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What Are Vocaloids?
Hatsune Miku has toured all over the world, playing sold-out shows every time she performs. From her entrance into the music scene in 2007 up through March 2012, she made over 10 billion yen on music sales, concert tickets, and merchandise.
She has appeared in car commercials, collaborated with artists such as Pharrell Williams and Lady Gaga, starred in an anime called Black Rock Shooter, modeled for Marc Jacobs, and has several rhythm games based on her music. You might wonder how she finds the energy to participate in all these projects. The answer may shock you. Hatsune Miku, the pop queen of Japan, is not real.
Miku is a Vocaloid—a synthesizer program that is designed to sound like a human voice. Vocaloids are made using the vocals of real singers. The singer records a voicebank of all the syllables that occur in the language that their Vocaloid will use, and these syllables can be pitched to different notes, given vocal effects like vibrato, and manipulated by music producers to create a realistic-sounding human voice.
Vocaloids Are Changing the Music Business
Vocaloids, unlike real singers, never get tired and never need royalty checks. They have virtually unlimited ranges and capabilities. The music producer has complete control of the way their vocalist sounds and how that vocalist creates emotion in the listeners. In the right hands, they are almost indistinguishable from real singers. This is a valuable tool for music producers, so Vocaloids are quickly catching on.
Producers can also use software, such as Miku Miku Dance, to create animated music videos that go with their songs. This is how many of Miku's dance routines at her concerts were created. When a Vocaloid performs, they are projected on stage as a life-sized hologram, and their steps and movements are mapped out in an animated sequence. It is also possible to make Vocaloids speak instead of sing, so they can introduce themselves to their concert audience and even accept awards!
How Many Vocaloid Characters and Songs Are There?
Among music fans, Vocaloids have a devoted following that is growing every day. There are dozens of Vocaloids from many countries that are available, not just Japan—although, since the software originated from Yamaha, almost all of the popular ones are Japanese. Vocaloid fans have breathed life into these voicebanks and turned them into well-developed characters with their own personalities.
There are over 100,000 different Vocaloid songs spanning all genres of music and ranges of human emotion and experience. Fans have also done translated covers of Vocaloid songs, with singers like JubyPhonic, Lollia, Ashe, JoyDreamer, Toma, Lizz, Amalee, annapantsu, and rockleetist becoming successful on YouTube and growing a fanbase of their own. Vocaloids and their music are going viral, and the trend of virtual singers is only going to grow in the coming decades.
Most Popular Vocaloids and Their Best Songs
In this introduction to the Vocaloid fandom, I will give an overview of a few of the most popular Vocaloids, showing some of their best songs to give you an idea of what Vocaloid software can do and what they have to offer.
- Hatsune Miku
- Rin Kagamine
- Len Kagamine
- Luka Megurine
- Kamui Gakupo
1. Hatsune Miku
Miku is a cheerful 16-year-old girl with long turquoise pigtails and a bright soprano voice. Her software was released by Crypton Future Media, and her voice is sampled from the voice of Saki Fujita, a Japanese voice actress. Miku now has 15 voicebank "appends" meant to convey different emotions and styles.
The color scheme used for Miku's box art design is based on the Yamaha synthesizers' traditional blue-green. Her typical outfit is designed to resemble a Japanese school uniform, worn with thigh-high socks and a long tie. Her skirt also has the bars and buttons of Yamaha synthesizers on it.
Miku's portrayal will change from song to song, but she is generally characterized as a bubbly, energetic teen pop idol who loves to perform. Sometimes, this extends to her being a diva. Vocaloids tend to have a favorite item or food that they are often seen with; hers is a leek, which she spins in the Ievan Polkka dance.
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Here are some of her most popular songs:
"World Is Mine"
A list of Miku Hatsune's best songs would not be complete without "World Is Mine," a song produced by Ryo where Miku portrays a spoiled princess who orders a guy around and makes him do things for her, but deep down she really loves the guy and behaves this way because she wants to spend time with him. Miku opened for Lady Gaga on her ArtPOP tour with this and several other of her more well-known songs.
This song is extremely popular (one music video of it has 41 million views) because it uses the tsundere archetype. Tsunderes seem harsh and bossy on the outside, but are vulnerable on the inside, and only reveal that soft side to a special someone. Tsunderes are extremely popular in Japanese media because viewers will expect them to be angry but sometimes surprise you by acting sweet, so the viewer may feel like they've been won over by their love interest, making the lovey-dovey moments feel more meaningful.
"Rolling Girl" is about a girl that is being bullied in school and is slowly being driven to suicide. Its dark theme contrasts with its manic tempo to produce a powerful song that resonates strongly with listeners that have been bullied. The piano provides a constant flow of sound that represents the girl's chaotic emotions; the melody is frantic and makes Miku sound like a girl pushed to the brink, especially with the raw sound of the solid append being applied to her vocals in this version. This song is an excellent example of how Vocaloids can play a character well. Wowaka is the producer of this song.
"Last Night, Good Night"
"Last Night, Good Night" is a classic Miku ballad written by Livetune about the last night she spends with the person she loves, presumably because they are dying. It is a very bittersweet and emotional goodbye. She is lying awake at night next to her sleeping lover, and going through all these emotions: wishing she could have more time with them, feeling like she has to hold her emotions in to keep them happy, hoping for a miracle to happen, and not wanting to say goodbye but feeling like she has to.
This song in particular shows how well Miku can portray emotion with her voice. You can really feel the sadness in the way she holds out her notes.
Strangely enough, Pharrell Williams has collaborated with Livetune to remix this song with an uptempo beat, electronic sounds, and breathing sounds to give this song an entirely different mood. Personally, I like Pharrell's colorfully animated video and I'm really happy that Vocaloids are gaining more exposure in Western music, but I think the remix's tone doesn't fit very well with the somber lyrics and slow tempo of the original vocals.
It seems like the beat is going too fast for Miku to keep up, and the beat overpowers the vocals a little bit. The instrumentals are also in a minor key while the vocals are in a major key, making it sound a little dissonant.
Kaito is like the cool older brother who has a goofy side. He is caring and sweet, and can be protective of his friends. Most songs portray him as being a calm and coolheaded guy, but he tends to do joke parodies of the other Vocaloids' songs. He has a fondness for ice cream that knows no bounds.
Kaito is often paired with Miku in videos, as a good friend or as a lover. He is rarely seen without his trademark long blue scarf, which matches his hair and eyes. Kaito is voiced by the famous Japanese singer Naoto Fuuga.
Here are some of his most popular songs:
The violin on this track is the first thing you notice, and it sets the mood really well. Kaito is trying to seduce Miku with his beautiful violin playing, mysterious mask, and luxurious ballroom. Even though he is the one trying to seduce her, in the end she ends up seducing him. This is one of Kaito's most popular tracks, because it mixes a classical style with pop really well, and who doesn't want to imagine being seduced by a mysterious stranger in a fancy ballroom? Kaito's voice sounds almost real with his grace append.
"Footsteps of Time"
This song, produced by Kobukuro, is absolutely beautiful in every way and is a highly underrated Kaito song. Here is a translation of the lyrics in English:
Swaying in the season for farewells is a fleeting flower
Seeking the same warmth in the wind, we all walk in search
We meet under the hazy clouds that float away in the sky
Like the overlapping and parting arms of the clock,
Little by little, we started going around and around
If you were the shorter arm, then I would be the longer arm
Even though we record the same passage of time
We keep passing by and then meeting each other over and over again
Even if our pace is different,
As long as the future we paint is the same
Then it's okay, because we can begin at the same place again
"We tried hard, but I guess that it wasn't to be"
"We lost, but it was a good try"
In my heart, these words become irrigation for all the seeds I've been given
Blossoming in the short spring, the dreams go through the long winter
The seeds that I collect in my heart
What kind of light do I provide for them?
For whom do the flowers
That blossom in the shadows of the road exist?
"They're not for anyone," you say,
and give them light
Feelings will turn into words, and words call forth light
Light creates shadows,
People grow strong in shadow
Strength becomes gentleness,
Gentleness brings about meetings
Meetings create paths,
and this path, once again, craves our feelings
If the short arm of the clock stops, the long arm stops too
The pain that we share together
Will turn into happiness before you know it
For everyone, each of us only get one chance, one moment, one second, one irreversible time
To live on with out hesitation, to search for such a meeting
One person, one chance, one moment, one second, once only
I am glad that we met
"I Wish They'd Just Die"
This song is absolutely hilarious. Kaito sings about life's minor annoyances and cheerfully proclaims "I wish they'd all just die." For example, he really wanted to DVR Sailor Moon but it got cut off by an extended baseball game. The chorus is very catchy and repeatable, and it has a nice beat. Even though it's a joke song, it's one of Kaito's most beloved songs by fans. Dobu Usagi wrote the music and Yukaina Vorpal Bunnies wrote the lyrics.
3. Rin Kagamine
The Kagamines are sometimes portrayed as twins, sometimes portrayed as lovers, but according to Crypton, they are meant to be mirror images; Rin is Len as a girl, and Len is Rin as a boy. Typically, however, fans make them twins. They share a similar yellow color scheme, wearing matching sailor outfits, and have clef symbols on their shirts: Rin has a treble clef and Len has a bass clef. Their names mean right (Rin) and left (Len) in Japanese.
Rin, the older of the Kagamine duo, is a headstrong, outgoing girl who is excitable and fun-loving but has a bit of a temper sometimes. She is canonically 14 years old, and is voiced by Asami Shimoda. Rin's favorite food is oranges (her bow looks a bit like the leaves on an orange).
When Rin gets angry she tends to run people over with her Road Roller. Sometimes she can get a little jealous of Miku being more popular, and if she likes someone, she can be very shy about it. She's a bit like the Donald Duck to Miku's Mickey Mouse, and like Donald Duck, she has a substantial fan base that prefers her over any other character.
Here are some of her most popular songs:
This song, produced by Iroha, is about Rin having a mental breakdown in the middle of the night, and lays bare all of her suicidal and homicidal thoughts. She wants to end her life by jumping into a nuclear reactor, in order for all of her sins to be forgiven, and dreams about grabbing someone by the throat and strangling them. The room she's in feels like it's enclosing her, the ringing in her ears won't stop, and she can't breathe. The rich imagery (she feels like a lighter that's run out of oil, and words bubble out of her cut lips) and the way that it shows off Rin's extensive vocal range make this song one of her best. It is a strikingly honest portrayal of what it feels like to suffer from a mental illness, and is relatable to many.
This is the story of a robot who is slowly gaining awareness and a heart. She wakes up one day and is left all alone, and begins to investigate why she was created. I love the way that Rin's voice slowly goes from robotic to sounding more real and emotional. You can really feel her coming to life, and the music comes to life with her. "Kokoro," by Toraboruta-P, is one of Rin's best songs, and is definitely worth a listen.
"Daughter of Evil"
Mothy's Evil Series tells the story of a beautiful princess who was very cruel to her subjects, and her evil exploits that cause a mob to try to behead her. She falls in love with Kaito, but he rejects her for Miku, so Rin burns Miku's country to the ground. The only one who actually cares about her is her servant, Len, who looks very much like her . . . Fans of historical fiction will enjoy this song very much, as it is reminiscent of Marie Antoinette.
4. Len Kagamine
Len is Rin's more introverted brother/boyfriend/genderflipped counterpart. This poor kid has worse luck than Kenny from South Park when it comes to living through the end of the song. Seriously, people love to kill him off. Len is a bit more timid than Rin, and maybe more mature and thoughtful.
He is usually portrayed as the caring brother who would do anything for his sister, or a fiercely loyal boyfriend who only wants to make you happy, and then he dies. In some songs, however, he has a hidden playboy side that loves to flirt. At least in those songs, he tends to live. Len loves to eat bananas, and occasionally borrows Rin's Road Roller to drive around town in.
Here are some of his most popular songs:
In this song, written by Nijigenki, Len is trying to cheer Rin up by giving her oranges, her favorite food, and letting her know how much he cares about her. Interestingly, it references several other songs that Len and Rin sing together, such as "Butterfly on your Right Shoulder," showing that Len knows Rin very well and pays attention to the things she likes to make sure that she's happy. This song emphasizes Len's kind, thoughtful personality very well, and the video is very cute and colorful.
This song, originally sung by Ayumi Hamasaki, is sometimes used for Japanese graduations, and Len sings it in a beautifully nostalgic manner. Growing up has changed him, but he will never forget the people who were his youth. As he looks through his yearbook, he is remembering his friends. This is absolutely gorgeous, and makes an underrated Vocaloid shine.
At a canon age of 14-years-old, it is a little doubtful that Len Kagamine has "been with lots of girls and knows how to get what he wants," but that is the premise of "Spice," a song by Minato that depicts Len as a player who is reluctantly falling in love with one of his hookups. He runs around hooking up with people to drown out the fact that he cannot connect on a personal level with anyone, but then he meets this girl. She hooks him in even though she is only supposed to be a one-night stand, and all of a sudden, he is able to admit that he is in love with her. Just assume that for this song, Len is older.
5. Luka Megurine
At 20, Luka is older than most of the other Vocaloids, and is designed to appear more mature. She is cool and a little mysterious, and is somewhat introverted. Because she is older, she tends to get songs written for her on more mature subjects, and she also often tends to get songs about breakups due to her cool-toned voice. She was the first Vocaloid to offer more than one language, being capable of singing in Japanese and English.
Tako Luka, a derivative version of Luka, was created when Sanpachi, a user on Pixiv, noticed that Luka's hair looks a little like octopus tentacles. Tako means octopus in Japanese, and Tako Luka crawls around on her little tentacles, singing happily. Some believe that Luka turns into Tako Luka when she eats her favorite food, tuna.
Here are some of her most popular songs:
"Just Be Friends"
This is one of Luka's most popular songs, an uptempo pop song by Dixie Flatline about the pain of breakups. In this song, Luka undergoes the heartwrenching realization that her relationship is no longer a healthy one, and she has to tell her boyfriend that from now on, "all we gotta do is just be friends." Anyone who has broken up with someone can relate to Luka's sadness and guilt. This song makes good use of Luka's bilingual voicebank, singing the chorus in English and the verses in Japanese. It has a catchy tune and emotional lyrics, and it is a very important song in Luka's repertoire.
This sequel to Dixie Flatline's "Just Be Friends" takes on a more positive view of the breakup as Luka looks back on it much later. The beat sounds a bit like a ticking clock, reflecting the song's message that time heals all wounds. Listeners will be happy that Luka has healed from her breakup and found someone new, but she still treasures the person she broke up with as a fond memory. This song offers a very mature outlook on relationships, which is fitting for Luka, an older Vocaloid.
In this song by Agoaniki-P, Luka is using spinning as a metaphor for a hobby or career. When she says things like "all my friends can spin better," she is becoming discouraged that she is not good enough at her hobby or career, but she gradually gets better. The measurement of her arms measures how much she is improving. When she says "stay away," she is still a bit discouraged and doesn't want her friends nearby because she'll compare herself to them.
By the end of the video, she's become really good at what she's doing, but in the end, she realizes she'd rather just hang out with her friends than try to compete against them. Everything she really wanted was in her reach all along. This song is relatable for anyone who's wanted to be better at something to prove themselves, and it reminds you that you don't always have to be the best, you just have to be yourself.
6. Kamui Gakupo
Gakupo gets his voice from Japanese rock star Gackt, hence the name. Gakupo is portrayed as a bit of a nerd sometimes, geeking out over samurais and Japanese pop culture. His default outfit is based on a samurai in the Meiji era. He tends to be even goofier than Kaito at times, and is sometimes depicted as being very absent-minded and forgetting things.
Gakupo also can be a bit of an unsuccessful casanova, hitting on the female Vocaloids and getting rejected. However, he does have a serious side that he tends to cover up with jokes. He is very passionate about his music and outperforming the competition. His favorite food is eggplant, which matches his purple hair.
Here are some of his most popular songs:
"Dancing Samurai" is an extremely catchy song about Gakupo's experiences being, well, a dancing samurai. In this song, created by Kanimiso-P, Gakupo says that some people are rulers and some people are servants, but he just wants to dance and express his individuality, and climb to the top in his own way. As long as there is music, he can have a happy life. It's a fun little song that helps to characterize Gakupo's fun-loving (but serious about performing) personality.
"Madness of Duke Venomania"
"Madness of Duke Venomania" has an entire universe created around it, setting up a series of songs by Akuno-P and other producers called the Seven Deadly Sins series that includes mothy's Daughter of Evil by Rin. This song has inspired a manga series and a musical adaptation in 2017. It tells the story of an evil duke, Sateriasis Venomania, who has made a deal with the devil to give himself irresistible charisma so he can have his own harem.
As a child, he was mocked for his appearance, so he burns up all his childhood portraits so that his harem doesn't find out that he's actually ugly. One of his victims is his childhood friend Gumina Glassred, who he had liked until she humiliated him by rejecting him. Women keep disappearing from the area around his castle until one day, a particular woman comes in . . .
"Owata (It's Over)"
This song, produced by OwataP, is an upbeat track based on Mozart's Turkish March and tells the story of Gakupo's unlucky attempts at making it to an appointment with a friend. Miku and Rin provide a mocking Greek chorus as Gakupo flails around oversleeping and forgetting his wallet and missing the train. In the end, his friend didn't even show up, making all of his efforts worthless. Poor guy. It is the catchiest song I have ever heard about being late, though.
Gumi is a talkative and energetic girl who can be a little spacey sometimes. She enjoys anything creative, be it art, music, or cooking. Her favorite food is carrots, and since Gumi likes to cook, she incorporates them into new dishes. Her orange outfit and green hair even make her look a little bit like a carrot. Gumi is rarely seen without her goggles, which sit on her head like a headband.
In her songs, she tends to not get the guy, with unrequited love happening to her almost as often as death happens to Len. Gumi's voice actress is Megumi Nakajima, who is known for playing Ranka Lee in the anime Macross.
Here are some of her most popular songs:
This is an excellent electronica song by Crusher-P with fantastic lyrics. Gumi has another personality, an evil echo in the mirror, that keeps trying to get out and is causing her to feel a lot of anxiety and fear. In the end, she has to burn her house down into an ugly black, run away, and never look back. Some interpret the echo as representing Gumi's insecurity.
In this powerful song, a collaboration between Circus-P and Crusher-P, Gumi compares her abusive relationship to crystal meth. She starts off doing whatever the abuser says, leaving her personality behind to keep him with her, but eventually Gumi realizes that the relationship is unhealthy, and turns from the pain she was trained to love, rising above it to find herself again. She has been addicted to all the things they were together, but she decides that those things are better off lost forever.
According to Wikipedia, "In general relativity, an event horizon (EH) is a region in spacetime beyond which events cannot affect an outside observer. In layman's terms, it is defined as the shell of "points of no return," the boundary at which the gravitational pull of a massive object becomes so great as to make escape impossible." This is a song where Gumi realizes the person she loved who broke up with her is now forever beyond her reach. Their relationship has reached the event horizon, the point of no return.
Interestingly, Ensou made this song using Gumi's Japanese voicebank to make her sing in Tagalog. It is possible to use the syllabic nature of the Japanese language to create songs in many other languages. This way, Vocaloids have unlimited capabilities.
Could Vocaloids Take Over the Music Scene?
Now that you have seen some of the most popular Vocaloids and their songs, do you think that virtual musicians could be the future of music? Will they become more popular in the mainstream or is this just a fad that will fade with time?
Personally, I think that they will become more common, and the radio will have a mix of real and synthesized singers on it. However, I don't think synthesized performers will completely replace people unless AI advances a little too far and decides to destroy mankind. What do you think the future of music looks like? Which Vocaloid is your favorite? Tell me in the comments!
© 2018 Lissa Clason
Lissa Clason (author) from Fayetteville, NC on December 25, 2018:
Yes, I think music will probably start having more synthesized vocalists and instruments in the future due to convenience for the composer and complete creative control. I don't think singing done by humans will ever die out completely, though, because there are too many people who love doing it and have a passion for it.
Liz Westwood from UK on December 24, 2018:
This is a thorough article. Do you you think this is the future of music?