U of S inventor in tune with the industry
by Lori Wiens
George Spark (BE'66), likes to invent things. One of his brainwaves is a karaoke wannabe's saviour, putting them on key and even making them sound like their favorite musical artist. This former grad and professor pioneered technology in the early 1980s that helps correct pitch in both instruments and voices. Since then, his technology has been refined for use by professional musicians and for the commercial karaoke market, particularly in Japan.
"Here karaoke is a bunch of people down at a bar drinking beer and making fools of themselves," laughs Spark. "In Japan it's more of a serious cultural thing, so this technology is important to them." Not only will it correct pitch, it can be used to imitate famous singers or even to change the gender of the voice. Based in Saskatoon, Spark considers himself an engineer first and inventor second, but admits he enjoys seeing the technology he creates used in the commercial market. "I'm basically a design engineer, but I like taking the ideas into production," he claims.
Originally from Prince Albert, Spark received his bachelor and masters degrees in electrical engineering at the U of S. He taught in the faculty from 1966 until 1974 when he branched out with a partner to create a data communications company called Develcon Electronics. Four years after starting the company, he left the day to day operations of the company. Eventually a friend of his approached him with a simple request. "My friend was trying to learn how to play the flute and asked me if I would build something that would show if he was off key when he was practicing at home," recalls Spark. "I sat down to work on it, and in the end, he decided this was something that could be marketed widely."
Although they originally targeted it as a music training device for schools, it flopped. "Everyone loved the product and thought it was great, but no one was buying it," he says. "Fortunately for us, it was about the same time that professional musicians were looking for electronic music equipment that could help instruments communicate." After seeing great success in the music industry, he decided to turn the technology to voices. "It was easy to say we could make it happen, but it was actually a lot of work."
Besides karaoke machines and professional music production, his technology is being used by Hasbro in some of their toys. One product, targeted to teenage girls and sold in Walmart and Toys R Us in the United States, allows them to download music off a special website and sing along, complete with back up singers and voice manipulation. It wasn't as strong a seller as Spark would have liked, but it did sell reasonably well in the consumer market. More products are on the way, but Spark says he's not really involved in the marketing side of things. "Understand that I'm behind the scenes and haven't been really involved except as a shareholder for several years," he explains. "One of these days, though, I hope it's going to make me some money."
For now, he has decided to keep taking on projects with defined lengths. "I like being able to solve the problem and seeing the instant gratification," he says. "No more dealing with bankers and lawyers and the public. I can just sit in my lab and create things."