate as his Cadets have pushed the envelope on amplification the furthest since it was adopted. He didn’t see this new rule radically altering drum corps at the time it passed. And he didn’t see much to change his opinion early this season, especially among his own corps.

“From what I just saw [in the first two shows], we actually use them less [electronic instruments] than anyone,” said Hopkins following the show in Annapolis, MD, on June 20. “We just use them for support. I think most people really do. A couple of people have a couple of effects now and then — a piano, someone amplifies an apple — you know, a sampled sound like that. We do the whistles, stuff that we can do. You know, it’s all appropriate. No one I’ve seen is going wild yet. I don’t know what’s around the corner, but for now, it’s pretty safe stuff.”

Greg Orwoll, executive director of the Colts, provided primary opposition to the electronic instrument rule when it was proposed. But since it passed, Orwoll knew his corps had to move   forward with the rest or risk being left behind competitively.

“This one, as with anything else, if it’s done with taste and it’s done creatively, is going to be a nice enhancement — and that’s our intent,” Orwoll said. “You know, I was the loyal opposition all the way through the vote and it passed and I said, ‘Well, alright, we’re going to do it as well as anybody’ — because it can be a contribution to the effect. It can also run the risk of changing the nature of what we hear in a few years if it goes radically into the next place. And so we’ll kind of see. But by and large, the folks who run corps and the creative staffs and the teachers are pretty savvy folks. They’re not going to let this go past the audience.”

Orwoll’s biggest concern about the new rule is how it could significantly and fundamentally change what drum corps is known for –impressive natural acoustic sound. But he’s also concerned about the added expense at a time when the country’s economic crisis has already made money tight for many corps.

“The jury’s still out on the budget, only because we’re not sure what it’s really going to take to do well,” said Orwoll. “We got some bigger speakers, for example. We got some more speakers. We got an extra power head. We got an extra power amp. We got a ton more electronic leads and all that stuff, because you’ve got to have a good enough system that does it justice and something that will work well in a small venue and also work well in a giant venue.

“Couple that with the natural budget constraints we all have and, from an educational standpoint, how much of our resources for new instruments can we really spend on two kids’ experience — because it still is that.”

Open to electronic expense

While World Class corps have the biggest budgets to balance, they often have more endorsement opportunities and additional cash streams at their disposal to pay for their new equipment. But they’re not the only ones exploring electronics.

Capital Regiment just returned to the field in Open Class competition this summer after two years off, in part to rebuild its financial foundation. But the Columbus, OH, corps is still building much of its show, “The Storm,” around its new synthesized sound.

“The synthesizer thing’s been big,” said Carl Diefenbach, the corps’ program coordinator and visual designer. “We developed our show not around the synthesizer, but with the synthesizer in mind. So it was a dueling project to make sure that the arrangement incorporated the synthesizer — not only on the brass side, but on the pit side — and the sounds.

“Thank goodness we were able to work some deals out,” he continued. “That’s kind of exciting for Rick [Bays, executive director] to say, ‘Hey, you’ve got this much money to buy synthesizers.’ And you go to the store and synthesizers are $2,000 more than the budget.

But you know what? You’ve got to keep up with the Joneses. I mean, I hate to say that, but let’s face it, you’ve got to keep up with the Joneses in this business. I mean, everyone’s going to have synthesizers. The Blue Devils are sponsored by Korg or someone, I think.”
But sponsorship or not, electronic expansion may not be as expensive as it may appear in some corps’ budgets.

“It hasn’t been a lot of money,” said the Bluecoats’ Glasgow. “We’ve probably spent, in terms of the new instruments, less than $5,000 that we didn’t already have with amplification. I mean, we had some things that we had to replace — some microphones, some speakers, some things like that — but we do that every day. It was about $5,000 of expense, which is very manageable. So it really hasn’t been a huge budgetary concern at all.”

For Glasgow, the biggest expense has been on the creative process and figuring out how best to integrate the new electronics into the existing ensemble — and get them on and off, the field. It’s certainly not as simple as just wheeling them on and plugging them in. Or is it?

“Yeah, it adds a little more complexity,” Glasgow said. “There’s one more thing you’ve got to roll out there. There’s one more thing you’ve got to plug in. But our guys are so well-trained in their set-up that it is literally just one more thing. It’s not an issue. Our performers and our staff are so well-trained to do what they need to do that it just becomes part of their routine.

“And sure, there are going to be some challenges,” he continued. “We had some challenges last year and they weren’t with electronics, in general, but that particular wireless system we had. We just could never get it to work correctly. And we’re not using any wireless things this year, so I don’t think we’re going to have those same issues.”

Possibly no corps has implemented more new electronics into their program this summer than Spirit, which uses an electric bass guitar, bass fiddle, amplified steel drums and heavy synthesized sounds to create effect for its “Live . . . in Concert!” program, which features the music of the rock group Kansas. As Spirit Executive Director Joel Vincent sees it, the payoff has been well worth the expense.

“Well, logistically, it has not been a big deal,” said Vincent. “From a creative standpoint, it’s what the music called for. We have added the bass guitar. We’ve added an upright bass. They’re playing independent parts from everyone else. I think we’ve done a great job with our synthesizer on not doubling horn parts.

“The bass, the synthesizer, the steel drums that we’re using are all tambours that are being added to the ensemble. They’re independent parts by themselves, then to themselves and it has added so much to just the depth of everything.”

But Cesario sees electronic instruments being very much a big deal in creative logistics.

“It’s a living nightmare,” Cesario said. “It’s another whole voice. It’s another whole thing. It’s not like it’s just the pit and have a couple people play it. It’s ‘How is it scored?’

‘Where will the speakers be?’ I mean, if we’re really going to do it, is it backfield, fore field?
“You know, it’s not just a couple of guys talking. If you’re really going to make it be part of a sound score — if it’s going to be part of a symphonic portraiture painting — then you’ve got to find a way to integrate it so it seems seamless to the identity of the corps and the identity of the show.”

Spirit wants its corps’ identity to be “rock stars” this summer, which is why its designers decided to dive so deeply into the electronics debate, but not before consulting the new rules first.

“Yes, we definitely checked the rules first and with the idiom that we’re playing — rock and everything — we definitely wanted to bring out the real instrumentation of using the real electric bass,” said Spirit Percussion Coordinator/Battery Arranger Shane Gwaltney. “With that, since we’re doing some slow stuff and wanted to do some really cool colors, we decided to go with an upright bass so they could bow and get out a lot of sustained sounds. We needed to support the horn line also. And along with the drum set, you can’t go wrong with a rock show.”

But can you go wrong by relying too much on electronics? The debate rages on.

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Author’s note: This is the first of a three-part series gauging reaction to this summer’s implementation of electronic instruments. The next installment will explore how young people, including the members themselves, are taking to the new electronic enhancements.