Travels with my iPod

by Andy Bettis

When I started teaching dance there was one method of playing recorded music - the compact cassette. Despite its various drawbacks (having to line up tracks manually, poor audio quality, etc.) it was cheap, universally used, and had no realistic alternatives. 'Serious' teachers would spend hours copying originals onto tapes with long gaps between tracks (giving time to get back to the player before the next track started) and carefully matched recording levels. Some tried players that automatically stopped at the end of a track, or used remote controls, or recorded everything onto short tapes with just one track on each side. It was a simpler age, and we toiled over our twin-deck cassette recorders as we knew our ancestors (or at least other dance teachers) had done.

The first major change to this system came with the appearance of folk music on CD. Suddenly it was possible to have good quality music for dancing, to be able to play a track without having to 'find' it, and (as nearly all CD players were programmable) to have the machine stop at the end of the dance. The downside was having to carry your entire CD collection around with you, but as the CD recorder started to be a standard part of home computers it was possible to make up compilation CDs with just dance music on them - I remember having a 25 CD case that held my entire dance repertoire for many years.

CDs worked fine for me. It was no longer possible to make a quick copy of a track after learning a dance but I was becoming more responsible about music, searching out originals and trying to make sure that the musicians received something for their works. With a CD walkman in my bag I could arrive to teach a dance session knowing that even if the sound system rejected my home-produced CDs or jumped when the dancers did I could plug in my little player and trust it.

The Minidisk system arrived but didn't tempt me. It had the same audio quality as CDs (for dancing purposes anyway) and was more flexible but I didn't fancy moving my entire collection onto a new format. It wasn't as common as CDs so there was the problem of finding another machine if your player 'died' at a critical moment, and all of the machines I saw had teeny-tiny little controls with multiple functions - not the sort of thing to have to grapple with by candlelight.

The arrival of the MP3 player made me think again. A small, light machine that could hold all of my dance music, arranged as I wanted, was very tempting. After seeing other dance teachers using iPods I decided to stick with Apple (I use Macs at home) and ordered one from the Apple Store.

The model I chose was a 30GB video iPod, in black as nearly everyone seems to get the white ones. This has far, far more capacity that I need for dance teaching but I use it for other music too, and as a portable hard disk to carry large computer files around. It is very small (but with good sized controls), reassuringly heavy, and has my name engraved on the back (a free service if you order one directly from Apple).

The iPod plays music but to load the music on in the first place you need a computer and a copy of the iTunes program - this is a free application that runs on Macs or Windows PCs. You assemble your music collection on the computer and then download it to the iPod, both operations are straightforward and easy. Loading music from CDs involves just inserting the CD, selecting which tracks you want, and clicking the 'import' button - if you're connected to the Internet iTunes will look up the artist, album and track names for you on all but the most obscure recordings. If you want music from cassettes or minidisks (or vinyl!) you'll need a method of getting the tracks onto the computer, after which iTunes can import the audio files (although you'll have to type in the names yourself). Downloaded files can be imported in the same way, and purchases from the iTunes music store go straight into your collection.

Loading music onto the iPod is simplicity itself. Plug it into the computer and a little iPod icon appears in the iTunes window, tracks can be downloaded into it by selecting them from the list and dragging them on. Unwanted tracks can be deleted like any other file on the computer. In fact you can set up your iPod to automatically download every track from your collection and whenever you plug it in it will check for new additions and copy them.

The only problem with this quick and easy procedure is when you want to play just one track. The iPod is designed to play groups of tracks, whether that's an album, everything by one artist, every track in the machine, and so on. Obviously for a dance teacher this is a big drawback. There are a couple of ways around this, including a way to program any track or sequence of tracks you suddenly decide to use. But let's start with a simple method.

The list of tracks that an iPod will play is called a playlist. Most of these are set up automatically, like albums, artists, etc, but you can also define your own. If you set up a playlist for each of your dances, each one just containing one piece of music, then you can select them on the iPod and just that one piece will be played. This gives a very quick way to access individual dances but it's a bit tedious to set up. Still, I know at least one dance teacher who works this way and is happy with it.

The method I use to organise my dance music is to use the 'Genre' for each track. This is designed to indicate the type of music (pop, rock, folk, world, etc.) but can in fact be used for anything you want. I use it to hold the name of the dance that I use the track for, which gives me an alphabetic list of dance names to choose between. Once I've chosen a dance I'm shown a list of the artists who have a recording of that dance (usually there's just one), choosing one of them shows me the name of the track, and by selecting that it plays. This sounds fiddlier than it is, actually it's very quick.

There can be complications. If the artist has more than one track for that dance they are listed and you have to play all of them. If they have more than one album that contains a track for the dance the albums are listed, choosing one brings up the track(s) on that album for the dance. And if the track doesn't have an artist name (if you've copied it from a tape, for example) then the only way to see it is with all of the other versions of that dance.

So problems occur when you have more than one piece of music for a dance, and they are by the same artist or by an unknown artist. This poses something of a problem for me with over 60 pieces of music for chocheks, several of which are by the same band.

The solution to this is to use a special playlist called 'On-The-Go'. This is a list of tracks that you can add to (and remove from) at any time from the iPod itself, without having to connect it to a computer. You find the track you want and instead of just playing it you press and hold the select button, after a second or two it flashes which means it's been added to the on-the-go playlist. Go to the on-the-go playlist itself and the track name is shown, play it and it goes through once and stops at the end. You can now choose any track on your iPod and play it on its own, regardless of the artist, album or genre.

It gets better. You can choose several tracks and make up a sequence in the on-the-go playlist which can then be played together. You can put the same track in several times if you want to repeat it. Tracks can be removed from the list manually (using the same press and hold method by which they are added) or you can clear the whole list to start again. And if you've built up a list of dances that you'd like to use again later you can save the playlist.

I've found that by using the genre to hold the dance name I can get to any piece of music I want very quickly, and with the on-the-go playlist I can set the iPod to play any track or sequence with hardly any delay - it's certainly faster than loading a programming a CD. And I'm also getting to know my music sources much better, rather than remembering 'the third čoček on CD 4' I know to look for Buzuki Orhan Osman or Makedonski Bop.

If you want to use an iPod you should think of getting a few accessories to go with it. Cables to connect to phono plugs or a mini jack and an external charger (there's no mains adaptor for an iPod, it usually recharges when connected to your computer) are the essentials, I also have a cassette adaptor for real emergencies. And it's worth bearing in mind that like all electrical devices it can fail at any time with no warning - when I'm traveling to teach I always carry a back up set of CDs, just in case. I've never had to use them, but you never know. I also have a protective case, mostly for when I'm out on my bike, but I take the iPod out when teaching with it.

In conclusion, if you're thinking of changing to a digital music player I can wholeheartedly recommend the iPod. It's small, easy to use, and, with a bit of preparation, as versatile as any music system I've used.