Highlights of 2020: Karaoke!

I’ve always loved to sing, I have moments of greatness even, and I’m known never to pass up an opportunity to crank up a karaoke machine. We spent New Years Eve 2019 at Panama City Beach, Florida, for a short few days. The bar across the street from our condominium had karaoke nights and I wasn’t going to miss another chance to perform. This is the same place I sang with my extended family a year earlier. It was raining that night and the wait was long but we got in for food and drinks and then made our way over to the karaoke area where many of us belted out tunes for mainly our own enjoyment and that of anyone else who cared to care.

Earlier in the fall of 2019, Kelly and I had made a trip to Nashville where we stopped into a karaoke bar near downtown. I performed a few songs and did okay but flubbed a few, too. It made me feel that if I was going to do this I needed to do it right. This thought began to grow in my mind.

Fast forward to January 2020 or so. I am searching Spotify for a particular song and notice that a karaoke version appeared in the search results. Suddenly I realize there is a huge library of karaoke music on Spotify: everything I need other than the lyrics. Well, lyric sites are plentiful on the Internet, so that wasn’t a problem. I had a PA speaker and microphone I could use. All of a sudden everything clicked!
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Karaoke is my quarantine creative outlet

After a public performance or two over our New Years trip I thought I’d take my singing more seriously. I quickly realized the huge library of karaoke songs on Spotify and that could use this and some Googled lyrics to turn a PA speaker into a karaoke machine. I’ve posted two of my songs to YouTube already (“(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes” By Elvis Costello and “Pink Cadillac” By Bruce Springsteen) and have gotten positive feedback. It feels good to be able to try something new, share it with the world, and get feedback on it.

It’s been a good lesson on how I sing, too. I sang in chorus in middle school and sang in my church’s youth choir around that time, too. I’ve been singing along to my favorite music whenever I’m alone at home or in the car. Once my colleagues caught me singing in the server room when I thought the roar of machines was drowning me out! Rarely did I sing for an audience before.

I have learned that singing with the goal of sounding the best is new to me. I realized that many of the songs I’ve been singing along to, ones that I’ve enjoyed singing, are not necessarily songs fit for my vocal range or style. When I’ve tried to do karaoke versions of these songs I quickly realized the ways in which my voice came up short. You know what? I have learned to be fine with this. I can’t nail every song but there are still hundreds or even thousands where my voice fits just fine. My list of karaoke songs is now well into the hundreds and I can easily organize a hefty, interesting set list to cover any performances.
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“My best friend, he’s the king of karaoke…”

We started off our anniversary weekend by attending the birthday party of a friend of Kelly’s Saturday night. There was a karaoke machine present and, of course, I can never resist doing some singing. I did about 6 songs to rave reviews, with some people asking if I’ve done this before. It’s all very flattering but it did get me thinking if I could find a band and maybe take my singing more seriously.

Our family’s been asked if we can rejoin the Highlanders and play some gigs this fall but it appears our ever-crazier schedules won’t allow for it. Plus there’s no singing; the Highlanders play instrumentals. I enjoy being on stage and playing guitar so adding singing would be even better.

So now I’m asking myself if I have the time it takes to rehearse with a band. It might take time but it wouldn’t seem like work if I’m doing music, so maybe this will actually happen.

(Blog post title from rank Black’s song Calistan.)

Karaoke

Belting it out (with bonus Elvis sneer)

We went to a neighbor’s 80s-themed birthday party Saturday night which featured a karaoke machine. I’d been bragging about how it’s impossible to drag me away from a karaoke microphone, and that I used to work at a karaoke company, but this was different. I love to sing but I usually only do it when I’m alone. My previous karaoke performances have always been around family and good friends. Could I get up in front of total strangers and sing?
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A return to recording engineering

A side effect of my work on singing has been discovering what tools I need to sound decent. I started with a very good USB microphone a few years ago and then graduated to an inexpensive, 8-channel USB mixer board that I could use with some decent XLR mics I had lying around. When I got my current job, I went out and bought a top-of-the-line Shure SM7B microphone and paired it with my mixer, which got me even closer to the professional sound I wanted. Then I found a used digital sound card, an 8-channel Firewire-based M-Audio 2626 and bought it cheap.

Now, Firewire is essentially an abandoned technology now that Apple no longer ships systems with it, but it is still alive and well in Linux. I took one of my old desktop PCs out of storage, added a hard drive, installed Ubuntu Studio on it, and now have a digital audio workstation (DAW), for dirt cheap! Ubuntu Studio comes with a huge number of audio and video production tools and plugins. It works just fine with this very old M-Audio 2626, too.

My audio tool of choice for editing was once Audacity, but Ubuntu Studio comes with the open-source, ProTools-like DAW called Ardour. I’ve learned how to do some amazing things with manipulating audio using Ardour, simply by diving in and trying different things. I’m sure there is at last 200% more I can be doing with it when I fully understand its capabilities.

Over the past few days and nights, I’ve spent my free time using Ardour to recreate one of my favorite songs, R.E.M.’s These Days. I’ve often looked for old-school karaoke tracks for R.E.M. but there are few that aren’t the hits everyone’s heard a million times already. I did some Google searches to see if anyone’s done this themselves and hit pay dirt when I found a musician named Clive Butler. Clive posted several of his R.E.M. covers to Blogger from 2011-2018 and I thought I’d start with those. Then last week, I discovered he has fresh versions on his very own YouTube channel so I downloaded his version of These Days.
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Playing in a band – DNR

As I mentioned previously, I’d taken my singing much more seriously over the last few years, practicing for hours each week to improve my technique. At the end of last year, I got good enough to post a few audio clips and videos on a bandmate-finding website called BandMix. It took about a week before a few bands reached out to me, interested to talk to me about fronting their bands. I said yes to one which was a new Creedence Clearwater Revival tribute band but we never rehearsed because of a surge in COVID at the time. I wound up leaving the band and it kind of broke up soon afterward. Then I got interest from a Beatles tribute band, too, but didn’t think the music was varied or interesting enough. Finally, a musician reached out who was interested in the same music I was – and it was across the gamut of styles. My interest was piqued!

In Beaufort, NC, tagging along on one of Kelly’s work trips at the end of December, I got a call from Chuck, the drummer, who proceeded to talk my ear off on all the stuff the band planned to play. A week later, I showed up at the practice space at Kit’s home and sang a few songs for him. He didn’t say much but his ear-to-ear grin told me all I needed to know. Thus, I became the frontman for DNR.

DNR is composed of veteran musicians, many with a decade or more experience playing in bands. As for me, this is my very first band. At our early rehearsals, held almost every Saturday morning, I found myself being stared at by my bandmates, waiting for me to take charge and get us playing. It took me a few beats (ha!) to learn how to actually lead a band, but basically I faked it until I figured out what I was doing. I never considered before how cool and powerful it feels to set this band (or any band) in motion. It’s not something I pondered when I was singing solo to karaoke tracks!

So we rehearsed and rehearsed, picked an interesting setlist, and missed various practices here and there due to vacations, COVID cases, and what have you. Finally, after months of hard work rehearsing, we held our first gig over the Memorial Day weekend: a surprise birthday party for Chuck’s wife, Claudia. There were about two dozen people in attendance and friendly faces at that, but re-watching the video I took I appreciate more and more how heartfelt the applause is that we earned.
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How to perform music together virtually

Musicians together virtually


A retired music teacher friend, Ruth Johnsen, needed help setting up a virtual performance by her music students. Because I was eager to learn a new video editor and because it’s really impossible to say no to Ruth, I stepped up and took it on. For the past few weeks, videos from each musician has been filtering over to me and I’ve been learning all I can about stitching them together. Fortunately, the occasional karaoke videos I’ve created have given me a little insight into the best way to get this done. Here’s my recipe for successfully recording musical parts for a virtual performance.

Consistency is key. The video clips I was given all look and sound different. That’s to be expected from so many musicians and no way to use identical hardware and software. There are some aspects that can be easily standardized, such as:

Video orientation. Have everyone use either portrait or landscape mode. It will look much better. Purists insist on landscape but portrait can work, too. Whichever you choose, it’s best if everyone uses it.

Distance.
Be consistent with camera distance. If your phone or camera is too close, you will overwhelm the microphone; too far and you won’t be heard at all. You’ll also make work for the video editor as she has to scale or crop the video to make everyone look consistent.
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Week 7 of Coronavirus quarantine

Wednesday marked the start of our seventh week in COVID-19 coronavirus quarantine. Not much has changed in our situation, which is good. We have gotten into a bit of a routine, with Kelly and me sharing an upstairs office, the kids doing remote classroom work in their rooms in the morning, and everyone retreating to quiet areas of our home when needed. Our new dogs (did I mention we now have dogs?) have taken to this routine very well as it’s the only routine they’ve known since we brought them home from the kennel. Having them around has provided us good company.

I still go out on occasion for groceries, braving the line at Costco about every two weeks. I try to get there when it first opens to minimize contact with potentially sick people. At the start of the pandemic, I might wait outside for 30 minutes while the store metered the number of people inside at one time. By my last visit on last weekend, the wait was down to six minutes.

The routine is this: wait in a “socially distant” line outside of the store, with 6 or more feet suggested between people in line. Get to front, show card, get let in in a group of two or fewer at a time. Grab a freshly-sanitiz3ed cart, then shop as normal except for following the taped arrorws on the floor, indicating what direction traffic should flow in each aisle. When it’s time to check out, wait 6 feet behind the person in front of you (helpfully marked again with tape on the floor), then put your items on the conveyor, being careful not to mix them as the plastic dividing sticks have been removed. Stand in front of the cashier with a large plastic shield between you. Take your items to the door, where your receipt is placed on a small cart in front of the inventory checkers. Walk out of the store through the “exit” area that’s been set up and back to your car.
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Singing is hard

For the past few holiday seasons I’ve been saying I would create a CD of me singing Christmas songs but I’ve never gotten it done. I began this season determined to do it. After considering inviting a friend to accompany me on piano, I decided to go a more polished route and use some professional musicians.

Recalling my early job as a recording engineer at the karaoke-like Sing-A-Song Recording Studios, I searched online for some vocalless tracks I could buy. Finding just what I needed at Singray Digital’s The Karaoke Channel, I purchased a dozen or so tracks and tried mixing my voice in with them.
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Sound Choice in the news again

I was delighted to read the story in today’s Charlotte Observer about Kurt Slep and Sound Choice, fighting back against illegal copying of their karaoke music. The company took a beating when unscrupulous karaoke jockeys (“KJ’s”) downloaded their music rather than paying for it.

While I was sad to hear how devastating music piracy has been to Sound Choice, I was glad to read about the history of the company, including the time in 1985 when I was one of its first employees.

Kurt, give me a call if you need a vocalist!