With a large number of albums and tracks of folk dance music now available for purchase
as ".mp3" files, a means of using these for folk dancing is required. The obvious choice of
a pocket-size MP3-player does not work at all well. The size and controls on these pods, even those with
a touch-sensitive screen, tend to be very small. You need to be dexterous and careful to manipulate
one of these devices while calling. Instead I use a tablet computer with an 8"
touch-sensitive screen as a large-screen MP3-player.
The most widely known of such devices are probably:
Apple iPad Mini
Google Nexus 7
Neither of the above tablets allow
external storage to be inserted. This means when the device dies, which it will as the rechargable
batteries can not be replaced, then music and any other data is lost or at best has to be
downloaded/installed again. Both
Apple and Google charge significantly more for versions of these devices that have increased internal
storage. Devices from several other manufacturers have a slot to insert a
micro-SDHC card. This means the whole collection of music, images, and so on can be removed for
transfer to or from another device, including a PC.
I have used two such tablet computers. Both run under the Anroid operating system
which is produced by Google and is based on the Linux operating system.
The picture on the
above right shows this on an
Arkon fold-up stand (an excellent
piece of kit) with the tablet's headphone output connected to the stereo input sockets of the
Fender Passport PD150+ amplifier.
This tablet runs Version 4.0 of the Android operating system; this version is also known
as Ice Cream Sandwich or ICS.
Tab S2 8" is a more powerful device. It is more responsive and starts-up much
more quickly. Both attributes are useful when calling folk dances to recorded music.
The picture on the right shows it with a stereo cable for connection to amplifier (or headphones)
and a miniature USB connector which also provides power.
This tablet now runs Version 7.0 of Android which is known as Nougat.
When preparing either of these Android tablets, they can be connected to a PC via a USB2 cable.
For a PC running MS Windows, the internal storage on the tablet and any micro-SDHC
card that is plugged into it, appear as drive(s) to, and from, which files can be transferred.
If you want to delve deeper into the innards of the tablet's operation, then debugging modes and software
allow such access from a PC over the USB link.
Although Android installs a default music player application (or "app"), a range of other music player
apps are available. Finding one with suitable behaviour and features to use when calling folk dances
turned out to be rather less straight forward than I imagined.
All the players that I've tried have on the screen:
a "pause" button, and
a "go back" button.
However, none of them (in their supplied Android version) have a "stop" button to move back to the beginning of the
track that is currently playing and wait.
The problem with the "pause" button is whether or not the paused state persists when you perform other
actions, such as going back to the start of the track that is currently playing or moving on to the start of
the next track of music. When calling it is much, much easier if a pause persists.
The "go back" button can do one of two things when it is pressed in the middle of a track (whether
actually playing or paused): it can go back to the start of the current track or to the start of
the preceeding track. The latter behaviour is a real nuisance when calling.
I settled on using PowerAMP because, amongst many useful
features, it has the following characteristics:
Persistent pause. When is pressed followed by
it does not start playing immeadiately. For calling dances this is the behaviour that is required.
There is an option to decide how the behaves. Unfortunately the default
is to go to the start of the previous track so this setting has to be altered; it only needs to be done once.
Press → more → settings → Look and
feel → General → << Button Resets Current Track
Make sure this option is ticked.
Note that even with this option active, pressing when the play point is at, or very close to,
the start of a track moves back to the start of the previous track in the album or playlist. This is
acceptable, indeed very useful, behaviour.
The arrangement of the controls in PowerAMP leaves plenty of space between the play/pause button and the time indicator that
extends across the screen lower down.
On some other music players these controls are positioned too close together; it is then very easy to hit the time indicator
accidentally so jumping to play at that time in middle of the track.
PowerAMP builds and maintains its own database of music files (such as ".mp3"), the directories (that is folders) where they
are stored, the track titles (which are inside each ".mp3" file) and the album to which they belong (also
within each ".mp3" file). You can define which areas of storage should be scanned to find music files. Usually the scanning
occurs automatically when changes in these areas are detected, but a scan can be requested. PowerAMP goes even further,
as a complete rebuild of the database can be forced. Having suffered the consequences of another music player (not
PowerAMP) corrupting a
database, but offering no means to rebuild it, this capabiltiy in PowerAMP is very reassuring even though I have never had
to use it.
It should be noted that PowerAMP does not use the music database that is set up and maintained by the default Android
music player and the operating system. Again this is reassuring as the default Android music player and its database
remain as an independent fall-back.
PowerAMP can export and import playlists as ".m3u8" files. These are simple text files which list
the directory and filename of the music tracks that form the playlist. Being text files, they can be
manipulated or generated by any software that can
edit or write a text file. Such software can be on the tablet or on other computers (such as a
Windows or Linux PC).
Album art is well displayed at a large scale, optionally with a co-ordinated background.
Although I normally use an 8"
tablet in portrait orientation (see picture
above), PowerAMP works perfectly well with the tablet in landscape orientation.
When navigating to locate a track to play, there is a choice between using:
The album name that is stored within each ".mp3" file, or
The folder in which the file is located.
The choice is made by selecting either "Library" or "Folders" in the bottom right-hand corner of most screens that display
a list of items.
At Version 3, Poweramp has, at long last, introduced a facility to change the rythm, that is the tempo,
of music (without altering the pitch), and it is controllable in 1% speed-steps. A very useful capability
when playing music for folk dances.
PowerAMP is not free software, but the current price (August 2013 &
of US$3.99 is, in my opinion, good value for money.
Of course, no software is ever perfect for a particular application (unless, that is, you have written
it yourself). Three problems with PowerAMP are:
The on-screen and
buttons which move to the previous and next album or playlist are a bit of a
nuisance. Hitting one accidentally is very confusing as you are suddenly
confronted with an unexpected track and there is no single button click that will take you back. It's a pity there is not an
option to incapacitate these.
The search facility is fast and thorough. However, you can not control what parts of the the information held
for each track are searched. Therefore, a search for "Jackson" will list albums whose title includes this string, and then performers
whose name contain it. All tracks are then listed that contain "Jackson" in either the song title, the album title or
the performer name.
Fortunately there is a way to work around part of this problem. Instead of using the
search facility you can apply a filter to the list of All Songs.
The Filter button appears on the right
at the start of the list.
Unfortunately neither search nor filter seem to recognise any wild characters, so looking for "Nonsuch" and "Nonesuch"
can not be done in one search.
There is no user guide. On-screen hints can be turned on but they are not comprehensive, so finding or discovering capabilities
is a bit of a hunt-and-seek process.
I keep information about dances on 5"×3" cards, with detailed instructions on the front and calling prompts on
the back (see picture on right). The risk of loosing these (an evening's programme, or worse a whole boxful) worried me for
many years. Access to
digital scanning provided a backup, and a tablet computer takes this further as it means images for all
my hundreds of dance cards can be immediately available. I still use the cardboard versions as reminders when calling an
but it is useful having the full set of images easily to hand to satisfy requests and queries.
I scanned and stored the images as 750×450 pixel ".png" files, and each dance takes about 1 MB (around 600KB for
400KB for the back). The Portable Network Graphics (".png") format for images uses a lossless compression algorithm. The
storage space required for each card could be considerably reduced by: using image editing software to remove the faint blue
& red rulings, reducing the
number of colours, and using ".jpeg" lossy compression. However, the original intention was for archive/back-up purposes
and the sum total for all my dance cards without these techniques is under 1GB and so is insignificant on a 32GB
micro-SDHC storage card.
I found the The Gallery app that is supplied with Andoid for viewing image sets to be utterly useless. Fortunately
the QuickPic app is an excellent
replacement and it is free.
The two screen shots on the left show the appearance of QuickPic when it is displaying each side of one of my
cards. You can move between these two images by swiping a finger across the screen.
The navigation & control buttons that are visible in the upper shot
disappear a few seconds after you have touched the screen. The lower shot shows the usual, uncluttered