Fine-tuning the volume on amplification for drum corps

by Mike Ferlazzo, DCW staff

This article originally appeared in the November 2007 edition of Drum Corps World (Volume 36, Number 14), mailed to subscribers on October 25, 2007.

Regardless of your position on amplification and what it has meant to the activity since Drum Corps International adopted the rule in 2004, everyone can agree that it has radically changed the programming options available to each corps — and they seem to be using it.

“Anything like amplification that directors bring to the table is always welcomed by me, because what it does is it gives them more tools to work with,” said DCI Executive Director Dan Acheson. “I’m one of those guys who believe that there doesn’t necessarily have to be a whole lot of restrictions. Let it be opened up and let’s see what they can do with the creativity of using that tool. We’ve seen some fine moments with them [the corps] using amplification so far. We’ve seen some not-so-fine moments, in all fairness.”

“I think the use of amplification is advancing the activity, which is great because it gets people talking about the activity,” said Troy Wollwage, Percussion Marketing Manager, Band and Orchestra Division, Yamaha Corporation of America. “If it helps to   promote drum corps to people outside of the drum corps community — and therefore helps to get some more people involved in music and promotes music education — it’s a great thing.”

Like it or not, the corps’ creative teams seem to be embracing these new electronic options, just like they did evolutions in marching percussion equipment, pit instrumentation, color guard dancing and equipment, drill design and the controversial move from G bugles to B-flat horns at the start of the decade.

The Cadets seem to be at the forefront of the amplification revolution, as they have been with some of the other big changes. They won their first DCI World Championship in 1983 (celebrating the 25th Anniversary of that achievement in 2008), becoming the first corps to win with a heavily-amped show featuring the spoken word in 2005.

They pushed the amplification envelope further this summer by becoming the first to build the musical program around the spoken word. The concept presented new design complexity in synchronizing the music with the numerous speaking parts, taking narration to a new place by adding cordless headsets for members featured all over the field within the marching ensemble. The program literally “told” the audience its theme and that was the whole idea.

“We thought that the use of voice enabled us to kind of direct peoples’ attention and try and be a little bit more intriguing instead of just playing charts where you’re sort of trying to guess what the intention is,” said The Cadets’ corps director, George Hopkins.

“We’re kind of taught to listen to the music and listen to the ensemble and listen to the balance of brass and percussion,” he said. “And we’ve thrown another element into that and people aren’t sure what to do with it sometimes.”

Corps are going to school on amplification

Wollwage actually likens the last four seasons of electronic experimentation to the early years of other major drum corps rules changes, such as the adoption of the pit percussion area or the B-flat horn. Corps are growing and learning about what works best in the area of amplification.

“There have been a couple of years where every corps is just jockeying for position and stretching their arms and seeing what they can do to explore and push the boundaries,” said Wollwage. “It is because each corps wants to do something different than every other corps is doing just to set themselves apart. If the use of pro audio equipment helps that and helps the corps tell their story, great. And if it doesn’t, that’s fine, too.”

And the primary use of amplification is still to allow the subtle sounds within the pit to work in better harmony with the technologically-enhanced instruments on the field.

“So what you have now is a lot of groups using softer mallets [because of amplification]. They’re able to play with a lot more musical expression than they were able to previously,” Wollwage said. “As you have better brass instruments and battery percussion instruments — thereby creating more sound — trying to bring out those small sounds is just a little more difficult. So, having the ability to promote some more of those sounds — some of those subtleties in the pit section — helps to tell the story and helps the corps get across what they want to get across to the audience.”

Officials from the Pro Audio (PA) Division of Yamaha have tried to help equip and provide technical advice to corps as they’ve explored the new electronic world available to them, making sure they get the best “bang” for their new investment bucks. But “bangs” are exactly what Yamaha Product Manager of Live Sound Products John Schauer would like corps to avoid when they invest so heavily in electronics, as well as feedback bleeps and other blunders.

Schauer has many years of experience with sound reinforcement and, for the past 20 years, been the “go-to guy” for all the sound needs inside Yamaha. Having professional audio experience ranging from simple systems for spoken word applications, concert PA systems and elaborate automated theater sound systems made him the perfect choice to consult with DCI when amplification was being considered.

“Having just a few minutes to get it set up and with the limited amount of AC power available on the field, I would say that the worst thing you could do — and the thing to avoid — is to try to set up too elaborate of a system,” Schauer said. “You run the risk of not getting it all connected properly, or of running out of AC power and the system shuts down.

You get distorted sound when you run a system past its limit or the electronics shut down altogether. Any of these scenarios would certainly take away from overall performance.

“The best use of the system would be to make things that are too quiet just a touch louder,” he said. “But the worst uses would be to amplify things to the point where you’re causing distortion.”

Getting the best bang for the amplification bucks

According to Schauer, Yamaha’s basic digital mixer lists at about $2,400 by itself. When you add everything else — like cases and wiring, but excluding microphones, which Yamaha doesn’t produce — a “good budget” would be between $4,000 and $6,000. For that reason, Wollwage said that spending that money on really good equipment and not using it effectively is a crime.

Fortunately, that’s where Schauer comes in.

“The corps needed someone to help them build a ‘system,’ not just the parts and pieces,” he said. “Yamaha has been making audio gear for over 30 years and we have a full line of products to choose from.

“We’ve come up with some system examples to help out,” he continued. “First, you need a mixer that has enough microphone inputs for all the instruments you’d like to amplify. There are two basic types of mixer — analog, which has been standard for many year, and digital, which is fast becoming the first choice.

“The reason for this is that it can provide instant recall, so whatever you do out on the field for rehearsal, you can repeat on the field and that is a huge thing. The digital mixer also allows signal processing that used to require lots of outboard gear. Keeping all the processing inside the mixer simplifies the system and allows cleaner sound.”

Schauer reports that the basic system that he set up for the corps is a sub-woofer system with a single 18-inch speaker on either end of the pit for bass and a two-way loudspeaker, and a 15-inch mid-range and a high frequency speaker.

“And it’s in a monitor-style cabinet that can be tilted back to face the audience,” he said. “One of the other things that we’ve done for safety reasons is asked that the loudspeaker cabinets be passive, or use separate amplifiers near the mixer, so that all the AC power and anything where there’s unsafe voltages are all in one place.

“When it starts raining, they would have to only cover the one rack and unplug one cable. Safety is very important and cannot be overlooked.”

Schauer reports that some corps use what they call “powered speakers,” where amplifiers are actually built into the speakers. But he advises against running power cables across the ground, which might be wet from rain, posing a shock hazard.

He also advises corps to have some funds set aside for their proverbial “rainy day.”

“I ask that the corps treat the PA gear like any other instrument on the field,” Schauer said. “Some of the gear will need to be replaced during the season as it gets damaged or wears out. It also is a good idea to get a local sound expert — someone who works in the audio field — to get basic settings and placements.

“Frankly, Yamaha’s pro audio gear is pretty robust, but nothing can take the abuse of that nightly beating without the occasional failure. All we ask is that reasonable care be taken in transporting and operation,” he said.

Like it or not, amplification is probably here to stay in drum corps. So corps that plan to use it should be making plans now for how best to use it. Otherwise, their best plans may become short-circuited.

Author’s note: This is the first of a three-part series on Yamaha’s input into the evolution of the drum corps activity. Next month’s installment will explore how drum corps has changed musically during DCI’s first 35 years.