Karaoke Myth #1 – Karaoke music is cheap and easy to make

Dragon

There are many things about karaoke that are not well-understood by the fine folks that love to sing it, and even more misunderstood by the ones that don’t. In an ongoing series, we’re here to help you sort out the myths from the facts.

Karaoke Myth #1 – Karaoke music is cheap and easy to make.

People who embrace this myth may have been exposed to the worst that karaoke has to offer: the MIDI recording, or the “vocal eliminator”. These two have done more to damage the reputation of karaoke than all the drunks in Singapore.

MIDI and Karaoke

Let’s start with the first disaster: MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface, and it’s been a fantastic tool for musicians since it was first standardized back in 1983.

One excellent use of MIDI is to use one instrument (say, a keyboard) to trigger “samples” of other instruments, in a way that synthesizes some of the original sound the sampled instrument might have made. This handy trick has allowed many innovative developments in music, and in some cases has become an instrument in its own right.

The trouble with this approach for creating top-notch karaoke is two-fold. First, one must have very high quality samples to work from. If you’re trying to replicate the sound of a string orchestra or  a brass band, you’d better have some terrific samples or you’re going to churn out something akin to the sound of an eighties-era video game.

Secondly, the dynamics of playing a keyboard are completely different from the dynamics of a violin, guitar, or saxophone. Even if you have a perfect-sounding sample of one of these instruments,you’ll never replicate the way those instruments are played without actually recording the real thing.

Flooding the Market with Garbage

Using some smart MIDI tools, it’s possible for an individual (usually a keyboard player) to rough out a cheesy simulation of a song in only a few minutes, then push it onto the unsuspecting masses via YouTube or what-have-you.

Some karaoke systems that are sold pre-loaded with “thousands” of songs are often chock-full of these travesties. Why would a reputable karaoke company foist these pale imitations off on their loyal customers? Well, one advantage is that they are extremely cheap (and you get what you pay for). It looks good on your sales brochure when you can say you’ve included one hundred thousand songs with every karaoke deck, at a price point under $200 US.

The “Good Enough” Effect

Some music industry observers have opined that consumers are evolving towards a “good enough” viewpoint: as long as it’s cheap and easily obtained, quality becomes a secondary (or absent) factor. They point to the rise of the compressed MP3 format, which discards parts of the music that you can’t actually hear, utilizing a branch of science called “psychoacoustics“, and the near-ubiquity of the low-quality earbud as evidence that today’s consumers aren’t as concerned about high-quality recordings as they may have been in the past.

However, few who have heard one of those horrible MIDI travesties will want to sing to it, when there’s a high-quality version within easy reach.

Worst Product Name Ever

Another type of technology you may have been exposed to is the “vocal eliminator”. This is a horribly-misnamed type of software that analyzes a music file, then modifies it to try and eliminate the vocals. If you’ve tried one of these programs, you’ll already know that they rarely work to completely remove the vocals, and they have other undesirable effects.

When these programs analyze your song, they look at the left and right stereo signals to see what sounds are present in both. Since vocals are usually mixed into both the left and right channels, these sounds will typically include some of the singing. The program will then use a type of phase cancellation to take out the sounds that are present in both channels at the same time.

Here’s the problem with that: all of the vocal information is not usually present in both channels at once. There’s almost always some vocal effect, whether it be echo, reverb, chorus or something else, that’s not applied equally to both stereo channels. And that leaves vocal sounds behind after the “vocal eliminator” has finished.

Further, the software doesn’t distinguish between vocals or any other kind of sound – it works indiscriminately on any sound it finds in both channels at once. So if the sound engineer put the snare drum (or anything else) in both channels (and he or she probably did), you could find yourself listening to a song without a downbeat.

But thanks to “vocal eliminator” marketing efforts, there’s now a sizable number of people in the world who think that karaoke is made by just running the original recording through a software program. What could be easier, right?

Crafting The Real Thing

The truth is, recording and releasing high-quality karaoke is in many ways harder than recording an original song. The best karaoke labels bring in highly skilled musicians, because they are absolutely necessary.

Remember, an original artist playing his or her own tune is rocking out in their own style. A karaoke musician, whether on piano, guitar, bass, drums, mandolin, cello, etc. must not only be able to play that artist’s style, but the styles of hundreds of others as well. That’s a tall order for even the best “cover” musicians.

Plus, the studio engineer must use all the tricks at his or her disposal to capture the same sound as the original, which includes the size, shape and building materials of the room where it was recorded, the make and model of the instruments, effects boxes and amplifiers that were used, and much more. For instance, while recording a particular song, the engineer must find a way to replicate the sound of a 1970’s era Fender fretless Precision, with La Bella flatwound strings, playing through a Crybaby wah pedal, into a Peavey 350-watt amplifier, then into a ported cabinet pushing four ten-inch woofers. And that’s just the bass guitar!

Do you think there’s a button the engineer can press labelled “Fender fretless Precision” and have that instrument’s dynamics flow effortlessly from the studio monitors? Technology that allows studios to model specific instruments, amps and effects has come a long way in recent years, but it’s far from perfect, and once you start layering those models on top of one another, it can get very tricky very fast.

All of this attention to detail adds up in terms of costs. If you want people with superior skills, you have to be willing to pay for them, and that drives up the costs of recording the music.

Distribution and Licensing

And let’s not forget about the costs of distributing karaoke. Remember that karaoke is two things put together: the instrumental music and the lyric wipe. That makes karaoke a video product, with its own special problems when it comes to distribution. Video files are much larger than straight audio files, which makes them more expensive to distribute, whether you’re doing it on old-fashioned physical media or over the internet.

Finally, you’ve got the licensing, which adds a whole other layer of costs to karaoke music. Those onscreen lyrics that keep you from losing your place (or help you figure out what words were sung in the first place) not only add to the cost of production, they require a special type of licensing called “video synchronization“.  Unlike licensing a simple cover version, video sync is a bear to administer, and not one of those cute cuddly bears, either. A big, nasty bear with grizzly hair, wicked talons and a snout full of huge sharp teeth ready to bite your torso in half, that’s sync licensing.

So the next time you’re belting your heart out at karaoke, have a thought for just what went into crafting that excellent rendition that you’ll have forgotten a few minutes after you’ve finished singing. It takes a great deal of time, effort and expertise to produce a great karaoke version. And that’s no myth.

2 thoughts on “Karaoke Myth #1 – Karaoke music is cheap and easy to make

  1. Getting a little too technical for the average bear, there! As a karaoke host and enthusiast and a songwriter to boot, I certainly understand the dilemma of the karaoke manufacturers. And it is most certainly true that MIDI and voice elimination are two techniques that have hurt karaoke and its reputation over the years.

    It seems, from what I’ve heard, that the european way of licensing is much more user friendly. It pains me to think that 535 legislators can screw something up so badly by making copyrights different from synchro rights and making government too powerful and hence more expensive for everybody concerned.

    I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but if the original recordings were used with the lead vocals removed (think Taylor Swift), there would be a lot less mouths to feed in the karaoke food chain. And there would be a lot less rights and wrongs (pun intended) in the music industry.

    • Mr. G., thank you for the insightful post. I believe you have hit upon several key aspects that the industry is saddled with. Id like to take them one at a time.

      the european way of licensing is much more user friendly

      You’re right – in most of the rest of the world, karaoke can be licensed through a compulsory license, meaning that the publisher must grant the license as long as you pay a standard, level fee. Not only is that in stark contrast to the USA, but it also means that karaoke companies abroad have a very significant competitive advantage over companies based in the USA. They can release a huge number of songs that are flat out unavailable to USA companies (see the post here on the “No-Fly List), from some of the most popular artists/songwriters, and can do so at a lower cost.

      It pains me to think that 535 legislators can screw something up so badly by making copyrights different from synchro rights and making government too powerful and hence more expensive for everybody concerned.

      Don’t forget to heap some blame on the judge who ruled in ABKCO v Stellar. While the legislature could conceivably change the landscape with the stroke of a pen, that case should have been appealed on merits. From what I’ve heard, the company in question didn’t have the wherewithal to do so at the time.

      if the original recordings were used with the lead vocals removed (think Taylor Swift), there would be a lot less mouths to feed in the karaoke food chain.

      That’s precisely correct, and is probably one of the “dirty little secrets” of the industry. However, Taylor is a special case, in that she refuses to forget the kinds of things that put her on the map to start with (we salute her “dance with who brung ya” attitude, BTW). The vast majority of the “professional” music world doesn’t understand karaoke, or views it as simply too small a market to fool with. In many ways, they’re right – most songs don’t recoup their production costs from a karaoke perspective, although that’s true for “regular” music as well. But as you’ve no doubt divined, releasing a stereo mix of the original sessions would be a trivial task for the original label. Perhaps they don’t want to go through the horrors of securing sync licensing either, and I can’t say I would blame them if they took a pass on it.

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