Tap Technical Articles - January 20, 2005Note: the following articles originally appeared in 1999 and 2000 in On Tap, the International Tap Dance Association newsletter.e-tapAn Introduction to Electronic Tap Dancing: MIDI Triggeringby Michael “Shoehorn” Conley The purpose of this short article is to acquaint readers with some basic theory and knowledge of electronic tap. I feel the potential for this medium to be limitless due to the variety of sounds that can be used. All the electronic components are readily available in music stores and can be applied to tap dancing by simply applying the pickups, or triggers, to the surface being danced upon. The reader will have to construct (or have built) the actual triggering surface according to individual requirements. This can be as simple as a slab of wood ( TAP DOGS ), or as elaborate as a giant marimba. My method includes the natural tap sound in the mix. Other methods utilize triggers built into the shoes, with sounds operated remotely by an engineer (like in the film TAP!) . Either way, the same technology is employed to turn tap dance into electronic percussion music.It is my feeling that this is an area worthy of much more exploration by the tap dance community, so I am sharing some of my expertise in order to encourage my fellow hoofers to give it a try. By no means am I suggesting we abandon the special sound of acoustic tap, but rather augment it and give it something more, growing out of the existing technique of the artists . I note that I do not use it in the majority of my appearances.It is possible to get started without a huge budget and a sound technician. In fact, my personal tap instruments* are controlled by me onstage, and were all programmed by myself using factory sounds and MIDI note numbers ( 60 = middle C on the piano), or analog percussion synths.
The basic component outline of an electronic tap kit:Tap shoes >wood >trigger >MIDI Interface >sound module >amp
Tap dancing > Wood. The sound of taps on wood is the foundation of my sound. This comes through on it’s own dedicated mics or triggers. Other triggers are mounted on wooden boards which are to be danced upon to generate the electronic sounds.Wood > Trigger. The wood used for triggerring can be any size: a whole panel of plywood with one trigger or a series of small boards with individual triggers. The choices in this are up to the technical needs and ambitions of the individual choreography. This wood effectively becomes a MIDI controller , the tap dance instrument.Trigger > MIDI interface. Essentially a type of microphone,Triggers are the basic component of any electronic tap rig. No matter what kind of electronics you run it through, the tap signal has to be “picked-up” electronically and then converted into electronic sounds chosen by the tap artist, producer or sound engineer. Triggers may be purchased ready made, or custom made, and are plugged into a MIDI Interface. Keyboards and other devices on the market provide myriad sounds which can be accessed via MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface). A MIDI Interface takes the impulse of the tap and converts it into digital information. This information can be controlled and shaped by the user into desired sounds and pitches. Arrangements of notes can be saved and named, and “dialed in” when needed.MIDI Interface > Sound Module. There is a wide choice of sound modules . Drum sets, various percussion kits, bass and tuned percussion are among the available factory preset sounds that are built into many MIDI drum modules. . Some of these modules have multiple trigger inputs and may be the only thing you need besides your triggers, wood, and some cables. With a sampler, the variety of effects is as limited as the imagination, for one can sample any sound and play it back with one’s feet. Many keyboards of various prices have MIDI in and out and have desirable sounds with triggering potential. Some sound modules have the capability to change their sounds via “sound cards” and discs. A computer with MIDI ports and the correct software is the obvious choice for many artists.Sound Module > Amp. To hear the sound you are creating with your feet with all this fancy gear you will need a power amp or sound monitor of some sort, whether it be an instrument amplifier or the house P.A. via direct input boxes. For rehearsing, headphones may suffice.
Given sufficient interest, I will provide sequels to this initial article, covering some of the various technical considerations involved in this field. These may include design and construction of the electronic tap dance instrument or MIDI controller, note and voice programming, musical values, sampling, analog and digital effects, composition, choreographic effects, and other choices and technical hurdles that confront the tap synthesist.
Michael “Shoehorn” Conley is a tap dancing saxophone player. He has used his Tappercussion (TM) electronic tap dance instruments in performances and recordings since 1983. copyright 1999 Michael “Shoehorn” Conley
“e-tap” Electronic Tap, Part 2: WHY?by Michael “Shoehorn” ConleyAfter the tremendous volume of comment (mostly hate-mail!) generated by my last article, Volume 10, #4 [which by the way had its headline chopped- it should have read An Introduction to Electronic Tap:MIDI Triggering], I thought I should follow up on the “HOW-TO” information with a little more “WHY?”. I have tried to make clear that I feel electronic tap is no more than an enhancement and extension of the sounds of our pedal extremities that we cultivate and treasure.In the first article, I mentioned the various components of a tap dance MIDI controller, which is danced upon to play sounds with control of pitch and sound, like a synthesizer. I have been using various boards or “tap instruments” to dance on for years as a response to some of the inter-related issues cataloged below.Reasons why you might want to use electronic tap:1) Making the Gig There are lots of places to perform tap that don’t necessarily suggest themselves. Independence and portability can allow individual acts to work anywhere!2) Acoustic Tap It doesn’t have to sound “electronic”. I have simple pick-ups ( drum triggers) attached to my “tap instruments”, and 9 times out of 10 simply connect to the PA for a straight-up tap sound that can project the subtleties of my finely nuanced foot songs. My current set-up has a resonating chamber a couple inches deep and gives me a rich sound with or without electronics. Often it is merely a function of delivering the cleanest, pure tap sound that can hold it’s own in the mix.3) Merciless Floors- One of the more basic problems faced by performing tap artists is the lack of decent wooden dance floors to perform on. In my case, some performances take place on clean, hardwood theatre stages, but the summer festival stages and hotel ballroom and night club and restaurant floors are more often than not inadequate and even dangerous. In addition to poor resilience and miking problems, inconsistencies of the actual surface of the festival stage can make it impossible to get a good tap sound and the bounce in the boards can throw off one’s time and cause undue muscle fatigue.4) Funk- With funk, rock, r&b, and hip hop being important stylistic choices for hoofers to incorporate, we must tap at the same dynamic levels as the vocalists and other instrumentalists on stage. In the domain of electric guitars, basses and keyboards, not to mention microphones on drum kits, we deserve the support for our sound. You have to hear yourself, after all! With MIDI ,the vast array of sounds available include many “patches” suited to, or even created for, these genres.5) Ambient Tap I like to plug into the MIDI set-up for longer gigs or special shows to add variety and different tone colors. I also perform “ambient tap” occasionally to create a low-key percussive accompaniment to my other instruments when I work in art galleries, restaurants and private parties. This way I can cover a three hour job without being in the audience’s face the whole time. Of course I can “bring it home” with a splashy finish and get some applause at the end of each set.. I see this as empowerment for the artist. It is a way to perform tap in venues and contexts that tap was previously excluded from.6)The Younger Generation I have a young student who can go to a party with his teenage friends and wail with a rock band as a tap dancer. It may not be for the jazz purist, but it gives young dancers a chance to “blow” on their own terms, in the context of their own vernacular music. There is not nearly as much opportunity to perform in the traditional format we love so well. Electronics can give us the edge we need to attract fresh talent. Serious students and artists will always be drawn to the study of the jazz tap tradition because that is where the art form developed. After all, they’ll need to get some chops.7) Crossover- Stylistic divisions in popular music have been blurred. Witness the success of shows like Riverdance, where Celtic melodies ride Worldbeat rhythms played on African drums, blended with traditional European and electric instruments and sound processing.
8) Technique Transfer Electronic tap for an accomplished tap dancer is analogous to an electric keyboard for a trained pianist- a completely expanded palette of sounds played with the same technique already in place. Of course the feel and sensitivity are different, they don’t replace each other.The technology is really quite easy to deal with, and many ITA members can use it to spice up the recitals and programs that they present each season.9) Non-MIDI Musical Effects There are alot of other and often cheaper ways to use electronics on tap. Vintage 80s analog drum pads and effects can be found and various “stomp boxes” can split the signal, add reverb, echo, flanging and other sonic devices that may provide the sounds you want in your choreography.10) Non-Musical Applications The triggering technology could conceivably be used to control lighting effects or other multi-media devices, giving the performer unprecedented artistic autonomy.If use of these type of tap instruments does indeed find a place in the popular culture, it will attract more people to the dance and open up performing and teaching opportunities for many of us.I would like to include this caveat regarding tap instruments or dance boards. The range of movement can be severely restricted on the smaller ones. It is not necessary to be on top of the thing at all times. Indeed, that can be rather stifling. This limitation can be remedied by applying triggers to larger boards or sections of the stage, although “spill” (cross-triggering) can be a problem. I have simply adapted to the small area of my boards, (my smallest fits inside a large suitcase) heartened by the example of the late great Steve Condos, who amazed me with his daily hours of practice on a piece of wood even smaller than what I use.In conclusion, I hope at least that some ITA members will find this information useful; it is my deeper desire to someday witness the realization of the potential of this resource for the rhythm dancer. Peace and happiness to all in the coming century.
copyright 2000, Michael �Shoehorn� Conley
Michael “Shoehorn” Conley, tap dancing saxophone player, did over 180 shows in 1999. He has used his Tappercussion TM electronic tap dance instruments in performances and recordings since 1983.