On 21st August, we had the opportunity to speak with Ken Turner from ErgoSonic Percussion. In this interview, Ken shares his transition into the music products industry.
The previous two parts of this interview can be found here and here.
You are also involved in the music products industry. How did ErgoSonic come about?
Well, during my playing and teaching career, I noticed a few things that bothered me about various percussion instruments. When I started playing drum set, one of the things I noticed almost immediately, was that when I was playing my drum set and then went out front to listen to somebody else playing my kit, it didn’t sound the same to me. It was different.
Then, when I started my first teaching job and taught the jazz combo, I would occasionally demonstrate a rhythmic figure I wanted our drummer to play, and then go back out in front to conduct and think to myself, “That’s not the way the drum set sounds when I’m playing it!”. It’s mostly because the snare drum sound projects well because of its high pitch and characteristic sound, and the base drum projection is straight ahead and strong. But all the rack and floor tom sounds projects down, so heard from out front, you don’t get the same projection from all the drums. When you play something on the drum kit, you assume that what you hear from the drum chair is also what people hear out front. It really isn’t.
Every drummer I talked with about this said; “Yeah, I know, it’s terrible. You know, that’s just the way it is.” Since almost everyone I talked to understood the problem, I thought at some point, one of the major manufacturers would get around to addressing it in some fashion. It’s simply a matter of putting control of the creative and expressive qualities of playing in the hands of the performer.
So that was the problem with the drum kit, how about the marching drums?
The role of the marching bass drum and the way it’s used in today’s ensembles has changed quite a bit. It used to be played with one stick with several bass drummers all playing unison parts on the same sized drums. That evolved into a more rudimental style which still involved playing unison parts with the drums pointing straight ahead. Then playing moved towards more complicated rhythmic figures, a little more intense. At that point, there was a move to tuned bass drum sections. These comprised of several bass drums of varying sizes tuned to different pitches, producing a virtual melodic line. This is where we are now in the Drum Corps/Marching Band activity and have been for 25 or 30 years.
The problem is that, to get the required projection, articulation and pitch clarity we want, the performers must change the direction in which they face. When you look at a modern Drum and Bugle Corps or Marching Bands here in the US, bass drummers are facing sideways. One head is points forward, the other head backwards. From our very first drum lesson, we’re taught that whatever sound you make with one hand, you should make with the other. On the conventional bass drum used as it currently is, it’s an acoustic impossibility.
So, I would often judge events with the best drum lines in the world, with the best instructors and players, and I would hear bass drum sections that produced very uneven sounds that would not be considered acceptable from any other percussion instrument. The role of the marching bass drum in today’s ensembles, how we arrange for them and how they are played, has completely changed in the last half century. But, the instrument hadn’t changed at all! It’s obsolete and needs to evolve to conform to how we use it today. Again, it was one of those things that everyone knew and talked about. Since everybody was in the same boat, the manufacturers apparently didn’t feel any great pressure to do anything about it. I thought at some point they would eventually get around to doing something about it.
I feel like the major manufacturers didn’t address this…
Just after I retired from teaching, I judged a competition in Denver, Colorado. One of the performing groups was particularly good. Their bass drums had a moment in the show where they came up front and played a feature. The players nailed it, but it sounded horrible because of the drums – all you heard was their front head! Very unbalanced and uneven. I thought I knew how to fix it. Since I now had a little more time, I got a couple of old bass drums and cut them in half at an angle. I just cobbled together a new type of bass drum I thought would work.
You play on one batter head, with the resonant head facing forward. From the start, the uneven sound was completely eliminated. Pedagogically, you could play it using the same horizontal stroke used on every other drum! It was a much more even sound, and since it had 2 heads, a batter and resonant head, you could tune and muffle them independently. The variety of tuning possibilities was greatly expanded.
So I put together this rather crudely constructed thing. I knew what it needed to be, but I didn’t know what it would sound like. If it didn’t really sound good, there just wouldn’t be any point in pursuing it. But when I put it together, it was actually quite good and it functioned the way I thought it would. The angles weren’t quite right. I had cut up the lugs so they would work and the shell cut was crude, but it was only a prototype and it was encouraging.
Got to start somewhere!
Yes! So, I spoke to my brother-in-law, a contractor, woodworker and master craftsmen. I said “Listen, I have this idea and I think it will work. I tried it and it looks horrible but sounds good. There are some things that aren’t quite right about it, but I want to buy some good materials and really try to build something that will be what I want. Will you do the woodworking?”. He agreed, and I explained what I wanted. We made a purpose-built drum with the best maple shell and hardware we could find. The angle was better, the seam was perfect, which it has to be. It may sound simple, but cutting a maple cylinder on an precise angle is a challenge. The drum sounded great, looked better and it worked as I had envisioned!
At this point, I really thought it was something that could be successful, so I talked to my wife, Sue, and said; “Here’s the deal. I want to pursue this. I’d like to file for a patent and build a couple of complete prototype sets. I think this will work”. She thought it was a good idea, and I had also spoken to a couple of fellow band directors who thought it was a great idea. They agreed to purchase the drum shell material and the parts I needed, if I would build them a set of these angled shell bass drums. Drums that would solve the pedagogical problems, would be ergonomically easier to carry and move with, and would solve the inherent unevenness of sound problem with conventional bass drums. They got the very first ErgoSonic Angled Shell Marching Bass Drums, and we got our patent!
That’s amazing! How does the ErgoSonic technology it work?
Well, we were fortunate to receive a grant from New York State to do some acoustical research on why the drum works the way it does. We were also able to compare it to conventional drums. It turns out that it’s a more resonant drum because the drum heads aren’t parallel. When you alter the angle of the heads, the decay becomes longer, which means it’s more resonant. But, you can also now manipulate the front head, which is now a true resonant head, and you can get the decay to be as long or short as you want it to be via muffling and porting.
It was interesting because Binghamton University has an acoustics lab with an anechoic chamber, so they did several studies for us. They dealt with resonating characteristics, overtone production, decay length, the effect of muffling and porting and several other factors. Each compared comparably tuned conventional drums with our ErgoSonic angled shell drums.
The university also consulted with the Acoustical Society of America to see what type of similar research had been done along these lines. They couldn’t find any! So, when the research was completed, BU shared their findings to the Acoustics Society of America. Of course, fundamentally, we were just trying to find out why and how our ErgoSonic design worked acoustically. It turned out that since no one had done this before, the Acoustical Society of America invited them to present their findings at the 174th meeting of the Acoustic Society of America in New Orleans! It was unprecedented ground-breaking research on what happens when you take a conventional drum and change its shape.
Incredible. So, that’s your angled shell marching bass drum, is that right? Because you also have an ErgoSonic balanced projection drum kit? Does that harness the same technology?
Yes. As I mentioned, the problem with the conventional drum kit is that the tom sounds projects down. If you take that tom and angle the shell so that it projects forward, it produces the same resonating characteristics and volume as the rest of the drums. We did that with all of our ErgoSonic rack toms and floor toms. We angle the tom shells just as we do with our marching bass drums, but the angles are different. Our floor toms are built at a 90 degree angle and our rack tom are at about a 55 degree. The design of all our toms put the resonant (front) head perpendicular to the floor, facing straight ahead. Part of the research which was done was about what changing the angle would do.
In addition to balancing the projection characteristics of all the drums in the kit, we found by porting the resonant head, we could completely control the length of decay of the drums! It can be done on the toms just as it has always been done on the kick drum. It really opens up the tuning capability of our drum kits. We then modified our snare and bass drums to match the projection and volume of our toms. This produced our ErgoSonic Balanced Projection Drum Kit.
How did you start telling people about ErgoSonic?
Of course, when we went to our first NAMM Show in California a few years ago, we just wanted people to know we existed. Even though we were there just showing the flag for the first time, it turned out that we were selected by the NAMM Show and a panel of experts from School Band and Orchestra Magazine, as the Best New Tool for Schools in the percussion instrument category. Needless to say, it was a very successful first NAMM Show for us!
Following the show, we did some advertising in The Instrumentalist Magazine as well as Halftime Magazine. We began displaying our instruments at various State Music Association Conferences, as well as The Percussive Arts Society Show, the Midwest Clinic and several other events and music trade shows. One of the challenges has been that these ErgoSonic drums represent a genuine paradigm shift in what constitutes the shape of a drum. Generally speaking, large companies don’t often do real innovation, they do modifications and refinements on the margins. Most innovation comes from small start ups and individuals – the kind of stuff you see in Hall D at The NAMM Show.
It been really interesting to see the reactions as people come by our booth at shows. Some walk by and say; “Wait? What? That’s a bass drum?”, while others take a look and say; “Oh yeah, how come no one thought of this before?”. All I can say is, I don’t know! My wife does the booth with me. We both agree that watching people react to something that’s new and innovative is always an interesting study in human nature.
Is the marching bass drum mainly played by high school bands? Is that who it was originally designed for? Or have ErgoSonic been able to branch out into other marching bands at all?
It’s interesting – we’ve got a couple of groups from New Orleans who do Mardi Gras festivals and second line events. We also have some groups in Orlando, Florida who play them at various theme parks using one or two of our base drums and a snare drum. Because they are easier to play and carry, we also have some special needs groups who use them as well. However, it’s primarily marching bands using them, and we’ve had a lot of very positive feedback from our users. What we have going for us is that our ergonomic and acoustic improvements are not a matter of opinion. They’re obvious just by seeing the drums and listening to them, and we also have the confirming research on them.
I’m hardly surprised if it makes them that much easier, and therefore enjoyable, to play!
We are always working to make our instruments more user friendly. It’s always going to be a challenge to play any instrument well. But, you never want the performers to be required to overcome the limitations of the instrument. Instruments need to evolve in such a way that performers can realize the kind of musical excellence we’ve been discussing. We wanted to bring the marching bass drum into the 21st Century. We wanted to modify the instrument so that it meets the needs of the performers, and not require the performer to overcome the limitations of the instrument.
No, I completely agree. I just think it’s such a shame when the limitations of an instrument automatically put up barriers for new learners, especially.
When I started teaching, one of the things that became immediately obvious with elementary kids, was that you had to make sure to get them on an instrument they could be successful playing. If there’s some tiny student unsuccessfully trying to get to sixth position on the trombone, that presents a problem. It’s not going to be a positive experience for them. It’s an important issue. That’s why having students play well made, appropriately selected instruments that function well for them is critical to the quality of the musical experience they have.
I probably should have asked this earlier, but why the name ErgoSonic?
Because of the shape of the drum. It’s ergonomically more efficient since it sits lower on the performer and is closer to the centre of gravity of the player. It also allows the use of the same vertical stroke used on every other percussion instrument, while playing on a single batter head. That’s where we got the name – ErgoSonic. It’s ergonomically more efficient, and sonically, and acoustically. It produces a more even sound with significantly expanded tuning capabilities because of the ability to independently tune, muffle and even port the resonant head.
Right, I’m conscious I’ve already taken up a lot of your time, Ken, so if you don’t mind me just asking one more question? If you had to pick one particular highlight from your career, across everything that you’ve done so far, what would you choose?
You know, I was inducted into the Drum Corps International Hall of Fame in 2018, with my entire family present. That was very important to me. From the time I began until now, other than my own supportive and loving family, nothing has been as significant in my life as my involvement in music, Drum Corps, Marching Bands and the Marching Arts. So, my induction was a big day for me. If I had to pick one from my professional career, that would be it.
Of course, what a massive achievement. And perhaps a highlight that isn’t from your career?
We have a term in education called a “peak experience”. This occurs when you have a moment in you life that’s so meaningful and powerful, that even years later you can recall every detail of what happened. When I first met my wife, the birth of our children and grandchildren! You can remember what you were wearing, what you were thinking and feeling, even what the smells were like. It’s so powerful that it’s permanently etched in your mind.
One such memory is the day that my parents took me to join the Grenadiers. I can remember going into the fire hall where the registration meeting was held. I can remember when they opened the baritone case to show me the horn, and giving me a pair of white gloves, saying; “Under no circumstances should you ever pick up this horn without wearing these gloves”. All I thought was; “Is this made of gold?!” We listened to someone telling us what being a member would involve, I saw this wonderful red uniform. I mean, I looked at that uniform and couldn’t believe I was going to be wearing it! It was so powerful and impactful that I often still think about that day and what it meant to me.
The course of my entire life completely changed that day. As I said when we first started this interview, I have no idea what my life might have been had that not happened. It was one of the most important moments I ever experienced, and I feel tremendous gratitude having had that opportunity and being able to spend my life doing what I’ve been able to do. It’s been so very, very enjoyable and rewarding.
That’s just amazing. Thank you so much for sharing that, Ken. I think that’s a great point to end on.
Get Involved in ‘Behind the Lyre’
Would you be interested in sharing some of your experience working within or with a military or marching band? If so, we would love the opportunity to speak with you.
We’re looking for people from all countries, of all ages and abilities, who play all sorts of instruments! We’re also looking for those who are a little further behind the lyre. This includes educators, directors, agents responsible for sourcing musical instruments, the instrument manufacturers themselves, and many more. We would love to share your important role in military and marching music with the rest of our community.
To find out more, or to schedule an interview, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.