Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Hatsune Miku : Talent Ambassador

In this first post, I'll talk about something I became really interested in a few months ago. It's the voice/singing synthesizer Vocaloid and more specifically the community creation and development around it.

Last November, on another blog, I was surprised to read an article about a live concert held in Japan where the singer was in fact non-existent, more precisely a hologram. Many news articles appeared in mid-November and told the same story. The band Gorillaz also did a concert where they were replaced by avatars on stage. The articles pointed out that it was a mere video projection compare to a full 3D hologram concert with an audience attending.

The articles all linked the same video of the concert. For those of you who aren't really accustomed to Japanese, it may sound awful because of the language difference or simply annoying because the high-pitch voice used. So simply turn off the volume if you want, it's not the main interest of the link.
I am used to the Japanese language strangeness (compared to ours, Latin-based) so my first impression was not that the song was fantastic, but that the "singer" looked really three-dimensional. Being interested in new technology and Japan, I wanted to check if the technology had already reached that point in 3D image. (Maybe affordable personal spaceship will be a reality before I die. *fingers crossed*)

The graphics and animation used for the performance were really good but after a few articles/comments reads, it appeared that it wasn't a hologram as most media were talking about. I guess the word in itself is more appealing than "fake 3D projection". I watched the video several times for 2 reasons : the stunning fake 3D technology and more importantly, to try to understand why would people pay to see a video projection instead of a real singer and cheer for it.
That wasn't going to help the Japanese getting rid of the prejudice of them being strange people with crazy TV shows, cartoon characters everywhere and now worshiping a virtual Lolita singer as if she were real.

So why go to a virtual concert? Maybe it's about the music then if not the stage presence of the singer.

I eventually watched the whole concert called "39's Giving Day of Hatsune Miku".
For information, Hatsune Miku is the girl with green twin-tails and in Japanese, Miku can be translate in the numbers 3 and 9. This numbers could also being pronounced as "san" and "kyu". The name in the concert referred to a "Thank you Concert" from this Hatsune Miku where 39 songs were played and took place on March 9th (3/9 again). It also meant that news articles were 8 months late (talk about hot breaking news).
Another concert took place recently this year, on March 9th 2011, just before the tragic earthquake Japan still has to endure.

The concert finished, what I saw was the same type of concert that we usually expect, apart from the virtual Miku now know as the "Virtual Diva" in her country. Music was fine, most songs were catchy, a few had a certain strangeness making it difficult to understand the enthusiasm of the audience, and some were really good. Mostly, it was at the same level as the general J-pop (Japanese music pop) and other anime songs (anime: Japanese cartoon that stands for "animation").
As I thought that Hatsune Miku was probably only another idol for a minority of people composed of geek and nerdy people, the interest by the general population was greater than I expected. So how did the songwriters and creators of Miku made it a success?

The really surprising thing is that the makers of Miku had almost nothing to do to gain such reputation. And that's where the term Vocaloid comes in.

In 2003 - early 2004, Yamaha Corporation developed and released a singing synthesizer program called Vocaloid (Vocal + Android) mostly aimed at professional musicians. By typing lyrics and melody, any kind of music can be created. It can be jazz, rock, pop, rap, chorus, opera, techno and so on.
But the voice isn't initially virtual. The base of the sound has been recorded by voice actors. Yamaha doesn't handle that part and at first, only provided the Vocaloid software to two developers that made their own voice database and then sold the whole package. They were Crypton Future Media for the Japanese market and Zero-G for the international market (who developed the English singing voices).
To attract the customer and show that the product is in fact a "singer in a box", the developers gave them an identity. Both gave their product peoples' names and Crypton even created characters displayed on the front of the product box, which was a smart move.
Sells were mostly good and then came Vocaloid 2.

With the upgrade came new developers and more realistic voices available. Crypton is at the moment the most popular developer for having created Hatsune Miku's voice, their first Vocaloid 2 character (Crypton's Vocaloid 1 had 2). As usual, a character was designed on the box as it had already proven to be a successful marketing factor. The design is the same as the one during the concert. The synthesized voice being from a high-pitched female voice actor (Saki Fujita), it suited the image of a 16-year-old girl.

Thus started the popular success of the green-haired girl. At that time on the internet, a "meme" was going on (an internet phenomenon where a funny video is shared so much that it becomes very popular). It was about a very catchy Finnish polka song where a Japanese anime character played with a leek (don't ask, there was nothing to understand).
Then someone made a Hatsune Miku version of it, by adding a strangely shorter Miku character playing with the same vegetable and posted it on the Japanese equivalent of Youtube called Nico Nico Douga. It became so popular that Crypton's Vocaloid Miku sales skyrocketed (and funny enough the leek became her emblem).
Crypton released later two other popular Vocaloid products : the young Kagamine Rin and Len (which look like twins) and a 20-year-old female voice, Megurine Luka, more mature and also able to sing in English. Well an approximate English as Japanese is easier to record than English because of its low-fluctuating and syllable-based language (like "a, ga, ka, ma, ko, go, etc...).

And the fascinating part that led all the way to a virtual diva concert was still to come.
Vocaloid being now popular to non-professional musicians for its potential, it started a giant process of creation.

For one individual, to be able to write, compose, and sing a song became the ultimate selling argument. The only required part is creativity. The normal way of creating a song would be for a composer to search for a band and a singer to perform. That means, the right musicians with the right instruments and the skills to play them, and a talented singer with the adequate voice. Mix it up with the huge planning problem of having them gathered at the same time just to practice during their free time, and there you have the complicated procedure used since the dawn of time (and do not forget that you may have to pay them, just to see if your song has potential).

The Vocaloid system simplifies it so that, alone, you can create your music the exact way you are imagining it, and just with a computer.
Yeah, but the voice is artificial and robotic? And the instruments are digital too, right? Well, in some way yes, the voice won't be perfect but a skilled user of the software can come close to it. As for the instruments, it's less obvious as the quality is higher (the technology has been around for quite some time), the variety of instrument is large and the melody goes in the background when more attention is redirected to the voice.

The process of creation started as the Vocaloid musicians shared their works via the internet with Hatsune Miku as their most popular singer. But it didn't stop here.
Others apart from songwriters took part in it and helped creating a community. On one side are the graphic artists who makes videos out of the shared music consistent with the lyrics, and then upload the music video to Nico Nico Douga and Youtube.
Now, we all know what kind of disastrous video we can find on Youtube of someone singing their own version of a popular music. The problem is that the original singer is usually very good so matching it is very hard. But less if it is an electronic one. And from that, another part in the community was formed, composed of amateur singers. And some among them are very talented. They share too their versions freely on the net and other members can use them, where the most popular idea is to make chorus out of them. New videos are then created specially for choruses which leads us to music mixing and editing, and another video making process.
It's also to be noted that musicians are also a part of the community, where a well made melody typed on a keyboard can become much more when a skilled guitarist for example, will gladly play the music through the internet.
All of this even reached video animation when a collaboration between Ordet studio and the music group Supercell (specialized in Vocaloid song) led to a full 50-minute anime.

So that's the whole process I really like and want to share with you. A cycle of free creativity where the participants are producing thousands of songs and because of their unique origins (one single mind), they are much more distinct one from the other. That variety and mass production of creative content even succeeded in being first in a weekly top chart albums sales, nationwide. Impressive for a virtual singer.
It has to be noted that neither Yamaha nor Crypton kept rights about any music produced using their software. The use of Miku and the other Vocaloids' image is also allowed to promote songs. They even have their own music label "Karen-T".
From this, the Vocaloid community helped forming individuals to become music producers, singers, voice actors, video makers, music editors and artwork designers.

39's Giving Day, a concert for geek and nerds that shows that real singers will be replaced by holograms like the media likes to tell us? No, don't think so. Now knowing more about the origins of the virtual singer, it became clearer.
And for this I quote and redirect you to a very good blog article that sums up quite well the answer:

"Vocaloid isn’t putting musicians out of work. It’s making musicians out of people who never thought they could be one."
- Pata [Hatsune Miku and the Magic of Make-Believe]

Following the success, the video game company Sega created two musical games featuring some of the most popular songs made by the community. Because Sega and Crypton were, and still are, in a partnership, it has been decided that a concert could be made from the work done on Sega's video game "Project Diva" reusing the dances and costumes of the characters on stage.

The concert can easily be seen as a marketing operation to increase the video game sales of course but it was also a way to say "Thank You" to the Vocaloid community that made it so popular (Mi ku -> 3 9 -> San Kyu remember?).
So would it still feel stupid to go to a virtual concert? It depends on the point of view.
From a member of the community just enjoying all the songs since years, to the most active participant, if the main company told them "Thanks a lot guys. Hey, if we were to pay professional musicians to play the best of those songs on stage, would you come see it? And you wrote this song, right? If you can play an instrument, care to play it with the band in front of hundreds, even a thousand? And because it would feel a bit strange to hear a singer without seeing one, we will make an awesome 3D life-size Miku. Interested?

If I were in their place, the answer would be obvious. Being offered a concert from something that I could only heard from the internet would be a great way to spend an evening. And even if it's not a real hologram, it looks damn cool.
But in my place right now, I wouldn't go. As seen during the concert, the audience knows all the songs which shows its involvement in it. And even after I watched the full concert on Youtube the first time, I had absolutely no clue what the songs were about, what stories and feelings they intended to convey.
It's only after wandering on Youtube for other songs that I saw the richness and the potential of Vocaloids. And to this day, I really hope that the English version of Hatsune Miku in preparation right now, will have the same success outside of Japan. There is quite a big English community already out there waiting for it. If the product is good and the artists start the process too, it could become big.

So here we are. A first post a bit too long, but the subject is worth it.
Despite the Japanese language that you can find annoying to listen to, it can be overcome in several ways, like any other language. I will make a post out of it with some songs that can be appreciated quite easily by westerners for those who are interested in what results could come out from this Vocaloid system.

Thank you if you read until the end. Feel fry to ask any questions or just leave a comment.
Good night.

Next related Post 2 : "How to appreciate foreign language songs : Example of Japanese with Vocaloid"
Next related Post 3 : ""Vocaloid's Future : The missing link in Music Creation"


  1. Interesting read, keep up the good work ! You could have talked about the Black Rock Shooter project too.

    Another cool entry regarding Hatsune Miku and its perception by French media and fan communities - as well as mainstream media bashing - here : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZLg6ftNVNxM&feature=player_embedded (video podcast in French only, sorry).

  2. Thank you Alex.
    Yes I could add BRS as another collaboration between artists where the level reaches real anime as seen on TV.

    About the international perception and opinion of Hatsune Miku, I don't think I will talk about the French media point of view.

    I saw the video linked a few months ago when I was wondering about the view of foreign countries on this matter. And I don't really want to talk about that apart from all the other countries, the only time the French media related it, it was from a true moronic "journalist".
    Almost everything was wrong in her speech and especially that her main purpose wasn't even to let others judge of the virtual singer idea. Taking the "worst" song because of it's strange introduction (yet funny in time), saying all kind of crap in the only aim to create a fear/hate of something they do not understand because they never heard about.

    We do know that we fear what we don't know, and that's why we have to try to understand it and realize that this fear was only a self protection mechanism.
    Internet is full of idiots (no news here) who like to bash everything without any remorse. We ignore them and it's fine because we know that their hate are not based on a well conducted self analysis. The real wrong part is when you are a journalist, having an access to mass media television broadcast, the work presented has to be non-objective, documented from reliable sources and checked. Canal+ journalist did absolutely nothing of that and her "yes I know, it's awful" attitude was pissing me off.

    So no, I won't make a post about it mostly because because it pisses me off. The only result from it was a deterioration of Japan image to a part of French population; a small brake on Vocaloid's Miku future international spread (mainly the anticipated English version) as some people could have some interests in it after seen a news about her on TV if done in a right way; and a massive online hate of French from the Vocaloid community as some think that one crappy opinion of an individual having the power to input wrong views to a high population means that all the country is the same.
    She couldn't even get the right subject! She shows Hatsune Miku as another character. Simply typing the name on Google Image, take the first picture that comes from it and there you go, you are now a better journalist and can work on TV. :P

  3. Small edit of the post to correct plenty of errors. And add a Black Rock Shooter line as Alex pointed out.

  4. Multiple modifications and corrections thanks to Alex.

  5. Nice article. Thanks for sharing! ^_^

  6. No problem ANB. Discovered it thanks to you (^o^)