Students should be able to hear an engaging and dynamic sound above the level of ambient noise, wherever they are in the studio: no dancer will be inspired by tinny, flat-sounding music. Amplification requirements will be different for a room which is used exclusively for ballet and one which is also used for modern and tap.
As a general rule, domestic hi-fi systems can be used in small to medium-sized ballet studios whereas large ballet studios and multi-purpose rooms will be better served by a more powerful PA system ('public address system').
The simplest playback setup for a dance studio consists of a CD player or mp3 player, an amplifier and some loudspeakers. A standard portable hi-fi system has all of these components in a single enclosure. Such a unit may be suitable for the very smallest of studios but would be limited in sound quality and power output. A more effective system consists of 'standalone' hi-fi components or 'separates' (see below).
In a standalone or ‘separates’ system, as the name suggests, you buy each component of the system (e.g. CD player, amp, speakers) separately.
Buy a basic model of CD player from a reputable manufacturer. The subtle improvement in sound quality from an expensive CD player will be totally lost in a dance studio environment. The option to replace just the CD player in a system of separate components is useful, as the moving parts in a CD player tend to wear out relatively quickly if it is used every day: use a lens cleaner occasionally to maximise the life of your player.
Amplifiers and loudspeakers, on the other hand, will often work perfectly well for ten years or more if they're not pushed beyond their limitations. If you hear distortion through your system (the sound appears 'fuzzy' and ill-defined), your amplifier or loudspeakers are being overdriven and the volume should be turned down. Particular care should be taken when using music with a lot of bass energy as this can be particularly damaging to loudspeakers.
There is no easy answer to the question 'How powerful would you like your system to be?', which is probably the first thing you will be asked in a hi-fi shop. Amplifier power is measured in watts and there are so many ways of defining and interpreting amplifier power that these numbers can be misleading. A pair of fairly substantial (approx 30x20x25cm) mid-priced (£100 to £150) 'bookshelf' hi-fi loudspeakers of at least 100 Watts RMS per speaker, combined with a similarly-priced amplifier of at least 40 Watts RMS per channel, should be adequate for most medium-sized studios.
A PA system is similar in principle to a hi-fi separates system, but the components tend to be more durable and higher powered than their hi-fi counterparts and are therefore more suitable for noisy environments (tap and modern classes), large rooms, and situations where the equipment needs to be portable. They are typically sold in musical instrument and music technology stores and will be perhaps 50% more expensive than the hi-fi separates system outlined above.
Avoid the cheapest PA systems, which tend to be very limited in sound quality and are aimed mainly at DJs and aerobics instructors. You'll want quality as well as power for your studio so make sure you listen to your chosen system in the shop before you buy. PA loudspeakers are heavy and need heavy-duty wall mounts or stands. If you intend to move your equipment around, buy passive rather than active speakers as these will be considerably lighter (active speakers have built-in amplifiers). PA components tend to be reliable except when pushed to their limits. If your music system is going to be used by other teachers, you may want to consider an amplifier with a limiter to ensure your loudspeakers aren't driven excessively.
MP3 players have the advantage that they don't skip when your dancers jump (or vice versa) and you can store your entire CD collection in one tiny unit. However, iPods can be more fiddly to use than CD players and rarely have remote controls. Some CD players (such as the Tascam CD-200i) give the best of both worlds with a built-in iPod dock. A dock (which charges your iPod as it is being used) is not vital though, and a stereo mini-jack to phono lead is a simple way of connecting your iPod to the auxiliary inputs of a hi-fi amplifier. Bear in mind that there are legal restrictions on transferring music from CD to iPod or laptop for anything except personal use. In the UK, you will need a ProDub (Fitness) licence to use laptops or iPod music collections.
A varispeed CD player lets you slow down or speed up your music by up to 10% or so. This is a useful facility but it does tend to double or triple the cost of a CD player. Although it is sometimes called 'pitch-control', many devices and apps enable you to alter the speed of a track without altering the pitch.
It is possible to plug an iPod directly into a docking station with built-in speakers but this has several drawbacks in the dance studio. Although these units can be economical, they are typically designed for home use and will struggle to fill even a medium-sized studio with high quality sound. They also require all users to work exclusively with iPods at all times, which can be inconvenient.
Hi-fi separates should be wall-mounted at the front of your studio around 1.5m off the ground, away from the fingers of young children. Speakers should be wall-mounted around 2.5 metres from the ground on the front wall, at least 1m from each of the side walls. Basic loudspeaker cable (around £2 per metre) is adequate for dance studios – make sure you get enough to run from the amplifier to both of your speakers. PA equipment can be mounted in a 19" rack which can be portable (with wheels if possible) or attached to a wall. Be aware that powerful PA amplifiers can be extremely heavy and will require substantial support if wall-mounted.
While the RAD does not actively endorse any products made by these manufacturers, here are some leading brands to consider when buying equipment:
- Portable hi-fi – JVC, Sony, Panasonic, (Portogram for varispeed equivalent)
- CD players – Tascam/TEAC, Denon
- Hi-fi components – Denon, Sony, Mission, JBL
- PA components – Yamaha, Behringer, Peavey, Mackie