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High School Marching Band Adds Fiber-Fueled Digital Sounds

In the video, the setup looked like any other kind of high school band playing on the field during half-time. But this one featured not only an energetic horn and percussion section and cheer squad but five electronic keyboards and an electric guitar plugged into the speakers via fiber optic and all performing the Foo Fighters' "The Pretender." The mix of synthesized music and live instrumentation is taking place at Howard High School in Ellicott City, MD.

"Imagine a rock band on the 50-yard line with a marching band moving and playing around it," said Band Director Christopher Campbell. "We're reinvigorating the traditional scholastic music program and mixing in contemporary music with the marching band."

The experiment began last school year when Campbell and his colleague Daniel Roberts, front ensemble director, pondered how to add digital keyboards or guitars to the marching band's sound and have them amplified well enough to be heard. They debated the use of wireless communication but figured there would be too much signal interference to work well; they also considered the use of copper cabling, but had concerns about handling heavy wires in the lengths required and ensuring the cables would still maintain sufficient signal strength.

A parent whose son was "active" in the music department suggested fiber optic as a communication medium. Buddy Oliver, the CEO for optical equipment maker FiberPlex explained to the music directors that his fiber optic cabling could transport music over greater distances, by a 400:1 ratio compared to copper and with much less weight.

"Speaking as a musician and parent, this is a great way for students to experience music differently and maybe get involved in music where they might not have otherwise. It demonstrates to the students that all that science and math they are taking can be leveraged to create high end technology with real practical (and cool) applications," said Oliver, who helped set up the school's sound system.

The company's LightViper optical snake collects the signals from the instruments on the field and transports them to a mixer in the stands where a student technician mixes the signals and sends them back down the fiber to amplifiers and speakers on the field for broadcast.

"Because of the kind of music that we're doing, it gave us strong opportunity for a lot of creative input and thought from the kids," said Roberts. "The kids learned a lot more... They actually became involved in the creative process of that music that we were performing."

"It added a whole depth of sound being able to play the guitar and the keyboards with the traditional marching band," said Joe Dilosa, a student who played keyboards during the trial run.

Added keyboardist Morgan Stahl, "The sound quality was amazing."

Next up: According to Roberts, who heads a music technology lab at the high school outfitted with 20 student stations outfitted with Apple GarageBand, Avid music notation software Sibelius 7, and audio production program Pro Tools, keyboards with MIDI, electric guitars, and microphones, in the coming year the students intend to record their own album.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

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