Music Editing

Quite often these days, when applying to perform at a festival, hafla or show, you will be given a set of guidelines, including music length. This is not planned to upset the dancers, but to give everybody a fair chance and to avoid hogging the stage.

The limits I’ve received most often have been between 3:30 and 4 minutes. Does this mean that we can only pick songs or musical pieces that are shorter than that? Easy answer would be yes, but true answer is… not necessarily.

Enter music editing software. Audacity is a brilliant little program, free, which comes for Windows, OSX and Linux operative systems, so as long as you are using a desktop or laptop, you can use it. It’s available for download here: https://www.audacityteam.org/ A lot of people think that editing a song means just chopping off a beginning or an end, but this doesn’t have to be the only thing you do, and for dancing, this can be counterproductive, as it can leave you with a dull repetitive chorus, or remove a punchy end or a juicy beginning. Judicious editing allows you to create a new version of the track, keeping the bits you want, maintaining or even improving the original dynamics, and reassembling them, like a puzzle. Or adding pieces from another song. It’s kind of addictive and opens up a *lot* of possibilities.

So, how do you use it? First things first: you are going to get better results if your original sound file(s) are encoded directly from the source (CD, vynil or original recording) as a looseless WAV. “Looseless” means there was no compression of the sound file aimed at reducing file size; this is usually not that noticeable, but when you are manipulating the files it produces lesser quality results in the end. So if you have a CD, re-encode the song as a WAV. If all you have is an mp3, try to obtain the highest quality possible from the original vendor or distributor (320 kbps if possible). Do not encode upwards, that is, don’t re-encode at 320kbps if you have it at 160kbps, and do not burn a cd and re-encode as a wav if all you have is an mp3. Basically, work from the highest quality file you’ve got.

First, import the track via File=> Import=> Audio. Your song will load, and you will see the first “track” as two fields of squiggly lines (see image below). These are the left and right channels of your track. The blue spiky fields represent the sound waves and dynamics, which translate to our ear into sound quality, volume and intensity of the music (more instruments, more things happening, etc). The top playback controls should be easy enough. I’d recommend you play the track once in full, paying attention how the tracker (vertical line) moves along the track and noticing how what you hear is displayed graphically. Note whether there are particular sections that you want to keep, and bits that you would like to removed, either because they are repetitive, or because they are not adding anything to the song. If you can, note down where they are, using the “audio position” value at the bottom of the screen.

Doing a basic Intro/Outro is the easiest way to get started, so let’s say we want to remove the first 20 seconds, and the last 10. First make sure there’s no playback going on, and none of the playback buttons are greyed out or in use; pause is still playback so you need to make sure to press STOP before attempting any editing. Use the selection tool (vertical line | in the top row, to the right of the red dot for RECORD) to select the first section we want gone. It will highlight; we can hear just that section using the playback controls. If it’s the selection you want removed, hit delete on your keyboard, making sure there’s a smidge of it left before the actual section of song you want to keep starts, unless there’s a very sharp cut (actual silence) in the track. Select this smidge now, and use Effect=> Fade In, to make this start less abrupt. Use the magnifying glasses tool to see the soundwaves in more detail.
Do the same with the ending you want removed, select, delete, and this time use Fade Out to end the track more gradually. Export using the File=> Export=> Export as MP3 to save this new version. Or export as WAV if you want to burn it to a CD.

Audacity after importing a track

This is all well and good, but what happens when you want more complex editing, and what do I mean by that? Example: this (plus a couple of seconds that are missing from the video) is a Type O Negative track that I danced at Belle, Book & Candle show with Princess Farhana in 2018 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6XgNH5lTRwY. The original track is 7:15 and you can listen to it here ; the single edit for the radio is 4:51. My editing took the song down to 3:39, and instead of chopping off the atmospheric intro or the mournful outro, I worked removing second verses, phrases and reducing length of solos to achieve the length I needed. Comparing both tracks you can see that they keep similar dynamics, and all the sections from the original song are there; mine is just condensed. I basically cherrypicked what I considered the best moments of the song, and distilled them into a new version.

So, how can you achieve a similar effect and keep it ? Like before, listen to the track, notice bits you want to keep and bits that can go. Find the first obvious place to make a cut, but instead of just deleting, cut from the place you want the cut, to the END of the song, create a new track (Tracks=> Add New=> Stereo) and paste the second part of the song in this new stereo track. You can use the “mute” and “solo” buttons on each track to listen to each part on their own, and since you wanted to remove a bit, you now have basically the scenario above of editing begining and/or ending. Therefore, the same procedure applies: select the bit you want gone, delete, fade in or out. Use the Time Shift Tool (the double ended arrow <-> ) to move the new section to the right (later) or left (earlier) so it starts as the previous section ends; the fades in and out of each section should make them blend. Lather, rinse, repeat.

To avoid lag, I recommend working with no more than 4 stereo tracks at a time, but this might not be enough for complex edits. If you’ve got a beginning worked out and your computer is slow updating the viewport, export this beginning by muting the non-edited section, then using File=> Export=> Export as WAV. This will create a new file with everything into a single stereo track. Save this doc. Select the unedited section and copy, then close this document. Open a new document, import the track you created in the previous step, then create a new stereo track and copy the unedited section you copied from the previous doc; continue editing the last sections in the new doc.

It will take some trial and error to find the best places for these edits, but some care will get you the best results.

  • always match the actual tempo; for instance, don’t end one section on the 4 and start the next one on the 2 or it will feel jagged; if there is a slight difference -can happen in field recordings and ethnic music- use the Effect => Change Tempo tool to see if you can make the transition better.
  • keep to the song’s basic structure as much as possible, so if your verses are 4 lines each, 8×4 counts, your editing doesn’t turn them into 3 lines, or 5x 4 counts.
  • when working with instrumental sections that need removing, try to match the beginning and end chords or notes if possible, or to make the cut where the first is moving onto the second naturally anyway; it helps if you sing this note and maintain it as you listen to the next section. This will make the transition seamless
  • don’t be afraid to overlap sections from different places if they match, to get a bigger sound, or a stronger dynamic (see the graphic below)
  • use the selection tool to listen to the joints in sections, but don’t be afraid to step back regularly to listen to all you’ve got so far, to make sure that it’s got the overall dynamics that you want.
More complex editing, using 3 overlapping stereo tracks

Most important, to me, try to keep the song’s flow; I know it’s quite common these days to have 4 bars of this song and 8 bars of another and 16 bars of something yet again different, and to my ear, quite often this feels disjointed. But this is your story to tell, just make sure that the editing doesn’t overshadow or distracts from your dancing.

And that should be it. The process is laborious but not too difficult once you figure out how to do it; it does require attention to detail, but it will help you break free of pre-recorded music constraints.

What about you? Do you feel like learning to edit your tracks, or would you rather work with tracks the way they were intended originally, regardless of length?

Doing your first choreography

Sneaked among the latest post was a tiny bit of momentous news: I’ve finally gone and done my first choreography. Which wouldn’t strictly be true, as I wasn’t working on one but two, but right now I’m focusing on the one that is actually finished.
I know that for some people that have done theirs for ages, it’s not a big deal. For others, it’s anathema: they see belly dance as a dance form which should be free, improvised on the spot, according to the feel of the moment, and the music, so a pre-established choreography is not something desireable.

Me? I’m middle-ground. I’ve danced a few choreographies by several “famous” (or equivalent in the belly dancing world) people, some by Khaled, a handful of Kazafy’s. I’ve also done some by a troupe mate. I’ve enjoyed some, some I didn’t, and this had nothing to do with who created them. I think choreographies have their place, particularly when you’re in a troupe and not following an established improvisational style like ATS. As does improvisation: we tend to add a “free form” piece at the end of our Egyptian-style performances where we can dance with the public, if we are in a suitable environment, but the choreographies allow you to have something more established when planning.

Since we started taking ATS classes, my friend L and I had the request a few times to “prepare something tribal” . Of course the whole concept of improvisation can be difficult to explain to people not familiar with the format, and a choreography would both cover this and any spot of nerves that might raise. I’d also wanted to choreograph something for the Sunday group, as we don’t really seem to have any dances “of our own”, relying instead of older dances done by the Advanced group. So the “brilliant” concept (and notice the quotes; I am not taking this seriously, as I suspect it will create a load of headaches down the line) came about of putting something together to dance with L., and then show it to the Sunday Group, and if they liked it, see if we could teach it to them. Two birds, one stone and all of that.

So, when my Choreography Bunnies started bouncing around too much, I finally took some time and tried to come up with something. And it was surprisingly easy once I figured things out. So here are my suggestions, in no particular order:

  • decide what is the intended audience for your piece; will this be a street performance, a carnival, a theatre, a hafla? general public or bellydancers? where will you perform? Different venues and circumstances might make you think twice on what you’re doing (i.e. sword in a street performance with people walking around you invites disaster)
  • pick a piece of music that *really* makes you want to dance; bonus point if it’s not something that has been done to death, or that people might relate to (i.e. that obscure mizmar piece would be great for an appreciative belly dancer audience, but the nasal slightly discordant tones might feel too alien for the general public)
  • familiarise yourself with the music, to the point that you can repeat it beat for beat in your sleep; learn the phrases, accents, peaks, or tension within it; this will make it easier for you to practice and think of combos or steps to use.
  • if there are lyrics, become familiar with them, and their meaning, as it can help suggest to you gestures, expressions or actions
  • put it on a few times, have a few free-flowing dances to it; take note of things that you like (and I mean it, TAKE NOTE, write it down, don’t rely on your memory), even if you are missing chunks in between these parts.
  • now that you’re starting to get a skeleton for your choreography, look at the music again: notice the structure, whether there are repeating parts that could benefit from similar steps, whether there is an increase in pacing, a stretch in the notes being played, a modulation of the tone, or anything similar, and think of how you can help express that with your movements
  • it’s not all about the hips: you don’t need to shake your hips constantly like an electrocuted frog in a lab; you have a wide variety of moves on your dance vocabulary that include the whole body, use them!
  • it’s not all about you: if you’re choreographing for a group, remember it’s not all about you being in front and having backing dancers; think of ways to arrange things so that everybody has a chance to shine, unless they want to remain hidden in the back
  • it’s not all about the base rhythm; these can be quite similar and even monotonous unless you’re working on a drum solo; try to capture the feel of the main “voice” on the piece, be it a human throat, instruments or yes, even percussion
  • everybody doing the same in their little dancer’s box is ok, but a bit boring: travelling steps help a lot, and using the stage to move about or change places make the choreography more dynamic and visually interesting.
  • it’s not all about the High Concept: having an idea, trying to tell a story, is all nice and good, but don’t let your dance be lost in your concept; sometimes people dance because they’re happy or sad, or energetic, or simply because they like the music; don’t let your High Concept get in the way of your dancing to the point that it overpowers it; sometimes music is also made just for enjoyment!
  • don’t try to cram everything in once piece: don’t make your choreography a catalogue of moves, and try to give it some unity instead; repeat combos on similar sections, for instance, or do moves that are related instead of going for something completely different with every bar!
  • build up: you don’t want your audience to be bombarded with everything from the get go, or so overwhelmed with cool moves that everything blurs… showcase interesting moves among simpler ones,  and build up your moves as the music builds up
  • if you’re choreographing for a specific group, take into account their strengths and weaknesses; some of your troupe mates might be better at some moves, and some might be unable to do others, so think of ways around this
  • conversely, be mindful of your limitations and those dancing with you: impressive moves are impressive, but basic moves are beautiful too when done with proper technique; choose moves that are suitable to your level and that of those around you
  • don’t give up, or expect the whole routine to be ready in a matter of hours; these things often need quite a bit of time to come together, and sometimes what works inside your head might prove to be  just awkward to execute, so be ready to make changes
  • finally, when you start practicing, make sure you are aware of what parts of the body will take more of a pounding or require extra flexibility, so warm up those accordingly

In my case, I started with a song I really liked, and which hubby helpfully said “that would be nice with some dancing”, and went on from there. I keyed on certain parts of the song (slow intro, chorus) thinking of what could fit them, then took it one verse at a time, and once I had a first half I liked, tried to use it as the starting platform for the remaining half. I’m still doing touch-ups here and there, but overall structure is in place, and hopefully by the time the first performance rolls in, it’ll be ready for unveiling.

Inspiration: The Hidden Sister

I was shown this video ages ago. It’s a little short with a hint of the metaphysical (there’s a very clear attempt at presenting the 5 elements doctrine popular in some branches of Paganism), but it is very creatively set up and filmed, the costuming and make-up are GORGEOUS, and even better, has Sera Solstice dancing as the “Spirit” element. It was my first view of her, and I liked her so much that it prompted me to found out more, look for performances and DVDs. And I am so glad I did!

You can watch the video below, but truly, I suggest you head over to youTube and watch it in HD.

Inspiration: Jon Sterckx’s Dhaginatak

JonSterckx's Drumscapes

JonSterckx’s Drumscapes

Today I received an invitation to a tribal fusion workshop with Katie Holland and the percussionist Jon Sterckx, and there was a link to a little gem taken during a TEDx talk. It’s a wonderful fun piece, using live looping and traditional instruments, but the best of it all? People stood up and DANCED. Me? I can’t wait to use it next time I’m teaching. It’s infectious and very rhythmical but, because of the nature of the loops building up the song, predictable, so very usable even with a first time listen, so great for practicing pops and locks and little detailed movements, I think.

I can’t embed the video because embedding has been dissabled from YouTube, but if you want to view it, and more importantly listen to it, you can go to
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cNfV0wNsXwk&list=SPA0D6F3406B74CDEB

There’s a full album and two singles available on Spotify, and on eMusic, here
http://www.emusic.com/listen/#/artist/jon-sterckx/12671794/:

It’s Friday. Go dance and have some fun!

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