RS transparentthe official blog of the Percussive Arts Society

Marching Percussion Electronics by Ben Gervais

Mar 25, 2020, 08:00 AM by Rhythm Scene Staff

While there are different ideas about setup, equipment, and functionality, this article will provide a beginning framework for educators new to sound system application in marching band. The information is intended to remain neutral and give readers the opportunity to make the decision that best fits their program needs. However, the material presented has been selected based on personal experience and information as researched by the author. Educators searching for information to better customize their setup are advised to seek a professional and experienced consultant. In some cases, your retailer may provide some great references and resources to help you, but to start, I recommend McCormick’s, Lone Star Percussion, or Sweetwater.

If you are unsure about the musical importance of a sound system for your ensemble, I implore you to examine the educational effects and benefits it can have on your students. When it comes to setting up and operating your system, be sure to involve your students every step of the way. Working with this equipment is a valid career path, much like performing or teaching music, so it is advantageous to your students to have this knowledge. If you are looking to purchase a new system, you want to articulate the educational impacts when presenting the idea to your administration and other supportive stake-holders.

COMPONENT SELECTION
Whether you are looking to purchase equipment for the first time, or you are trying to make use of older and borrowed equipment, you need to understand the basic components required that will provide you and your students with a quality experience. 

Mixer: A mixer is the single source where all instruments are connected and controlled for a balanced sound. You have an option for an analog mixer or digital mixer. A digital mixer is preferred for many reasons, specifically for its ability to save and adjust settings as well as scenes. A digital mixer will also last longer with the feature of firmware updates and other modern, time and money-saving innovations.

Power Conditioner: A power conditioner provides a single source to plug in all of your powered devices with a cord. This component is often overlooked and substituted for by a surge protector (or power strip). However, a power conditioner is recommended especially if you utilize a sequencer that turns your components on and off in a correct and safe order (speakers ON last, OFF first).

Speakers (mains): You will need to decide between active or passive speakers. The active speakers are heavier, will need to be plugged in to a power source (which can limit placement), and will cost a little more. Passive speakers are lighter weight, easier to place with the appropriate speaker cables, and are less expensive but will require the purchase of a power amplifier to activate them. A power amplifier needs to be able to carry the load of both speakers in order to activate them. Each power amp will connect one right and left speaker (two total). If you have a large setup with active speakers, you run the risk of overloading a single power source and may require a generator to help share the load to avoid losing your speakers mid-performance.

Subwoofer: The same information about speakers applies to a subwoofer as well. A basic speaker setup will consist of two main speakers and one subwoofer, although many groups choose to have two subs and create a speaker “stack” by placing each main on each sub.

Cable Snake: If you are micing multiple mallet instruments, you will want to invest in the Planet Waves breakout snake system. This allows all mallet mic cables to be routed to the center and remain connected while the center performer connects one cable to the snake. This greatly reduces the setup time before a show, which allows your students to remain stress free and focused on the music. 

PHYSICAL LAYOUT
Once you have purchased all of your components, be sure to set everything up correctly with the appropriate labels from the beginning. Color code your cable ends and plugs with the necessary writing to clearly identify where everything goes. 

Speaker Setup: The layout provided uses two speakers and two subwoofers to create two speaker towers on opposite sides of your front ensemble. If you have one subwoofer, it is recommended to place that in the center.

Cable Management: Cable management is crucial to the life expectancy of the equipment as well as the efficiency of the daily set-up and pack-up. Be sure to color code all cables and connectors with colored electrical tape, even writing channel numbers on the tape. To ensure a cleaner, more efficient setup, be sure to acquire 5-foot and 10-foot mic cables and fasten them to the mallet instrument frames and route them to the center. 


Gervais Flow Chart

 

CHANNEL SETUP
You will want to clearly label your channels so they are navigable even for a beginning sound board operator. While facing the front ensemble, label and assign the channels from left to right as it corresponds to the physical layout of the instruments.

Gain/Phantom Power: The gain controls the volume being input to the mixer of the assigned channel. Phantom power adds power to a channel in order to activate a condenser microphone—usually up to 48 volts. Be sure to adjust your gain in accordance to the type of microphone and placement; a condenser will require less gain than a dynamic microphone. 

EQ: There are many ideas on how to set an effective EQ for the mallet instruments. A good starting point is to isolate all the frequencies on the instrument to ensure the microphone is only picking up that specific instrument. This can be done by cutting frequencies below the lowest note and the high frequencies starting at two octaves above the highest note on the instrument. As a reference, a low A marimba (4.3-octave) is 110Hz to 2093Hz, so you could set the HPF (high pass filter) and LPF (low pass filter) to approximately 106Hz and 8500Hz (or 8.50kHz) respectively.

Gervais EQ

Gate and Compressor: You will want to take advantage of exploring the gate and compressor feature on each channel. A gate helps ensure the mic is activated only by the instrument to which it is attached. The compressor setting can help reduce the channel from peaking too loud throughout the show. While these features seem daunting to set up, a digital mixer will allow you to save an EQ, gate, and compressor setting as a default, allowing you to apply it to other channels a needed. 

Groups: Depending on your mixer, these may be labeled as “subgroups,” “VCA,” or “DCA.” This is an often-under-utilized feature by beginning sound system users; however, it is something you will want to implement. A group allows you to control certain assigned microphones into a single channel fader. You can easily begin with three groups: marimba, vibraphone, and all mallets. This will expedite any live adjustments that need to be made.

CONCLUSION
Whatever equipment and setup you decide to use, do not take on this task by yourself. Seek out professional assistance with local percussion educators or fellow band directors that have experience implementing electronics effectively. The most important step is to involve your own students in the process. Teaching your students how to care for, set up, and manage the equipment will give them the appropriate ownership and accountability to effectively utilize your setup. You can find some additional resources at edu.presonus.com/index.php/marching-audio/,the PreSonus YouTube channel, and marchingaudio.com.

Ben Gervais is a middle school band director and freelance percussion educator in the Kansas City area. He is co-founder of State Line United, an organization partnering percussion professionals with local programs to provide enhanced percussion experiences, and a PAS member. For more information, you can email him at bjgervais@gmail.com.

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