Inside the Arc – “The Pit That Ate Drum Corps”

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One popular scientific theory holds that the universe continues expanding, a result of the incredible force generated by the Big Bang. There seems to be a good deal of evidence for this view. Whether this will go on forever is debatable, and even Einstein struggled with this problem. After all, why wouldn’t the collective mass generate enough gravity to pull everything back at some point, reversing the process and resulting in another bang?

What may be said with certainty is that drum corps has continually expanded, from several Big Bangs. Among these was the one caused by Gerry Shellmer in the late ‘60s when, in answer to the question, “What do you want, anyway?”, he raised the LP, Musser, Deagan and several other catalogs over his head, slamming them down on a table at a rules congress, with all the force of Thor’s hammer. Bang! (tympani). Bang! (mallet keyboards). Bang! (Mambo cow bell, guiro, congas…etc.). (Imagine “The Most Interesting Man in the World-meets-Jack Nicholson”.)  He got it all, as long as it could be carried around the field.

It eventually became clear that it made more sense to locate the larger instruments somewhere, rather than continue to treat percussionists as pack animals. Voila! The Pit! It was then that the real expansion began.

Blame television. One of Jerry’s most gifted disciples, the legendary Fred Sanford, managed to hip the manufacturers to the value of product placement. Not that drum corps was (or is even now) a very large market, but its influence over the high school and college band activities is enormous, and that’s a huge potential territory. You can’t see the logo on a mellophone, but a brand name on those eight 5-octave keyboards right downstage makes a nifty camera shot on the DCI broadcast.

Still, there are geographical limits to the pit (for the moment). There are just so many gongs, suspended concert basses, crotale racks, surdos, octobongs, trap sets, brake drum arrays, weasel cages and the like that can be jammed in there. The laws of solid geometry will not be mocked. But another Bang was imminent, the biggest of all.

It’s beyond ironic that two of the primary arguments in favor of amplification were that it would serve to reduce the number of keyboard instruments in the pit that were required to be heard over the larger brass lines, and that players would not have to bastardize proper orchestral technique. (Curiously, it seems no one pointed out that good basic arranging skill and ensemble balance offered a simpler, and dare I say more musical, solution to this “problem”. One is reminded of the old joke about college dorm food: “It’s awful, and they don’t give you enough.”)

The law of unintended consequences also kicks in. The seemingly unchecked proliferation of pit paraphernalia requires a dedicated 16 wheeler, a driving crew and load-in/ load-out logistics that rival the invasion of Normandy. (Why can’t we have full retreats, like the old days? Because it takes a couple of hours to load up the gear, and that must begin right after the corps crosses the finish line or they can’t get down the road to the next show in a timely manner.)

The music suffers as well. The examples of over writing for the pit are plentiful but arrangers are not totally responsible. If I have to pay X thousand dollars for my kid to be in your drum corps, she’d better have a lot of notes to play. (She probably would, albeit sequentially on several instruments, were it not for the population explosion downstage. but since we’ve got all those keyboards stuffed in there anyway, let’s make sure everyone has something to do all the time.) Sometimes it seems the front group fills in every possible 32nd note for 10 minutes straight. Skillful? Very. Musical? Not so much.

And we can’t do our show without an electrical outlet. (Actually, we can, only it will require a generator. But that too could be considered a percussion instrument in post-modern drum corps.)

BANGggggggggggg! (That’s a Big Bang with reverb.)

Don’t get me wrong. I love music technology. If Mozart had a synth and an amp, he’d have used them. As an audio producer, I have made my living for over 30 years with microphones, mixers, signal processors, loudspeakers and all sorts of sound gear. I think these can have a place in drum corps and marching band. (They already do.)  It’s just that sound reinforcement has become an invasive species, running amok over the habitat and  devouring all the native wildlife.

Consider the term itself: “Sound Reinforcement”. Its purpose is to support, enhance and augment acoustical events, not to eat them. My first-year college Recording Arts students soon know this. Why is it a mystery to the drum corps wizards? (The 2011 Cavaliers are a notable exception here. Their sonic mix was spot on when I saw them at the Meadowlands.)

A basic principle of sound mixing is “transparency”, the ability for the ear of the listener to discern every element (instrument, effect…etc.) present in the mix at every moment. If something is there and can’t be heard, it’s either being masked by another source, or is unnecessary to the composite and should be removed.

To put this another way, if it’s essential to the mix and you can’t hear it, don’t make it louder, lower the level on whatever is blocking it. The tacet is a beautiful thing but it is extinct in today’s drum corps. A single wind chime can be heard at the top of the largest stadium on earth, given adequate space in the soundscape.

Stephen Sondheim at the keyboard in his first pit. ("Finishing the Hat", p. iv)

The pit’s acoustic footprint too often has become grotesquely bloated, not for the multiplicity of textures (they are wonderful), but by amateurish arranging and criminal neglect of ensemble dynamics.

If the brass and percussion techniques of some drum corps were as poor as their mixing chops they’d never see a Box 5 number in Music or Effect. And if Mozart used a synth, we’d still hear the violas.

Balance is by no means the only issue, either. EQ and panning are equally important, and sound techs must be trained in these techniques. In all fairness, they don’t stand much chance of achieving an acceptable result under current constraints: a different venue for each show and only a couple of minutes to do a seat of the pants mix.

To be clear: the textures the pit can deliver are a plus, but only as they serve the whole. They are the spice, not the entrée. As for amplification, consistently professional results in drum corps are a fantasy at present. Listenable moments result from luck as much as skill. That is simply not acceptable.

Upon opening the dust jacket of Stephen Sondheim’s book “Finishing the Hat”, one is presented with a few exquisite phrases printed in large type:

  • Less is More
  • Content Dictates Form
  • God is in the Details…all in the service of
  • Clarity

Until these are inscribed across the top of every mixing console and faithfully observed by the operators, the most prominent sound on the field will be:




About the Author:
Frank Dorritie is one of the legends of the activity .... a performer, instructor, arranger, adjudicator, and observer over the past 5 decades. Frank has been playing the bugle and trumpet since the 1960s, and has performed with artists like Billy Cobham and Maynard Ferguson. He has instructed and/or arranged for the Blue Devils, Cadets, Santa Clara Vanguard, Cavaliers, Chesterton and Tenri High Schools, the Bushwackers, Bridgemen and a host of others. His audio production honors include 9 Grammy Nominations, 2 Grammy Awards and membership in both the World Drum Corps and Buglers Halls of Fame. He is active internationally as a clinician and adjudicator, holds the DCA Soprano/Trumpet/Tenor Individual titles for 2003, 2005 and 2006. Frank also chairs the Department of Recording Arts at Los Medanos College. His popular brass method book, “Power and Endurance”, is available from The opinions expressed in this column are strictly those of the author.

Posted by on Tuesday, August 30th, 2011. Filed under Inside the Arc.