Today many people perceive square dancing, as the activity of the old fogies. Most of us realize that the perception is of a bunch of country folks in a barn or grange hall dancing fast and doing arm swings to a caller that is hard to understand. There is usually a live band with everything from a fiddle to a washboard. We know that this is not Modern Square Dancing but this is how much of the public pictures it.
To further strengthen the view that this is an old folk's activity we use record players that play 45 RPM records, that went out of style back in the 1960s. Many people under the age of 20 never had a record player in their homes. If they didn't have a record player in their home then their parents, who would be between 40 and 60 years old have not used a record player for the last 20 years.
We promote Modern Western Square Dancing but we introduce our activity to the public with a technology that is 40 years behind the times. As soon as people see a record player and a box of records we have automatically dated our activity to a bygone era. Even though we use a newer style of music the picture is still worth a thousand words.
I did not believed this was such an issue until I started using a MiniDisc and a 4 Channel Mixer Amplifier, to do Fun Night Programs, about two years ago. When I used my record player I would get comments like "wow, where did you ever find one of those" or "I haven't seen one of those since I was a kid." "Do they still make those old 45s?" These were all typical comments. Now the comments are, "is all of your music in that little box," "how much music can one of those discs hold?"
About a year ago I started to use a Laptop Computer and MP3 music with my 4-Channel Mix-Pad Amplifier. Now the questions are "is the music on CD or on your Hard Drive" and "how do you get the music onto your computer hard drive?" When these people here a more modern flavor of music coming from these systems their perception of Square Dancing has begun to change. They think, maybe this is a more modern form of that old stuff I saw in the movies and that I did in high school.
Over the last 3 years I have had the chance to work at three high schools and convert all of their old records to CD. After the process of recording the music to my Desk Top Computer, filtering out the background noise, amplifying to increase the voice to music ratio, setting the tempo and then creating a CD, the teachers all say that the students attitude is unbelievably more positive than in years past. The teachers feel that it is because the students see a CD player or Boom box instead of those old LP Records and the quality of sound is so much better than what they heard from the Record Player.Now it is our job to convince adults and students that this new perception of Square Dancing is correct. I understand that everyone is not interested in using a MiniDisc, CD or Laptop but within the next five years 45 rpm records will become much more expensive to buy and less and less available. The records you consider your favorites will be so noisy from use you won't be able to play them and new copies will not be available. Today many of us use good, up beat, pieces of music recorded on Mac Gregor, Winsor, Grenn, Kalox and Blue Star, when the grooves are torn out they will not be playable or replaceable.
My feeling is that, MiniDisc and CD is not the answer. I do have 2 MiniDisc, Recorder / Players. The reason this technology will not last is that unless you have a master backup copy of every Disc, you may have to re-record all of your music again when, not if, the Disc becomes scratched and worn. The problem with plastic CDs is that they do wear out, just ask an Aerobics instructor.
I have found that it takes about 20 minutes to completely restore the sound quality of a record and archive the original file. I do agree that it is time consuming but remember you only do it one time and for all practical purposes you have a permanently restored piece of Square or Round Dance Music that will never lose its quality.
Another point that I would like to make here is that the record players that we have used for so long are Public Address (PA) systems unlike Professional Music Mixer/Amplifiers. They do not have the full range of Treble and Base controls on every channel.
Making the music and yourself sound good on a new Mixer/Amplifier may require that you to gain some understanding about music and voice quality. Many people record their records onto a MiniDisc then play it through the same record player and the music quality is poor to say the least. Hilton record players are not all created equal and the people at Hilton will tell you so. Some systems will allow you to record directly from the music that is coming from the tone arm others will not. If you do not record from the tone arm the music you are recording has been modified by the circuitry in the turntable (base roll off). If you play the same song back through the turntable you will get double base roll off and the richness and quality of the music will be lost. So you should talk to Hilton to see if and where you can and should connect to your set to record the pure music for your MiniDisc, CD or computer.
I have found that recording music from a record player into my desktop computer is the best way for me to restore and improve the music. My feeling is that the music quality I want to produce, at a dance, should be as close to the original as possible. After all we are considered professional entertainers and the audience/dancers expect a professional presentation.
Many computer programs available today to record and improve the quality of the recording are available as shareware (a minimal fee) or freeware (absolutely free). In the late 1980s this technology only existed in professional sound studios. Today it is a download from the internet.
In the last few years we have had the opportunity to get some of our music on music CDs and downloads from the internet. This new music media is probably a picture of the future. It is not practical for a caller or cuer to carry 20 or 50 CDs to do a dance so the use of your computer can be a valuable tool. I make a Folder and copy several pieces of music into the folder. Then make music CD with these ten to twenty selections. You can convert all of your music to MP3 format and have well over one hundred pieces of music on one CD. I would also make a backup CD to archive that music. It is a guarantee that your CDs will become damaged or that sometime your hard drive will "crash."
A word of caution if you are buying MP3 music from a tape service and converting it to a WAVE (.wav) format and then converting it back to MP3. The quality and fidelity of the Music will be severely compromised. The articles that I have found on the web that describes the advantages and disadvantages of the different types of digital music formats always seem to discourage this double conversion process, if a person is interested in maintaining good music quality. However there is software available, not free but reasonably priced, to edit music while it is in the MP3 format.
Obviously if you do not have a computer yet, you won't be able to utilize this technology. Please realize that today you can buy a refurbished Pentium class desktop computer, a refurbished Pentium 200 Laptop, a new 3 or 4 channel mixer/amplifier and all the software you need, for less than $1000. If you already have a computer you are probably down to $600.
New, combination CD & MP3 Players look like a portable CD player but will also play CD-R and CD-RW media and they cost under $ 75.00. I have used the Rio Volt Portable CD MP3 Player, it has a large LED display window and it is works very well. It will read sub folders and the individual songs in each Folder. It would be a great backup to a computer or very good portable player for a new caller or cuer with limited resources.
If you have a desktop computer and a Hilton sound system all you would need is a MiniDisc recorder/player, a laptop computer or one of the portable units mentioned above. I have found that a laptop computer needs to be no less than a Pentium 150 Class with 32 meg of RAM and a 1.5 GB Hard Drive. I use a Pentium II 350 but I have tested Pentium 150 units and they work well but the hard disk space is limited and repair parts are hard to get if you ever need service. One GB of space, on a Hard Drive will allow you to carry 250 four-minute pieces of music. Pentium II & III laptop computers manufactured in the last 3 or 5 years would have a 4 to 12 GB hard drive. When you add 100 new pieces of music, your equipment weight is still the same. Isn't that Great?
The place to start to use your digital music is not at a regular dance. I recommend using it first at a fun night or your new dancer square or round programs. In both instances the audience is usually much more tolerant of hesitations or music restarts.
Digital Music on a laptop is an ideal teaching tool for Round Dance Leaders because it is easy to reset to the measure of music just before where part "B" or "C" starts. There is no guesswork and you won't run the chance of damaging the vinyl by resetting the needle in the middle of a record.
Another great feature for the Caller and Cuer is the ability to have your cue-sheets and/or singing call text and figures in the same folder as your music. Not only will the small word processing icon to the left of each file look different than the icon for your music but I also type all of the file names of my pieces of music in UPPER CASE and the text file names in Upper And Lower Case. This makes them easy to distinguish.
Your word processor can be active at the same time you are playing your music. So first click on the text file then start the music then switch back to view the text file, for your cues or song words and figures. There is no need to carry paper, other than possibly for an overview of your evening program and even the program could be in a file to quickly reference, just keeping it in the background. If you save these program files by date, in their own folder, it is easy to look back over material you used last month or last year. There can be many advantages to doing this.
The use of free and shareware programs makes this approach to digitizing and playing your square and round dance music very economical. These programs are improved as a result of public demand so you will find that, over time, you get additional features with little or no investment. You might also want to experiment with these types of programs before you invest in a formal program written to help manage square and round dance music. All the music that you record and convert into MP3 will almost certainly be completely compatible with any of the programs available now or developed in the future, for our activity.
Digital Music is a super way to promote our hobby. A heavy record case with a limited number of records can be a thing of the past. Callers and round dance leaders that have been around for 30 or 40 years have seen many changes in sound equipment, microphones and even the style of calling and cueing. These new devices will just become part of the changes taking place in our "Modern Western Square & Round Dance" activity.
For the dancers or non-dancers reading this article, many of the tools mentioned can be used to restore and permanently preserve old records, cassette tapes and eight track tapes. Please drop me a note if you have any specific questions about this process.Callerlab Member, a Caller for 25 years and a user of Digital Music (Laptop, MiniDisc & CD), for Club and Festival Calling, for over 3 years. Dan has well over 1000 hours of experience editing Square and Round Dance Music. His wife Linda is a Cuer of 22 years. They both have very successful Home Club Programs in Central Pennsylvania.
Comments, questions & feedback will be appreciated.