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Tracks and Southern Gospel Overview

So much has been discussed concerning sound tracks in Southern Gospel music that it almost seems like beating the preverbal dead horse. From those who believe that tracks are akin to the destruction of our genre to those who believe it is our only hope for the future, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. And in this regard, I do not wish to come down on one side or the other on this debate. This article is simply meant to help you as an artist find the best results possible when using sound tracks.

Most groups this day and time rely on sound tracks of one kind or another, either from the actual music beds of their own CD projects or from generic sound tracks offered by recording labels from our industry. In either case, the question has always been, how to get the tracks from their generic format to your audience with the best possible results. The first sound tracks I ever remember being used by Southern Gospel artists was in the mid ‘70’s, and these were almost always played by cassette tape with what I recall as being, horrible results. Then in the late ‘80’s the CD became popular with the masses and many converted their sound tracks to this format. This was better, but still light years away from being the ideal format. If the artist ran their tracks from the stage, there was always the “dead air” as they turned their back to the audience and either changed tapes, or selected another band on the CD player. The state of the art for the times left a lot to be desired as far as performance oriented tracks were concerned.

Then in the 90’s came the Mini-Disc, which could hold on one disc essentially the same amount of recorded time as did a CD. Its primary negative was that it was (and still is) a digital compression scheme, which throws away bits of audio data that the inherent algorithm deems not audible by human ears. Of course, all such schemes are audible on the right playback systems. Also, copying from one mini-disc to another compounded the effects of bit reduction and the result of the second or third generation mini-disc was a degradation of the sonic quality very much audible to virtually anyone who listened. It was however, possible to use a remote to trigger the desired selection and this was a plus. Many artists became quite clever at concealing the use of the remote too.

Some groups begin to use a house sound engineer who keyed the tracks for them, or sometimes a piano player would be the one in charge of the tracks. Then a little known company in Southern Gospel circles, 360 Systems from the Bay Area of California, began offering a box called the Instant Replay. It was originally designed to play commercials and voice-overs for the radio broadcast community. However, it soon found its way into the hands of a few well-known Southern Gospel groups who were using it to play their sound tracks. It had an inherent hard-drive running on a stripped down version of DOS, along with 50 programmable buttons whereby songs could be programmed. This turned out to be the best available for the time period, and Southern Gospel embraced the Instant Replay as if it were the Holy Grail. It could hold far more recorded time than a CD and any selection on the hard-drive could be instantly played. For those who hated the idea of relying on a computer, 360 Systems cleverly hid the fact that Instant Replay was very much a purpose built computer. It was and still is a most expensive approach to playing tracks. Street prices run in the $2,700.00 range and up.

The drawback to both the Mini-Disc and the Instant Replay was the fact that one had to play and record each track into either device in real time. Therefore, a CD that ran the typical 45 minutes took at least 45 minutes to play and record into either the MD or the IRP unit, plus the time required to re-name and assign each selection once it was recorded. With the Mini Disc one could assign a number into a selection so that an encore could be performed, by simply selecting the correct assigned number. The trick was assigning the number as the original track was being recorded into MD in real time, at the proper place. With the Instant Replay machine to do an encore one had to edit the song and make a “new song” shorter in length, to do the typical encore. This of course required editing software or hired studio time to accomplish the task, and then required the new encore piece to be recording into IRP in real time, and a corresponding number from one of the 50 available, be assigned to the encore section. The original versions of Instant Replay, being a broadcast oriented machines, had only +4 dbu outputs, which proved a very hot level for most sound reinforcement consoles. To this day I still hear tracks from an IRP distorting the inputs of consoles because they are not being used as the company originally intended. These machines require a line input capable of studio grade level, or an inline pad for both channels of at least 20 db would be necessary, and 35 db would be better yet. Still, the best solution for such a hot level is to use balanced line level inputs capable of a nominal +4 dbu. More recent versions of Instant Replay have a switch selectable +4 or –10 nominal output level, and this makes the device easier to use in sound reinforcement situations than previous versions.

Then about 4 years ago a software program, written by a performing Southern Gospel Soloist was made available for the PC laptop format and it has revolutionized the art of playing performance sound tracks for the Southern Gospel genre. This of course, is the popular program, EmceePro from software engineer Ted Watson (www.testifymusic.com). When I first received a copy of this software, I had been working on my own trying to modify available software platforms such as Cakewalk, Pro Tools and Logic, in a vain attempt to find a viable alternative to the Mini-Disc and the Instant Replay machines, for neither of these devices were truly suitable for our needs. When I loaded the EmceePro installation disc onto my laptop, I very quickly became a true convert to the EmceePro way of doing things. 

Since EP is running on a Windows based machine, all of the capabilities of file manipulation is available to the Windows user. Rather than being forced to real-time record all of my tracks onto the hard-drive, I have two very easy and very fast alternatives. The first and very likely the most used procedure is to simply “rip” the sound tracks off of a CD direct onto the hard-drive. EmceePro has a pull down menu that has the sub-title “Extract”. This enables me to put a playable CD into the CD drive of my laptop, and select the desired tracks, 1 through however many are on the disc, and “extract” those selections from the CD direct to my hard-drive. Within EmceePro you are also given the choice of “Browsing” for a location or folder on the hard-drive where you can store your tracks. I have one main folder called “Audio” and under that several sub folders named for the project from whence the tracks originate. For instance, I have a recent sub-folder titled “Heaven’s_Sake” which is a shortened title of our recent CD. Therefore in Windows jargon it would look like this as a computer address, C:/Audio/Heaven’s_Sake. One of the many features of EmceePro gives me the option of naming the selections as they are copied over to the laptop. An entire CD with the typical 45 minutes of recorded material will take less than 5 minutes to copy and re-name onto my laptop. That sure beats recording in real time!

The other method, which I prefer, is to have all of my tracks on CD (or DVD) as data .wav files. In this method, I already have named each selection, so I can use Windows Explorer to copy the data files, with names intact, from the CD or DVD drive, direct to the hard-drive of my computer. In this regard I am not converting a playable audio CD from Phillips .cda files to .wav files, but instead, I am copying .wav files without a conversion process, and the re-naming process is not needed. This is a tad faster than ripping files from an audio CD simply because the re-name process is not used. (A side note here, EmceePro can extract files as MP3 files too, although I personally never use this option)

Once I have the files loaded onto my laptop from either method above, I simply locate the folder I have stored them in and individually call them into one of the available EmceePro play lists. (There are 10 play list master locations each containing 10 sub-groups, each of which can store 26 selections, for a grand total of 2,600 instantly available song titles) I might have a play list titled “short program”, which might be a 15 or 20 minute program and I might have one which says “long program” which will be a 45 to 60 minute program. You are free to program and name your play lists as you see fit. Customizing the software for the way you intend to use it is but one of many great features of EmceePro. It is also very possible to have any one-song selection assigned to several play lists. You are only constrained by the scope of your own imagination.

Once I have a play list filled with the songs I wish to perform, I can re-arrange their order on the screen by simple drag and drop operation till I get the desired program. And of course, it is not necessary to have the songs arranged in the order you wish to do them on your program. You may wish to group two or three songs together so that they automatically play one after the other. You can also set the time between songs. You might wish to have 1 second between song one and two, but 4 seconds between two and three to give you time for a short comment to setup the song. Again, it is totally up to you!

You have the option of changing the playback level of any or all tracks so that they play at about the same acoustic level. You can also edit the dead time (if any) off of the front of your tracks so that the song comes on more instantly. You can pre-select an encore point within the track and with the click of a button on your PC, or from a simple infra-red remote, you can automatically go back and encore a section of the last song played. Speaking of the remote, since it is infra-red, it is not necessary to have the device pointed at the laptop such is necessary with a Mini-Disc. It will operate the tracks from virtually anywhere within the same room. I have seen different people try I-Pods and other MP3 type players with mixed results. I can tell you this, I have yet to see anything that works nearly as well as EmceePro does for Southern Gospel Music. Usually, I don’t like the idea of recommending a specific product, but with EmceePro, it is so far advanced over other possible solutions that I think it would be wrong of me not to tell others in our genre about its benefits.

See ya next time...
Ben Harris       
6340 Spera Pointe Crossing              
Nashville, TN 37076



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