The Virtual Idol: The Vocaloid

By Chris An

Hatsune Miku Live @ Zepp Tokyo:

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“We could begin with a music called enka,” he said, “although I doubt you’d like it.” Software agents did that, learned what you liked. “The roots of contemporary Japanese pop came later, with the wholesale creation of something called ‘group sounds.’ That was a copy-cat phenomenon, flagrantly commercial. Extremely watered-down Western pop influences. Very bland and monotonous.”

“But do they really have singers who don’t exist?”

“The idol-singers,” he said, starting up the hump-backed incline of the bridge. “The idoru. Some of them are enormously popular.”

– Idoru, by William Gibson.


Vocaloids are computer programs that allow user’s to create vocal parts by simply entering in lyrics and a melody line. The software calls upon a voice bank that has sampled sounds from an actual person. The collaboration of the voice bank and MIDI technology creates a vocal part that resembles a heavily Auto-Tuned voice. The Vocaloid unlocked the potential of many song writers and hobbyists, giving a voice to those who had none.

Yamaha Corporation announced news about the release of the Vocaloids and its technology at the German fair, Musikmesse in 2003. While many of us believe that Hatsune Miku was probably the first Vocaloid to surface, Zero-G’s collaboration with Yamaha gave birth to Leon and Lola, an English Vocaloid, in the year of 2004. Miriam followed quickly after, with Japanese Vocaloids Meiko and Kaito following last as the first generation Vocaloids (developed by Crypton Future Media). While the Vocaloids have been on the market for quite a long time now, the virtual idols didn’t garner the popularity they have today until the release of Hatsune Miku in 2007. These Virtual idols have been restricted to the internet until recently in 2009, when Hatsune Miku performed her first ever “live” concert at Animelo Summer Live at Saitama Super Arena. Following in March of 2010, Zepp Tokyo held the first full blown Vocaloid live with appearances from Megurine Luka and the Kagamine twins. This was an opportunity for more Vocaloids to debut on the live stage and a chance to debut a new holographic technology. Zepp Tokyo can house about 3000 people, and the 3000 fans that attended were almost rabid.

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Impact on the World:

Just by following the Vocaloid scene on YouTube, it is easy to see that Vocaloids are very popular outside of Japan. On Megurine Luka’s video of Just be Friends (with English Subs), you can view the statistics of where viewers are viewing from, and gives a general idea of where the 1,922,734 views have come from. I’ve personally collaborated with musicians in Canada, Chile, France, and the Netherlands.

Yuyoyuppe’s Palette feat. Megurine Luka

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Today, the Vocaloids are dominating the music scene on YouTube and NicoNicoDouga. As of now, the number of virtual idols is ever increasing and is almost overwhelming. While most Vocaloids are official products of companies, many programmers have collaborated to create shareware versions of Vocaloids using voice banks donated to them. The current list of official Vocaloids that are available are as follows: Leon, Lola, Miriam, Meiko, Kaito, Sweet Ann, Hatsune Miku, Kagamine Rin, Kagamine Len, Prima, Kagamine Rin and Len Act 2, Gakpoid: Makui Gakupo, Megurine Luka, Megpoid: Gumi, Sonika, SF-A2 Miki, Kaai Yuki, Hiyama Kiyoteru, Big Al, Hatsune Miku Append, Tonio, Lily, VY1, Gachapoid, Nekomura Iroha, Itatane Piko, and Kagamine Rin / Len Append. Because of this program, many hobbyists have arisen as top notch song composers on the internet. Composers like Yuyoyuppe and Dixie Flatline have risen out of nowhere garnering a huge fanbase all over the world. Vocaloid composers now have CD’s in music shops and online stores like Amazon and iTunes.

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Many will argue that software like this will destroy the opportunity to network with other musicians nearby. The argument can go both ways; it can isolate musicians but it can also bring musicians together. Because of the Vocaloids, online collaborations have led to the creation of successful bands in the mainstream market such as Lunetia. Every member of the band has gathered a following online covering songs from various animes and Vocaloid music. Luschka, Yuyyoyuppe, Nike, and Neko have all become incredibly popular because of their involvement in the Vocaloid Community. The Vocaloids have also brought together another online power group, the Ouzoku Band. Composed of the infamous Tissue-Hime, Kaizokuuou, and Ouji (left the band), they have played live shows and continue to collaborate online.

Online Collaboration:

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Studio Work:

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Interesting enough, many fans don’t understand that the Vocaloids are not unique to Japan. On a YouTube video, the number 1 voted comment reads, ” I swear, if Vocaloids come to America, I’d explode xD BRING THEM TO AMERICA!!!!!!!” This fan, along with 874 other people, believe that the Vocaloids have not come to America yet. Even though  the first Vocaloids are English speaking programs, the Vocaloid fanbase do not view them as virtual idols. Why? Because they don’t sport a cute and sexy anime avatar.  To fans all around the world, the Vocaloids are the anti-thesis of Mukokuseki; the use of anime characters give fans a sense that the Vocaloids are distinctively Japanese.

Wintermute’s Orchid Parade feat. Hatsune Miku Append:

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Would Vocaloids be as popular if they did not sport cover girls / guys that were modeled after real people?

With the heavy use of Auto-Tune these days, is there really any need for real “singers” anymore? Comparing groups like Perfume to  Vocaloids, the line is beginning to blur.



  1. zneller says:

    Great topic Chris, with lots to think about. I especially like your point that technology like vocaloids can isolate musicians as well as bring them together. With this kind of technology spreading, even musical creativity can be more easily transferred into information and mechanically reproduced and transmitted. Of course it allows for the possibility of more global collaborations, but do you think this alienation of the human performer will lead to some harsh backlash? If there is some you know of already, it may be interesting to hear that perspective too. My personal viewpoint is that as much as this kind of technology erases, it also generates, eclipsing some doors while opening new ones.

    Also you bring up an interesting paradox in that people only seem to be interested in vocaloids with an character image attached to them. I think there’s probably plenty to be said on this subject both generally and as it relates to mukokuseki. We’ve talked in class about how the aimlessness of Japanese youth is seen by many as a severe problem; do you think there could be any connection between that and the fact that Japan’s exports such as vocaloids trade in an immaterial, fixed image that still manages to somehow humanize the mechanistic? I’m sure there are some that would say that such a move is perilous, to make ourselves too comfortable with our own affinity with and to machines, though I’d say it’s a kind of creativity, and newness is always alienating.