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VOCALOID: The Virtual Pop Star

Even the most talented of musicians will stumble on occasion. A missed note, a forgotten lyric, a literal stumble on stage during a routine. But what if there was an artist who would never skip a verse, drop a microphone, or flub choreography?

VOCALOID is not a new concept, with the first iteration of the program released in 2003 for English and Japanese audiences. The program, now on its fourth version, is a voice synthesizer application for musicians to add vocals to their songs without the need for an actual singer. Although originally fairly niche, it steadily grew increasingly popular with audiences, especially after the release of VOCALOID 2 and its headlining module, Hatsune Miku.
Hatsune Miku (which translates roughly to “the first sound of the future”) was developed by Crypton Future Media and is now known as the face of VOCALOID. Her voice was provided by Saki Fujita, a Japanese voice actor, and was later given an English voice bank in 2013 and a Mandarin voice bank in 2017. This only increased her popularity overseas, where she was already a hit among fans of anime and manga, alongside fellow Crypton VOCALOIDs Kagamine Len and Rin and Megurine Luka.

The official art for Hatsune Miku.

Of course, Miku isn’t the only VOCALOID on the market, even if her name is nearly synonymous with the brand. Several corporations, including the Yamaha Corporation, Zero-G Ltd., Sony, and SEGA have released VOCALOID singers over the years, in a variety of languages. However, all the programs (aside from the Cyrpton VOCALOIDs) are still fairly limited in their popularity, with the legal implications of using someone else’s voice to create music worrying too many.

Still, the concerns do little to stop fans from snatching up merchandise with Miku’s face, playing her plethora of rhythm and music games, or flocking to attend her concerts. Yes, concerts. Using a projector and angled screens, the virtual diva appears on stage, dancing and singing for a cheering crowd armed with leek-shaped glowsticks (it’s a long story). These concerts, while primarily held in Japan, have also been held in Singapore, Berlin, Los Angeles, and Shanghai, among other cities (an example video has been included below). Other notable appearances beyond her headlining concerts include a performance on The Late Show with David Letterman in 2014, touring as the opening act for Lady Gaga’s “ArtRave” tour, and a team-up with Louis Vuitton for a VOCALOID opera in France in 2013. And let’s not forget her stint promoting the 2011 Toyota Corolla.

But what makes Hatsune Miku (and indeed, all the VOCALOIDs) so groundbreaking is the freedom and technology behind them. While it is true that each VOCALOID sounds better performing within a few certain genres because of their voice banks, they aren’t pigeonholed to a genre like many musicians are. It offers those who wish to create music an option to add vocals without searching for a singer. The technology used to bring Miku on stage may be conceptually simple (it’s little more than a variation on the famous Pepper’s ghost illusion), but it has allowed superstars Tupac and Michael Jackson perform, even after their lives ended.

The VOCALOID (version 1) program.

While there are worrying implications, both legally and morally, regarding VOCALOID, it still gives us a glimpse into what the future of pop music might look like. It’s already proven to be popular and, if put into the right hands, beautiful-sounding, with the vocals nearly indistinguishable from an actual vocalist. GarageBand and other music-creation programs have shown they are capable of making songs on par with a full, profession orchestra. Trends in music are relying increasingly on dubstep and other technological beats. Pop stars are accused of being artificial, and have been from the beginning.

 

With VOCALOID, it’s more than just cutting out the middle man- it’s the next logical step.