Marching percussion instruments are specially designed to be played while moving. This is achieved by attaching the drum(s) to a special harness (also called a carrier or rack) worn by the drummer, although not all marching bands use such harnesses and instead use traditional baldrics to sling their drums (the British Armed Forces, for instance, still use the old style of slung drums). The drums are designed and tuned for maximum articulation and projection of sound, as marching activities are almost always outdoors or in large interior spaces. Articulation is paramount to producing a "clean" sound from all the drummers in the line. These instruments are used by marching bands, drum and bugle corps, indoor percussion ensembles, and pipe bands. A marching percussion ensemble is frequently known as a drumline or battery.
Marching snare drums are deeper in size than snares normally used for orchestral or drum kit purposes. This gives the drum the big, full sound necessary for outdoor use. Standard sizes (listed as diameter x depth) are 13x11 and 14x12 inches. Smaller sizes such as 13x9 have become increasingly popular in recent times with the proliferation of indoor drum lines.
The modern "high tension" snare was developed in response to the higher head tensions made possible with the development of Kevlar and other high strength fibers bonded into the drum head. These high tension drums were first developed by Legato of Australia for pipe band snare drums. High tension drums began and were perfected in the pipe band market and later moved into the marching band and drum corps areas. The bottom (or resonant) side of the drum has a tightly tuned head and synthetic gut or metal snare wires, which are often secured to the drum using a strainer to limit their movement and make the sound more staccato. For outdoor use, a projector or "scoop" - a piece of curved plastic - may be attached to the back of the bottom hoop to help project the sound forward to the audience.
Snare drums used in pipe bands are similar in construction to standard marching snare drums, with two key differences. First, the drum has an additional set of snares, directly under the batter (top) head. Second, the snares under the bottom head are made of coiled steel wires, similar to a drumset (as opposed to the synthetic "gut" snares on a corps-style drum). These differences tend to give the pipe drums a "snappier" snare sound, emphasizing the higher frequencies of the drum. Recently, corps-style drums have been produced with steel wire snares underneath the batter head (while remaining the gut snares under the bottom head). These snares are able to be switched on and off separate from the bottom snares, which allows units to use the second snares as a specific effect or as a permanent modification to the sound of the drum.
The head of the snare drum can also be varied to give the drum a different sound. Depending on the music or style that the drumline plays, different brands and types of heads may be used. For maximum volume and stick articulation, a head made of woven Kevlar fibers is used and usually tuned to a very high tension. If the player desires a slightly "softer" feel, then an aramid fiber head (such as Remo's Black Max) is a good choice. Finally, if more overtones and the softest head-feel are desired, the player may want to consider a heavy clear head with a center reinforcement dot (such as a Remo Powerstroke 77). This type of head is rarely used today among competitive drumlines, mostly owing to its lack of outdoor projection in comparison with Kevlar, but nonetheless it may still be used if a unique timbre is desired. One of the most famous marching bands utilizing this head is the Ohio State University Marching Band, however, recently, they have switched to the more modern high tension Aramid-fiber heads.
Modern marching bands and drum corps use multi-tenors, which consist of several single-headed tom-toms played by a single drummer. The bottoms of the shells are open and beveled to project the sound of the drum forward. Double-ply PET film heads are typically used for increased sound projection and durability. They are typically played with wooden- or aluminum-shafted mallets that have disc-shaped heads made of nylon. Mallets with felt or fleece heads, drum sticks, drum brushes, and other implements are occasionally used to achieve different timbres. The playing technique used for multi-tenors is somewhat different from that of a snare drum, and more like that of a timpani because the drumhead is struck closer to the edge instead of in the center. This creates a sound with more overtone, as opposed to striking the drumhead in the center, which produces a very short, dull sound with few overtones that is considered undesirable for multi-tenors.
A full-size set of tenors consists of 10, 12, 13, and 14-inch (360 mm) toms arranged in an arc, often with an additional one or two smaller (6 or 8-inch) toms called "gock", "spook", "shot", "spock", "spork", or "sprock" drums inside of the arc. Because a full-sized set of tenors with a carrier can exceed 55 pounds (recently the Dynasty Quints, thought of as one of the heaviest sets, weighed in at 32 lbs. without a carrier) smaller and lighter versions of tenors outfitted with 8, 10, 12, and 13-inch (330 mm) toms are often used by lines with smaller or younger players. All multi-tenors based on the four-drum configuration are called quads despite the fact that there may be a total of five or six drums counting the shot drums. Sets with one gock drum are called quints, and sets with two gock drums are called sextets,"squints", hexes, or sixpacks. To produce different sounds between gock drums with the same diameter, the head type, shell depth, and/or tuning between the two drums may vary. A common name for all multi-tenors is simply, 'Tenors'. Tenor drums have often been compared to the Latin percussion Timbales, as many musicians, including Tito Puente use a setup similar to modern marching tenors.
Lines of as few as 1 or 2 tenor drummers are common in high schools and junior high schools. Many large college marching bands have 5 or more. Most drum corps consider 4 or 5 tenors to be optimal.
The modern multi-tenors evolved from horizontally mounted dual single-headed bass drums first used by the Boston Crusaders Drum and Bugle Corps in the late 1960s. Early multi-tenors had shells with a flat bottom. These drums sounded a lot like timpani, so they were called timp-toms. As drum sizes got smaller, more drums began to be added to multi-tenor configurations. The largest sets of multi-tenors had 7 drums and were carried by both the 1977 and 1992 Spirit of Atlanta Drum and Bugle Corps tenor lines.
Scottish pipe bands use a single tenor drum as part of their drum corps. Traditional marching bands and drum corps may also use single tenors, which are double-headed drums much like snare drums but without snares, and only use either mallets (one or two, the former used in Spain and Italy and the latter in the UK and Commonwealth, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands) or sticks (the latter in marching bands in France). Such drums are used either with the sling mount or shoulder mount. Some show bands such as those at historically black colleges and universities use both single tenors and multi-tenors.
Bass drums used by modern ensembles come in a variety of sizes, with a 14-inch (360 mm) "universal" depth, and diameter measured in 2-inch (51 mm) increments from 14 to 36 inches (910 mm). The heads of these drums are usually made of a smooth white PET film, which gives a tonality that is midway between clear and coated heads. Unlike tenors and snares, bass drums are mounted so that the cylindrical shell of the drum is mounted on the player's harness and the two drum heads of the drum face out sideways. The player can then play on both heads, one arm for a drum head on either side. Each drummer plays and carries one drum, and a line is created by having several people carry different-sized drums. Such drums are called tonal bass drums. The lowest drum in a line, however, is often tuned to have a low "thump" like a traditional bass drum rather than a tone. The Cavaliers Drum and Bugle Corps were the first marching unit to use and standardize tonal bass drum tuning. Many groups try to use the largest size bass drum that is comfortable for the physically largest bass drummer to carry as the bottom bass drum, as larger people are generally better able to carry a bigger drum for many hours.
In corps-style bands, each bass drummer only plays one segment of the entire bass drum part, unlike the snares and tenors. This is known as a split part. A unison refers to when all or some bass drummers play together at the same time. Lines can vary in size from as few as 3 players in small high schools to as many as 9 in very large college marching bands. A line of 5 (with individual drum sizes ranging from 18" to 32") is the most common in a drum corps. Some traditional groups, such as some show-style marching bands from historically black colleges and universities continue to use a non-tonal bass line, where each drum is roughly the same size and each drummer plays the same part.
Pipe bands and some traditional groups use a single bass drummer, who typically carries the pulse of the group. The bass drums used by pipe bands have seen an increase in size and more of a focus on tone in recent times. Typical sizes range from 12 to 18 inches (460 mm) deep by 28 inches (710 mm) in diameter. The goal is to produce a subtle deep tone which is usually in tune with the drones of the bagpipe. Various muffling techniques (sometimes referred to as "treatments") can be used on bass drums to achieve a desired sound. The most common of these involve applying foam weatherstripping, either on the head directly or on the shell of the drum. Some drumhead manufacturers make heads that are "pre-muffled." These heads usually have separate pieces of PET film or other material which are set into the head's flesh hoop and touch the head to control overtones.
Snares and tenors
Marching bands in general and especially marching drum lines emphasize uniformity. To achieve absolute uniformity, every member of the drumline must play with proper stick heights. A stick height is an approximate measurement of how high the bead of the stick comes off the drum head on any given note. Regularly used heights range from 3" to 12", with 1" and 15" being used mostly for visual effect. Snares and tenors can use this chart to establish guidelines for stick heights, but techniques and specifications may vary between lines and can be changed depending on what the music calls for.
Bass drums do not use the same guidelines as snares and tenors. They are grouped in a different section of the battery. Below are the guidelines for bass drum heights. Again, techniques and specifications vary between drumlines. (All fractions are based on the Forte / perpendicular height. Establish this height first and then work the others around it.) Start in “set” position with the mallets about 1 inch away from the head.
Stick heights are not only important for visual reasons but they also strongly affect the sound quality. To get a uniform and consistent sound, one must play with even stick heights on the right and left hand. To practice playing with accurate stick heights, set up your drum or pad in front of a mirror. Start with a simple exercise and watch to see if your left heights are even with your right. If you have access to a video camera, you can record yourself and watch it later. It is easier to watch your heights and critique your performance when you are not focusing on playing.
Cymbals are not played in the same manner as orchestral crash cymbals, as there is a change in the grip of the straps. The hand goes through the hoop and twists, causing the hand to be flat against the bell of the cymbal, although variations are sometimes used for effect. Each player carries two cymbals of identical size and crashes them together, in addition to producing other sound effects by striking or rubbing the cymbals together. Cymbal players often perform visuals – movements such as twirls and flips that are eye-pleasing and boost the general effect of the group. There is generally a 1-to-1 or 1-to-2 ratio of cymbal players to snares, as snare drummers sometimes play on the cymbals at some point during the performance, much in the manner that hi-hat cymbals are used on a drum set. The number of cymbal players can vary according to their use. Cymbal parts are often split in the same manner as bass drum parts – each cymbalist plays one component of a larger part. Some drum corps (or less often, marching bands) do not have marching cymbal players at all, instead choosing to march additional hornline or color guard members, or other percussion instruments. In indoor percussion ensembles, the trend seems to be towards keeping or expanding cymbal sections.
Among many differences between marching and orchestral cymbals, there are many types of crashes. Crash-chokes are played beginning with a normal crash, but pulled into the body at the shoulders or stomach so as to effectively stop the sound after attaining the desired crash. Slides are played using the right cymbal to drive into the left, where the outer edge hits 1/2 way between the bell and the edge of the left cymbal. After the right cymbal slides up on the left, it is brought back straight into the body. The cymbal is stopped by catching the air pocket inside of the cymbals. The cymbals maintain contact at all times. The desired sound is a "sizzle then choke" effect. As well as different types of crashes, cymbals can use many types of visuals, which are only limited to the imaginations of those wielding the cymbals.
The glockenspiel is the mallet percussion instrument most often used as a part of the battery, using slings/harnesses. Other mallet instruments have been marched, also. In the early 1970s, mallet percussion was first allowed into drum corps in competitive circuits, such as Drum Corps International. At first, only glockenspiels and xylophones were allowed. However, around 1976, marimbas and vibraphones were also allowed. A few years in Drum Corps International, drum corps have rigged up home-made racks to march tubular bells.
Eventually, around 1981, mallet instruments were allowed to be grounded, because people realized the folly of carrying the heavy instruments. There on, mallet instruments were kept in the front, as part of the front ensemble. Some corps have experimented with the idea of front ensemble a few times before though, sometimes grounding concert timpani and drum sets (which had to be carried onto the field by a person, then grounded). However, some corps didn't actually use concert instruments immediately after grounding was allowed. Some corps just used the old marching keyboards, using homemade stands.
The original harnesses for the marching glockenspiel and xylophone were made of straps, which sometimes interfered with playing on the high end of the instrument or interfered with four-mallet playing. There were poles on the high and low ends of the keyboards sticking up a few inches, with straps going around the player's neck, making him/her look similar to a peanut vendor.
Eventually, before the use of marching marimbas and vibraphones, a new style of harness was made. The new harness was a vest, similar to what is usually used today for marching percussion.
Like the marching mallet percussion, timpani were marched first when drum corps required everything to be marched. However, the timpani were used prior to mallets.
The marching timpani were made of fiberglass, and were played by a four or five man line (similar to a modern-day bass drum line). The timpani were cranked by a handle sticking up on the side of the drum. Sometimes intricate, complex music was made using the possibilities of 4 or 5 players. While one man was cranking/tuning, another was playing. To help tuning problems (which some corps had), corps sometimes used tuning gauges.
During concert pieces, timpani were often grounded momentarily, using a ti-pod leg system. Eventually around 1981, timpani and mallet instruments were allowed to be grounded in the front, paving the way to the modern day front ensemble. For a few years, corps still marched timpani. Some corps took advantage of the new rule, and grounded their timpani. However, some corps couldn't afford a new set of concert timpani, so they just grounded their marching timpani.
Harnesses for the timpani were originally just slings. Corps usually used 2 snare slings and hook them around the player, and onto his timpani. Some corps rigged wooden blocks between the drum and the player, to help balance issues, as the drums were carried high on the body. Some corps used harnesses for a few years, while some continued using slings.
- Drumline Chops: An Educational Website for Rudimental Drumming and Marching Percussion
-  (Legacy Indoor Percussion, Indiana's ONLY Independent World Class Indoor Drumline)
- Rudimental drumming website with discussion board
- Historic Field Drums Website
- The Marching Percussion Website
- Drumline Discussion Board