Got $80? You, too, can sound like Britney - or Cher

New technology can make even off-key singers sound like pros.

Singing pop songs backed by a karaoke machine used to be viewed as the province of tipsy bar patrons bellowing out "I gotta be me" to anyone who could stand to stay in the room.

Now, lower prices and higher technology are bringing karaoke to a new audience, this time as a form of at-home entertainment. And one company is even including a little secret help for amateur singers based on what the pros use.

TV shows like the new "Star Search" and a second season of "American Idol," both of which begin this month, are in some ways simply larger-than-life karaoke contests. Today's home karaoke singer is likely to be a preteen or teenage girl eager to imagine herself in the spotlight as a pop diva, imitating Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, or Jennifer Lopez.

According to statistics gathered by the International Music Products Association, sales of karaoke players and related equipment jumped from $111.1 million in 2000 to $173.5 in 2001, a 79 percent growth rate in a tough economic year. And InStyle Magazine just singled out home karaoke as one of its "What's Hot Now" trends for 2003.

Home karaoke equipment in the $500 to $2,000 range has been on the market in specialty music stores for years, says Ed Pearson, marketing director of IVL Technologies in Victoria, British Columbia, a maker of professional karaoke equipment that is moving into the home market.

Now his company and others are offering sophisticated karaoke machines for much less and selling them at mass-market retailers such as, Wal-Mart, KMart, Target, and Toys 'R Us. IVL's "On-Key Karaoke Player" (retail $80 or less), which provides a number of high-tech effects, was named one of the best new products of 2002 by USA Today and Business Week last month. Most appreciated by listeners may be its "on key" feature, which adjusts the singer's pitch in real time to keep it right on the money.

On-Key's MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) sampling technology is the same as that used by professional musicians in the studio or at a live concert date.

"The singer's voice is compared to that melody line and then processed in real time and spit out again in the correct notes," Mr. Pearson says. While the inexpensive home version is not as accurate as professional equipment, it's "still very convincing," he says, especially if the singer can come anywhere close to the right notes.

The use of pitch-correction by today's pop singers is "widespread," Pearson says, though he says he's not at liberty to name names. "A lot of professional musicians use our products in a live concert situation," he says. "Dancing around and singing for 2-1/2 hours, there's no way they're going to hit every note" without some help.

Singers also use pitch-correction technology to create special effects, such as Cher's hollow techno sound on the song "Believe." Madonna also uses it on her recording "Die Another Day."

"That's become a very popular effect in pop music now, and if you want to achieve that effect live, you have to be using pitch correction," Pearson says.

The "On-Key Karaoke Player" looks like a regular microphone with a few added buttons. Its cord plugs directly into a TV set and displays a song list on the TV screen (50 songs are included and more can be downloaded from IVL's website for 75 cents to 99 cents each). The TV displays the words, shows when to sing them, and plays the accompaniment. In addition to correcting the pitch of the singer, the player also calculates how accurately the song was sung and assigns a score, allowing singers to hold their own "American Idol" contest without the nasty comments from Simon Cowell.

The machine can also play other tricks, like changing the pitch or tempo of the piece, adding a harmony part, or turning a man's voice into a higher woman's voice or vice versa.

This writer sang along to "America the Beautiful," first trying to get the highest score possible (and getting a "thumbs up" from the machine). When I deliberately tried to sing badly, the sound produced seemed to stay on-key but no longer sounded like my voice, sometimes jumping an octave lower or higher. I also learned one important lesson: Make sure to crank up the TV volume high enough to mask your own unamplified off-pitch voice.

Later, my 13-year-old niece and a friend seemed thoroughly entertained by the player, especially when adults left the room and let them experiment in privacy. Their voices sounded remarkably on-key. On a song that my niece knew well, I thought for a moment that she had stopped singing and turned on the radio.

Though the player was introduced only in October, Pearson says his company already has received orders from as far away as India and South Africa. At next week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, IVL will introduce several more home karaoke products, including one that works with DVD players and provides videos along with the music.

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