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THE LATEST DREAM BUSINESS : VANITY VIDEOS: THEY WANT THEIR OWN MTV

In Los Angeles, so the common wisdom has it, everyone has a screenplay, a book or a play tucked away in the hopes that her or his latent genius will be recognized someday.

Now, thanks to a do-it-yourself audio-video studio in the Universal Studios Tour complex, tourists and residents of Southern California can add a demo tape to that short list of dreams. Hopefuls may make an audio tape or a full-blown music video for $20 or less.

Until recently, few firms had updated the old “make your own record” machines that appeared at carnivals and tourist attractions in the ‘60s. So in 1984, when entrepreneur Glenn Pierce began Sound Tracks Inc. and opened his first public studio in the Great Smoky Mountains resort town of Gatlinburg, Tenn., producing personal tapes and videos seemed like an idea whose time had come.

To hear Brenda Aveyard, executive producer of the firm’s three-month-old, six-studio Universal City facility, tell it, the dream business is doing quite well.

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Sound Tracks, which is based in Sevierville, Tenn., has opened more than 50 of its fantasy franchises across the country, mostly in shopping malls and amusement parks. The company’s busiest studio is in Cincinnati’s King’s Island amusement park, but the new Universal City plant is the firm’s biggest, handling as many as 50 aspiring artists an hour.

“You’d be surprised how little encouragement people need to go in there and sing something,” Aveyard said.

Her point was demonstrated by John Lepper of Mesa, Ariz., his wife and four children--who seemed sedate tourists when they walked into the video ministudio. But once settled, the sextet launched into the Oak Ridge Boys’ “Elvira” with gusto, even though John and the kids forgot the words halfway in.

Asked about the experience, Lepper said simply, “It was a gas.”

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But it isn’t quite that simple, though the studio tries to take most of the kinks out of the process.

A selection of about 200 songs--prerecorded instrumental tracks with what are called “helping vocals,” half-volume vocal lines to guide wayward singers back on pitch--run the gamut from “San Francisco” to “Don’t Mess With my Toot-Toot” to “Amazing Grace,” and all can be either lip-synched or sung live and mixed with the instrumental tracks for a stereo demo tape. The audio-only version runs $9.95.

The video--with the pre-recorded singing mixed onto the videotape--costs $19.95, and it’s a more deluxe production: “Artists,” as the Sound Tracks staff call their customers, choose costumes or wild clothes from an employee and then set up behind dummy drums, keyboards, guitars and microphones and, as Aveyard put it, “let ‘em rip.”

That’s exactly what Rocky and the Pebbles, a.k.a. Rocco Russo and family from Long Island, N.Y., did. As the pulsing electrofunk beat of Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” (with the Roccos’ guest vocals) came through the speakers, youngest son Dennis blithely bashed away at the drums, Rocco Jr. gyrated at the mike and Rocco Sr. gamely fiddled with an electric guitar, looking soulfully into the video camera.

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“We were here doing the tour and saw this place, so we came in,” Russo said afterward. “The kids watch the videos on TV all the time, so we thought we’d give it a shot. I don’t know how I look with a guitar, but it felt pretty good.”

Aveyard and technical director Joe DeSantis agreed that the vast majority of Sound Tracks’ “clients” are adventurous amateurs, either tourists doing Universal Studios or locals who, according to DeSantis, “have had one or three drinks over at the restaurants up here and suddenly decide they’re Lionel Richie.”

Aveyard said Sound Tracks gets a couple of would-be professionals looking to make a demo on the cheap, and--time permitting--the studio staff gives these people a bit more technical attention.

“But we retain legal rights on the stuff done here, so it’s not exactly what most pros have in mind,” she added. Still, the quality of the end product is very good--"more than most of our customers expect,” Aveyard said--and the quality of the dreams engendered in the process is first-rate, if the shining eyes of Dennis Rocco were any indication.

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“Let’s do it again,” he said, grasping his drumsticks.


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