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A New Kind of Karaoke : If you don’t like the pricey bar scene, Korean <i> norae bang</i> lets you belt out songs in alcohol-free private rooms.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lights dimmed, disco diamond ball spinning overhead, Sang and Connie Han slouch in a sofa in a small room equipped with a console TV, wall-mounted speakers and a tambourine. The couple pores over a fat binder stuffed with song titles in several languages. Moments later, she punches a code on the digital remote, grabs a high-powered mike and then sings her heart out.

“Whoa . . . my love, my darlin’, I need your love . . .”

Welcome to the Valley Norae Bang, a Korean-style, non-alcohol version of the popular karaoke bar. Norae bang literally means “singing room” in Korean, and there are a dozen of them to pick from in this strip-mall establishment in Van Nuys.

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These rent-by-the-hour rooms, also known as music studios or karaoke boxes, are the latest in the high-tech karaoke boom. Laser-disc machines deliver to private rooms thousands of prerecorded hits, minus the main vocal tracks, accompanied by MTV-like videos that display lyrics on the screen for the singer to follow.

“I’m crazy about music,” says Connie Han, a nurse at Olive View-UCLA Medical Center in Sylmar. Han, 40, says she visits Valley Norae Bang about once a month, usually with several other nurses after a long day’s work. “This is how I relieve stress.” On this Saturday evening, Han dropped by with her husband for an hour of after-dinner entertainment. “It’s good for learning English songs,” Han adds. “You need the lyrics to learn.”

“It’s wholesome fun,” says Eun Ju Jeong, 23, a student at Valley College who comes about twice a week with a group of friends, spending an hour or two each time. At $20 an hour, Jeong says, it’s not that expensive when split several ways.

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Here, a little prodding might accomplish what many fear of doing in front of strangers in a bar. And for the not-so-shy singer, the wait to perform will probably be much shorter than in karaoke clubs, where drinks are often pricey. This is not a problem at the music studios because they don’t serve alcohol.

“It’s geared more to the family,” says Won Tae Kim, owner of Valley Norae Bang, which is on Van Nuys Boulevard just south of Sherman Way. Kim says on most nights he can hear voices from three generations of Korean-American families--grandparents crooning syrupy folk ballads, parents singing baby-boomer classics in English and Korean, and kids belting out tunes like “B-I-N-G-O.”

“It’s great for children’s birthday parties,” says Kim’s wife, Soon Won. “We even supply the cake.”

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The Kims, who have two small children and live in Northridge, opened the business 18 months ago, and theirs is the only one of its kind in the San Fernando Valley. But more than 30 other Korean music studios have mushroomed in the Southland in the last couple of years, making their way to cities such as Los Angeles, New York and Washington after sweeping Asia.

The big cluster of Korean music studios on the West Coast is in Koreatown. Rosen Music Studio at 8th Street and South Hobart Boulevard boasts the most rooms--24 of them on two levels.

Another popular establishment, Recital Norae Bang at Wilshire Boulevard and Wilton Place, claims its largest room, at $50 an hour, can hold a party of up to 30 people. None of these, however, is quite as elaborate as the music studios in Asia, where some spew thick mist around singers, and others are designed with a theme, such as a Tarzan room painted with jungle flora.

Valley Norae Bang is more of a beginner’s music studio. With the notable exception of one larger room, which can squeeze in 15 to 20 people and costs $30 an hour, the rest are like small playrooms, comfortably fitting a half-dozen adults at an hourly rental rate of $20. Before 7 p.m. it’s half-priced. And you can sing into the wee hours because it’s open until 2 a.m. on weekdays and 4 a.m. on weekends.

There’s not much inside the private rooms: a couch, a coffee table, 27-inch TV, a couple of mikes, a wall painting. But it’s not like singing in your living room.

The Pioneer laser-disc equipment provides rich, high-fidelity acoustics, and even bad singers sound halfway decent because they get a little help from a mixing system that includes vocal enhancement technology, including reverberation and echo. The remote control also allows you to raise or lower the key, slowing or speeding up the song’s tempo.

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The digital technology provides instant access to several thousand songs. Valley Norae Bang’s catalogue includes 2,000 titles in Korean, 1,500 in English, several hundred each in Chinese and Japanese, and 50 in Spanish. Most of the English songs are popular hits from the ‘60s to ‘80s, with plenty of Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and the Beatles. There’s classic rock, disco, country, rap, even tunes from singers such as Judy Garland and Doris Day.

Each title has a code, and you can enter up to four songs at a time, which is recommended because once the bank is empty, it takes a couple of minutes for the computer in the lobby to restart the circuitry to load up a disc. The 12-inch laser discs that play the musical tracks are accompanied by videos, which often flash images of beautiful women and handsome men doing such things as strolling in a park or cozying up near a fireplace. But some videos are hilarious, as in “My Way,” which shows a man practicing his golf swing. All of which makes it tough to suppress laughter, even if you’re trying to follow the lyrics that are highlighted at the speed at which you are supposed to sing them.

Another bit of amusement comes after each performance, when an on-screen scoring system ranks a singer from one to 100. But don’t get alarmed; the scores are all arbitrary.

Most go to music studios just to have fun. But David Choi, a Northridge businessman, sees other benefits in coming with his 11-year-old son, Steven, as Choi often does. “It’s a good way to help him with his music education, which isn’t all that strong in this country,” Choi says. And it’s not a bad way to reinforce family relations, Choi adds.

Like Choi, most of Valley Norae Bang’s customers are Koreans who live in the San Fernando Valley. Certainly one reason few outside of the Korean community have found Valley Norae Bang is that it’s hidden in the second level of a Korean-owned strip mall crowded with some two-dozen Korean shops. There’s no English signage, and the Kims don’t advertise except in Korean newspapers. (The business is listed in the phone book as Valley Music Studio.)

But owner Kim thinks there’s also cultural reasons why few non-Koreans have visited. To many Koreans and other Asians, singing in front of groups, whether in a bar or private room or at school or church, is a way of life.

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Indeed, karaoke bars have long been popular to Japanese as well as Korean “salarymen” as places to unwind, gather with clients, friends or to just pass the night. Music studios grew rapidly in Japan in the late 1980s, partly because karaoke bars were prohibitively expensive and perhaps out of a yearning for privacy in a land where there isn’t much. In a sense, music studios are simply family-oriented version of the karaoke bar, Kim says, and that is why they’re popular in the United States--at least to many Asian-Americans.

Kim says non-Koreans occasionally come in to his shop, but appear more timid about picking up a mike. They tend rather to sing in groups, he says. “But they still say it’s a lot of fun.”

WHERE AND WHEN

What: Valley Norae Bang (Valley Music Studio).

Location: 7100 Van Nuys Blvd., No. 214, Van Nuys.

Hours: Open to the public from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Sunday through Thursday, and until 4 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Reservations are recommended on Friday and Saturday nights.

Price: For most rooms, $20 an hour on a pro-rated basis.

Call: (818) 779-0077.

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