This is a fairly long post, with a lot of personal history about my relationship with music and technology. I hope you’ll find it as fascinating as I do, but if you’d rather just skip down to the bottom, there are some great examples of what this whole Vocaloid thing is all about under the “Vocaloid: Examples” header. Either way, enjoy!
New Musical Frontiers
Much of my favorite music is the result of composers and artists experimenting with new technology. Apparently Beethoven pushed the limits of the pianos of the time when he composed his 14th sonata, the “Moonlight”, using the full keyboard and taking advantage of the variety of sounds that were inherent in its construction. Wendy Carlos and Isao Tomita pushed the limits of the Moog Synthesizer and the recording technology of the time to create otherworldly versions of classical pieces, with Carlos in particular working directly with Bob Moog to develop new modules and controllers to allow for more stable and interesting sounds and better musical expression. Brian Wilson was reputedly so far ahead of his time attempting to construct complex, layered, multipart music that his 1967 SMiLE record couldn’t be properly finished until digital technology allowed Mark Linett to piece it together for a 2011 release. Although some of the details of these examples may be debatable, and this is hardly a scholarly exploration, these are just a few pieces off the top of my head that I have obsessed over at various times in my life. All represent artists pushing the envelope and exploring new technological frontiers.
And that is exactly the kind of artist I’ve always wanted to be. I want to push myself and the tools I use to create music. When I first started writing songs, I wanted to explore genres and try writing in different styles. This lead me to move from writing on guitar to using notation software to compose MIDI arrangements. Once I had pushed the limits of the built in samples, I started experimenting with creating my own samples, and then started using synthesizers. Later, as I discovered alternate tunings, I began experimenting with them in Logic, composing music that relied on tunings based in non-western music in order to sound right. For the Pulse Depravity project, I went out of my way to write in every western ‘mode’ and in less common time signatures with odd numbers of beats per measure.
Vocaloid: My Next Frontier
I now feel that the next step for me is Vocaloid. The Vocaloid software is a plugin platform that allows a composer to use one or more voice banks to create virtual singers for their music. Each voice bank is associated with a specific character, with the most famous being Hatsune Miku, primarily due to her popularity in Japan. It probably seems like I’ve gone full ‘weeaboo‘ at this point, and I don’t really know enough about it to argue one way or the other. The fact is, I was watching an interview with Isao Tomita, and he mentioned Miku as being a musical frontier that was impressive to him. That got my attention. I had been looking into vocal synthesis for a while, especially some German software reportedly used by Kraftwerk, but it was nearly impossible to get in the United States, and it honestly didn’t sound that great (enunciation is very tricky for pure synthesizer). Within a few minutes of hearing of Miku, a quick YouTube search revealed tons of amazing vocal synth parts (and a lot of terrible ones, but that’s another story). I actually became interested more in anime, J-pop, and Japanese culture in general because of Miku, for whatever that’s worth. But, alas, my interest in Miku has waned slightly, in favor of another character…
I will be using Megurine Luka, because her voice is a bit less ‘cute anime style’ and a bit more ‘adult woman’ sounding. When ‘tuned’ properly, such that her voice is used well, and the enunciation is fairly accurate, Luka’s vocals can be as beautiful as those sung by the greatest pop stars I’ve ever heard. At times, she even sounds ‘human’ (though I have discovered that, as with pop vocals tweaked and ‘effected’ in the studio, ‘human’ isn’t always the most desirable sound). I am very excited to start working with the software and have Luka sing some of my music.
There are many examples of great Luka vocals, but a lot of the best ones are in Japanese (most of the best composers of Vocaloid music are Japanese, and her primary voice banks, like those of Miku and the other Vocaloids, are in the Japanese language). Here is an English version of one of her most popular songs, as performed at a Miku Expo in New York City in 2014:
This is a fairly well tuned R&B style version of “Fly Me to the Moon” (a classic hit for Frank Sinatra, among others), and it really showcases how flexible her voice can be when compared to the other examples here:
But I think finding this track really sold me on Luka. The content is seriously ‘messed up’ in the same way some of my music and lyrics get (like… WTF?) It has a little bit of a classic Depeche Mode feel in the synth work, and the vocals make great use of effects to sell it as a cohesive piece, while still allowing the samples to sound properly enunciated:
My Big Plan… sorta…
In order to purchase the software, I decided to take advantage of my impending birthday to crowd fund both that and a solid-state drive upgrade for my computer. At this point it’s about 2/3rds funded, and I’m still holding out hope that it will eventually get in front of enough eyeballs to finish funding. But I couldn’t wait. Amazon was down to the last copy, and, as a Japanese import, it’s hard to say for sure if they will get new copies, when it will happen, and what the price will be. So fingers crossed for the SSD to finish funding. If you can help contribute or share, I will greatly appreciate it. Either way, new music featuring Luka will be coming as soon as I overcome the reputedly steep learning curve. As Yoshi-P* would say, ‘please look forward to it’.
*Producer and Director of Final Fantasy XIV, my obsession with which might actually be a reason why I can’t argue with anyone who calls me a weeaboo, heh….