New Karaoke Tech Helps the Pitch-Impaired

ByAmanda Onion

Jan. 27, 2003 -- Peter Parker remembers when he and other karaoke singers queued up their songs on eight-track tapes.

Those were the early, innocent days of belting out songs in front of complete strangers. Now technology is making the whole affair a little smoother — and a little less embarrassing. (Just a little.)

"Everything has changed," says Parker, who has no relation to the Spiderman character but is publisher of Karaoke Scene Magazine, the Cypress, Calif.-based magazine devoted to the fine art of karaoke. "And I think that is accounting for its vast popularity."

Amateur Crooning Boom

According to the International Music Products Association, sales of karaoke machines in the United States jumped 79 percent in the past year, reaching 1.1 million units. In Style magazine selected karaoke, which began in a Japanese bar in 1971, as one of its "hot new trends" for 2003.

Singing with piped in background has gotten even more attention recently with the popularity of talent search shows like "American Idol" and "Star Search."

Also behind the boom are a series of technological tricks that help prod wavering egos into the spotlight.

Perhaps most useful, is pitch-correcting technology.

Help for the Pitch-Deprived

If you have trouble reaching the high notes, or all the notes, for that matter, this feature detects the off notes and then overrides your singing with an on-key note of your own digitally processed voice.

"The feature works in real time," explains Ed Pearson, sales director of IVL Technologies, a high-end audio firm based in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada that offers the feature in its home karaoke unit. "It plays your voice back in 3 milliseconds — there's no perceivable delay."

The technology has been used by professional singers in the studio and in live performances for more than 10 years. IVL's sister company, TC-Helicon provides this equipment for the pros, although Pearson says he's not at liberty to reveal which artists depend on it.

Funky Features

IVL's home unit ($69.99) can also lend your voice the robotic, electronic keyboard sound as heard in Cher's "Believe" and Madonna's "Die Another Day." That feature combines pitch correction technology with a so-called vocoder effect. Together they modulate the notes your voice sings and transforms its sound as if it were a musical instrument.

Another feature takes a singer's digitally processed voice and uses it to provide simultaneous harmony. So while crooning those Backstreet Boy or 'N Sync songs, you can sound like you're backed up by a group.

If you're a man but want to sing a number by, say, Shania Twain, you can press a button that transforms your voice to make it sound like a woman's. The opposite is available for women singers.

"Some people find that one disturbing," says Pearson.

And for those who want to go all out, Singing Machine's MTV Karaoke Vision ($99) includes a camera for making your own music videos.

Karaoke Reality Show

These kinds of bells and whistles can make karaoke more entertaining, but Parker argues the core entertainment factor remains the same — the thrill of singing in front of a crowd. That's why he says the best innovations in karaoke technology are those that simply offer better backup sound and make it easier to select songs.

"It may have been a Japanese idea first," he says. "But I think karaoke is a truly American concept. Nothing else puts a doctor next to a janitor talking about their latest take on a Frank Sinatra song."

It may have been this kind of equalizing quality that inspired the music cable channel VH1 to produce a special about the lives of up and coming karaoke stars as they prepare for the mother of all karaoke contests: Karaoke Fest. The documentary, which Parker describes as "riveting," will air in March.

In the meantime, technology ensures that less talented singers need not fear the mic.

"Some may call it cheating, but it's good to have these technologies," says Parker. "These are not professional people."

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