First, dispel the notion you have of the color guard you remember accompanying the local high school band at halftime of the football game. These are fully choreographed arena presentations. A fusion of art, dance, theater and music, modern day color guard performances are theatrical presentations. Fully choreographed and costumed with rifles, flags, batons and sabres flying in the air.
More than 100 color guards from around the world converged on Dayton, Ohio in mid-April for the 2018 WGI World Championships. Each is given 17 minutes to stage and complete a 10-minute performance.
One corps, the Bluecoats Indoor, brought a new sonic dimension this year to color guard presentations with the integration of multi-channel audio into their performance set design.
Formed in 1966, the Canton, Ohio American Legion Drum and Bugle Corps partnered with the Police Boys Club to start up a new unit.
The name “Bluecoats” was born in tribute to the police department’s retired officers as a nod to the designation as a program of the Police Boys Club. Since those humble beginnings, the Bluecoats have gone on to become one to the country’s top corps.
In 2016, the Bluecoats ushered in an era of change to drum corps activity, shedding the militaristic sense of a uniform. The corps hit the field in an all-white with a more theatrical costumed look. That year, they took home the Gold Medal at the DCI (Drum Corps International) World Championships. The very next year most of the top 12 corps followed suit in their uniform appearance.
Now in 2018, the Bluecoats are once again bringing change to the format of color guard. First, this is the debut season for the Bluecoats Indoor. Renowned in the outdoor arena, this is a first for the organization bringing their brand indoor. Of great significance is the dynamic they have added to the color guard performance with the integration of audio into the performance program.
As the color guard corps converged on Dayton, it was the Bluecoats Indoor who brought a new concept to the competition.
“This is an incredibly inspiring and exciting time for the Bluecoats,” says Bluecoats Tour Administrator Chris Drake. “Renowned for their outdoor corps, this is the debut for the Bluecoats Indoor color guard. Artistry in blue.”
It was Artistic Director Jon Vanderkolff who brought the new image to the drum and bugle corps. And now with the color guard. As Vanderkolff holds an Emmy Award and a Tony Award for his visual design of the Broadway show Blast!, he saw the need to bring a theatrical presence to the Bluecoats performances. His involvement with the Bluecoats dates back to 2013. While the drum line was one of the premiere corps musically, Vanderkolff brought a new level of creativity the group had never seen. And he’s now done that with the Bluecoats Indoor.
“We wanted to do something where the sound, staging and choreography are all in sync,” says Vanderkolff. “As our performances are generally in arenas, we took the theater-in-the-round concept and looked for a way to Integrate the system allows for the ability to pan, zone and direct sound toward the audience.”
The concept stems from creative ideas injected by former drum corps member Aaron Beck. Beck has been involved with Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas, currently tech director for Michael Jackson One at Mandalay Bay. His involvement in the evolution of the Bluecoats dates back to 2015. He knew some of the drum corps were adding electronics to their performances, but he felt those systems were very amateurish. Beck was called in as a consultant, and for the Bluecoats became the first corps to actually bring the professional audio sound system down onto the field. An embryonic concept to say the least.
With their professional backgrounds with performance art in the theater environment, Vanderkolff and Beck knew there was going to be a need to take their sound reinforcement equipment to the next level.
In steps Brian Belcher. A touring veteran, Belcher was working as a product technician with Roland, and discussions began about upgrading their audio. First, the integration of a Roland M5000 mixing console. This provided the ability to upgrade audio output and create multiple channels of audio.
Then the speakers. Belcher was familiar with the RCF HDL family of line array products from a tour he worked on with George Thorogood. “The size, output and power of the RCF products made them a perfect solution,” says Belcher. For the Bluecoats drum and bugle corps, he first designed a portable system stacking RCF HDL20-A line array cabinets on a custom cart with a SUB8004-AS subwoofer. “With the system, we could cover the entire side of a stadium with concert quality sound,” notes Belcher.
Now it was time to bring the Bluecoats indoor. The design for their 2018 included four rolling platforms as part of the choreographed performance. With a soundtrack embodying the music of the band Propellerhead, the program incorporated a modern twist on music, costuming and set design from the Mod era.
“We are the only corps that uses a point source front amplification setup to try and create a natural sound across for the audience,” says Beck. Most groups just take the left/right approach. We used seven matrix outputs to feed the system,” allowing for various panning and surround sound effects based on positioning of the platforms.
Integrated into each platform were three RCF HDL6-A small format line array cabinets which provided the ability to create the special effects and focus specific sound on the guard performers on each platform.
“We are really the only corps that uses field speakers for effects and amplification,” says Beck. “This allows us to have the sound match the location performer.”
Additional sound reinforcement and low frequency subwoofer energy were utilized with the outdoor systems used on the sideline.
This design for the Bluecoats Indoor created two hurdles to overcome - how to transmit the sound and how to power the speaker system to four rolling platforms that were part of the performance.
“Finding the lithium batteries was definitely a big key,” says Beck. Belcher located a Goal Zero Yeti 1000 lithium portable power station that was mounted to each of the movable platforms. And for sound transmission, they integrated a Shure PSM personal monitor wireless system.
The system takes the Bluecoats entire organization to a more professional level. “Their performance is so unique, so entertaining,” says Beck. “The level of achievement the Bluecoats Indoor has reached in their first year is astounding, and strengthens the overall brand of the Bluecoats organization.”