Saturday, November 04, 2006

Karaoke Review: Neutral Nightclub w/ Steve-O and Margaret from Songsmith Karaoke (aka Karaoke Cult)

October 17, 2006

Recently I'm getting referred to more places by the Toronto Karaoke Meetup Group (Thanks Mo) and I take their recommendations seriously. This next venue takes me in one of the soho areas of Toronto known as Kensington Market. I generaly try to come early to karaoke venues when doing a review. I was told 10 PM but the place doesn't open until the stroke of 10 and the actually show generally starts between 10:30-11 PM so I'd come around that time. Although the formal address is "College Street" you have to find the entrance on Augusta on the west side next to a camera store and sushi shop. You'll see a hand-made wooden with "Neutral" with a cross as the "t". The entrance gave me a few doubts but since a karaoke fan recommended it I was hopeful that there was more to judging this book than its cover.

The Good: The facilities are larger than you'd think at the door. The decor is a bit on the dark side and I discovered the reason was many customers who come to this place are into the goth motive. The place was appropriately decorated to match. The stage was well set with an excellent view of almost the entire area. (some couches in the back corner were the only exception where people probably wanted privacy anyway). Possibly the best stage I've seen since Hollywood on the Queensway (see review) stoped their karaoke shows. Watching Steve and Margaret do sound checks was encouraging. The selection will grab your attention. Lots of modern and alternative music to choose from (again fits in with goth moods), plus many old favorites. I counted about 11290 and the largest collection (the only collection I've seen so far) of songs from the musical, Spamalot. On talking to Steve he said they had 20000 songs but I need to confirm that as it wasn't in the books. Either way an impressive selection and probably the best alternative music collection I've seen to date. If I can confirm the 20k songs I can reassign Jeff's best karaoke bar song selection award. This is a nightclub so there is no food but the drinks are reasonably priced (like most things in the Kensington Market area)

The Mixed: While the equipment was large, impressive and in good shape there were issues with 1 or 2 sound overloads when one mike faced the other even though they were two feet apart or more. Probably because of the mike sensitivity levels as well as the volume being pumped out of the impressive looking speakers. The idea is karaoke meets nightclub and the volumes are set appropriately which has possibilities but I thin its a delicate balance to do well. Even though singer/music balance was very good (they did extensive checks before they began) when I first went up I could barely hear myself. The 2nd round of singers was better when the volumes were taken down a notch presumably because after hearing the levels in the room it was decided it need adjustment. The MCs performance left me with mixed feelings as well. The performers were announced well enough but that was about it. MCs having great voices or even great equipment is good, but in my view its not quite enough. You need to engage you're audience and I know Steve has personality as I've seem him entertain very effectively at another Karaoke Venue when he was a participant. There was little to no interaction this evening with Steve's audience as an MC. Perhaps this is because its a nightclub and Steve may have been holding back to be consistant with the nightclub ambiance. I still think there was room for more personality. Hopefully if Steve reads this he and Margaret wil give my comments some thought because there is great equipment, excellent selection a LOT of potential if the right balance with all the elements including the MC's personality can be achieved. Wait times were quite good and there were no delays in song queues or rotations (save when a monitor had to be replaced but I'm certain that was a freak occurence). One final note here: While the books were available by Title and by Author, the "Title" book still had a mix of Author organization which was a little disorienting for me so I stuck to the books by Author which was more straightforward.

The Bad: Nothing struck me as "bad" here. Just more audience interaction would help, especially if the place is not full yet.

Summary: We have another unique setup: Karaoke meets nightclub. It has great possibilities now that I've seen it done and it could be a great combination with minor improvements. The selection is either a new record or a close second. Hosts are very attentive to sound levels and the stage configuration is supurb. You'll feel like a real entertainer here IF you can hear yourself as I felt initial volumes were a little too high (was rectified later). While we karaoke lovers enjoy entertaining we also like the MC to entertain as well. This place is unique not only for its nightclub setting, but with a scenery and atmosphere highly suitable for the goth crowd who are sure to be pleased with this venue. If you are a karaoke fan who is dying to do lots of alternative or modern songs, this is probably the best place to go.

Final Grade
: B

Facilities: 8.6
Equipment: 8.0
Selection 8.6 ("By Title" books somewhat confusing)
Food Selection: NA
Prices( Drinks): 8.0
Location: 7.7 (little hard to find the first time, off College Streetcar stop at College & Augusta, free and paid side parking available)
MC: 7.4 (Steve and Margaret are attentive MCs but they should put more of their personalities into it even if it is a nightclub. Steve is quite capable as I've seen him entertain effectively singing at another MC's venue. I'll be back in hopes of seeing that ability applied at future Neutral shows)
Wait times: 8.5
Service: NA

Venue Info:
MC: Songsmith Karaoke with Steve-O and Margaret
Neutral Nightclub
349a College Street
(at Augusta) Kensington Market
Toronto, Ontario M5T 2V8

Every other Tuesday Evening
Next show from date of publication: November 14th, 2006
UPDATE: Starting November 14th, 2006 Songsmith Karaoke (aka Karaoke Cult) will be at Neutral EVERY Tuesday night

MC Info:
Songsmith Karaoke
Stephen Chadderton - MC
(416) 565-1659
MySpace Account Link

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Friday, November 03, 2006

A message to Karaoke Box Fans and Owners

Folks, I have published a few reviews on Karaoke box now. A disturbing trend I'm seeing is a tendency for box owners to spend more and effort on rooms but be cheap on equipment. While XO still has a few issues with furniture, I still consider it #1 for a true karaoke enthusiast in spite of the grade I was forced to give it for aging mikes, furniture and air conditioners. Why? Because they initially invested in the equipment. It was the #1 Karaoke spot for many years because of this. Equipment means Mikes, Speakers and Key Change (pitch modulator) mixers.

In the 3 reviews I've done of Karaoke boxes so far I'm seeing a disturbing trend of people getting stuff from Korea primarily because its cheaper. I'm also seeing box owners getting cheap on their customers by not getting key change mixers. This later trend is very disturbing because they are assuming that karaoke participants don't understand or have forgotten what karaoke is supposed to have (and do in Japan, China and probably Korea). I thought that these boxes were rather expensive but on a hunch I did an Internet search. I found key transposition mixers (pro boxes) as low as $209 USD. Karaoke Box owners, that is NOT a large investment in a business per room. For, say 13 rooms that is a around a $3000 to get these boxes for all the rooms at, say the new place, BAR + Karaoke Lounge. I have a small business and I have spent more than that in computers and equipment for it. That's a legitimate business expense folks. You can probably get some tax credit for it as well. More importantly, it shows respect for Karaoke lovers everywhere and WILL bring in more customers. I get a number of e-mails asking for the best Karaoke places so my recommendations are starting to carry a little weight. I will happily and actively endorse the first Karaoke Box that shows this kind of respect for its clients for the simple reason: It will be the best. I've encountered two places that have just about everything they need except key pitch control for their larger selection of songs. One pitch modulation box is all that is required. $209 USD per room, probably less with bulk discount (I know from experience in computer wholesale it is possible to negotiate these things).
The system I came across the most was the DA-2200 PRO. The two sites I found them sold are as follows:

On November 5th: Some more research reveals the popular term for these devices is "Key Changer". Google that for more results:
(Their VocoPro KC-300 Pro Sonic Enhancer Key Change system look really nice although its $300 USD its perfect for any karaoke setup. They have a basic one: VocoPro DKC-100 Digital Key Changer for $189 USD. Vocopro seems popular in canada but low to mid end from what I've seen)

So now that this is out, I no longer accept the excuse that the boxes are too expensive. I'm talking off significant marks on equipment if you don't care enough to get key change mixers when you can get them at these prices. As I said, I will actively endorse the first Karaoke box with good facilities and make an investment in this equipment. I loved XO in its golden days. People who own karaoke boxes have the opportunity to blow them away. Its up to you. Karaoke Fans, if you want this basic feature to not be neglected, ask people at Karaoke Boxes if they can transpose ALL their songs. If not, tell them you'll be back when they do. We must never forget the basics because some parts of technology appear to make things easier or cheap. Key Change is a basic feature in Karaoke. Box owners are currently testing us to see if we will notice a little nickel & dime pinching(relatively). Make it clear we don't want our karaoke experience cheapened. As my sister always tels me: Vote with your minds, vote with your hearts and vote with your dollars.

Oh for those of you who want Karaoke in your home, there are options there too. This is not a bad and inexpensive way to start: DVG-888 Karaoke DVD player home theatre.

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Thursday, November 02, 2006

Criteria for Karaoke Box Reviews

I guess many wonder how I rank Karaoke Boxes. Those with less than stellar reviews might say I don't know what I'm talking about. Well, actually I do as spent time in Japan and saw how Karaoke's motherland did things. The Japanese place a high emphasis on presentation. In restaurants its more important than the taste. I also spent some time in China and the big city Karaoke boxes their are equal in every aspect. The big things I saw with all Karaoke Boxes in both countries were:

1. Facilities: Places need to be clean, funiture in great shape. The Japanese and Chinese take their Karaoke seriously.

2. Equipment: It should be hard to overload a mike and you should have a decent sound even if you suck rocks. Karaoke is about the participation and good equipment is essential.

3. Food availability: People who spend hours sing want more than drinks. They will also want food. So many places wimp out on that here but it really helps. Especially if you are hungry and want to "Sing on".

4. Selection: The Japanese and Chinese karaoke boxes had enough English songs I could have fun with. My ability to Sing Japanese songs is somewhat limited and Chinese ability non-existent yet places here had at least 3000 English songs to choose from even though I didn't expect it. After all I'm in their country. Now, if they can do this in China, than surely it isn't to much to expect Karaoke Boxes in Canada (in which the official languages are English and French) to have at least DOUBLE the English songs in China. Those who don't are frankly not very courteous to Canadians in general and in an English/French Country it makes Karaoke look bad because it limits the ability for Canadians to participate. In Tokyo, Japan, I'm told everyone subscribes for access to a song database and download it from there so I guess it helps improve standards. Oh, ability to LOCATE songs is also part of the selection scoring. If I have to work hard to find the songs you have, I'll dock points because if someone can't easily find a song they have, its almost as bad as not having it at all. (many give up). There is no suitable substitute for books yet folks.

5. Sound quality: MIDI systems are cheap. Its as simple as that. If you have a MIDI only system it shows lack of caring in regards to sound quality. There are so many better options out there with computers and MPEG, even if karaoke box owners are looking to reduce staff which were need to change LD's in the old days. If all you have is a Taijin system, the best you will get on Selection is 6.5 and points off on equipment for sound quality. Its barely passable for an English speaking country on its own.

6. Wait times: this may seem academic but some systems react faster than others.(although the difference is less and less these days)

7. Location: How easy is it to reach you? (By TTC primarily) How easy it is to find you? Is it a reasonably safe neighborhood? Can I find Parking? These are the questions I ask myself in this category.

8. Average price for a small room on a weekend is ~$25 so I start from there.

Additional comment:
I'm told there are great deals in Richmond Hill if I'm willing to put up with extremely limited English selection or I prefer singing Chinese. Again, this is basically telling English speaking Canadians (Chinese is not an officially supported language here) to get lost. Frankly this disturbs me. If I see a place I feel has little regard for the English speaking residents here, I'm going to point it out regardless of location (within Canada).

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Karaoke Review: BMB Karaoke Box

November 1st, 2006

In my contining quest for the best karaoke party box in Toronto I continued on the same night to a place I had passed numerous times but had only been to once in all my years in Toronto. So, it was time to check it out and see if they could help. The sign was nice enough...

The Good: The rooms at this box clean although a few shoe scuffs were somewhat visible on the inner doors and walls but no damage as far as I could see. Mikes were as in great shapes as were the speakers (about the same as Twister). The doors gave a little bit more privacy than Twister as I could see more than outlines from the inside. Rates were better than average.

The Bad: No food at all. Just drinks.

The Mixed: The selection was fairly limited. 4600 English songs is a little weak in my view for a Karaoke box these days. Mind you they have a LOT more Korean. I'm a learning quite a bit about the majority of Korean Karaoke boxes though: They often use a system I am becoming familiar with: Taijin. Yes, Taijin, with its 100% MIDI music and Title only song books. At least it saved me having to look to see how many songs they had as I had already counted from Twister's Taijin system. On the plus side at least the remote had English labeled buttons this time. (helps a lot actually, especially if you've never used it before) so I felt free to try out all the "neat" features like tempo control, music and microphone volumes. Apparently there is a Video game option?!? Hmm... Anyway, it wasn't bad but as I say, 4600 songs is a little weak for an MC, let alone a dedicated Karaoke Box. The saddest thing is they had older Modulation Boxes connected to the system so if they had the 10k song system that Twister had, they could REALLY bump their rankings for this review. Frustrating! One has the selection, the other has modulation boxes that are no longer in use. A partnership would be kind of cool, or at least sell Twister their modulation boxes so they can mop up the competition. :D Oh, the Taijin system has a small selection of Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese and Tagalog songs so ESL students would probably appreciate that. Obviously this place is tailored to the Korean-Canadian population but at least they had the curtsey to get English labeled Controllers for their Taijin system which is appreciated. That's about all I have to say on that.

Summary: BMB Karaoke is a lower end Karaoke Box in terms of selection for English Speaking Karaoke lovers. Basically the song selection is ideal Korean speaking people. On the plus side they had an English labeled Taijin controller which Twister didn't have. If a place only has MIDI (especially Taijin system) its pretty much a budget facility. At least the rooms and equipment were in great shape. If you want a place near Bloor and Bathurst this place will pass if you are in the neighborhood. Just bear in mind you have only 4600 English songs (more Korean) that are all MIDI music but you can transpose them using the Taijin controller, or the modulation box if you want to get cute like I did. The rooms are comfortable and you can get snacks and drinks. The rates were posted here which were better than average.

1-5 people: $20/Hour
6-7 people: $25/Hour
8-10 people: $30/Hour
10+ people: $40/Hour
Large Room: $50/Hour
Party Room: $60/Hour

Summary Scores:
Facilities: 8.0 (Nice rooms, really clean, furniture in amazing shape)
Equipment: 7.5 (MIDI Only but I'm giving points for Good Mikes and Speakers)
Location: 7.8 (Block off Bathurst. Parking to be found on side streets)
Food Prices: 7.0 (Prices on food/drinks are average, but only snack food)
Service: 8.0 (they do their job, which given the Taijin systems make it easier I'm sure until cleanup time comes around)
Selection: 6.5 (4600 English songs, books only by title. Its....Taijin)
Wait Times: 9.0 (Given the limited selection the index makes it easy I suspect)
Room Prices: 7.7 (a little better than average)

Final Grade: C

Venue Information:
593 Bloor Street West
Toronto, ON
M6G 1K5
(416) 533-8736

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Karaoke Review: Twister Karaoke Box

November 1st, 2006

Recently I had a reader recommend a karaoke box for a birthday party. Being eager to inform my readers I set out to expand my thin karaoke box reviews section. This place I had been to before years ago and had stuck to the downtown core for reasons of convenience. That time has passed and I'm now covering a wider territory. This place had been good years ago but many karaoke boxes have changed their technology and in many cases it has not been for the better. Read on to see how things fared here.

The Good: The rooms at this box were very clean. Probably the cleanest I've been to so far. Not only were all the walls, doors and equipment nearly spotless but the mikes and speakers were in pristine condition and the sound was no exception. There was a bit of a catch with the sound which I'll get to in a bit. Selection is very wide and includes the widest mix of languages I've seen yet: English (of course), Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Spanish, Russian, Vietnamese, Korean (TONS of those as the place is Korean owned as are many places in this neighborhood). Once could argue that the selection (with no other considerations) was the best of any karaoke box out there.

The Bad: There is no real food here, just chicken wings at $10 and instant noodles at $3 plus of course drinks (no outside drinks allowed).Aside from lack of food the only other bad thing was the fact that the rates were not posted anywhere I could see. That represents a somewhat unprofessional attitude. I asked them to tell me the rates verbally which I'll list here. I don't think they will increase them on any unsuspecting customers. More likely didn't get around to posting them (which I'd strongly recommend) but just in case here they are:

1-5 people $25/hour
10-14 people $50/hour
14-20 people $60/hour
They have only one large party room for which I didn't get the rate.

The Mixed: The rates as you can see are average. Remember I said earlier that the selection COULD be one of the best for any Karaoke box but....(you knew there was one coming) there are a variety of problems. First is the equipment. The speakers and mikes were in great shape but this place has TWO karaoke systems in each room. (Yes, you heard me right, two). I'll explain exactly what they are. Apparently these systems were purchased from Korea. One made by Taijin comes with books (By title only) and computer box and a remote controller. The sound tracks are all MIDI (its good midi but still midi) and selection is limited to English (4600 songs) and Korea (didn't get count). The upside of this is you can change the pitch, the tempo, mix male/female voices and get a cute (although not accurate) score on your "performance". (strictly timing with music). I know that an English controller for the Taijin system is available but this place didn't have any. Only the Korean controllers. If, like me, you don't read Korean its a REAL pain to use. Its okay once you figure it out. The second system has a LOT more songs, converted to MPEG format from original LDs so the the sound is much better. They try to indicate which have original footage from the artists (one didn't work) which is a nice touch. All the languages I mentioned above are available but at a price: No books. This make is REALLY awkward. Karaoke Box owners, I WILL take points off for no books, okay? There is just no good reason for it except to be cheap. Computer system selectors are not that good yet. Also the computer navigation system here is awkward because if you select song by title (your best option) you can't skip pages. So if your song is at the end of the "c" list for example you have go page by page.(mind you it may be possible to go backwards but the middle you are still in for a long scroll. Song by author has a serious flaw: Not all the groups are listed. For example, saw a good selection of the Bee Gees, but the closest they had to a "Bee Gees" group was "Barry Gibb" which had only one song. Radiohead wasn't even there but I saw several Radiohead selections by title. You get the idea. Oh, and last but not least: there is NO TRANSPOSITION on the 6k (English, 14k others I estimate as owner guesstimated 20k songs) selection list. This is a major let down because while you have an impressive selection of songs, you are limited by your vocal range. Or you have to use the MIDI Taijin system and limit your songs available. To switch between the two systems have issues as well. Its easy to do but.. you could lose your sound output because Twister uses cheap 3 way video/audio switches in many of their rooms with circuits that cut in and out. They actually moved me from room #2 to room #1 because of this problem. While I saw another one of these cheap 3 way plastic switches it appeared to have been bypassed to a quality toggle switch which worked properly. Hopefully they will replace those cheap switches to quality ones by the time you've read this. But if you see a triangular plastic switch near a monitor, tell them what you read here. It would only be an extra $10 to get a better 3 way switch. A quality 3 way video switch is between ($30-$40).

Summary: Twister has a good deal going for it: Rooms and furniture in near perfect condition, wide selection of languages (perhaps the largest in the GTA) and great mikes/speakers. Unfortunately, attempts to be cheap in certain areas detract from the experience there. The great equipment is plagued by cheap connection boxes and a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Consequently I had to be moved to a room with a better junction switch. While the selection is potentially great, the lack and books for the system with the larger selection and its awkwardly and incomplete configuration hampers one's ability to find songs easily. Lack of transposition is a serious let down which is easily corrected by getting the modulation boxes often used in karaoke boxes. I actually encountered one at a second karaoke box that was still connected to a Taijin system (because they hadn't bothered to move it) and it transposed the pitch so I know this works on ANY sound input running through it. Its an investment, but very worthwhile and essential to the Karaoke experience. In Japan I didn't find ANY karaoke boxes without this ability as its essential for the great number of people to participate and enjoy the experience. This simple investment would make this one of the best karaoke boxes in the GTA. But as it stands I can only say its has the widest selection of languages. If you are willing to put up with MIDI sound, learn the Taijin system controller and/or learn Korean and settle for only 4600 English songs rather than ~6k, you can the transposition need for all voice ranges to have fun. One thing about XO for which I will stand by it is when it comes to selection and the ability to participate, they have it all. (if only they could replace some of the mikes, funiture and almost dead air conditioners). Oh posting the rates in plain sight would also be a good idea. They do explain how their system and they try to please. But if they really want to be a TOP karaoke box, they need to get modulation boxes and replace the cheap plastic junction boxes. Then they wouldn't need the Taijin system at all. On that note, an English remote, PLEASE. If you want to host people with a wide taste in languages (prefect for an ESL class) this place would get my top recommendation with the understanding you'll have navigation and transposition limitation. Its still a reasonable place to have a fairly enjoyable karaoke event. Wit an investment in books and modulation boxes, it would be more than just fairly enjoyable: It would be fantastic.

Summary Scores:
Facilities: 8.5 (Nice rooms, really clean, furniture in amazing shape)
Equipment: 7.0 (Great Speakers, Mikes but plagued by poor junctions boxes and transposition on limited number of songs which are in MIDI. For this system reading Korean is advised)
Location: 8.5 (plenty of parking, 5 minutes from Finch subway station)
Food Prices: 7.0 (Prices on food/drinks are average, but VERY limited food)
Food Quality: 7.0 (Average, what little there is)
Service: 8.5 (they are very attentive and try to please)
Selection:7.2 (Better than XO, but worse at the same time. Come on guys, Books, modulation boxes. This is all you need to truly have the best selection in the GTA and be one of the best Karaoke boxes all in town)
Wait Times: 8.5 (Have to adjust because for transposition you have to switch between 2 systems)
Room Prices: 7.0 (average)

Final Grade: C+/B-

Venue Information:
Twister Karaoke
5586 Yonge Street (Finch Subway)
North York, ON
M2N 5S2
(416) 225-2465

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