What Is Vocaloid? An Insight Into the "Music of the Future"
The Main Vocaloid Gang
Vocaloid is a relatively new type of singing software, that takes sound fragments from actual singers and creates a sort of virtual singer that can be manipulated to sing at practically any pitch. It is likened to the pronunciations you hear on Google Translate or similar websites, with one distinct difference: these are made to sing. In essence, the buyer can plug the lyrics and composition of the song, and the Vocaloid will then sing it back to you, making it handy for up-and-coming composers in need of a cheap, dependable vocalist for their works.
First released in 2004 in the form of LE♂N and L♀la (Leon and Lola), they have been steadily gaining popularity due in large part to their Japanese counterparts, in particular a Vocaloid known officially as Hatsune Miku (but we’ll get to her later). As of now, there are currently around 47(?) Vocaloid singers released, although it is hard to track, given the speed of the new releases and updates. Seen as a musical breakthrough by some, an overly-processed chipmunk techno fad to others, one thing is certain: Vocaloid has garnered a massive cult-like following due to its versatility, unique sound, and increasingly human-like vocals.
Many of the public seems to have a sort of phobia of the Vocaloids. Similar to the argument many present to the possibility of technologically connected classrooms, people see them as “unnatural”. Singers worry about their jobs; it’s already a cruel world for aspiring singers, after all.
But the reality of an artificial singer holds countless possibilities. Inexpensive and always on pitch, virtual idols never die, never retire, and will never pull those annoying publicity stunts! And of course, they showcase the real masterminds behind the music: the composers themselves.
In my review of Vocaloid, I’ll cover everything from the history of the phenomenon, to its rise in popularity, as well as a brief overview of the most notable Vocaloids and personal song recommendations. I’ll also briefly talk about Utau singers, similar to Vocaloid, and their role in the new genre.
The First Vocaloid
Once, long ago, in the land of England… There lived a magical company named Zero-G.
And there, in that magical company, the first Vocaloids were born.
Or is it? As previously mentioned, Leon and Lola were the first of the software, premiered during the NAMM Show in January, 2004, though development for the software started early 2000. They were programmed to be primarily “soul singers”, marketed more toward producers and professional composers than the general public, although they weren’t as finely polished as the ones today and often experienced bugs.
Shortly after, they produced another Vocaloid, Miriam (named after her voice provider, Miriam Stockley). She had a higher, smoother voice than her fellow female, Lola, whose voice has often been criticized as being slightly masculine-sounding.
Even with the new technology, the first sales were a bust. They sounded kind of… bad. With the right tuning they could sound semi-decent, but with all of their bugs and issues, not to mention their distinctly artificial-sounding voices, the public wasn’t impressed.
The video below showcases the voices of Leon, Lola, and Miriam used at their very best.
Another company managed to release their own Vocaloid in the same year, this time Crypton Future Media, reigning from Japan. Meiko and Kaito, released within 2 years of each other, held a lot of “firsts”, as well as a great deal of “lasts”. Being the first Japanese Vocaloids, first to have official character designs (and Kaito being the lastof the Vocaloid1 engine), they’re still iconic characters in the Vocaloid fandom to this day.
Unfortunately, the software never really took off in terms of popularity, and it seemed as though the Vocaloid was doomed to fade into obscurity. The problem with the sales was not the Vocaloids themselves, but the manner in which the companies marketed their products.
By the time the new, improved version of Vocaloid arrived(of which there are three: Vocaloid1, Vocaloid2, and Vocaloid3), Crypton had adopted a new marketing strategy. This may have been the ideal time for Hatsune Miku to take the spotlight.
And oh, she did.
Hatsune Miku (translated as: “the first sound from the future”) is without a doubt the most influential of the Vocaloids. Though many have criticized her voice as being too squeaky and unrealistically high, there is no debate that, without her, the Vocaloid movement in itself would have been a flop. She was first released in 2007, and is voiced by Japanese voice actress Saki Fujita.
Not the first of the Vocaloid 2 software (that title goes to Sweet Ann, another English-speaking Vocaloid), nor the first Vocaloid in existence as some believe, Miku’s popularity was fueled by her appealing design and (of course) through viral videos found on Nico Nico Douga (like a Japanese Youtube).
Crypton wanted to create a design that would catch the attention of the anime otaku market, which is an increasingly large portion of Japan’s public. Despite the fact that it is common practice in Japan to make such character designs for your products, and that Crypton had already created a character for both Meiko and Kaito, they hoped that Miku’s look and sales pitch would stand out.
And it worked. With her bright aqua pigtails and adorable school uniform-esqe clothing, Miku unlocked a newly found audience for the virtual singers. With the fans begging for more, composers were quick to buy software, capitalizing on the fad. Easy to work with and pleasant to hear, Hatsune Miku began the climb to stardom. Suddenly the Vocaloids were marketed less like computer software and more like actual singers.
She is now considered a Japanese pop idol and will continue to be Crypton’s golden girl, already starring in two of her own concert tours!
With Miku’s overwhelming popularity came stiff competition, and soon Zero-G and Crypton were not the only competitors in the Vocaloid market.
Most iconic of the Vocaloids, of course, would be those made by Crypton soon after the release of Hatsune Miku. Kagamine Rin and Kagamine Len, both included in the same software and voiced by the same person (Yes, Len was voiced by a girl). There is often debate as to whether they are twins, lovers, or mirror images, although Crypton has stated that they are indeed mirror images. Along with the Kagamines, Megurine Luka was released around the same time. Luka, however, captures the voice of a mature older woman, and in that way she is unique among other Japanese Vocaloids.
The Crypton Vocaloids are the “poster children” of the fandom. They are likely the first to be mentioned in any conversation about Vocaloid.
Internet Co., Ltd was the first to use famous Japanese singers in the making of their software, taking samples from idols such as Gackt and Megumi Nakajima to create popular Vocaloids, Gackpoid (Gakupo) and Megpoid (GUMI), as well as being a joint producer of the newer Lily.
Many assume that Gakupo and GUMI were made by the same company as Hatsune Miku, but this is not the case. GUMI is rapidly rising in the charts due to her soft and genuine-sounding voice, which is why she is one of my favorites as well!
YAMAHA and Bplats, the original manufacturer of the Vocaloid 1, 2, and 3 software did not begin recording their own products until 2010, when they began work on the VY series. VY1 and VY2 are, in my opinion, two of the most realistic Vocaloids. The producers took the time to study the human voice, and their software reflects the amount of effort they put into it. They’re currently working on more Vocaloid 3 singers.
Power FX, who specializes in Engloids (Vocaloids who speak English) were credited as the first to use the Vocaloid2 software with Sweet Ann. Their “monster theme” continued with Big Al, and finally Oliver who was released in 2011 on the new Vocaloid 3. Not only was he the first English Vocaloid released on Vocaloid 3, Oliver is also the only Vocaloid ever to use a male child’s voicebank. Not to mention my personal favorite! ^^
So far, none of the Engloids have been made with an American accent. Primarily manufactured in the UK and Sweden, their voices can sound distorted to the American public due to their voice provider’s nationality (however, with Big Al, steps were taken to make the Vocaloid sound as much like Elvis as possible. This may be why he is tied with Oliver as the clearest in regards to pronunciation)
AH-Software is another notable company in the virtual-singer business, and although their Vocaloids are not as popular as Crypton’s or Internet Co., Ltd, they do hold a rather noteworthy band of characters. SF-A2 Miki, Nekomura Iroha, Hiyama Kiyoteru, and finally Kaai Yuki, the first ever Vocaloid to use a child’s voicebank. Their new Vocaloid 3 singer, Yuzuki Yukari, is also becoming quite popular.
SBS Artech has only released one singer, See-U, meant to appeal to the K-Pop crowd. She is the first Vocaloid to have Korean phonetics added, and has blown up the charts in the 2 months since her release.
There are definitely more out there, but those are the big ones. A lot of the newer fans have only ever heard of the Crypton Vocaloids, and that’s just fine! The problem with the Crypon software, however, is that they all use Vocaloid 2, instead of the improved Vocaloid 3 (not including their appends), and can sometimes sound more robotic than the less popular singers.
Commercial Interest & Future Development
I suppose, by now anyway, everyone has heard of the famous Tupac-hologram stunt, performed at the recent 2012 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. Being the latest news, it’s no surprise that the people reporting on such technology would ask “how is it done?” or at least express amazement at this new concert experience.
Vocaloid fans will be quick to point out that the Tupac incident was not the first to use that technology. In fact, Crypton’s recent concert tour used the mirror trick to bring their characters to life on stage in 2009! It’s one of the many factors resulting in Vocaloid’s popularity.
Hatsune Miku at her 39's Giving Day concert
Along with concerts, the Crypton Vocaloids have figurines, video games, and are in the process of making a live Vocaloid experience with which fans will be able to meet and speak with their favorite idol. They’ve had cameos in countless media; even a professional race car managed to get a sweet Miku-painted front (and there’s one with the Kagamines on it as well!)
Utau software is identical to Vocaloid, only on a cheaper and more robotic-sounding scale.
Unlike Vocaloid, Utau is a free voice-synthesizing program , meaning you don’t have to pay to have a virtual singer of your very own. The default voice in the Utau system is Uta Utane (otherwise known as Defoko, which literally means “default girl”), but users are allowed to record their own voices and make a Utaloid out of their own voice!
Or, if singing isn’t your thing, there are plenty of user-made Utaloids that are free to download. Just install your chosen singer, and you should be able to manipulate your new songbird freely.
Anyone from the general public can make a Utaloid, which makes them a bit less professional than their celebrity counterparts, although there are many Utau nowadays that have surpassed some of the older Vocaloids in terms of realism.
Some people prefer the Utaloid’s hollow, tinny sound to that of the Vocaloids, though it is hard to find! Teto, Defoko, and Nilla Tohne are the only three I’ve listened to, but with every Utau, their songs tend to be a hit-or-miss. And with users creating new Utaloids at any given moment, it becomes hard to track the releases. It is rare to find a song that fits their unique voices; very few composers manage to pull it off.
Some Of My Favorites!
- GUMI - Goodnight Sweetheart
- Hatsune Miku - Strobe Last
- Rin Kagamine - Bye Bye My Blue Bird [English + Romaji Subs] - YouTube
- 【Oliver】Behind My Daisy【Vocaloid Cover】 - YouTube
- 【Oliver】Speed of Sound【VOCALOID 3】 - YouTube
- 【UTAU】 Always Fluffy 【Tohne Nilla ACT2】 - YouTube
- Kaai Yuki - Our Let-It-Be - YouTube
- [IA] A Tale of Six Trillion Years and a Night [English Subs] - YouTube
- Gumi P - Soul Breeze - YouTube
- Hatsune Miku - Heartbeat - VOCALOID - YouTube
- 【Vocaloid3 Oliver】 E.T. - YouTube
And there's more where that came from!
Though I have my own style of music, Vocaloid ranges across the board. If there's a specific genre that you're interested in hearing, let me know in the comments! I'd be happy to point you in the right direction.
Out of the available Vocaloids, it may be challenging to find a voice that you enjoy. I have talked to a few fans who absolutely will not listen to Miku’s voice because, as stated above, it can sound fairly squeaky and childish when in the wrong hands. Vocaloids come in English, Spanish, Japanese, Korean… even Finnish! Their voices can perform genres such as pop, techno, punk, rock, hip-hop, opera, soul, blues, disco, choir, and many more. They’re designed to be versatile, although, admittedly, some have more trouble transitioning into other languages than others.
So, if you’re new to the genre, I suggest “not judging a book by its cover” when listening to just one of the many Vocaloids!
Dig around, and hopefully you’ll find something worthwhile. My personal favorites are GUMI, VY1, VY2, IA, Oliver, Hatsune Miku, and Kaai Yuki. But you’re free to try whichever singer first strikes your interest.