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SINGING MACHINES

Take over the lead vocals with your favorite band.


BY RON GOLDBERG
The adoring crowd clamors its appreciation as you step up to the microphone.
After a moment, the intro swells in---thats your cue. Before you know it, youre
belting out your favorite number, with a backup band of top musicians providing the
accompaniment. It all sounds like one of those idle afternoon fantasies, but
somehow, youve really doing it.
This illusion of grandeur comes courtesy of karaoke, a Japanese
entertainment craze thats slowly making its way into the American mainstream.
Loosely translated as empty orchestra, karaoke is a technology that brings the
music minus one instrument concept to its logical extreme. The performer sings
behind prerecorded instrumental tracks, often receiving a helping hand from some
vocal enhancement circuitry. Remembering the lyrics is never a problem because
theyre displayed on a video monitor and highlighted in time to the music.
Karaoke made its U.S. debut in the late 1980s, first appearing in sushi bars
and watering holes frequented by Japanese patrons. The concept was already a hit
in its native country. But something about karaoke is obviously beginning to click on
this side of the Pacific. Not only are karaoke bars springing up everywhere, but the
technology is now being marketed directly to consumers.
In its early incarnations, consumer karaoke came in the form of portable tapebased systems packaged with an internal amplifier, a microphone and sometimes a
second tape well for recording the sung performances. These consumer karaoke
systems, however, have been largely superseded by optical media, with software
provided on both laserdisc and CD+G (compact disc plus graphics) discs. The
advantages of these digitally based systems are obvious: instant song access, highfidelity and the addition of Digital Signal Processing (DSP) for the instrumental
tracks as well as the vocals.
The versatility of these DSP functions has helped many nervous karaoke
novice get more fun out of the experience by polishing up an otherwise raw
performance. For example, a feature called key control digitally raises or lowers
the key of the current song in musical half- or quarter-step increments. This can be
applied to either the instrumental tracks or the vocals, and because the effect is
done digitally, it works without slowing or speeding up the songs tempo.
Reverberation, equalization and echo are also available on several of the current
laserdisc and CD+G karaoke players. When used subtly, these can fill a thin vocal
performance with a rich feeling of ambience. When used with a heavier hand, they
can provide exaggerated, spacey effects. One of the more clever DSP functions to
find its way into the karaoke market is harmonizing, a technique often used in
professional recording studios. By analyzing the fundamental key being sung, a
harmonizer can synthesize 2- or 3- part harmony and layer them over the live vocal.
DSP also allows you to manipulate audio signals to perform various
psychoacoustic tricks. One of the most common DSP effects is the re-creation of
different room ambiences, ranging from a small jazz club to a full arena. This audio
sleight of hand is achieved by playing with the signals left/right phase information
and adding various amounts of time delay.