Review of Jukeboxes for Dancing

By John M. Clement, Ph.D.

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MIT Player

The MIT Player

Dance groups are now converting to computer based playback of dances. The most convenient way to do this is to have all of the tracks already stored on the computer hard drive and then to transfer them to a playlist while dancing is already in progress. This requires that the programs play the dances while the dance selection is going on. There are a number of programs that allow the user to transfer files to a playlist, but the most convenient method is to have a scrollable library and then transfer library files to a playlist. In addition some dance groups have different programmers who often click on wrong things or inadvertently double click instead of drag and drop. The result is usually an interruption of the current dance.

ASSETS

CAVEAT

This is a very biased review from the point of view of someone who needs to program dances for a group, and who will want to dance with the group. This review also places great emphasis on having a foolproof player that can be used by occasional dance programmers. Most of the players are available in a free version, but some have a fee for advanced burning and ripping features.

HOW WE USE THE PLAYER

Houston International Folk Dancers (HIFD) uses the title for the dance name, the artist field for the country, the genre is line, circle, coupl, etc.; the comment is Easy, Intermediate, Advanced; while the Album lists the teacher, artists, and album info. The region and/or translated title are in parenthesis at the end of the title. An attempt to follow library rules has been made so the article (the, le, la, der, die, das, etc.) follows the name after a comma. We also listed generic dances by type so all waltzes begin with the word waltz. This has been done with polka, schottish, tango, etc., except for some specially choreographed dances. Only these fields are used for maximum compatibility with most players and file formats. Originally we used to use the "grouping/work" tag, but it is not supported by many players. We are currently using compressed MP3 files at 245kb/s VBR by the Lame encoder. It is a high rated encoder, and the files are compatible with most players. FOOBAR2000 was used to compress and label files. Listening tests have found that there are some small audible distortions even at this bitrate. Bitrates lower than 128kb/s can produce very harsh distortion on all popular encoders, and 128 is not transparent on any encoder. AAC produces slightly higher quality encoding at low bitrates, and AAC+ supported by Winamp produces the best quality at most bitrates.

TYPES OF PLAYER CONTROLS

There seem to be two types of player controls, standard and iTunes: The standard format (most players) mirrors tape decks and CD players in that they have play, stop, next, previous, and pause buttons. The iTunes structure has one button for either pause or play, and no stop button. In the iTunes format the next and previous buttons first goes to the end/beginning of the current track, and at then go to the beginning of the previous or next track. The stop button when present always stops the playing song, and goes back to the beginning. Windows Media Player has one button for either Play or Pause, but otherwise mirrors the standard format, which is similar to CD players. The iTunes control set is undeniably cleaner looking, but can be confusing to some people. In either case users who are accustomed to one type of controls will find the other set confusing. Some people hate buttons that switch function, while others love it. My opinion is that Apple designed the iTunes format to be elegant looking, and to lock people into their player, without regards to already existing common practice.

FINAL CHOICE

In the end the choice of a player is personal, so even if I do not like a particular player's features, you might find them desirable. If the player is to be used by more than one person, please consider my comments about some of the problems that players have when used by multiple users.


PLAYERS

AMPS PRO

As far as I can see this player has few features of interest to the general folk dance programmer. It has a confusing layout, and very nonstandard functions compared to many other players. I found it frustrating compared to other players. The requirements such as large font desktops will be burdensome. Some may really like it, but it is definitely not for the non-wizard. It may be useful for those who want to run a disco like program.

Advantages

Disadvantages


AUDIOPLUS

Disadvantages


FOOBAR 2000

It does have a library and tab selectable playlists. The big strength is in the ID3 tag support, and the multiple free format encoding. It is not necessarily good for playing dances, but excellent for ripping. I would highly recommend it for encoding and tagging music files.

Advantages

Disadvantages


iPOD MEDIA PLAYER

The iPod is okay for programming dances, but the difference between a short click and a long one eludes some people. As a result dances are often interrupted while the programmer is adding new entries to the list. As a very portable, relatively cheap alternative to a computer, it is okay, but computers are the best way to go. Often you can find a small computer, especially used, for less than an iPod.


iTUNES

This player has many features and is very usable, but it has too many things that can go wrong, and can be confusing. In addition the AAC encoding has a bug which can produce very inferior sounding tracks. It also has, according to research, the poorest sounding MP3 encoder of all players. The latest Version 7.1 also insists on wasting time parsing tracks and looking for cover art. The earlier versions seemed to be a bit more usable.

Advantages

Disadvantages


MIT PLAYER

There are not many disadvantages as far as I can see. It is very personalized to the MIT club and as such it would be harder to use as a general program. However some may like it. I did not use it much. This player assumes that someone will put in loads of information so you can categorize each dance by regions, country, tempo, etc. It takes a very scientific view of dancing, and allows you to gather all kinds of statistics and keep all kinds of information. The reality is that most dance groups tend to just have a list of dances, and most people do not worry about these types of things. So programmers sometimes ask "which is the preferred version." But having only one preferred version locks people into a very narrow rigid view of dancing. This type of view is completely the opposite of "folk dancing." Each individual has preferences which often do not coincide with others, so putting dances into rigid categories is way too much work, and does not keep dancing fun and recreational.

EDITOR'S NOTE: By adding a designation of some sort, such as 1, 2, 3, etc., this handicap can be overcome.

The ability to search for particular tempos, etc. can be easily satisfied by intelligently tagging dances and it does not need a complicated specialized program. It was designed by an engineer, with few ergonomic considerations.

Advantages

Disadvantages


MUSIC MAN MP3 PLAYER

This is a player that does not look like it is very suitable for folk dance usage. It has been laid out with specific buttons referring to specified genres, which do not have any meaning in a folk dance library. With inexperienced programmers this player will be a disaster.

Advantages

Disadvantages


MUSIC MATCH

This is the easiest to use with the fewest possibilities for accidental problems in Version 9. Version 10 seems to be emulating iTunes and may become too cluttered with too many things that are easily changed. This player is under active development.

Advantages

Disadvantages


VU PLAYER

This player has some very useful features, but is not good for general use. It lacks the ability to easily program a current playlist.

Advantages

Disadvantages


WIN AMP

This is a good player, but there is extensive setup to get it to do what you want. It competes with iTunes for the most popular player. It probably can do everything needed once it is setup. The main problem is finding the plugin you need. It is being actively developed so some shortcomings may be remedied. At present full ID3 tag support is improving. It will satisfy the most geeky users. Documentation is not very good. I have created the Winamp Folk Dancer skin which gets rid of most problems when properly setup. The Folk Dancer skin is personalized to prevent any interruption of a playing dance, remove dangerous controls, and add a few recreational dance features such as automatic delay between dances, delayed play, and save/seek location in a dance for instructional purposes. Winamp is unique in that it is a huge community effort supported by AOL, rather than being a purely commercial product. As a result it is possible to interest some developers in providing a feature you may need.

Advantages

Disadvantages


WINDOWS MEDIA PLAYER

It is not very convenient for finding tracks in the library. It does not come up with an evident library/playlist structure. It seems to be versatile, but cluttered and a bit Geeky. I did not work with it extensively. There are plugins for the MP3, OggVorbis, and FLAC formats as well as others.


WHAT AN "IDEAL" PLAYER SHOULD HAVE

Here is a list of needs for the "ideal" player:

Here are optional things that are nice (optional means that this feature could be selectable as part of setup):


THE WINAMP FOLK DANCER SKIN

The Winamp Folk Dancer skin was designed to overcome many of the problems of conventional players and to provide a relatively secure environment for inexperienced computer users. It has the following features, when properly setup:


RECOMMENDATIONS

There are many programs that convert formats, so it is not necessary to use any of the listed players. However of these players iTunes is one of the most convenient for doing this because the option is immediately found on the right click menu. It also preserves the stereo characteristics so that a mono file is automatically encoded into another mono file which saves half of the space. MusicMatch and Winamp have features to generate the ID3 tags from the file name or to generate a file name from the ID3 tags. Winamp's ability to encode files is well hidden under the send to transcoder right click menu. Since the process of playback and encoding is separate, you may pick the encoder and player separately. Winamp probably has the least documentation because many of the features are in plugins and are not part of the standard distribution. Foobar2000 is probably one of the best solutions for encoding and tagging, but not for playing dances.

The issue of file size vs. quality of sound is important. Different encoders generate different quality files. In general AAC+ and MP3pro give the best quality, but are not widely available. The Nero free encoder, and Winamp seem to be among the best. V7 iTunes is reputed to have some bugs in the AAC encoder, and iTunes MP3 is at the bottom of the quality list. A number of reviews are available on the web.

In conclusion iTunes is probably very good for the experienced careful computer user. MusicMatch is easier to use right out of the box and should prevent problems for the average programmer. VUplayer is a good player to have when you really have to change the pitch of a track. Winamp almost has it all. Winamp is behind MusicMatch for usability, unless you have a computer savvy manager, because it has complicated setup. Obviouly, I prefer Winamp with the Folk Dancer skin, because it prevents accidental interruptions of a dance.

None of the players are currently ideal, and all pose different difficulties, but all three major players are usable. Even a slow computer can be used to play dances, but it may be necessary to turn off and remove all unneeded programs. For example, if the Internet is not needed, you may need to turn off the Internet adapter. We found that a slow laptop introduced noises into the music when the adapter was enabled, but performed well with it off.

Some extra things that can make life easier are programs that will convert file names to ID3 tags, and back again. In addition programs that change names in groups is valuable.


Used with permission of the author.