In this installment of our blog series focusing on extraordinary audio visual experiences in the wider Portland community, we sat down with Scott Lennartz, Chief Operating Officer of Voicebox Karaoke. The experience of high-end, private room style karaoke differs wildly from the stereotype of off-key renditions of classic rock jams being belted in a dark corner. That’s why we wanted to talk with Scott about Voicebox, what it means to create extraordinary audio visual experiences, and how he helps to change people’s perceptions about karaoke.
Caitlin Lilly: We recently launched a blog series focusing on creating extraordinary audio visual experiences. To me, Voicebox completely fits that vision. I’d like to talk with you about the history of Voicebox and how it became such a unique destination.
Scott Lennartz: My business partner, Scott Simon, started Voicebox originally. He and I were friends long before that. We had both lived in the Bay Area and liked to go into Japantown in San Francisco to sing karaoke. Those karaoke spaces are small and charming, so it was a fun thing to do. We both happened to move up to Portland, and one night we were looking to go to karaoke and realized that there weren’t any private room karaoke places like there’d been in Japantown. He and I have both traveled to Asia, and I worked in China for years, so we’ve done tons of karaoke. He had been looking to start a business and he was trying to figure out what he wanted to do, and then he had this realization: I’m going to open up a karaoke bar.
Initially, the most obvious challenge was all the available karaoke systems were designed specifically for Asia. There weren’t any available for a U.S. audience, so he started by having software developed that would stream the karaoke music to the rooms as well as manage the whole process. This was before widespread smartphone use, so the mobile element had yet to be integrated into this system. The next hurdle was acquiring the music and working on the licensing. But that was really the initial genesis of it.
Voicebox opened in 2008 during the great recession. It grew steadily but gradually at the beginning. I joined a little later on to help grow the concept and add more locations. When we started, we didn’t know anything about audio. Scott’s an electrical engineer and I’m a mathematician. We understand the theoretical things, which I think makes it even worse. It would be better if we didn’t know anything. We’ve gone through several sort of Frankenstein combinations of equipment and different things. From an AV standpoint, it’s an unusual application no matter what, because in this location we have eight rooms, with a total of maybe 20 microphones all in close proximity. That’s not a typical use case for wireless microphones. When we talk with microphone vendors and we say we want run like 24 microphones, all next to each other, they don’t quite know what to make of us.
CL: Because you have to avoid the echo coming from one microphone to the next, especially when people are standing right next to each other with two of them, right? Any feedback coming through from anywhere in the room, or from nearby rooms.
SL: Right. We have all the standard sound issues and they seem funny. When you’re in a dense urban area like this, you’re fighting for frequencies, and then somebody sets up an event across the street for a wedding and all your wireless frequencies get stolen and you come in to start the day and you’ve got to re-scan for everything. It took years to of periodic investigating and sometimes reinventing the audio approach to our business. The technology was also evolving very rapidly. Some things got solved by other smart people in the industry, which made our lives a lot easier, but we’ve gone through a lot of different approaches in terms of how to do karaoke in the rooms.
CL: Can you talk a little bit more about what specifically was missing in the karaoke scene here? I know the private rooms, the more Japanese and Korean style of just being in a room with your friends was a big part of it. What else was influencing the genesis of Voicebox?
SL: When people ask me, “What’s your business?” and I say karaoke, the common response is “I hate karaoke.” Their point of reference is fairly typical: “I went to a bar one time, there were a lot of people, a couple people were really good, and that was intimidating, a couple people were super drunk, that was scary. Then, I had to wait a long time to sing something. I did it, and it was nerve-racking, and I never want to do it again.”
What we’re doing is so different but we didn’t get our message out properly when we first opened. We were really thinking that we would make our customers rock stars and that they would grab a microphone and belt out their favorite songs. We had a lot of branding that involved people screaming into microphones, and we totally missed the point of all of it, which was to project a different, more personal experience.
The real point is that karaoke is fun. It’s not something you have to be good or bad at. Instead, it’s about doing your thing with your friends and creating an experience that you’ll remember collectively. We focused on making sure that our spaces are inviting and not like a nightclub, not a place for kids (although kids are welcome during specified times); just like a clean space that you bring your own energy into. We’re very intentional, and the common space is very recognizable and calm. It looks like a nice bar, but it’s not too over the top. It’s designed to provide a “this is nice and comfortable and I’m glad I’m here” feeling.
Establishing that feeling was an important in creating a quality experience. Our next challenge was to, get the technology to be invisible, because you don’t want guests to be fussing with anything. That even applies to the song books. The traditional printed song books are a pain because you’ve got to find the book, and somebody already spilled on it, it’s torn up, and you’re trying to read it in a very dark room.
Bringing the smartphone into it, to make the song search easier and add new capabilities, was a natural step for us because it’s the way people want to do things. It’s easy, and you don’t have to explain anything. There’s not even an app. You just go to a website, hit the button, and boom, there you go. Get up and sing. There’s no instruction manual. Even if you have guests who aren’t super tech savvy, they’ll get it. It was important for us to get the tech out of the way.
In addition to frequencies, the microphones themselves were an ongoing challenge for a while. There’s not a microphone designed for this application. We used to have a set of high-end microphones that sounded great. The problem was that they were expensive and they were getting dropped on concrete floors and banged around by people every day. They just weren’t designed to handle that kind of abuse, so they would break pretty often. Then you have karaoke-specific microphones. They’re cheap, but they sound bad, and they also break. They’re meant to be more disposable. Finding the right balance was tough in the beginning. We needed a solution that would support the density of microphones in each room. We didn’t do wireless in the beginning for that reason. If you can imagine, it’s all XLR to a cabinet, and you’re dragging a cord everywhere. People were constantly tripping.
CL: And they step on the cables and damage the fibers inside, right?
SL: Yeah, it was not a great way to go. Now, we’ve standardized our microphones to a particular model. We have dozens of them on-hand, and all the parts required to fix one if it breaks. We can fix them till the cows come home. We’re an authorized reseller, not because we sell them to anybody, just we buy so many. We buy them for ourselves, so we can get the discount, we do the volume. Becoming a reseller was a unique solution to our challenge.
We also needed to develop the right way to mix audio because, again, we’re playing karaoke music and that person sings into the mic, and we have to mix those two sources together. Plus, maybe somebody wants a little reverb on their voice, or maybe we’re doing a little compression and then obviously the room has to be EQed for its size and everything else that’s in it. We went through different configurations based on the era of the technology. In the beginning we had an individual mixer and amplifier in each room, but that’s not ideal because it’s all manual. There was no option to pull out an iPad and adjust everything, because that equipment didn’t really exist in our price point.
CL: Were you using analog equipment back then too?
SL: We were. So, we had all those issues at the beginning, and then the wait staff would come into the rooms to deliver drinks and a guest would mention that the audio wasn’t loud enough or something wasn’t quite right. So servers were poking around in the equipment rack and changing settings without being fully trained on how the equipment works. They were just trying to make the guests happy, but this resulted in rooms that were constantly having to be reset and re-tuned.
When we opened the SE Portland and Denver locations, we opted for a high-end Allen & Heath 48 mixer. That thing is gigantic – if it fell on you, it would kill you. There were no switches of any sort. Everything was done through software, which was great, and we could just go into it remotely if we ever need to change any settings or perform any tuning. Of course, the problem with those things is they’re pretty expensive, and if they break, then the entire place goes down. For our next location, we’re actually looking to go back to having a mixer for each room, just a smaller form factor that has all the DSP, the remote management, and all that stuff built in.
CL: With each new location, you can really move forward as the technology changes. Who knows what else is going to come after smartphones for controlling everything.
SL: VR headsets.
CL: Maybe voice commands for changing the settings in the room?
SL: I think that’s always the fascinating thing. One of our ongoing challenges is not everybody fully understands the concept, or they think they do but they have something else in mind. For example, we’ve always had a phone reservation system. You have to call and talk to somebody, and the person on the Voicebox side can make sure you know what you’re reserving and ask you a couple questions to make sure you’re getting the best experience. People don’t want to talk on the phone anymore. It’s almost as though you’re offending somebody’s sensibilities if you ask them to make a phone call. A lot of people think, “Yuck, can’t I just text or submit a form?” They always want to request through an app or a website; they don’t want to talk to anybody. We’re having to confront shifting social norms and figure out the best way to ensure that our guests have a good experience, while also matching their changing preferences.
CL: The speech the Voicebox folks give has changed over the years and things keep getting added. Like the most recent time I booked a room, they told me that you can bring decorations of any kind except for glitter. It’s very specific and I’m sure there’s a good reason for it.
SL: Generally, I’m very against telling guests what to do or not do. It usually doesn’t matter if we tell people not to something, because they are probably going to do it anyway. But we stand firm on glitter and boas because they are really difficult to clean up. Bachelorette parties are notorious for glitter and boas. Glitter is the worst. We want to have a vending machine where you can buy different things for your party, and you could buy glitter, but it would be $1,000.
CL: Be careful – somebody would pay that fee, and the next day you’d have glitter everywhere.
**This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.