Dance Music: A Great Use For Your Computer!

The original version of this article appeared as two installments in Zaghareet! magazine, in the November/December 1998 issue and the March/April 1999 issue. It has been modified and updated for this web site. Last update was August 2008.

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As dancers, our computers have become just as valuable to us as our boomboxes and tote bags. We put up web sites to promote ourselves. We keep our mailing lists in databases. We make flyers using our word processing programs. And we also find our computers valuable in managing our music.

With the computer hardware and software recommended in this article, you'll enable your computer to:

  • Cut music to exactly the length you want with precision.
  • Burn CD's of your favorite music, so you can easily mix and match them. This is particularly great for troupe repertoires!
  • Use fading in and fading out for transitions.
  • Transfer the music on your precious old out-of-print vinyl record albums and cassette tapes to CD. Don't put any more wear and tear on your irreplaceable collection!
  • Eliminate hisses, pops, and cracks from the music on your favorite old record albums and cassette tapes, storing the data in digital form on CD.
  • Extract brief clips from cassette tapes and CD that you sell, to put on your web site and give potential buyers a chance to hear what the songs sound like before they buy.
  • Create spoken announcements, zaghareets, or other special effects sounds to include on your performance CD's that incorporate special effects such as reverb.

Before I discovered this technology, I used to detest compiling music for performances. The lead at the beginning of the tape was either too long or too short. The gaps between songs were either too long or too short. Some songs came from original tapes that had been recorded very softly, while others came from original tapes that practically shouted at me, resulting in a performance tape that had inconsistent volume from one song to the next. I missed the pleasure of using music from my old vinyl LP records. Patching together troupe shows from a repertoire of songs that came from many different records and tapes was a tedious process. And then I discovered that my computer could solve all these problems for me!

The tools needed to accomplish all of this include:

  • A recordable CD or CD/DVD drive for your computer. This is a special drive that can not only read CD's, but also create them. Most computers less than 5 years old came with these as standard equipment, but some people may still be using older computers that do not.
  • A sound card. Most new computers less than 5 years old come with one of these as standard equipment, but some people may still be using older computers that do not.
  • Software to extract music from your stereo system through the sound card (if you still have vinyl LP's). Most sound cards come with such software.
  • Software to write music to your CD drive. Most CD recorders come with this, though you may want to purchase something more sophisticated than what came with your machine.
  • Software to edit music or other recorded sounds.

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About Recordable CD Drives

Most people with computers that were new within the last 5 years already have working writable CD drives in their machines. Usually, they can also write DVD's as well. If you have an old machine that does not have such a drive, your choices are:

  • Replace your old computer with a newer one that has such a drive. This is probably easiest, but is also more expensive than just getting a drive upgrade.
  • Look into purchasing a new CD drive for your older computer that can do this.

If you want to buy just the drive, there are two ways to go:

  • As the name implies, an internal drive is installed inside your computer, and becomes a part of it. This is the more difficult way to go, and I personally wouldn't do it. Even though I have the technology skills to do it, it would be a real hassle getting all the technology to work properly together.
  • An external drive sits on your desk outside your computer, and connects to your computer with a cable. These typically expect your computer to have a type of slot on it known as a USB port. This is simpler, and involves less aggravation.

Whichever approach you choose, I would recommend that you recruit someone who is knowledgeable about computer technology to help you choose the approach that is best for you and your existing computer.

Blank CD's vary in price. There are basically two kinds: the CD-R, which you can write to only once, and the CD-RW, which is re-writable. Both have their benefits. Music CD's that you can play in a stereo system used to require CD-R's, so that's primarily what I use. Newer stereo systems and boomboxes can play CD-RW's as well, but I still use CD-R's myself because I never can predict whether the sound system at my gig will be able to play the CD-RW. It would be very embarrassing to arrive somewhere and discover that they have an old sound system that can't play my music, so I just don't take the risk.

The CD-RW type of disk are useful for storing data files from your computer, but I prefer to use DVD-RW's because they hold more. (My computer can write both types of media.)

CD-R's can be purchased in bulk packages of 50 or 100 for a much lower price than what you would pay for a package of 10 at a time. These bulk packages come without jewel cases, which I don't mind because I like to keep my gig and teaching CD's in a CD wallet instead of in jewel cases anyway. It takes less space on the shelf.

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Other Hardware

If you have a computer that's more than 5 years old, you may want to think about these issues:

  • The processor may be painfully slow. If you're serious about music work, you may want to replace your old machine with a faster one.
  • You'll want to have a minimum of 32 megabytes of random access memory (RAM). More is better. I'd urge you to consider equipping your computer with 256 megabytes or more. I use a gigabyte (1,000 megabytes)on my machine, and this added memory space makes an enormous difference in computer speed.
  • You'll need a sound card on your computer. Most new computers today come with one. If you have an old computer that doesn't have one, you'll definitely need it for working with music! If you plan to do DVD work too, you may also want a video capture card.
  • If you want to record any special sound effects or voice announcements, then of course you'll need a microphone. Plug it into the appropriate outlet on your computer's sound card.

Most importantly, you'll need plenty of available space on your hard disk! Music files occupy approximately 10 megabytes of hard disk space for each minute of sound that they contain. You'll need to ensure that you have at least 1,000 megabytes left unused for virtual memory, plus at least 2 gigabytes (2,000 megabytes of space) for your songs. If you own an iPod and want to keep your music library on disk, I'd suggest a minimum of 25 gigabytes of disk space allowed for that purpose. My belly dance music alone consumes 13 gigabytes, and that's just the songs I use on a frequent basis. I have much more music on CD's occupying space on my shelves, so over time I find myself moving additional music onto my hard disk. And then there's my enormous library of "just for pleasure" music that isn't for belly dancing at all.

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Software: Music Capture & CD Writing

If you have old vinyl records or cassette tapes, you'll need a way to copy music from them into your computer. If you have a newer computer, it may have come with such software, and if you have an older machine its sound card may have come with it. You can either use that or purchase a separate product that has additional features. You'll also need a way to write songs from your computer out to your CD recorder. Again, newer computers normally come with this, so this would be an issue only if you have an older machine.

  • My current computer came with a product called Sonic Stage Mastering Studio. I'll confess I haven't used it yet, but I'm telling you about it so you can check whether your computer came with it, or if not evaluate whether to buy it.
  • I used to use Roxio's Easy Media Creator, which came with a feature called Spin Doctor to import music from my vinyl LP's and cassette tapes. I abandoned Easy Media Creator in 2005 or 2006 because I detested some changes the company made to how the software behaved in its newest version, so I don't know whether it still has this feature. If this feature interests you, I would suggest that you do some checking before you spend any money to buy it.

Both of these product are designed to accept music files through the "microphone" input on your sound card and save them as "wav" files on your computer. You can then use your favorite music editing software (more about this later) to trim off leading and trailing static, etc.

There are several products that can create audio CD's from the music files on your hard disk.

  • iTunes. People with iPods particularly like to use iTunes because they use it anyway to manage the contents of their iPod. iTunes is interesting software, and I use it with my iPod, but I find it too limiting for creating CD's for classes or performances. Here's what I don't like about it:
    • I haven't yet found a way to use it to arrange a playlist that contains the same track multiple times within the playlist. When I'm creating my CD's to use in teaching my classes, I frequently want to intersperse the same track in multiple places. If you don't need to use the same song multiple times in a single playlist, maybe this won't bother you.
    • ITunes imposes limits on how many times you can burn the same playlist to a CD. Since I sometimes discard CD's after shows, but then later find I want to re-use the same playlist and burn new CD's for the purpose, I find this feature to be obnoxious. I respect the desire to protect the rights of artists, but I dislike being prevented from using my music in legitimate, legal ways.
  • SonicStage. It came with my computer, but I confess I haven't used it because I was already happy using something else that suited my needs. I just mention it so you can check whether you already have it. If so, I recommend trying it and seeing if it fits your needs.
  • CD Architect. This is the one I personally like to use. It's expensive compared to some of the other options, and for that reason is not for everybody. It allows for more professional transition effects when mixing music to make a performance CD. It lets you control exactly how each transition will work. With CD Architect, you can have a gap of any length you specify between two songs, or you can have one song begin precisely after another, or you can have a cross-fade in which one song fades out as the next one fades in. These transition effects make your resulting music sound as though it was assembled by a professional sound studio.
  • Easy Media Creator. As mentioned earlier, I used to use this for all my CD burning. But they made some major changes to it that I detested. I therefore don't use it any more, nor do I recommend it to anyone else.

My recommendations:

  • For starters, use the software that came with your equipment to import music from your stereo system into your computer, and use the software that came with your machine to create CD's. These software products will cost you nothing extra beyond what you already paid for the hardware, and they suffice for your purposes. Try these products for a while before spending money on additional tools.
  • If you want to edit music, either cutting songs, adding reverb effects to announcements, inserting fades, etc., consider the products described below.
  • If you start feeling limited by the software you already have, and you're willing to spend some money on a more robust product, consider CD Architect. It's aexpensive than some of the other products out there, but I find it to be very valuable and I use it for all the CD's I make for performances.

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Software: Recording Announcements & Sound Effects

If you have a Windows ME, NT, XP, Vista, or newer computer with a sound card, it comes with the software you need for recording sounds of your own, whether they be someone's voice making announcements or special sound effects. Click on the "Start" menu in the lower left-hand corner of your screen, then pick "Programs", then pick "Accessories", then pick either "Multimedia" or "Entertainment", then pick "Sound Recorder". The "Volume Control" option under Multimedia is another important option you'll want to use to control the volume at which the microphone accepts input. Record whatever you like, then save it to a "wav" file. You can then edit this with one of the products discussed below.

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Software: Editing Music, Announcements, & Sound Effects

  • Audacity. Probably the most popular software people use for editing music is Audacity. They like it because it's free, and can be downloaded from the web. I haven't used it myself, because it came into existence several years after I first started using Sound Forge (see below). I have to admit, the price is right! You can download it here. A tip - you may be able to find other web sites that also have it, but be cautious, because other sources may intentionally infect it with viruses or spyware before making it available. The link I gave is the one I would use if I were going to download it.
  • Screenblast Sound Forge. This product, which is sold by Sony, is the one that I personally like to use. There is also a more expensive version called just Sound Forge (i.e., without the "Screenblast" in the product name) which is designed for sound engineering professionals, but for my purposes the lower-cost Screenblast version is adequate. The one thing that tempts me to upgrade to their more expensive version is that the expensive version also allows editing of the audio track within a video clip. If you are creating promotional DVD's of your performances, or if you are doing your own production work on an instructional DVD, this might make it worth the more expensive price for you.
  • Adobe Audition. I probably wouldn't have purchased this on its own because I was satisfied with Screenblast Sound Forge, but it came as part of a collection of Adobe products that I purchased for use in video editing and DVD creation. It used to be known as Cool Edit before Adobe purchased the rights to it. It can be used for dance-related music projects, and it can do all the things that I like to do with Sound Forge. I still use Sound Forge for most of my music needs simply because I already know how to use it and I hate the process of learning new software. But there is one thing I use Audition for that the lower-c6st version of Sound Forge that I have can't do - I edit the sound track in video files. It gets the job done well for me.

With all of the above products, you can edit MP3 and "wav" files, then either save the results to a "wav" or MP3 file suitable for writing to audio CD or putting on your web site.

All these products allow you to cut music with precision. It can be very frustrating to find a recording of a song you love only to discover that it's too long to use in the show you are planning. With the above products, you can cleanly excise part of the music without any annoying gaps or hiccups in the rhythm.

On the flip side, you can also duplicate a section of a song of music. For one show I was in, we wanted a certain song to have a longer introduction than our original recording had, so I just copied and pasted a musical phrase. The result is so seamless that no one could tell where I did it.

Special effects are another feature I sometimes use. You can fade your music in or out. You can add reverb or echoes to voice announcements that will be part of your performance. You can insert silence for precisely the desired length of time.

You may have experienced a problem in which the music on your CD is so soft that even with the volume turned all the way up, it's still too soft to hear clearly. This especially happens when you have imported music from your old vinyl LP or cassette tape collection. The above products have a feature called "normalize" that adjusts the music to the optimal saturation level. Doing this for each song in your collection also ensures that you won't have the problem of some songs in the same CD or playlist blasting while others are too soft.

Another feature I frequently use with Sound Forge is to either stretch or compress a song's length by 10-15 seconds. This causes the song to either slow or speed up. I use it to create slower versions of songs that I use in the classroom for teaching choreography, so my students can learn the song at a slower speed at first, and then do it full speed once they become more confident of the moves. I have also used it to create speeded-up versions of songs for my troupe. We were entering a competition, and needed to trim 20 seconds out of our 10-minute set in order to conform to competition rules. So I sped up a couple of songs and we didn't need to cut any of them.

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Data Back-Ups

Once you have a CD or DVD writer, you can use it to make backups of data from your computer. I personally prefer to use an external hard drive, which can hold up to a terabyte of data (1,000 gigabytes), but some people prefer to use CD's and DVD's. It can be useful backing up to DVD's if you want to store them in your bank safety deposit box or another offsite location.

A CD doesn't hold much, just 640 megabytes. A DVD is much more robust, since it can hold over 4 gigabytes.

I don't bother using a backup program with data compression when making my backup DVD's. Instead, I just use Windows Explorer to copy my files and directories from my hard disk to the DVD in a coherent order. Your computer may come with some backup software. If it does, I suggest trying both methods, and then decide which you personally like better. Each has its pros and cons.

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A Word Of Caution

The technology described in this article makes it very easy to make multiple high-quality copies of your favorite songs. Please don't abuse the technology by making copies of your favorite music for your friends or students -- doing so deprives the artists whose music you love of their living.

It's perfectly legal and ethical to use this technology to:

  • Preserve your old vinyl records and cassette tapes on CD for your own use.
  • Assemble your favorite music into CD's or MP3 player playlists for use in your performances.
  • Create a collection on a single CD or on your MP3 player of songs to use in class when you're teaching.
  • Create cut versions of long songs for your shows.
  • Put short clips of music samples from music that you sell on your web site to help capture the interest of prospective buyers. Or, create full-length clips of the song itself to sell online.

But please don't give a copy of a CD you've made to another person--that's wrong, both legally and ethically. Please support the artists by purchasing your own copies and encouraging your friends and students to do the same!

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