You Suck at Karaoke — An Examination of Why

This article is intended for both performers and karaoke jockeys who run karaoke nights. It is a guide to making your karaoke performance the best it can be and making your patrons enjoy listening to their friends, ultimately leading to a fun time for all.

Forgive the clickbait-style title, but hey… what’s a guy gotta do to get attention in this day and age! I’ll cut right to the chase. You might have a voice of an angel, but your Karaoke performance might sound bad. In reality, you might just be a bad singer with a tin ear. You might be singing half an octave out of key, as that 5th-interval is commonly mistaken for an octave… you might have no rhythm… you might not even know the song you’re singing. Chances are if you’re someone who really just “can’t sing”… then this article probably won’t help you, you need singing lessons and potentially music lessons. But hey… it’s okay to suck as long as you’re having fun. Have fun out there!

But let’s assume that you’re a good singer, but you still sound bad when you sing karaoke and you wonder why you simply can’t give your best performance on the Karaoke stage. Even the greatest singers have “off” nights, and as a formerly touring musician, I can verifiably say that singing in a Karaoke environment is actually a much more challenging environment than rock stars experience. Absolutely no professional performs into a sound system without substantial technical calibration, adjustments, and monitor checks. Singing into a raw mic plugged into a junky PA system is considerably more challenging. I’m going to push some buttons in saying this, but in my examination, good singers often sound bad when doing Karaoke… and although we all sing karaoke to have a good time and hang out… everyone often wants to sound good for their friends on stage, and nobody really wants to sound outright “bad”. Why is a karaoke environment so difficult to perform in? Read on to learn why, and also learn of simple ways that you can compensate. Even if you’re a KJ stuck with borrowed equipment and very little in the ways of processing capabilities, you might find some tips to make your nights more enjoyable.

Typical Issues With Karaoke Nights

  1. Improper sound systems: Most karaoke jockeys are operating their nights on poor, outdated equipment… lacking the tools required to make the proper singing environments. Typically the environment, the setup, and the atmosphere are typically barebones, amateur, minimal, unprofessional… (pick your favorite insult)… and this makes singers sing badly and sound bad even if they sing well. Most Karaoke nights are run on a portable PA system with about as many features as the one I used for band practice in the 1990’s.
  2. KJs sometimes just don’t care how good you sound: The second problem is also that some KJ’s (you know who you are) just don’t give a flying fuck how good you sound. They have to listen to the same two girls sing “Man I Feel Like a Woman” every night and have heard “Sweet Caroline” 365 times in the last year. I’ll admit, if I were forced to do that every night… I might eventually become apathetic as well.
  3. Lack of technical understanding: KJs are rarely sound engineers, and even if they understand audio processing, they might not understand the system at the particular establishment.

Some KJ’s will probably read this and already be feeling insulted… but universally… if you feel insulted by this article, then you’re just affirming that you don’t really give a fuck how bad the sound is in your club… because I’m going to cover just the very basics of sound processing, not some high-and-mighty audio engineering snobbery. And if the real issue is lack of equipment, then you should petition who you need to petition to make changes.

And if you’re not a host but a singer, I hope that understanding what is wrong with your sound system and environment will help you troubleshoot your own performances to compensate for the lack of a proper venue. Later I will offer specific ways that you can potentially compensate for bad equipment.

TIPS to make your Karaoke Night sound better

1: Get a Wedge, or Some Other Kind of Monitor

A “wedge” is the kind of speaker shaped like a wedge so that it can be placed on the floor and naturally angle upward from the floor. You see them up on stage at a rock concert, typically in front of the performers, also offering a place for Johnny Thundercock to prop up his knee while he sings his #1 hit love ballad to a crowd full of lighter-waving sheeple.

Wedges or other “monitor” speakers are pointed at the performers so that the band can hear themselves and each other. Typically the rest of the speakers are pointed at the crowd and are difficult to hear from the stage. If your karaoke setup simply has speakers pointing out and away at the audience, you’re doing it very very wrong. There needs to be a speaker or speakers, not necessarily floor wedges, intimately near and pointing directly at the performer. In an ideal situation, it would even have a customized mix where the vocals are slightly hotter than the playback in comparison to what the audience hears… e.g. 5db extra vocals in the monitor. The singer wants to hear themselves slightly better than the audience does… having the same mix in the monitor would not be ideal. If the singers can’t hear themselves through anything other than the speakers pointing at the audience, then it makes it more difficult for them to sing on key and with the right expression. Even my 1990’s Carvin PA system had a “monitor out” jack, and separate knobs for controlling how much of each channel went to the monitor, completely independent of the “main” mix… so even shitty systems are capable of this.

2: The Most Important Vocal Effect Is Not What You Think

The most important vocal effect is not reverb, chorus, delay, or flange… but without a doubt… dynamic compression! If you have the choice of one effect and one effect only, pick dynamic compression hands-down… any time.

Compression has been around in audio since the 1930s, originally invented to give radio announcers that stereotypical “boom” to their voice. All professional radio announcers run their voices through a compressor. It allows their voices to boom no matter if they are talking, yelling loudly, or in a whisper. Compression is even more important if you are a singer. Without compression, when a confident singer comes on stage and starts belting out high notes, the audience likely has an abrasive, ear-splitting experience. A compressor, configured properly, solves this problem.

In a nutshell, a compressor is like an auto-volume control that is constantly shaving off loud peaks from the sound. Whereas a KJ might just turn you down if he thinks you’re singing too loud, compression serves more of a purpose than simply turning a dial. By shaving down the peaks of the sound, you are bringing out the valleys in relation to the peaks, in effect smoothing the volume. By boosting the final output, what you’re actually doing is bringing out the body of the sound. So think of it less as shaving off the peaks, and rather as bringing out the body. By bringing out the body, you are giving the performer that radio-friendly boom… that rock-concert thickness to their voice. If your vocal performance sounds thin and abrasive, it is probably because there’s no compression on the voice, and as a performer, you have to sing completely differently through an uncompressed mic than a compressed mic.

A compressor can appear intimidating at first, as some compressors have lots of non-essential buttons intended to differentiate them from their competitors, but in a nutshell… the key ingredients of a compressor are

A Compressor, set to some pretty aggressive settings… a preset called “drum destroyer” -10db threshold, 30:1 ratio, 3.9ms attack, 231ms release, and +10db final output gain. Note that “GR” is indicating “Gain Reduction”… showing you how much signal was shaved off the top. Note how the output signal is actually higher than the input signal… this gives the sound a particular “boom”.
  1. Threshold: Indicates the volume at which the compressor engages. On a professional compressor, this is generally a negative scale where 0 is near the top. A typical setting might be -10db, for example.
  2. Ratio: Indicates how much volume is cut from the sound after crossing the threshold. This usually expressed in a ratio…. like 2:1,3:1 with a maximum typically expressed as infinity ∞:1. But a setting of 2-3:1 is probably good for a professional singer, but since karaoke performers don’t always control the mic very well… you might try some more aggressive settings like 10:1. But the proper ratio you choose also depends on where the threshold is set. 30:1 will “crush” drums… so that’s a lot by comparison.
  3. Attack: Configures how long after the signal crosses the threshold that the compressor kicks in. This is usually expressed in milliseconds. 3-5ms is an agressive setting, but often appropriate. Longer attacks can be used to create a sort-of sforzando effect where the beginnings of loud sounds are heard at full volume but are quickly chopped down if they persist for too long. A longer attack can sometimes bring out the constinents in someone’s voice. If you’re having a hard time hearning someone enunciate their constinents, then tweak the attack to be a smidge longer.
  4. Release: Configures how long after the signal dips below the threshold that the compressor returns to normal. 250ms is a typical release. I wouldn’t go much beyond that. Lower settings are more aggressive, so 100ms is pretty aggresive. Some compressors might let you set this as high as 2500 or 4000 even… but those settings are not practical for this purpose.
  5. Output Gain: Final boost. Turn this up, usually just enough to compensate for the volume that is cut by the threshold and ratio settings. Suddenly your voice has power and clarity.

My 1990s Carvin PA System I used to use for band practice, did not have a compressor and most Karaoke setups I’ve seen have similar PAs lacking compressors…. in fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a compressor used in Karaoke… maybe at Mortimers (they also have wedges, and auto-tune, for the record). Compressors are very rarely built into cheap mixers, but slightly more expensive, but still “cheap” newer digital mixers may have quite sophisticated compressors. Some Karaoke software might have compression built-in but will require you to run the mic into the computer to take advantage of it… but if you see it as a feature, USE IT. On an analog mixer, you can put a rack-mounted compressor in the “insert” loop, if it has an “insert” jack at the top of the channel, but a simpler approach for karaoke setups is to plug the Mic directly into the compressor then send the output of the compressor into the PA channel. If you don’t have a compressor, you can buy a rack compressor for literally $40 like the popular Alesis 3630 which features easy-to-read gain reduction light meters that give you valuable insight and are fun to look at. Most studios these days just use compressor plugins, so you can find used rack compressors for next to nothing as there’s a giant surplus out there.

3: Avoid adding Reverb, it isn’t as important as you think

I tour a lot of Karaoke joints, 7 nights a week. I meet a lot of Karaoke Jockeys. Almost invariably, KJs think that the way to make people sound better is by adding reverb. Reverb is something that professional sound engineers are typically actually trying to magically make disappear. One of the first things an audio engineer might do when walking into a room is snap their fingers or clap their hands…. and if the room returns a bunch of reverb, expect them to start complaining about how difficult their night is going to be!

Instead of Reverb, try adding just a single-tap “slap back” delay at a high mix volume of maybe as much as 80%. Reverb just muddies up the sound… but a delay of 50-150ms will create a doubling effect, which will smooth out the flaws and cracks in a performer’s voice.

How to Sing Better in a Poor Listening Environment

If you think to yourself, “I sing that song so great in the shower, why did nobody clap for me?” Changes are that they just weren’t listening because everyone was drunk and having separate conversations. But if you feel like you need to improve your performance, it could very likely be because the environment you’re singing in is not ideal. You might be having a hard time hearing yourself… and if you can’t hear your own voice, you’ll deliver a bad performance. You’ll likely compensate for an inability to hear yourself by “over singing”… singing too loudly, in such a way that gives your voice poor intonation, or abrasive tonality. Keep in mind that what you hear, is not what the audience hears. If the speakers are pointed away from you, you’ll be hearing mostly lower frequencies as the higher frequencies don’t travel as far and dissipate before bouncing off the walls and returning to you. Furthermore, they might bounce off the walls in such a way that you perceive them slightly out of tune. If your voice becomes abrasive, combined with the fact that the sound system most likely lacks compression, you’re going to annoy or even hurt the audience listening to you with your sound. So many of these karaoke joints leave the vocals completely raw and unchecked, allowing the screaming voices of college idiots to pierce the audience’s eardrums as they sing the chorus of “Sweet Caroline”.

The way to hear yourself better without oversinging is simple, however. Try cupping your ear… place your fingertips at the top of your ear lobe, and then position your palm by your mouth. Magically, the sound from your mouth will travel up your hand and into your ear, and suddenly, you can hear yourself much much better. What you’re doing here is essentially making up for the fact that there’s no wedge or monitor near you. When I sing, I usually cup my ear, but I also make a point to uncup it to make sure that the volume I’m projecting into the audience mixes well with the playback. Don’t cup your ear all the time. If you cup your ear the whole time, you might actually be coming off as quieter than you realize because your own voice will be loud in your ear, but quiet through the speakers… potentially. So check how you’re balancing out with the audience from time to time, but cup your ear to improve your intonation. You can also experiment by moving your palm around to find the ideal positioning until you’re confident that the way you’re hearing yourself is similar to how the audience hears you.

Recognize when there’s no compression on the vocals. If you watch some youtube videos about compression, you should be able to recognize compressed vs. raw vocals. Unfortunately, if there’s no compression, you’ll have to pull back on reaching for some of those high notes. I’ll sometimes opt for using my falsetto instead of a bluesy rasp that might require me to dig into my vocal chords. For example, if I sing the chorus of Tool’s “Sober”, I might sing the high note of the chorus with a little more gentle falsetto as opposed to just screaming it out like Maynard with my regular voice as it is the highest note in my natural, non-falsetto, range and a bit of a reach even on a good day. I prefer to not have to pull the mic away from my mouth, because that invariably takes all the low-end and body out of the sound of my voice. Unless you have a really nice microphone in a nice vocal booth… that’s just what you’re gonna get if you distance yourself from the mic without compression… a brash, nasally sound when you dig into those special notes.

Don’t sing the same song every night. Download “Google Sheets” to your phone and create a spreadsheet of all the songs you sing. Any time someone gets up to sing a song that you like and you think to yourself, “I could sing that song”… add it to your spreadsheet and do it next time! I currently have 80 songs on my spreadsheet and I’m just getting started with it… I know I’ve done at least 200 different songs in the past.

You have to “self mix” yourself… as often times the KJ will even walk away from the mixer or not be paying attention while taking slips from other patrons. Just do your best, have fun… and don’t take it as seriously as I do! Haha!

If you like this article, please share it wherever you talk about Karaoke!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.