Exploring Front Ensemble Tech with Chad Kohler


The Fishers High School Marching Tiger Band is widely recognized as one of the best high school marching bands in the United States, and the Fishers Winter Percussion ensemble are three-time Winter Guard International (WGI) Scholastic Concert World Percussion champions.

J.W. Pepper’s creative team visited Fishers, Indiana to spend time with the band and get to know their staff. Director Chad Kohler gave us an in-depth look at all the elements that go into leading the band’s front ensemble, including the technical equipment they use, processes for amplifying each instrument, and rehearsal strategies.

Kohler credits Jim Campbell from the University of Kentucky for originating the concept of a front ensemble—that is, of placing a concert percussion ensemble at the front of a marching band or drum corps field. Campbell combined traditional African and Latin musical elements and instruments with orchestral percussion, creating an ensemble that includes wooden instruments (xylophones and marimbas), metal instruments (vibraphones, glockenspiels, and chimes), and membrane instruments (drum set and timpani).

About the Fishers High School Front Ensemble

The Marching Tiger Band’s Front Ensemble features 20 percussionists and a wide variety of instrumentation which varies slightly from year to year based on the needs of each marching band show. In addition to high school students, eighth graders may join the front ensemble with their directors’ approval and by audition. Programs throughout the country have lost members due to the pandemic, so attracting eighth graders is an effective way to both keep numbers up and nurture future leaders. 

Many members of the percussion faculty work with students from sixth grade through twelfth grade, so they benefit from learning consistent pedagogy and vernacular. While all percussions start with a bell kit and a snare pad, prior experience on piano is a bonus. 

For the 2022 season, Fishers’ instrumentation included five marimbas, five vibraphones, a glockenspiel, mallet auxiliary setups, timpani, drum set, two synthesizer stations, bass drum, chimes, and gong. 

Fishers’ 2022 competition show, “Chasing Starlight,” reflects the luminosity of the night sky and stars. Metallic instruments including bell trees and mark trees add a twinkly quality to the group’s sound throughout the show, while electronic upright bass creates a jazzy feel. Featured musical selections include Radiant Joy, Apollo Unleashed, and jazz standard Little Girl Blue

Miking Marimbas and Vibraphones

The Fishers front ensemble employs a variety of different microphones, many of which are often used in recording and studio venues. All keyboards and the drum set are miked, synthesizers are amplified, and four field microphones capture the full group to create the desired balance. For example, at a moment in the show when the brass section plays a backfield chorale during a woodwind feature, field mics ensure that the woodwinds can be heard.

To mike marimbas and vibraphones, Fishers uses the Audio-Technica AT2035. Since the Audio-Technica is a condenser microphone, it has the advantage of picking up a wide pattern of sound. Kohler recommends placing mallet bags across the front of the instrument (in front of players’ knees) to avoid picking up extraneous background noise from the field. In addition, it’s important to pay attention to the orientation and placement of the microphone in order to capture the desired sound and range of the instrument. The Audio-Technica microphone has a shock mount to absorb sounds from any unintentional disturbances. If someone bumps into the frame or sound board, for example, the noise will be absorbed. 

The Shure SM57 is another microphone option for marimbas and vibraphones. Kohler recommends that groups using the Shure SM57 use at least three microphones to pick up the instrument’s full range.

MIDI Controllers and the MainStage App

Smaller programs may choose to use an amplifier that can be plugged into a computer through a keyboard. Even in a lower price range, it is possible to find a keyboard that produces a good-quality piano or electric piano sound. 

For advanced and some intermediate groups, Kohler recommends using the MainStage app, which directors can install onto a Mac computer. MainStage is relatively inexpensive, and connecting a USB MIDI controller gives you direct access to hundreds of sounds—allowing you to build your music that works for your show. It’s possible, for example, to go instantly from the sound of a piano to the sound of an organ or choir. There are keyboards that will provide this effect available for as little as $100 to $200.

Advice for Smaller Programs

“I think that, with a smaller program, the general tendency is to go to electronics right away,” says Kohler. “They think, We need more sound, so let’s mic everything.”

Unfortunately, adding microphones to the field or front ensemble may hinder bands struggling with issues such as being out of tune, out of time, or lacking the necessary timbre of sound. Kohler recommends that, before adding microphones, bands focus on tuning, timing, playing together, and listening across sections. There are several rehearsal tools that can help. Then, when the time comes to start using electronics, bands should ease in slowly. Ultimately, the goal should be to enhance the group’s sound without covering up key elements or overbalancing.

Kohler has four major recommendations for every front ensemble:

  1. Play an exercise program together 

Doing so allows members to learn how to move and groove in sync. Establishing strong communication between players will help your ensemble create a much more established pulse for the entire band.

  1. Be careful when doubling the flute or woodwind parts, especially in cold weather

Ensuring that your whole band stays in tune can be tricky, and it only becomes more challenging once temperatures drop. Since you can’t re-tune a marimba or vibraphone, it’s best to exercise caution when orchestrating for instruments that are particularly sensitive to colder weather.

  1. Don’t overwrite—create a moment in your show for the front ensemble

Give both winds and front ensemble players a chance to shine. Rather than forcing sections to compete with each other, design a moment in your show that allows the front ensemble to show off their skills.

  1. Make sure the front ensemble always listens back for timing

If the front ensemble relies on the drum major for timing rather than listening to the players behind them, they will always be ahead. Based on the way sound travels, failing to listen back will create an effect in which the front ensemble’s sound reaches the audience before that of the winds.

Hooking up the Equipment

When plugging in marimbas and vibraphones, the Fishers front ensemble follows a “daisy chain” system: the first and second vibraphones plug into each other, the second vibraphone has another cable for vibraphones one and two, and so on. All the connections feed straight across the ensemble’s setup, then back into the sound board. Consolidating the tech setup in this way simplifies things greatly, enabling just four lines into the sound board rather than 30 or more.

Powered Field Speakers

Many speakers available today tilt upwards, which—as Kohler explains—is a major improvement over older models. The speakers available in the past would lie flat, so bands would have to create their own setup to align them in a way that allowed sound to project. Another advantage to modern equipment is that speakers themselves are powered, so there’s no need to carry a separate (and heavy) sound system.

While some bands and drum corps have three or four array speakers, it’s possible to get great results with less equipment: Kohler recommends starting with two subwoofers and one array speaker, then adding on when possible.

Interconnected power cables at the back of each speaker feed into a secure electrical connector called a powerCON, and powerCONs all run to one sound cabinet. Speaker lines are connected in the same way as the marimbas, with one cable feeding into the first, two into the second, and so on.

Drum Set and Snake Hookups

Below the speaker hookups are power cables for the drum set and synth along with Ethernet cables for both.

The drum set has a stage box with 16 channels, and several microphones amplify it. Cables run through a drum mic pack. Cables are wrapped and zip-tied to create a clean look, so the technical setup is not visible from the front.

Each of the drum set microphone cables run to a digital snake, which also has an attached four-channel etherCON box. Field microphones run from the box, consolidating the number of cables required and making setup quick and easy.

Pageantry Innovations Carts

Kohler explains that Fishers uses carts from Pageantry Innovations because they are the industry standard. “All the top groups use them,” said Kohler. The carts are strong and have a clean, defined look. There are covers included to protect gear in adverse weather conditions, and dense foam absorbs any impacts that may take place while transporting equipment. While many of the instruments that make up the front ensemble were never really meant to be transported and played outdoors, manufacturers like Pageantry Innovations have gone to great lengths to create carts that keep instruments safe and secure. During the winter percussion season, Fishers uses the Pageantry carts to handle sound, installing a rack mixer in place of a regular sound mixer and running controls from an iPad.

Kohler showed us a cart setup with a keyboard and explained that the keyboard’s power source and microphone lines come out of a direct injection (DI) box, which then plugs into a computer with a USB cable. The DI box gets power through another speaker input.

Mixers and Wireless Mics

Another cart in the front ensemble setup, a doublewide cart, houses two spaces for equipment. Wireless microphones and Shure wireless systems plug into antennas, which helps signal feed out to students. It’s ideal to place equipment as high as possible in order to avoid having bodies block the sound. A modular snake provides an input for marimbas and vibraphones, combining channels to increase efficiency. An Ethernet cable in back plugs into a mixing console.

Battery backup allows the group extra time before each performance to power on the sound system and ensure that all components and frequencies are set. While power is supplied from the stadium, the battery backup also ensures that the band is able to perform in the event of a power outage.

Wrapping Up

We’d like to thank the staff of the Fishers High School Marching Tiger Band for hosting our team and taking the time to speak with us. If you’re interested in more marching band content, watch or read our interview with Richard Saucedo and shop marching arts gear on the J.W. Pepper website!

Pepper has served musicians since 1876. We hope you find our blog posts informative and a wonderful gateway to news in the world of music.


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