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MiniDisc Recorders and Their Application to
Square Dance Calling or Round Dance Cueing

by Gregg Anderson

OVERVIEW

The recordable MiniDisc, or MD, can have lots of music recorded in a very small amount of space. It is music that will not suffer the degradation in quality over time that we all have experienced with 45 rpm records. With a record that is subject to continual needle wear and exposure to dust, damage to the sound quality is inevitable. The MD uses laser technology rather than a needle and the disc itself is enclosed in a protective plastic case, which minimizes the chance for damage (more on this later).

The 2.5-inch MiniDisc comes in formats to record 60 minutes or 74 minutes of music. The magnetic layer of the MD is demagnetized by the laser after which the recorder applies a magnetic field containing the audio signals. The capacity of the MD is sufficient to hold 17-20 singing calls, about two dozen round dances or 7-10 "extended play" patter records. Later in this article there is further discussion about how even these noteworthy capacities may be increased.

ADVANTAGES

Portability: The ability to carry a lot of music in a relatively small space is the main feature of MiniDisc technology. Even before the advent of the pocket size MD machines the weight and size of the table minidisc recorder/player plus discs was probably still less than that of the record box filled with 45ís. The impact that portability has on the caller doing parties for the non-dancer is enormous. This type of event seems to benefit more from the ability to draw on a large inventory of tunes, more so than the typical club dance.

Quality: The general lack of deterioration in the quality of the music is a critical feature of this technology. As we become more aware of the sound quality afforded to the general public in movie theaters, CDís vs. vinyl, speaker technology, etc. it is easy to readily embrace the MD technology as our way to enhance the quality of our programs. Side note: In the past it was, perhaps, too easy to ignore the scratches that were developing in our recordings. But as we become aware of what good quality sounds like, just converting to MDís isnít always enough. Before recording those worn out records, replace them. Fortunately we are seeing more of the square dance record labels doing repressings of some of our favorites.

Remote Control: The table model MD recorders come with a remote control, which gives the freedom to start/stop/pause the music from the floor. That applies to any selection on the disc loaded in the machine because the remote has a numeric keypad (from 1-25) for instant selection. The advantages of that feature for line dance instruction, etc. are readily apparent, especially when used in conjunction with a wireless microphone system.

The remote also serves as the tool, through its alphanumeric keypad, to encode the name of the song on the track. After that, every time a track is selected the name of the tune will be shown on the recorderís digital display. For individuals who have ever used cassette tapes in their programs, the immediate access of a song on the MD by using the keypad remote is a big improvement.

Editing Capabilities: The MiniDisc recorder provides the opportunity to divide a track, merge adjacent tracks and move tracks around in the "TOC (table of contents). Extended play hoe-downs are possible either by using the players "repeat" function or by recording most of the hoe-down twice and then utilizing the "Merge" function to combine the tracks to get a six or seven minute patter recording. With practice you can learn when to press the "Pause" button and the "Start" button during the recording process so that the merged tracks provide a synchronized beat that provides a continuous flow for the dancers' feet.

Popular recordings that might be used for a line dance were it not for the too-long slow beginning, or the additional two-beat insertions that louse up the phrasing, are now useable. Divide the track to isolate the unwanted portions, then erase. Or, is there a slow intro to a singing call that you donít seem to bring off as well as the recording artist? Donít quit using the song; edit out the trouble spot.

 

DISADVANTAGES

With any different technology there have to be some disadvantages. That is true with MiniDisc recorders, partly as a result of their limitations but also due to some of the characteristics of our profession and the way we entertain or teach. Some of the shortcomings can be overcome as will be described below.

Portability, or "How You Can End Up With Even More Stuff"
I know, portability was listed above as an advantage to minidisc technology. If you are used to carrying an amplifier/turntable, a speaker and a box with records and microphone then increased portability is the result if the lighter weight contents of an MD player and discs are substituted for the records. So portability provides a great rationalization to making the conversion to this technology. But if one decides (weíre talkiní me here) to place quality ahead of portability it is easily possible to increase the number of trips to the car and find yourself carting even more equipment into the hall. Here is how it all transpired.

I love the sound of good music and I want to share it with everybody in the hall. There was an article I read a few years ago about how the public has become used to really great sound over the years. First it was the advent of compact discs and then along came movie theaters with their THX sound. The publicís awareness of what good sound was like (the author of the article stated) renders any lack of quality in a callerís musical presentation all too apparent. That realization, and the fact that I was beginning to do a lot of one-nighter parties where I felt the publicís expectations were high, caused me to make a commitment to higher quality.

New two-way speakers were acquired (32 pounds each times two) for a really "full" sound. If I were going to quit carrying records as a backup then a second MD player was needed for backup. Also, if I was going to continue adding to my CD collection to fulfill my roll as a "western DJ" at parties I really should have a good CD player. And since variable speed MD playerís were not yet available why not make it a variable speed CD player? Anyway, it is easy to see why there is now more equipment, not less, in my car (Okay, so itís not really a car. It would still have probably fit in a large car trunk but I got a minivan instead.)

Constant Speed vs. Variable Speed
We have grown in a profession where "variable speed" was one of the cornerstones of the technology we used. But not so with MiniDiscs. In the early 90ís a DJ friend of mine was asking Sony about variable speed and they expressed no interest in adding the feature. Recently, however, Sony has added a table model with variable speed. Other than purchasing such a unit there are two options. a) purchase a unit that has been modified to include a variable speed control, or b) make sure the selections are recorded at the proper speed when you transfer them to MD. Check to see if option "a" will void the original manufacturerís warranty. And option "b" can still leave you with recordings that are too fast for a super slick floor.

Perfectionism
An organized individual is going to have more luck with, and be better able to utilize the features of, an MD recorder. I say that for several reasons:

    1. Using a computerized database (e.g., one of the spreadsheet software packages like Excel, QuatroPro, Lotus 123) becomes almost a necessity as the amount of recorded music you carry increases and that takes organization. But it comes in handy if a guest at a party request a song by a particular artist. A rapid scan of the database will show which MD, and what track on the disc, contains the desired selection.

2. If you're organized but have a poor memory, you need to take some of the singing call "cheat sheets" with you or copy them and place in a notebook (in alpha order of course) as a refresher for those hard to remember lyrics, etc. The same goes for round dance cue sheets (all of them).

3. It takes a lot of effort to record and catalog songs (I'm up to eight or nine hundred now) and that may be more work than most callers or cuers want to put up with.

Another difference I found between records and MD's. When using records, it did not seem like such a big deal to make a last minute programming change in the singing call or round dance. But with MD's it is a little different than reaching over to the well-organized record box and flipping through to find an alternate. Having to consult a database can take a little more time and perhaps results in a certain amount of frustration.

Safeguarding Precautions Needed
Although it was mentioned earlier that MD's are encased in plastic it should be noted that there is a large enough opening on the underneath side for dust and grit to enter. Caution, therefore, needs to be exercised when using the system outdoors or even inside if excessive dust could be a problem. The grit can scratch the disc causing permanent damage some of the tracks. The discs should be inside their protective cases when not in the machine. It should also be remembered that this is magnetic technology and, like computer discs, certain precautions must be taken to prevent accidental erasure of the data.

Cost
The greatest disadvantage has been saved to last - that is cost. Depending on the model selected, a MiniDisc recorder costs anywhere from $300 on up. The recordable MD's retail for $2-$3. (My first ones, bought in 1993, were $15 each. Cost has definitely come down just like it did for videotapes as quantities increased.)

 

CONCLUSION

The MiniDisc Recorder is a very specialized piece of equipment that will have some applicability for callers and cuers depending on their individual needs and most likely, their organizational characteristics.

For those seeking additional information on a wide variety of minidisc technology issues check out the website at www.minidisc.org.

One final note about faith in technology. When I first converted to MD technology I still carried a small box of records in the trunk of my car, ...just...in...case. Times have changed; I no longer carry records but I do carry either two MD players or one MD and one CD player.


Article Copyright © 2001. Gregg Anderson. All Rights Reserved
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