‘Vocaloids’ aren’t characters, they’re instruments changing the way music is made

hatsune miku creative revolution musicians vocaloid3 software
Who is Hatsune Miku? Well, she’s not really a “who” at all. She’s not a person, or a team of people. Or even an animated front for a real singer, like Gorillaz. She’s a piece of vocal software that thousands of digital musicians have used to create more than 500,000 songs, intricately tuning her voice to their requirements. Despite this, to her legions of fans, Hatsune Miku is equally as real (and adored) as any celebrity pop star. And she’s changing the way music is imagined and produced.

Frequently, but mistakenly referred to as an anime character and a robot, or reduced to being called (wrongly, again) a hologram that’s “big in Japan,” Hatsune Miku is a Vocaloid. That means she’s a digital instrument: a voice synthesizer program that, using samples of Japanese voice actress Saki Fujita’s voice, is forever ready to sing your lyrics, in the same way that a piano’s keys reproduce the notes of your composition.

“Hatsune Miku is only a voice. Hatsune Miku herself is very limited. Fortunately there is a bigger purpose behind Hatsune Miku.” These are the words of Hiroyuki Itoh, the CEO of Crypton Future Media, and the man behind virtual singer Hatsune Miku and the Vocaloid phenomenon.

That phenomenon is big, and Mikus’ fans number in the millions. It’s strange, but this character who is also a digital instrument is at the center of an incredible digital music revolution, a movement that provides freedom to thousands of musicians who, without her, may never have their work heard.

Musical freedom

Vocaloid software uses Yamaha’s voice synthesis engine, and Hatsune Miku version one was released back in 2007. She was the third such product from Japan’s Crypton Future Media, and eventually became part of a troupe of six separate Crypton-made Vocaloid singers. She sings mainly in Japanese, but does have an English voice bank. As with other musical instruments, original music created using Hatsune Miku can be distributed and sold. If you want to use Miku’s now-famous image and her name, then you can also do so, just not for profit unless you get a licence.

Vocaloid3-Hatsune-Miku

From musicians wanting to experiment with vocals, to those who don’t have the means or opportunity to employ a singer, she offers almost complete musical freedom. She doesn’t care what genre she sings, will never disagree about stylistic choices, works all hours, and never requires payment. When you’re happy with the result — which could be after take one, or take 1,001 — you can add Miku artwork, a Miku music video, and release your own song to legions of fans around the world.

The success of Vocaloid software and the world it has created can be compared to the rise of smartphones and app developers. App stores and the popularity of smartphones allowed anyone with a computer and some coding knowledge to write and release apps. Hatsune Miku and all the other Vocaloids provide the same opportunity to anyone with some musical talent. That’s the bigger purpose Mr. Itoh referred to, and for many, recording with Miku has been life-changing.

Better than reality

When you meet Wisp X, a 20-year old musician from New York you need to forget the ultra-cute Hatsune Miku image and music you may have heard before. Wisp X writes EDM, house, and drum n’ bass; genres which suit Miku surprisingly well, illustrating her versatility. He used Hatsune Miku to sing on the track Alone, taken from his album Falling With the Sakura Leaves.

“I used Hatsune Miku for two reasons,” he told Digital Trends. “The first and primary reason is that I love Vocaloid songs and wanted to incorporate Vocaloid into my music. Second, I really wanted a vocal song on Falling With The Sakura Leaves, but I didn’t have the time or patience to try and contact an actual person.”

Interestingly, for someone with quite a library of tracks to his name, music isn’t Wisp X’s job. He “doesn’t know that much music theory,” can’t play any instruments, and makes all his music “either in my bedroom or at college between classes.” He is, therefore, exactly the type of person who will get the most out of Vocaloid software. Alone has become his most viewed song on YouTube, amassing more than 23,000 views at the time of writing.

Alone was also his first and, so far, only use of Vocaloid software. Describing it as “fairly quick and easy to learn,” Wisp X has since worked with actual singers, but said, “It’s much easier to work with Vocaloid. You can modify the voice to be exactly what you want it to be, and with a real person you often only get one recording, and you have to make it work.”

A creative community

While Wisp X is waiting for the right opportunity to use Vocaloid in his music again, Vocaloid artist Coralmines has been using the software for three years, and describes himself as an “average bedroom musician with average music skills and absolutely no experience nor knowledge of the music industry.”

A Hatsune Miku fan first — he collected images and listened to Miku before anything else — Coralmines started buying music software after getting his first job, and creates in the electronic dance music genre. Concentrating on melody rather than complex sound design, using Miku seemed logical. “Since the chance of finding a vocalist to sing my melodies was next to none, I channeled my past and started using Vocaloid,” he told us.

Coralmines experience also gives us an insight into the community that’s so integral to Vocaloid’s continued popularity. The reason he keeps making Vocaloid music is because “fans are proactive and incredibly supportive.” He also highlighted how Vocaloid is more than just that cute Hatsune Miku character, but an entire movement driving musical creativity and enjoyment.

“Vocaloid has evolved into a platform where you can create music using the software, collaborate with people online to provide lyrics and art, post the result to YouTube, or distribute them freely or pay-what-you-want on sites like Soundcloud and Bandcamp. You build your music without the usual help of a record label or a high-profile artist.”

While his ambition is clear, Coralmines also notes the other key attraction to using a Vocaloid — the lack of pressure, which would be part and parcel of any record deal. “There are no expectations when you make Vocaloid music,” he said. “You don’t have to be talented (though some does help); you don’t have to be consistent; and there’s no stress to please anyone. It’s just you making music you enjoy.”

It’s a strong statement, and one that epitomises the creative outlet provided by digital singers. However, to Coralmines, Vocaloid is much more than just a tool for creating music. “It changed my life. It made me realize I can do something with my music, and not just convey thoughts and ideas, but be part of something.”

Going beyond music

Vocaloid creativity doesn’t stop at music. For example, just like mainstream songs, Vocaloid tracks have accompanying videos, made using software known as MikuMikuDance, or MMD for short. The name gives away the functionality, as an animated 3D Miku can be programmed to dance along to your track. Then there’s Piapro, a Crypton-sanctioned Japanese website where creators come together to share music, artwork, lyrics, ideas, and more — something that demonstrates Vocaloid’s massive creative reach. It’s fan-driven, crowd-sourced content taken to the max, all built around a love for the character, what she represents, and art itself.

It’s through Piapro and the Vocaloid record label KarenT that new music can be discovered. EDM may be the focus here, but the choice outside of this is enormous. From Ryo’s hugely popular Odds & Ends (a Vocaloid anthem, the lyrics of which resonate with Miku fans), to Keeno’s ethereal Glow, and Deco*27’s rock influenced Two Breaths Walking, Miku will lend her angelic voice to just about anything.

What it’s like to be a Vocaloid DJ

What happens to all this music once it’s made? It may be endlessly shared, remixed by other producers, or even find its way into a DJ set performed by performers like Revolution Boi, a primarily Vocaloid-focused DJ living in Los Angeles. “When I first heard a song by Miku, I hated it instantly,” he told us, “but curiosity pushed me to do some research, and that became life changing. Vocaloid is much more than the music alone,” he continued, “It expands to all artists and creativity. I’m an artist myself, so I knew I had to do something.”

A DJ for 17 years, Revolution Boi contributes to the Vocaloid world in a different way then the producers we spoke to above. He doesn’t make music, admitting it’s difficult without time, knowledge, and proper tools to do so. Instead he DJs, remixes, and does light production for other artists. He contributes to the community in a way that suits him, and his skills.

His sets earned him invitations to conventions around the U.S., which ultimately saw him land a job with a company that has strong ties with the Vocaloid and anime industry. “When I think about it, it’s funny, because I was invited as a guest DJ at Anime Expo in 2013 and was offered the chance to help out at several other companies at the same time, which led to a new career. So I think being known as a Vocaloid DJ helped me land where I am now.”

A voice that became a megastar

Hatsune Miku may “only be a voice,” but without these artists she wouldn’t say a word. While Miku helps regular people get their music out in the world, she’s also a true megastar. There are big name producers using Miku to astonishing effect — Mitchie M has an amazing talent for tuning her voice to perfection — plus she has her own series of video games — Project Diva and Project Mirai — has appeared in ads for Toyota and Google Chrome, and is about to headline a series of sell-out shows in U.S. this year.

Miko Expo will feature Hatsune Miku — in “hologram” form — singing some of her most popular songs. Many of those songs were written and produced by artists who began working in similar ways to Wisp X, Coralmines, and the thousands of other producers out there. It’s proof that bedroom musicians who have Hatsune Miku sing their songs may end up with their work being sung on a huge stage.

No matter the platform, most musicians ultimately want their music to be heard, regardless of whether it’s onstage or online. Revolution Boi put it perfectly: “Vocaloid has helped me reach new audiences with my music that I wasn’t aware of, and I’m happy people have the chance to hear it. I’m glad to be a part of it.”

Vocaloid software can be purchased for $150 right now, and it opens up a massive world of creative opportunity for anyone with an interest in making music. Or, if you like to listen, you can peruse the hundreds of thousands of songs on YouTube and other channels, or join 2.5 million other Miku fans on Facebook.

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