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March 08, 2015 | Tom Ballard

PART 1: Music, animation at SoKnox Studios undergirds “Sing and Spell”

SoKnox Studios(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first article in a two-part series that focuses on a South Knoxville business and its team that provided the foundation for the winner of this year’s “What’s the Big Idea” competition. This article focuses on SoKnox Studios; the second article is all about “Sing and Spell.”)

By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.

What do karaoke and the winner of this year’s “What’s the Big Idea” 48-hour launch competition have in common, besides sharing the same production space? A lot more than you might think as we learned recently during a visit to a former shopping center in South Knoxville that now houses a state-of-the-art animation and recording studio, SoKnox Studios.

The facility is home to “Sing and Spell,” where music meets animation. It starts with recordings of original songs, character voice-overs and animations created in the SoKnox production suites. Also coming out of SoKnox are live music recordings, live music video content, professional karaoke tracks, voice-overs, full band recordings and more.

During our walk-through of the studio, it was apparent that what drives SoKnox is an amazing team of like-minded individuals.

The story starts with Joe and Cathy Vangieri, a couple who met in the early 80s when they were enrolled in the radio and television program at William Patterson University located just outside New York City in Wayne, NJ.

“I was going to be a rock star,” the gregarious and engaging Joe Vangieri told us. “We got out of school, and she went to work for a start-up.” That new company was MTV which revolutionized the music industry and clearly had a lifelong impact on the couple.

Cathy later worked at Nickelodeon and Polygram Records, while Joe served as President of one of the first karaoke companies in the country and also produced a weekly television show.

The couple eventually moved to Florida where Cathy became an elementary school teacher, tutor, and director of children’s theater productions.

“I had a passion for helping children learn,” she told us, noting that much of her tutoring was designed to help children for whom English was a second language.

Meanwhile, Joe continued to work in the emerging digital realm, first as Vice President for Sales at Fortress Technologies, a start-up network security company, and then as Chief Executive Officer of VisioSonic, a start-up that revolutionized the disk jockey (DJ) for hire market with a product called “PCDJ.” It brought digitized music to the mobile DJ industry that had previously relied on vinyl records.

“We raised $14 million before the dot com bubble burst,” Joe told us of the Clearwater, FL-based enterprise. Investment capital dried up, and he and his partner – Nile Rodgers, a well-known producer, sold VisioSonic to Digital One Media in 2006.

With a two-year non-compete, Joe became a consultant to companies in distress, drawing on his own experiences in keeping VisioSonic alive. One of those clients was in Knoxville, so Joe was flying regularly between Clearwater and Knoxville.

“The lead investor encouraged me to move here and lead the start-up of a new digital music company,” he explained. “We were empty nesters by then, so we said OK. We knew we had a great staff in the company, but it needed a new name.”

The Vangieris relocated to the region in April 2012 for Joe to lead DigiTrax Entertainment (DTE), the parent company to SoKnox Studios, a sound-alike/karaoke recording company that creates interactive music for apps and products to the web, mobile and social media. DTE has its own catalog of more than 18,000 songs and supplies sound-alikes to well-known shows like the Big Bang Theory and the Jimmy Kimmel Show as well as networks like Hallmark, Oxygen, and MTV.

In addition, DigiTrax offerings include “Karaoke Cloud,” a web-based streaming and download karaoke platform, and its professional version, “Karaoke Cloud Pro,” geared toward the needs of the karaoke show host. The company also provides “Karaoke Party On Demand,” a hugely popular Roku channel, and “KaraokeOnVEVO,” one of the fastest-growing VEVO channels with 500,000 subscribers and nine million streams a month.

Initially DTE operated out of a house in Seymour before moving last April into its renovated SoKnox Studios recording facility off Chapman Highway.

“We wanted to make the space look like Google,” Joe explained. Our visit clearly showed that he had. The recording studios have floating floors, while the other space is very open, bright and designed for collaboration.

So, how does karaoke lead to “Sing and Spell,” you are probably asking?

SoKnox Studios has been an incubation space, inviting collaboration for audio/visual business ideas.  Cathy was Project Manager for DigiTrax. With her background in media, music and teaching and the foundation at SoKnox Studios and DigiTrax, one could almost say it was inevitable that something like “Sing and Spell” would come to the forefront. How it did is a story by itself.

NEXT: The team, their passion and their plans.

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