I called us the Ukulelians. The www.meetup.com/ukulelians website was launched on January 5, 2012. The website is not free but has a lot of built in capabilites that make it well worth what it costs. I expected a mixture of experienced players and complete beginners, and had been down to see Michael at Gold Coast Ukuleles to get a couple of extra ukes for people who didn't have one yet. A Soprano and a Concert to go with my own Tenor.
The meetup system allows you to post a meetup date and time, and members of the group can RSVP to say they are coming. Of course the group was brand new so I was the only member. I set a date for our first meetup on February 19, then started adding pages to the files section of the meetup website to give new members something to download. Things like a QuickPlay uke method, Ukulele types, tuning and general hints on learning and playing.
I then got to work on the first Ukulelian song book. This was to be a PDF file of songs which included the chords and the lyrics. Each song only took up one page, that way I could connect a TV monitor to my Note Book PC and display the songs, so that members of the group could see them and play along. I used paint to draw the chord diagrams of the chords in each of the songs, then added those diagrams at the bottom of each page. The first book included 36 songs and took untill January 30 to complete. I tried to pick a mixture of songs ranging from easy through medium to challenging in a variety of keys, tempos and styles.
I soon discovered that the TV monitor really was better sitting on its side so that it could display a 90 degree rotated PDF image on the screen, making it larger and more readable. So I made a little stand to mount the monitor on sideways. Then there was lots of messing with fonts to finally get the most readable font that would actually fit on the screen.
By February 19, 2012 about a dozen people had signed on. I had experimented with my TV and PDF files and was confident that it would be fine for around that number. In fact, lots more people showed up on the day, so not everyone could see my TV monitor, but some folks had printed out the PDF song book I had uploaded so could use them. Great to see so many people, but my TV was obviously not the solution to getting everyone playing together with easy access to the lyrics and chords. My tiny little portable amplifier and speaker were also not going to cope with leading the singing.
The meetup site invites members to rate and comment on the meetup. One of those comments suggested a big screen projector. Hire rates seemed a bit prohibitive and the nearest hirer was miles away. So, after much serious consideration I started looking around for a second hand one. These projectors do come in some very expensive varieties, even the second hand ones were expensive, so new was a better alternative. As always it is a question of cost versus performance, but I bit the bullet and bought a decent piece of equipment with a long life lamp, high lumens and very good magnification. I also purchased a respectable 12 channel mixer, speakers and mikes. Once you start plugging things in you need public liability insurance for performances so that was next. Costs had now been incurred so I put a $5.00 fee on players attending the meetups to help pay for it.
The PDF images projected by the digital projector did not like the font I had used for the PDF files on the TV monitor. So it was back to trial and error to get the best clarity and size but to keep a font that would allow a whole song to be projected on the screen at once. Then distances from the screen, aspect ratio and zoom came into it to get the best result. There is always some compromise, but the decisions were made and I started redoing the song book fonts, line breaks and chords to suit the new system.
Five PDF song books then followed and were uploaded to the website from May through August. It was always a rush to try and put them together and upload them ahead of the next monthly meetup so that members could download them with a bit of time left to practice the songs. They were all done in the same format that had been established to best suit all of the requirements. The chords appeared in [square] brackets in with the lyrics. It suited the projector best for the chords to be in either a dark blue or a bright red.
The meetups now featured the projected PDF images on a screen and the whole group singing or playing or both. Provided you did not lose your place in the middle of the song, and you sat close enough to read them, the PDF's worked very well. A whole room full of Ukuleles playing, sounds pretty good but having played with lots of bands over the years, I did miss the nice steady beat of a drummer and the sweet sounds of a Bass, in the mix, keeping us all in time. Especially since in the early days I had a bit of a tendency to slow down a little if I saw people struggling to keep up with the chord changes.
I did not want to start a whole band with drums and the like, so I started fiddling with on line metronomes that I could play on my lap top via my sound system without interfering with the display of the PDF files through the projector. It would be better if you could do both at once. Eventually that led to my discovery of software based karaoke players and the Van Basco player in particular. So neat and capable and yet totally free to download from www.vanbasco.com
The player plays MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) files. These are basically a set of instructions in the form of a computer program which instructs your sound card to play the music. You could play the MIDI file while following the PDF file to read the lyrics and chords, however, MIDI files can also include lyrics. Now as I was a computer programmer in one of my past lives this really tweaked my interest.
Apart from providing the backing tracks and timing, the Karaoke player does not need to display all the lyrics at once, so thay are much larger and easier to read. All it needed now was for the chords to be included with the lyrics in the display. I found it really good fun playing along with the backing tracks. I could play a bit of rhythm add a few breaks and pick up some nice new strumming patterns to suit the song.
I started working on what was needed to include the chords with the lyrics, in the right key of course so that it was possible to read the lyric and the chords at the same time in a moving Karaoke type format. That also meant adding the chords for the intros and instrumental breaks in the songs, because unlike the singing, the music needs to keep going through the whole song. I started calling it KaraUkey. Lots of different methods later I started producing the KaraUkey songs.
Just playing with them convinced me that it is a great way to learn and play at your own pace on your own PC. Especially since you can change the tempo of the song as you learn it. It actually takes hours to do the songs, but once they are done they are downloadable digital files that anyone with a PC and a free vanBasco karaoke player installed, can play.
I looked into what was needed to make the KaraUkey songs available to other people. Songs are the intellectual property of the people who wrote them. If I wrote a song and lots of people started playing it, I would expect to be rewarded for my efforts. A licence to distribute the songs legally as downloads or on data CDs was the only way to make the finished KaraUkey songs avaialble to all and sundry.
The licence comes with a fee, royalties payable on songs and the responsibility of annual reports on sales, to ensure that the various owners of the songs are paid for their work. So they are not free, but they are not expensive either, compared to the normal cost of song books or of karaoke tracks. The player being free to download is a major bonus.
The members of the group have been great in supporting the effort, with purchases of the books, and since I added a more automated download process, people have started buying them from overseas as well, which is fantastic. There are now also some serious affiliate enquiries.
The work of expanding the KaraUkey library is ongoing. There are currently two Bumper Books and a few Tenner Books. This week some of my other chores went better than expected and I was able to add another half dozen songs or so to the collection. I learn to play each song in the process and that is a lot of fun. There are lots of different styles represented here including Country & Western, Hawaiian, jazz and blues.
This is in fact the first birthday for the group. A meetup on Sunday Feb 24 is just a few days over a year from the first meetup.