Karaoke is a relatively small but rapidly growing segment of the music-production business. According to one software manufacturer, the market for karaoke products (hardware, software, and recordings) grew from roughly $1 billion in 2000 to $15 billion in 2003. If you have a personal or a project recording studio, catering to that market could improve your studio's profitability. Producing karaoke CDs involves either turning out one-offs for artists and other specialty users or creating masters for volume replication.
Virtually every form of music with vocals has found its way onto a karaoke disc. Everyone has heard the discs being used in karaoke bars, where the music roars from the speakers, song lyrics appear in sync on a giant TV screen, and wannabe singers dreaming of stardom warble into a microphone. The bad news for musicians is that a KJ (karaoke jockey), like a DJ, costs a bar owner less than a live band. The good news is that studio owners can still profit from this relatively new frontier. You can find work arranging and performing the music, mixing and editing the tracks, and creating master CDs with the special software (currently available only for Windows) and hardware that the format requires.
If you use standard studio gear and editing tools to process and mix tracks that fit karaoke's vocal requirements, you can use CD+G (compact disc plus graphics) authoring software to record karaoke discs. You can sell your services to others or use them to turn your own music into reproducible, marketable karaoke discs.
PLAYING THE MARKET
The market for karaoke CDs is generally limited to KJs and to home enthusiasts who have karaoke parties or use the discs to teach and entertain children. Despite relatively few customers, however, making the discs is still a potential source of income. For small record companies, selling hundreds or a few thousand copies of a disc with low production costs can be profitable. Karaoke discs typically offer fewer songs at higher-than-average prices. Discs containing from five to eight songs, each between three and five minutes long, are most common. The CDs are often packaged in multidisc sets at prices approaching $100.
Although sales volume is building rapidly, the karaoke market is not yet big enough to be a part of the traditional record-distribution system. Karaoke CDs are sold through specialty distributors and dealers that also sell pro- and home-karaoke equipment. Manufacturers also sell discs direct to users. You can find such outlets by searching under “karaoke records” on the Web. If you choose to create and duplicate karaoke CDs, those dealers and manufacturers are your potential wholesale customers. You can sell direct if you have your own Web page, and you can find additional customers on Internet newsgroups like alt.karaoke.music.
The market appears to be growing. Major retailers like Target, KMart, and Radio Shack carry low-cost karaoke players along with a few companion (mostly children's and party) CDs. A strong indicator that the market will expand is illustrated by a record distribution deal struck in early 2004. Warner Brothers has agreed to distribute karaoke CDs produced by a company called The Singing Machine, the largest U.S. maker of karaoke equipment and discs.
Although karaoke-CD production and marketing may become more formal and dominated by high-volume manufacturers, three factors make karaoke production an option for studio owners to consider. First, a small producer of discs can still deal directly with buyers at specialty stores. Second, a producer can take a demo (and, if necessary, someone to sing along with it) into a karaoke bar, and the KJ will probably be delighted to audition the work and gauge the audience's reaction. Third, for a while at least, any studio that is equipped to burn karaoke CDs will have a competitive service advantage over one that isn't.
TECHNICAL AND LEGAL
Invented by Philips NV in Holland and developed primarily by Phillips, Sony, Pioneer, and JVC, the technical standard that makes karaoke possible is an extension of the Red Book specification for burning audio CDs. The extension governs the creation of compact discs in CD+G format, which enables simultaneous recording and playback of music (WAV or MP3), text (TXT), and graphics (BMP or JPEG) files.
Karaoke discs contain music and images, but a karaoke CD+G disc is neither an audio CD nor a standard CD-ROM. Preparing the music file for a karaoke CD involves the same production tools used to make any other recording. The musical arrangements are written to support individual singers, and the final stereo mix is recorded with no lead vocals.
Karaoke disc producers sometimes use vocal-suppression processing on the original hit recording. In theory, this process leaves bass, highs, and overtones intact so that a shell of the original instrumental chart remains. (The two software programs that I'll describe later include vocal removers.) Vocal suppression is not always possible or completely effective, however. The degree of success depends upon factors such as the level of the vocal in the original mix, the frequency range of the singer's voice, and whether the source material was originally in stereo or in mono.
Although most karaoke productions are remakes of songs that are already pop hits, a karaoke arrangement must not violate copyright law. In the United States, anyone who wants to record any published song can legally do so with or without the approval of the copyright owner by obtaining a compulsory license (usually through the Harry Fox Agency) and paying the statutory royalties set by the congressionally mandated Copyright Tribunal. But compulsory licenses do not cover the charts, and most owners of the arrangements of original hits will not sell or license them and cannot be compelled to do so. Legitimate karaoke producers write or commission their own arrangements (which are sound-alikes but not outright copies) to avoid copyright infringement. Consequently, vocal suppression isn't always an ideal solution.
When the karaoke producer owns all the intellectual property rights to a song, its lyrics, and the charts, however, legal and ethical questions are no longer issues. Of course, singing new original material might not appeal to the average nonprofessional singer in a karaoke bar, but a CD+G disc of original music might come in handy for a performer doing a track date at a dance club or another venue equipped with a professional karaoke player.
THE PRICE IS RIGHT
Less than five years ago, software to create CD+G karaoke discs sold for $15,000 or more. Two software suites that currently sell for less than $200 are the only commercially produced and supported programs I have found. They appear to be among the music industry's best-kept secrets.
Karaoke technology was invented and developed by major consumer-electronics firms, but none of those giant corporations openly market the software necessary to create CD+G masters. In the United States, that job has been left to two relatively small companies — Dartech Inc. (DART) and Micro Technologies Unlimited (MTU). Both produce programs that assemble music, lyrics, and graphics into a composite file. Downloadable demo versions of the software are available on each company's Web site. I tried out the most recent versions on a PC running Windows 98SE, equipped with an Athlon/1.6 GHz and 512 MB of RAM.
KARAOKE STUDIO CD+G
You can download DART Karaoke Studio CD+G (Win, $199.95; currently version 4.1.6) from Dartech's Web site, or you can order a copy on CD-ROM for $10 more. You can also download a fully functional trial-period demo package. DART Karaoke Studio CD+G contains several interacting components, including a basic version of the company's standalone disc-burning software, CD Recorder 4.1.
Karaoke Studio CD+G runs on Windows 98 or later and requires a 350 MHz CPU, 16 MB of RAM, and 1.2 GB of temporary hard-drive space to store the composite file for each 74-minute (maximum) CD. A sound card and a suitable CD-RW drive (more on this later) are also required.
The program's Wizard imports WAV or MP3 files for music, and TXT files for lyrics. In addition, it collects title, writer credit, and miscellaneous notes such as copyright information. (The graphics files are added later.) Karaoke Studio CD+G's Wizard is intuitive and easy to learn and use, but you can bypass it using optional file-opening and importing features.
To import lyrics, you prepare them as a standard text file with any word processor. Capitalization and punctuation should be used to match the vocal and musical phrasing. Although the program will wrap long lines, the best practice is to divide phrases in such a way that lines contain no more than six or eight words (depending on word length) to make it easier for singers to read from the video display.
You can manually synchronize words and music in the Karaoke Author window that comes up when you exit the Wizard screen, creating a DAX file containing those newly coordinated elements (see Fig. 1). The object of synchronization is to enable successive lines of lyrics to be displayed on screen by either scrolling or repainting the screen, and to enable either individual words or whole lines of lyrics to change color just before they are to be sung.
As the music WAV or MP3 file is imported, its stereo waveform is displayed. Standard waveform selection and zooming tools are available. The imported lyrics appear in a window below the waveforms. You synchronize music and lyrics by playing the music and watching the lyric display. At every point in the music that corresponds to a word, you tap the computer keyboard Spacebar and a vertical “flagpole” marks the waveforms in both channels.
At the top and attached to each flagpole, the lyric word or line appears as a horizontal banner, or “flag.” Poles and flags can be manually adjusted to correct for any mistiming of the Spacebar keystroke and then locked in position. Because the waveform can be magnified to any desired level of detail, you can move and position the flags precisely. As you're placing the flags using the Spacebar keystrokes, they are positioned on the waveform at a spot just before the word is to be sung. The exact position is variable in milliseconds; the factory default is 100 ms. This pre-positioning feature compensates for the lag between the moment the word changes color and the time the singer can react. Commercial karaoke discs typically include two separate tracks of each song — one with and one without the lead vocal audio. Both display the lyrics when played. The object is to give entertainers the opportunity to learn the song by singing along before attempting it solo.
For $14.95, you can upgrade the basic DART CD Recorder program to provide vocal removal and some rudimentary audio-editing capabilities. It includes tools for creating WAV files from MIDI or sound-card input, applying DirectX effects, equalizing, fading in and out, and compressing WAV files to WMA format. The bulk of the file massaging will usually have been done earlier, before the music and lyrics are assembled into a DKX file, but these tools may well prove handy.
A NEW GENERATION
Although Karaoke Studio CD+G will work on compressed MP3 files, WAV files are preferred. Obviously, the WAV or MP3 file imported into the Authoring window should be a finished mix. Any audio editing must be done to the source WAV file; the final binary file from which a CD is burned cannot be edited. When you exit the Authoring window, the program automatically creates an intermediate DKX file containing the composite words and music and saves it to your computer's hard drive.
Selecting the Generate CD Track command accesses the Generate CD+G Track window, in which final assembly of all music, text, and graphic images takes place (see Fig. 2). If this window is accessed just after a song has been synced, that song will be brought up for processing. If a previous project is being reopened, the DKX file for that project can be called up instead.
Once the appropriate DKX file is in place, you can specify what kind of file you want the program to generate. The choices are to create either BIN files, which contain the fully assembled music, graphics, and text that are to be recorded as a karaoke CD, or CD+G files, which contain all the graphics data and assembly code associated with the project, but no music.
If CD+G files have the same name as MP3 or WAV files and both sets of files are on the same CD or in the same folder, then they can be played in sync on any computer equipped with CD+G player software (but not on karaoke machines). The BIN files are fully playable with word display and music on professional and home karaoke machines and on computers with the DART program installed.
Other options in the Generate CD+G Track window include selecting how many lines of lyrics will appear on the performance television screen at the same time. Another option is to choose whether the onscreen words will be scrolled or repainted as the song progresses. You can select whether lines will be justified left, center, or right. You can also choose the color of words or lines.
The Generate CD+G Track window screen also allows for the insertion and preview of introduction and ending BMG or JPEG graphic images such as the logo of a record company. In addition, you can insert and preview textual material such as song titles, key signatures, songwriters' names, and copyright notices. There's also a provision to insert silence so that the music doesn't play until after the brief introductory logo display.
Finally, you can specify that as soon as the final composite BIN file is created, it will be played back by the CD+G Player program (see Fig. 3). At that point, the OK button starts the assembly and file-making process.
AUDITION AND BURN
The CD+G Player screen has the same transport and track-selection features as an ordinary computer CD player. It also displays a simulated television screen on which the lyrics and graphics are reproduced, just as they would be on a performance karaoke machine. Despite its name, the Player subprogram cannot read commercially available karaoke discs or discs created by the DART software.
If the playback performance is satisfactory, your next step is to burn the karaoke CD. If the playback doesn't meet your needs, then you can go back and revise the original source files and repeat the steps in the generation process.
At this point, your computer's hard drive will contain as many as seven files for each song: the music; the lyric text; the initial composite DKX file; the intro and ending logo files; a CD+G file; and the final, fully assembled binary (BIN) file. The binary file is the one that will be burned to disc, but standard CD-recording software such as Ahead Software Nero or Roxio CD Creator cannot correctly burn a karaoke disc; it must be burned with the CD Recorder program included in the DART package (see Fig. 4). When this program is started or called from a menu button, a page will appear in which all the songs to be recorded on a new CD can be imported from their resident folders and placed in the desired order on a drag-and-drop list.
When all of the desired song processing has been completed and the track list has been compiled, the final step before starting the burn is to set the recording speed. As I'll discuss later in more detail, karaoke disc burning is a tricky process that is more likely to succeed at the slowest speed available (typically 4X).
When the resulting karaoke disc is examined with Windows Explorer or other disk-management software, the file names will have CDA suffixes like other audio CDs. That transformation is necessary because no CD-ROM drives or players, including karaoke players, recognize BIN files as audio files. It is technically possible to record the binary files that DART software creates to a CD using Roxio or Nero software, and the BIN suffixes will show up on a Windows Explorer examination, but the discs will not play in either conventional audio-CD or karaoke players.
MTU KARAOKE SUITE 4
Micro Technology Unlimited (MTU) offers a four-piece software suite called Karaoke Suite 4 (Win; $138.95 for download; $150.95 on CD-ROM). As of this writing, Karaoke Home Producer 4.103 creates CD+G files; Vogone 2.210 eliminates vocals; Keyrite 1.400 manages pitch change; and Microstudio 2.517 drives the karaoke CD burner. The vocal removal and pitch-change components are standalone products, whereas the creation and burning software are interdependent.
Karaoke Home Producer (KHP) anticipates that you will have all the necessary files in final form before embarking on a CD-recording project. The program doesn't offer detailed audio and image editing. Lyric text files should be prepared with singer phrasing, font size, and visible text lines in mind. A provision for creating simple text and graphics for the opening and closing credits is included, but fancier creations will need external programs.
When you start KHP, a plain vanilla screen with a Windows Explorer — style frame appears for selecting the TXT-file lyrics (which will fill the blank screen immediately) and the WAV audio file (see Fig. 5). When both files are loaded, a single Place Lyrics button will appear. Pressing it will access the Adjust Lyrics screen and display the lyrics in reversed type (see Fig. 6). The first word in the lyric will be underlined, and when you press the now-visible Start button or the Spacebar, music playback will begin.
When playback starts, tapping the Spacebar in time with the music moves the underscore from word to word and fixes the point at which a color change will occur. There is no option for line-by-line rather than word-by-word color change.
For correcting errors, you can tweak the timing of individual words in the Adjust Lyrics window. You can set a playback loop for any number of words before and after the one to be corrected, and four buttons will move the starting point and duration of the color sweep for the word. The color-shift effect will be seen as the music loops. This arrangement lets you select and play individual words and sections for precise timing.
Lyric font selection and graphics management are handled on a clear, easy-to-understand Song Settings page that you access from KHP's Edit menu (see Fig. 7). You can import images for the song's intro and closing credits in a variety of formats, including BMP, JPEG, PNG, and TIF, and you can set how long they will appear on screen.
Closing the KHP program creates a KPR file that can be reopened and edited. The KPR file contains the lyrics and the coded instructions for assembling the music, the text, and the graphics. You can play this file only from within the program.
When the synchronization process is finished, a single command in the File menu creates and exports a fully assembled CD+G file of the song, which you can play in an onscreen replication of a karaoke machine. The CD+G file is also the one from which CDs are burned using Microstudio.
Microstudio is a standalone program that you open by clicking on its desktop icon (see Fig. 8). The opening menu provides access to the controls for drive speed (6X is the maximum recommended), caching, and jitter. Toolbar buttons call up other screens for importing the CD+G files (either from the hard drive or a CD), devocalizing, pitch change, and creating a savable playlist that puts the tracks in the desired order for recording. When the playlist is ready, pushing the Write button burns the CD. The write process begins with no warning, and if it is interrupted the disc is spoiled. The finished disc is automatically ejected, and the CD+G tracks will have CDA file name extensions.
BURN, BABY, BURN
Most CD-RW drives are incapable of burning CD+G discs because they do not have internal firmware that recognizes files containing the graphics extensions to the Red Book standard. Some older drives capable of writing CD+G files with earlier software are listed on the DART Web site, but they might not work with the new software described here. Drive manufacturers traded off the CD+G burn feature in later drives to accommodate the firmware requirements of new CD-R/RW and DVD+R/-R/+RW/-RW multifunction drives.
Specifications for several new drives list CD+G file compatibility but do not always reveal whether a drive is limited to read-only capabilities. Old CD-RW drives might not work with DART or MTU software, and buyers need to be careful in selecting a new drive. Be sure the specs state that the drive reads and writes CD+G and BIN files. All CD-ROM drives will play the audio from karaoke discs, but very few will play the graphics files, even when the computer is equipped with demodulating software.
DART advises that the only drives now in production that work with its current software are those offered by Plextor America, which traditionally has made drives for professional applications. According to Plextor, the company's drives have black trays to reduce optical jitter effects and provisions for future firmware updates via download. I used a Plextor PlexWriter 48/24/48A while testing the software and media discussed in this article. Most but not all Plextor drives support CD+G read and write; check the specifications before you buy a drive. Although Plextor drives contain the technology to prevent buffer underrun, as well as a PowerRec feature that automatically selects the optimum recording speed for conventional CD burns, DART strongly recommends a manual burn setting of 4X.
MTU recommends a rate no higher than 6X. It also recommends only its own karaoke-certified CD-ROM drives. The company's software worked with the PlexWriter, however, and I did not test an MTU drive.
Not all discs are created equal, and not even the Plextor drive can successfully burn all brands. You'll need to test discs from each batch you buy, as formulations are constantly changing. Plextor recommends Verbatim discs; DART has tested and recommends Kodak and Fuji. MTU recommends only its own branded discs. Both companies caution against using “audio” or rewritable discs, because they simply don't work.
FREEDOM OF CHOICE
I used software programs from both companies that were the most recent versions in January 2004. Each one exhibited minor bugs that were corrected during the course of writing this article. DART had by far the better tech support.
Karaoke Studio CD+G and Karaoke Suite 4 both use copy-protection schemes designed to prevent sharing. Every MTU program installation (even from the CD) demands a direct or indirect (via floppy disk) Internet connection, requires personal information, and compels acceptance of a secrecy agreement. It also limits the number of times the software can be installed and on how many machines. I found this mechanism to be irritating and intrusive.
A discrepancy exists between the two products in how the final files are named. DART calls the file containing the composite music, text, and graphics a BIN file; MTU calls it a CD+G file. Apparently, there's no industry standard.
The DART and MTU software accomplish the core job of creating discs that can be played in home and commercial karaoke machines. Both programs are complex and can lead to some frustration and spoiled discs before you have mastered the entire production process. The two products demand some manual dexterity for the word-by-word music synchronization (DART's line-by-line option is a plus). Assuming that the basic music, text, and graphics files are ready to go, with practice you should be able to process one song to prepare it for recording in a half hour or less.
Even assuming that you have to buy a new CD-ROM burner, either program will give you a foot in the door of a fast-growing business for far less than the cost of one good microphone. And the great part is that you can keep fussy, off-pitch vocalists out of your studio and in the bars where they belong.
Will Connellyleads the River Liffey Saloon Jazz Band in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and has produced records, concerts, and television. Special thanks to Nancy Franks, a South Florida KJ who helped test CDs created with DART and MTU software.
Plextor America tel. (800) 886-3935; Web www.plextor.com