DM Handbook

8 Ideas for Improving Your Dance Music

If you've been around dance recitals and competitions for a few years, you've seen and heard it hundreds of times.  Dancers who have worked all year on dances for which their parents paid hundreds of dollars in tuition and costume fees perform to music that is tired, muffled, poorly edited, or all of the above.

Audio mixing board.Having good sounding music is not a difficult code to crack.  Here are eight ideas for how to improve yours.

1.  Start With Something Original

Why use the same tired music that gets used time and time again by every dance studio?  Particularly if you are selecting music for a dance that might someday be entered in a competition, think about the judges' reactions.  You won't score any originality points with them if yours is the sixth dance of the day to "Hey Ya!"

So try something completely original.

The next time you are in a music store, listen to the music being played over the store's sound system and you're not likely to hear Top 40.  Instead, you'll probably hear something slightly off the beaten path by lesser known artists -- an attempt by the store to expose you to something new.  Good for them!

If you like what you hear, take the bold step of asking a sales clerk to show you the CD (usually on display near the checkout next to the sign that says, "Now Playing") and then consider buying it.

While you're in the store, take a stroll down some aisles you don't normally visit.  Breeze through an assortment of New Age music or take a shot at the World Music section.  If you are shopping at a mega-store like Tower, Virgin or Borders, you can actually preview a CD before deciding to buy it -- the musical equivalent to the automobile test drive.  Commit yourself to taking home a CD by an artists not currently in your collection, then find something appealing and buy it.

Another great place to window shop and sample music is the Internet, where music services such as iTunes permit you to preview 30-second clips of songs.  Again, skip the Pop category and see what's appealing in Techno, Funk, Swing, Reggae or any one of a dozen other genres.

2.  Use Only Legally Obtained Music

Don't be stupid!  Illegally downloading and sharing music is stupid.  Parents and dance studios alike have a responsibility to teach children not to break the law, and illegal music downloading is the perfect place to draw the line.

If the fact that it's illegal isn't good enough justification for shunning services where these files are swapped, here are a few other reasons why illegally downloading music is stupid.

  • The reason most illegal file sharing services can offer music at no charge is because you agree when downloading their software to accept spyware on your computer that will infiltrate your privacy and bombard you with a never-ending supply of pop-up ads and SPAM.  Even if you eventually remove your file sharing software, it's extremely difficult for even the most seasoned computer geek to eradicate the garbage software from your PC.  Illegal file sharing is stupid because it invades your privacy and ruins your PC!

  • Most illegally shared music is also of remarkably poor quality.  It typically has a very hollow, tinny sound with a hint of an echo.  You may think it sounds fine on your tiny PC speakers, but crank it up on your home stereo or play it at the volume it will be played during your recital or competition, and everyone who hears it will know that your music is a bootleg copy.  Illegal file sharing is stupid because the music sounds exactly like what it is -- music you downloaded illegally -- and everyone will know it!

  • Legal music costs a buck a song, while the costs of being a criminal are much greater.  The music industry has proven time and time again that it has every intention of aggressively enforcing copyright law.  If you believe your illegal downloading is somehow different, insignificant or defensible, you're stupid!

3.  When Possible, Use Compact Discs

We shouldn't need to rehash the history of audio advancements, but here are the basics as they relate to cassette tapes versus compact discs.  Compact discs offer markedly better quality than cassette tapes, have a much greater life expectancy, and cost a fraction of what tapes do.  Need we say more?

A pristine new cassette recording even on the highest quality tape begins its life inferior in quality to a compact disc containing the same music, and the quality difference between the two widens with time and use.

Tapes are easily damaged by excessive heat or humidity, careless handling and tape transports that stretch or break tapes.  Even with the most careful handling, tapes simply degrade with age and use.  The backing material gets brittle and the binders that adhere the magnetic oxide to the tape fail.  As a result, the typical lifespan of a carefully stored high quality tape is about 1/10 that of a CD.

What's more, each successive duplication of a cassette tape causes generational quality loss.  Think of the old photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy.  Each new copy comes out a little fuzzier than the previous version, while every stray mark (or sound in the case of an audio recording) that gets picked up along the way is carried on to future copies.

Compact discs, on the other hand, do not degrade under normal or even relatively harsh use.  CDs have a lifespan of 50-100 years, and every duplicated copy of a CD will be identical to the original with no degradation.

Cost?  An excellent quality cassette tape purchased individually costs about $1.50.  A bargain tape may cost about $0.40.  A recordable compact disc costs less than $0.20.

Don't use a junky old cassette tape.  Use a CD.4.  When You Must Use a Cassette, Use a Good One

Okay, we recognize that some dance competitions still require that music be submitted on cassette tapes.  If forced to do so, use a high quality tape.  Look for one that says "high-bias."  In the most basic terms, this means the tape has more of the "stuff" on it that the sound "sticks" to, so you'll get a greater range of frequencies with less risk of dropouts.

And please don't reuse last year's tape to record this year's music.  That tape has been played over and over again for rehearsals, recitals and competitions.  It's been rewound as many times, it's been banged around all year, and it may have lived for a while in a dance bag.  That tape has earned a break... and it's likely to break.

Come on, it's a buck and a half.  After investing hundreds of dollars in the cost of dance lessons and costumes, don't be cheap about your music.  Rerecording on an old tape is never as good as recording on a fresh tape, so avoid doing it.

5.  Record Your Tape on a Decent Tape Deck

When you must use a cassette, record your tape on the highest quality tape deck you have at your disposal.  Don't record it on a cheap boom box.

If your system has a digital readout and the ability to control the recording level, listen to the music before you record it to tape and adjust the recording level so the music never peaks in the red.  You want the music to be loud enough, but if you're hitting the red, you're getting distortion.

6.  Minimize the Tape Leader

A leader on a cassette tape is the non-recordable portion of the tape (usually white in color) that you will find at each end of the tape.  Using your finger or a pen cap, advance the tape so enough of the leader has passed to make just the tiniest bit of the recordable tape (the brown part) visible.

Now insert your tape, press "play" on your source component (hopefully a CD player), then hit "record" on the tape deck.  You want the music to begin as soon as possible after you've started to record.  Why?  Because every second it takes before the music starts is one second more your dancer(s) will need to hold an opening pose on stage waiting for the music to begin.  Five seconds of unnecessary silence can be very unnerving for dancers waiting to perform.  Unnecessarily long leaders will also not endear you to competition organizers, who want to move acts onto and off of stage as quickly as possible.

Of course, while working to minimize the leader, make sure you don't cut off or garble the first few notes of the song.

And here's a bit of recording trickery if your tape deck is able...  Once you insert your properly cued blank tape, press "Play" on the recording deck, then immediately (absolutely as fast as you can) press "Pause."  While paused, press "Record," then start your source component and immediately release the pause on the recording deck.  The benefit of shifting to "Record" while paused is that the recording heads can be engaged before the leader tape runs out.  That helps to prevent some of the "thud" you often hear at the beginning of a tape.

7.  Consider Digital Editing

Few modern songs are less than three minutes in length -- the maximum allowable length of music in most categories at most dance competitions -- so editing is likely necessary for much of your music.  Digital music editing is far superior to anything you can accomplish with a cassette player.Avoid at all cost being one of those acts whose dancers strike their final pose or dance of the stage while the music continues to play.  You should leave the audience wanting more, not wondering if there was supposed to be more.

Digital music editing software continues to become more powerful, easier to operate and less expensive, making it an ideal solution.

With digital music editing software, you have all the tools you need to copy a song from a CD into your computer, move verses around, eliminate portions of a long song, loop (repeat) portions of a song that may need to be lengthened, edit out objectionable content, adjust the speed and pitch of the song, fade a song up, fade a song down, cross-fade from one song to another, and so forth.

It takes some amount of patience, practice, time, and the ability to recognize an eight-count, but before long you'll wonder how you ever got along without it, and you'll cringe when you hear "crash edits" made on a tape player.

When you gain some editing proficiency, you can create elaborate medleys and layer in sound effects to create truly original music.

8 Make Multiple Copies from the Original Source, not from Each Other

So you're all set up to record your music CD or tape.  Now is the perfect time to make all the copies you might need for the year.  You want a classroom copy for the teacher, a take-home copy for the student(s), a recital/competition copy that you put away to avoid having it banged up, and a backup copy for when the unexpected occurs.

When making tapes, be sure to record all of them from the original source.  If you make one tape and record your other copies from the first, you're already down to a third generation recording, and you will probably be able to tell the difference in sound quality immediately.

Making all of your copies at once also ensures that the recording levels will be consistent on each copy.

Of course, once you've made your recordings, be sure to listen to each one to be sure they are perfect.  The middle of the recital or competition performance is not the time to learn that your tape has a dropout.


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