Part TWO – Electronics

In Part ONE of ‘Innovation and Evolution’ we discussed brass instrumentation. Next, we consider another significant innovation; the use of electronics.

After preventing the use of electronics in competition for many years, the DCI Board of Directors voted 12-8 to allow it prior to the 2004 season. This opportunity for ‘innovation’ was quickly adopted and every DCI World Class corps began using electronics beginning with the Finals in 2005. This ruling has had dramatic and wide ranging results. Almost every corps now employs a ‘sound board’ to control microphones, electronic instruments, and speakers with a designated person on the sideline to manage it. This technology is so deeply integrated into some corps’ programs that they would have difficulty performing on the field if their ‘sound board’ were to fail.

In Allentown in 2019, the Mandarins’ sound board was ruined in a torrential downpour. As the corps attempted to perform in standstill exhibition, the missing electronics created enormous musical gaps that produced false starts and confusion. Because the electronic content filled dozens of measures while the ensemble rested, brass and percussion players had difficulty finding their cues. They scrambled to purchase a replacement as they had a show in Buffalo less than 48 hours later. Without replacing the sound board it is likely that performance would have been seriously compromised, if they elected to perform at all. Long delays, waiting for a corps to begin their show, are quite common now because of ‘technical difficulties’ with electronics sound boards.

2019 Sacramento Mandarins

On the positive side, the ability to amplify brass and percussion, particularly mallet instruments and soloists, has enabled subtle and effective dynamic effects that were not previously possible. (This does raise the question why corps apparently ‘must have’ a dozen mallet instruments in the pit, but that is a whole different topic.) Bringing in recorded samples of various sounds and other instruments has opened up new vistas of creativity. Amplification has offered benefits for vocalists, solos, directional sound (most notable in the Bluecoats ‘Kinetic Noise’ and ‘Down Side Up’ programs in 2015 and 2016) and ‘in ear’ monitors that assist with balance and timing. The use of instruments such as Santa Clara’s theremin in 2015 and the Blue Devils electronic violin in 2019 would not have been feasible without amplification. The use of electronic ‘pedal tones’ to strengthen volume and deepen the harmonic series (most evident during Santa Clara’s final push in their 2009 ‘Ballet for Martha’ program) has been most effective in louder passages and when used in moderation. Several top corps have strategically placed microphones on the sidelines for specific segments of their shows. Properly mixed and balanced, volume and harmonics can be enhanced in a subtle and effective way. (The Blue Devils and Bluecoats seem to have mastered this.)

 

There have also been some significant adverse side effects from the introduction of electronics. Several corps have used electronics to narrate their show, and displaced brass and percussion content with various electronic instruments and vocalists. Some ‘features’ have even led to a single keyboard player providing the musical content for an entire corps for extended periods of time. These features have often been effective, increasing the likelihood – good or bad – that the use of electronics in similar ‘features’ will continue to increase.

People may argue that allowing electronics has ‘ruined’ the activity and, for the ‘drum and bugle corps’ purist, that point has some validity. But would these same people criticize a Broadway musical for using amplification? After all, amplification has been used on Broadway quite commonly since the 1950s with augmentation of both the vocalists and orchestra. I contend that as long as what is performed is ‘live’ and not recorded it probably won’t completely ‘ruin’ the activity (although it has dramatically altered it). The bigger problem becomes ‘is it live or is it Memorex,’ meaning how can we discern whether we are witnessing a live performance or a mirage when recorded content is legal? The technology offers ample opportunity for misuse. Would it be acceptable for corps to simply record themselves and serve up that ‘Memorex’ facsimile during their show? Could a corps play along with a recording of themselves and essentially double their volume? Or maybe they simply record their solos to reduce the pressure on soloists for a perfect performance every time. Hey – if you can use one electronic violin, why not assemble an entire string section? It is not that difficult to envision a corps using a recorded string section or even recorded woodwinds. The potential for going to extremes is out there. Let’s hope for some restraint.

2015 Bluecoats "Kinetic Noise"

One of the most compelling characteristics of the drum corps activity has been its real time, ‘live’ performances. Similar to a rock concert, a trip to the Symphony, or a Broadway musical, a key aspect of the activity has been the ability to witness the performances ‘live and in person’. For anyone who has watched DCI shows through the online streaming service, that experience is clearly not as good as ‘being there’ (although it is the only viable alternative and we should be thankful it exists). Anyone who has attended a drum corps competition can attest to the extraordinary experience of witnessing these groups of amazing young performers harvesting the fruits of thousands of hours of rehearsal. A live drum corps performance never gets old.

The legalization of electronics has opened up numerous avenues for creativity and new musical effects. Some corps’ use of the technology has been conservative while others have pushed the envelope to the edge of cringe worthiness. Used appropriately, electronics can enhance the entertainment value of productions and create wonderful effects. Taken too far, this innovation could diminish aspects of the activity that have made it unique and compelling for its audience. The hopes of the drum corps faithful is that we will see the ‘good’ uses far outweigh the detracting so that extremes will not become the norms. If drum corps devolves into a game of competing technologies, displacing the live elements, we will have lost an essential component that has been a hallmark of the activity. Let’s hope they keep it ‘real’.