Saturday, December 18, 2010

So you want to karaoke?

My brother recently turned 28, and he had one request from me. He didn't ask for presents or car parts -- all he wanted was to have karaoke at his party.

Extreme Karaoke

While I love my brother, I wasn't about to spend several hundred dollars to rent or buy a karaoke machine, so like any self-reliant nerd, I turned to the Internet.

I already owned a PA system. I guess that's the upside to having spent a previous decade of my life pretending to be a rock star. However, all you need is a portable computer and a stereo or good set of speakers to pull off a karaoke hack. For the other rockers out there, it's really easy to plug the computer into a stereo and repurpose your guitar amp with a microphone. However, the more microphones you can offer people, the better participation you get, so even a cheap four-slider mixer from Radio Shack can quadruple the fun.

Friends in low places

Of course, you have to have microphones and mic cables to match, so if you're on a serious budget maybe one mic is enough. You can also repurpose USB mics or headsets from Xbox to work through the computer if that's all you've got.

When trying to find software to run the karaoke, I had three requirements in mind.
1. It had to have a search function.
2. It would allow me to use dual monitors, so I could queue songs on one screen and have the lyrics maximized on the other screen.
3. It had to be stable.

I tested five different programs on my Windows 7 machine: Kjams Lite, Kjams Pro, Karafun, Walleoke, and Karaoke5.

Right away, Walleoke failed the stability test. It was off the list.

Kjams Lite/Pro shows promise. It is designed to mirror iTunes, so it has a familiar layout. Searching songs is easy and the lyrics show up in a separate window that can be put on a second screen. It would be perfect for the home karaoke enthusiast ... IF it was stable. Both the Lite and Pro versions crashed like crazy. They also had many features in the menus that just hadn't been written yet. Allegedly the Mac version works great, so if you're on an Apple, try it out. Unfortunately, it's just not up to par yet on PC.

Karafun was solid. It didn't allow two screens, but it keeps the program management small and maximizes the lyrics area. It was also the first program I tested that didn't crash every other click. However, it had no search function. That would be fine if guests were only scrolling through 10 or 15 songs, but I had compiled a library of over 5,000 karaoke hits for the event. You can't scroll through 5,000 songs.

Karaoke5 was impressively advanced. It had much better sounding MIDI instruments for the horrid MIDI versions of songs that show up in so many karaoke libraries. It also had full tone and speed control, so when the singer is killing you softly, you can take the song down a couple steps for them. Karaoke5 also allows playlists, queuing, announces the next singer, compiles and prints off your song database -- all sorts of functions that the professional karaoke DJ would need. However, to access the feature which allows the use of a second screen for the lyrics, you have to register and buy the full version. I was actually interested in doing this except that the programmer is Italian and not so good wit da English, no? Trying to buy the full version of Karaoke5 is a nightmare that starts with a paypal link and ends with very unclear instructions that have something to do with a dedicated USB drive that must always be plugged into the computer where you're using Karaoke5. Plus, it's about $200.

After a week of searching for the perfect Karaoke program, I finally gave up and went with the free version of Karaoke5. Despite all the features, it was still light enough to run on my netbook, which can't support a second monitor anyway. We simply clicked back and forth between the search box and the lyrics box all night and nobody seemed to mind.

So what about songs? All of these karaoke programs use two main file types, .kar or .mp3 paired with a .cdg file, which contains the lyrics. Using Vuze, I was able to find more than 5,000 songs available via bit torrent. I know, the legality is questionable, but it was for a one-night stand. I’m not taking this karaoke show on the road. Nor will I ever even listen to all those karaoke files again. I wanted the hard drive space back. They’re now free as a bird, or dust in the wind, or something like that.

When downloading or purchasing music, I highly recommend going the .mp3 and .cdg route. That gives you real music. Most, if not all, of the .kar files are terrible-sounding MIDI tracks. However, sometimes that can add to the cheesiness of the party, especially if you have an 80s theme going. Of course, if your friends are inebriated enough, they won’t really care.

KaraFun also makes an editor that allows you to strip the vocal track from an MP3 and create a lyrics file for it. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy to use, and as you probably guessed, the results are pretty mediocre. You still hear the vocal track, it’s just kind of quiet. However, if you really need that perfect Usher song to initiate some love in the club, that’s the easiest way to make it happen.

Hope this helps. Happy singing!
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