Buyer Guides - Marching Percussion

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Marching Percussion Buying Guide

Author - WWBW

The Basics of the Battery and the Pit

In a modern marching band, the drumline (or "battery") is often joined by a stationary percussion section called the "pit," containing melodic and concert percussion. If a band is large enough to support it, having a pit, or expanding one, has a lot of impact. Together with the battery, it will create a well-rounded percussion section. There are many well-known and high-quality percussion brands to check out, including: Ludwig, Pearl, Yamaha, Zildjian and Sabian. Pit brands include Adams, Musser, DeMorrow, Grover, Meinl, LP and Treeworks.

The battery includes:

  • Snare, tenor and bass drums
  • Cymbals, along with their straps and felts
  • Carriers, cases and stadium hardware - vendors usually include these bundled with drums
  • Sticks, beaters and other percussion mallets

The pit is more open-ended, since it can include many different instruments and gear, depending on the size and scope of the band:

  • Melodic "keyboard" percussion (e.g. xylophone, marimba, glockenspiel)
  • Shakers, maracas, castanets, tambourines and other hand percussion
  • Chimes, bells and triangles
  • Rack systems (allowing cymbals and accessories to be mounted alongside other instruments)
  • Multiple sets of sticks and mallets

Since the pit, like the marching battery, will be playing outdoors, look for materials that can stand up to inclement weather. For instance, opt for synthetic instead of rosewood bars on the xylophone and marimba.

Your Drumline: An All-Star Cast

Without a doubt, the highlight of any marching band is its drumline. The percussionists in this section are performers as much as they are musicians, and in order for them to put on the best performance, it takes drums that are up to the task. Here's an overview of the key instruments.

Snare

Snare drums, and their likely ancestor, the tabor, date back to medieval times and have a military background. Before the days of radio and loudspeakers, they were used to broadcast commands and messages through the ranks and around soldiers' encampments. Snares have come a long way since those beginnings, but military-style demonstrations are still a big part of their resume.

The snare drum gets its name from the 'snare' attached to its bottom drumhead. This is what gives the drum its signature rattle. Modern snare drums have louder, clearer snares than their ancestors, and marching snare drums are physically deeper and often wider than their stage and orchestral cousins. One of the interesting things about the snare is the variety of different sounds it can produce, especially when paired with different kinds of beaters ranging from traditional sticks to rutes to brushes - changing these can make a huge difference in the instrument's sound.

When choosing snare drums:

  • Consider the materials in the heads, shell and snare; look for a good balance of sound and durability.
  • Try out a variety of drum sticks, brushes, rutes and other beaters to experiment with different sounds.
  • Look for a size and weight that matches the player. A smaller drum will generally be more manageable for a player with a smaller frame.
  • Don't give up on a snare that doesn't sound quite the way you want it - a new set of heads could be all that you need. Some modern heads even use fibers like Kevlar to increase flexibility and strength for better tone, sensitivity, resonance and dynamic range.

 

Tenor

Although they may not have the same 'cool factor' as the snare, tenor drums are actually the most challenging instruments in the drumline and they'll provide plenty of opportunity for a musician to show off his or her skill. They're the alto/tenor voice in the battery, which makes them very important from a musical perspective. And just like snares, their sound can vary wildly with the different types of mallets and sticks used to play them.

One of the reasons for the tenor drums' flexibility is the number of sizes and configurations available. Generally, they're arranged in a rack of 4-6 individual drums and each one can be as small as 8" or as large as 14" in diameter. Smaller drums may be considered for lighter players, but as a general rule, it's best to stick to larger drums (10"-14") because they deliver better resonance and improved blending with the band's wind section.

Another option the tenor drums offer is to add one or two 'shot' or 'spock' drums to the mix. At only 6", these are smaller than the smallest standard tenor and can be tuned high for special effects or lower to simply extend the range of the set. These drums are excluded from the standard numbering of the tenor set, which runs 1-2-3-4 from the smallest drum to the largest.

When choosing tenor drums:

  • As with snares, take the drums' materials into consideration and look into different kinds of beaters.
  • Opt for a larger set if possible, but go smaller if the player would struggle with a large set's weight.
  • Be sure to outfit each set of drums with a stand and cover.
  • When it comes time to replace the heads, or if you'd like to do so "out-of-the-box" for better sound, look for two-ply models.

 

Bass

For any instrument in the battery, it's important to choose the version specifically made for marching as opposed to a stage version. This is doubly important for the bass drum, because marching bass drums are significantly lighter than their concert relatives. Their dimensions also make them much easier to play while marching, and a good marching bass drum makes all the difference in whether its player makes it through a long parade or performance without becoming fatigued.

The biggest differences between marching bass drums often come down to simple design tweaks. For instance, compare the Pearl Championship Series to the Mapex Quantum Series. Pearl offers a variety of sizes all with excellent build quality. The Mapex models are also well-built, but they set themselves apart with specially-placed air vents that give them a unique tonal character. Either brand is a fine choice, but it's worth listening to them both to hear the subtle differences in sound before settling on one or the other (and don't forget there are lots of other brands to consider, as well).

When choosing bass drums:

  • Check the weight of each instrument you are considering. Make sure it's within the bounds of what the drummer can carry.
  • Read what the manufacturers have to say about their drums. It's common for a brand to focus on specific applications, so it's possible there's an ideal make for your band's needs.
  • Don't forget to look into heads and accessories - bass drum heads may have built-in features such as tone damping systems to assist with articulation, and some, like Evans MX Series heads, even provide felt damping arcs that allow the bass drum to be converted between indoor and outdoor configurations.

 

Cymbals

In marching bands playing on the field, cymbals are generally considered optional. This is because very little of their sound will actually reach the spectators. However, they're a visual treat, so you may wish to include them simply for show. If you do want the cymbals to be clearly heard, consider locating them in the pit instead of the battery. Or, you can choose to "double up" with paired cymbals or suspended cymbals in the pit as well as on the field, to get the best of both visuals and sound. You might also decide to have the snare drummers ride on the cymbals during the routine, in which case it will obviously be necessary to place at least some of them on the field.

If you are including cymbals, there are three attributes to take into account: bell size, hammering and lathing. Here is a brief primer on each one:

  • Bell size is a balancing act between volume and control. A larger bell produces a louder volume with fuller overtones, while a smaller one makes the "spread" of the sound and overtones easier to control. The smallest bell is none at all, as in a Flat Top Ride cymbal, while the largest ones are found in cymbals like the Rock Ride.
  • Hammering can be symmetrical (e.g. A Zildjian, A Custom, Z Custom) or random (e.g. K's, K Customs, K Constantinople). Symmetrical-hammered cymbals tend to have a higher bow shape with emphasis on evenly-blended midrange to upper-midrange overtones. Random hammering generally produces a lower-profile cymbal with a wider range of overtones emphasizing the low end.
  • Lathed cymbals are essentially what we see and hear in our heads when we think of a typical cymbal. They look and sound traditional, with full expression and steady decay. Unlathed and "overhammered" cymbals, such as K Customs or K Custom Darks, have more tension in the metal and deliver a tighter, more focused sound as a result.

 

When choosing cymbals:

  • Decide whether you will include cymbals, and where they will be positioned (field, pit or both).
  • Take the characteristics of bell size, hammering styles and lathing into consideration, as well as the music the band will be playing and where the cymbals will be located. All of these things considered together will dictate the right balance of traits, guiding you to the best cymbals for your needs.

 

Accessorizing for Success

Assembling a drumline and pit is only the beginning of outfitting a band's percussion section. The next step is to put together all the accessories needed to take full advantage of each instrument. There are three main types of accessories to look into: percussion mallets, carrying accessories and instrument modifications.

Percussion Mallets

These are especially important for the snare and tenor drums, where the widest array of options is available. Sticks and felt-tipped beaters are par for the course, but you can expand the acoustic possibilities with brushes and rutes, which create softer, more dynamic sounds. Where the bass drum is concerned, you'll find that most beaters are similar to one another - however, the size, core material and covering of the tip can vary quite a bit, and those can make a big difference in the drum's sound.

Carrying Accessories

This category can refer to on or off the field, and as far as carrying the instruments themselves is concerned, most band percussion manufacturers include something basic bundled with the initial purchase. For transportation and storage, there are marching drum cases. And for supporting the drums during use, there are slings and carriers. While the stock hardware is generally adequate, these are things that you can consider upgrading to make for an easier, lighter-weight carrying experience, to achieve better comfort during performances, or to get a lower-profile harness if your band's style is to wear the uniform jacket over the carrier.

Holders for sticks and mallets make up a sub-group of the carrying accessory family. For example, marching bass drums may include a mallet holder that allows the drummer to swap mallets on-the-fly for quick sound adjustments between songs or even individual passages. If you'd like to plan a routine that requires different sounds from tenor and snare drummers over its course, you should also look into similar holders for those drummers to allow rapid changes on the field.

Instrument Modifications

Modifying an instrument doesn't have to mean getting out the power tools - although some drummers will go to great lengths to rebuild their carriers for a personalized fit. But when it comes to the drums themselves, the most effective way to modify and customize is simply by swapping out parts. For instance, you can change the snare on a snare drum to create a whole different kind of sound, or swap in a different kind of drumhead on just about any drum.

You could also improve your drums by adding something new. Some good examples of accessories like this can be found in virtually any manufacturer's catalog. Evans, for instance, makes a Marching Staccato Disk which attaches to the inside of a marching snare side head. It clears up unwanted buzzing and overtones to refine the drum's sound. Also in the Evans lineup is the Marching X-Treme Patch, which effectively creates different acoustic zones on the drumhead, delivering different tones based on the zone in which you play.

Simple modifications like these can go a long way to individualize your band's sound, so they're definitely worth looking into.

Taking Care of your Marching Percussion

While it may seem out-of-place to discuss care and maintenance when the focus is on selecting and buying instruments, the truth is there's no better time! First, because you have the opportunity to pick up the supplies you'll need along with the instruments, and second, because it can inform your purchasing decisions when you think about what the instrumentsÕ care demands will be.

Here are some basic ground rules for keeping your marching percussion in good shape once you've added it to the band's collection:

 

  • Cases are non-negotiable; if you expect the drum, cymbals, pit instruments and accessories to last, the best way to ensure it is to keep them protected in cases whenever they're not in use.
  • Percussion hardware such as lugs, bolts and screws should be checked regularly for potential rust or damage, as well as proper torque.
  • For most drums, it's advisable to have 2 or 3 replacement heads on hand. The bass drum, however, can get away with just one spare.
  • Drum heads should be replaced once a year at minimum, with the exception of bass drum heads, which may last longer.
  • During rehearsals and practice, use drum covers. This will extend the lifespan of the heads, not to mention keeping noise levels reasonable enough for indoor spaces.
  • For most marching percussion, a little water won't hurt as long as it's dried off as soon as possible. The exception to this rule is any felt material in your pit percussion, which should always be protected from rain.
  • A well-stocked toolbox is an important part of any band's kit. Here are the key pieces of hardware it should contain:
  • Spare lugs, nuts and bolts
  • Drum keys (be sure to have at least a few)
  • Pliers
  • Screwdrivers
  • Petroleum jelly (such as Vaseline)
  • Soft rags
  • Foam (for bass drums and harnesses)
  • String
  • Lighter
  • Electrical or duct tape

 

Good Luck and Happy Marching

Percussion instruments are relatively straightforward in design, so it's easy to make good choices when you're outfitting a band. Think about each role in your ensemble and the sort of sound it needs to contribute to the mix, and you're well on your way to choosing the best marching percussion.

The ideal timeline for a drumline equipment refresh is about 5-7 years. So if it's been that long since the last time your band purchased new drums, then this is definitely the time to start searching for the next generation of instruments and gear. New materials and designs are emerging all the time, so sticking to this 5-7 year cycle does more than just help your band look up-to-date; it also gives you the playability and acoustic advantages you need to stay competitive.


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