Sing-along music represents one of the hottest growth areas in entertainment in the 1990s.
Just on the U.S. consumer front, sing-along software and hardware notched $330 million in sales last year -- almost doubling 1990's returns -- and the business is expected to grow to $590 million in sales this year.
So estimates Neil Friedman, director of the Karaoke International Sing-Along Association, a trade group of manufacturers, distributors, marketers and entertainers.
Far East countries have been passionate for karaoke, a Japanese word meaning "empty orchestra," for the last 20 years. Virtually every restaurant and bar in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan has a karaoke setup for after-work carousing, and karaoke machines are almost as common in consumers' homes as VCRs.
Japanese companies such as Pioneer and Nikkodo have done yeoman work to pump up enthusiasm for the sing-along craze in the United States, promoting broad lines of laser video and CD players with built-in mike mixing, amplifiers and speakers, as well as companion software.
In truth, the notion of singing to professional-sounding backing tracks is a very American phenomenon, traceable to the player pianos of the early 20th century. And the concept boomed among U.S. music students in the early, post-World War II years of the long-playing record album, when Irv Kratka's Music Minus One label put out dozens of albums missing a single part -- the vocal, the lead saxophone, the drums or guitar -- perfect for a student performer to fill in.
Today, Mr. Kratka and his son David are again pushing the cause with Pocket Songs, their collections of classic pop, current hits, ceremonial, seasonal and ethnic songs available on tape (for $12.95) or CD ($22). The biggest of a dozen brands of sing-along tapes and CDs, Pocket Tunes prides itself on staying current and slick with its recordings. On one side are voiced versions for learning the songs, while the other side has voice-less versions so you can "front" the band.
Low-cost ($100 and up) portable tape players with a plug-in microphone, mixing control, amplifier and speaker are a natural match for the Pocket Tapes -- a fact Lonestar Technologies has exploited by packing a sample Pocket Tape in with its Singalodeon machines, widely seen on home shopping channels. New to the Lonestar line this spring are a two-speaker cassette unit, the KJ-1 ($100); a single-speaker unit with AM/FM (the KJ-2 at $120); and a dual cassette unit with pitch control (K-11, $200).
The 85 million VCR owners in the United States are the target for Vocomotion, a new line of VHS-format sing-along videotapes introduced by ZoomQuest. Seventy-seven volumes are already in release or production; each has seven songs, and carries a suggested retail price of $20.
It's relatively easy for an electronics manufacturer to build a circuit into a CD player, amplifier or boom box that cancels out just the vocal track, allowing you to become the singing star of commercial recordings. Modestly priced ($240 and up) CD players from Sansui and Sony offer a voice-canceling feature, with a microphone input and mixing control. Voice canceling and mike mixing are also showing up in mini-systems from Technics and sister brand Panasonic (including the SC-CH55, at $600 list).
Boom boxes from Sanyo and JVC are also going karaoke, with an upgraded CD+G (for graphics) disc player that can display disc-encoded song lyrics on a TV screen. The units are priced at $350 and up, while CD+G software sells for about $20 a title. The same discs also play on conventional CD players.
Any stereo system that has a set of tape input and output jacks (with a switchable "monitor" function) can become karaoke central with the addition of Nikkodo's DEP-2000K, a $399 list digital echo processor. In addition to voice suppression, this small piece of equipment features three microphone inputs with individual volume controls, three echo options and a nifty digital processor that lets you change the key of the music without changing the rhythm.