Vocaloid is one of the most popular pieces of music software around at the moment. As a result, there are literally tons of tracks being produced each day that utilize it. Given its ubiquity in Japan, we asked Patrick St. Michel to put together a list of essential Vocaloid listens – an overview of the singing software’s most striking moments thus far.
Tell Your World
Arguably the most popular Vocaloid song ever... and certainly the one that has gotten the most attention from corners usually not interested in Hatsune Miku or the singing-synthesizer software she reps (give or take a Nyan Cat). Created by one of the most notable names in the Vocaloid community, livetune, “Tell Your World” initially served as the soundtrack to a Google ad, one that easily attracted more views than similar spots starring Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber. The song itself starts as a twinkly piano ballad before blooming into an uptempo electronic number, one doubling as a solid mission statement for everything Miku represents – “I want to tell you / I want to give you / Nodes of feelings from a link / Reaching over the faraway distance.”
The Vocaloid community got going primarily online, but all sorts of in-real-life events soon popped up across Japan. The Nagoya club night 2D M3NTiON isn’t strictly devoted to Vocaloid – it bills itself as an anime-song gathering – but to celebrate their one year anniversary producer y0cle created a special song using the voice of Hatsune Miku. He ended up also making one of the best straight-ahead electro-pop songs utilizing the technology yet, and one that takes full benefit of Miku’s robot-like delivery during the post-chorus stream of syllables.
Producers kz (one half of the aforementioned livetune) and Hachioji-P teamed up in 2012 to produce the straight-up poppiest song Hatsune Miku has ever been tied to. The music on “Weekender Girl” is all bubbly and squiggly, offering a bouncy backdrop for Miku’s vocals to shine. Her singing is programmed rather straightforward here, and this almost sounds like the pair of track makers auditioning their songwriting chops for human performers. Both kz and Hachioji-P soon did start working closely with real-life pop stars... but neither have made something as ear-wormy as “Weekender Girl” yet.
Nou Shou Sakuretsu Girl
Plenty of Vocaloid users have tried to see just how fast they can get their computer-generated singers to spit out words, but the end result often feels more like a kid seeing how far they can push a remote-controlled plane upwards before it smashes into the ground. Producer rerulili pushes the voices of Hatsune Miku and GUMI to the edges, but on his 34th Vocaloid song he wraps the speed demonstration up in a compelling song. With the help of an actual band, he makes a fast-paced song featuring traditional Japanese instruments, Famicom bloops and a loopy intermission featuring what’s supposed to be a phone message playing over circus-ready piano.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is “Strobe Last,” a song that shines thanks to patience and minimalism. Powapowa-P has played around with the ideas present on this song before and after, often with a similar “strobe” theme (honorable mention goes to the slightly more urgent “Hello Strobe”). This one, though, takes its time building up, starting as a spacious shuffler with almost whispered words. It eventually turns into something more immediate and emotionally resonant... and even Miku’s vocals turn into second-long blips of digital noise.
Just Be Friends
The lyrical focuses that pop up in Vocaloid are, like the sounds themselves, all over the place. Many use the character singers to dwell on just what Vocaloid is capable of and the community it has birthed, while others use it to tell elaborate stories or make jokes or just pure nonsense. And sometimes it is as simple as focusing on the moment right before a romantic relationship dissolves. “Just Be Friends” is a straightforward electro-pop song, but its directness and general follow-the-bouncing-ball flow make it effective. Also helping it out is the chorus, where producer Dixie Flatline takes advantage of Vocaloid’s capabilities to have multiple Megurie Luka’s intersect to sweeten the heartbreak.
Despite Vocaloid technology appearing to be something that leans towards the digital, a huge amount of original songs using synthesized vocals embrace rock music, full of chugging verses and gratuitous guitar solos. “Senbonzakura” isn’t able to dodge these trappings, but it manages to rise above thanks to hints of traditional Japanese music structure and the lyrics. The song’s pace sounds upbeat enough, but dig into the lyric sheet and “Senbonzakura” reveals itself to be a darker affair about war, featuring cryptic lines such as “After a bold and audacious Westernization revolution,” and “This is a banquet inside a steel cage / Look down on us from your guillotine.”
Magical Fizzy Drink
The creation of Hatsune Miku ultimately spurred the boom in Vocaloid, but one side effect of gaining steam from a character was that many Vocaloid producers treat the voices they use as flesh-and-bone singers... and don’t try to experiment with them. Which is weird, since Vocaloid is ultimately just another instrument for aspiring artists to mess around with, less an actual singer and more of a nice synthesizer with googly eyes glues to the sides. Tokyo’s mus.hiba has admitted liking the utau character Sekka Yufu, but that didn’t stop him from turning her electronic voice into just another sonic layer on 2012 fever dream “Magical Fizzy Drink.” It’s one of the most daring songs utilizing Vocaloid to date, because it’s not afraid to melt down the digi speak into something different.
Lots of Laugh
Vocaloid music might sometimes be hesitant to bend the sounds Yamaha’s software gives them, but many in the community aren’t afraid to get surreal in song. The collective mikumix provided one of the best examples with 2009’s “LOL – Lots Of Laugh,” which deserves credit for not just bucking internet-acronym rules. The lyrics focus on the central character falling asleep in front of there computer late at night, and the subsequent dream they have, which features chocolate bathtubs and tart sofas among other edible décor. And the music, a buzzy affair where nearly every space gets filled with something, adds to the dizzying atmosphere... as does the electric border around Miku’s vocals.
Vocaloid singing and sounds have popped up every once in awhile in Western recordings – but this year’s “Sad Machine” from EDM-wunderkind-turned-introspective-experimenter Porter Robinson is the first to really put the spotlight on a singing synthesizer. For his debut full-length Worlds, Robinson uses an English-language Vocaloid word bank to create a character in his album-spanning narrative, with “Sad Machine” hailing the arrival of this cast member. And it’s a heck of an intro, as the drama gets ramped up on a song that keeps finding a way to swell.