the cmrc blog
One of Japan’s biggest pop culture idols for over a decade, Hatsune Miku’s synthesised voice and image have been used on hundreds of thousands pop tracks, videos, and franchised products worldwide. Powered by Yamaha’s Vocaloid software, she represents the ultimate hyper-idol, a digitally rendered eternal bubblegum teen star.
Originally intended as just a cannily marketed music production plug-in, Vocaloid and Miku’s presence propagated far beyond their native environment into something of a global subcultural phenomenon. Although the character of Miku is presented as an eternal 16 year old, she’s actually getting on a bit – nowadays the popularity of Vocaloid music is on the wane. However, the concept of Miku has never been more prescient, and so for me, the question of how she might continue to exist in the world in meaningful ways is an interesting one.
With this in mind, my net label squib-box (co-run with York faculty member Dr Federico Reuben, and fellow composer Adam de la Cour) have released a free compilation album – New Vocal Solutions (sampler). The album features especially created new works by a range of experimental music artists working with Vocaloid in unusual ways. As well as contributions by myself and Federico, York PhD researcher Lynette Quek has also contributed a track.
Covering everything from straightforward programming, to hardware hacking, to algorithmic repurposing New Vocal Solutions (sampler) is intended as a rogue experiment, an exploratory foray into a digital avatar’s ‘second life’.
“The mechanics of an individual’s vocal tract says a lot [about them]”
The media of my Adam’s Apple, or your false vocal cords, or the aperture of a glottis filter, distort and broadcast your ur-thoughts and desires as speech, song, whatever. It’s deeply personal that soft, confusing instrument of ours. Hatsune Miku’s throat, however, is impersonally ‘hands on’. Tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of songwriters, musicians and producers have put their words in her mouth — the physiology of her resonators, her articulators is exploded out into Vocaloid’s DAW as a dozen or so automatable parameters:
– Mouth aperture
– Phonetic system
– Vibrato type (16 options)
On the one hand her accessibility (technically and aesthetically) has catapulted Miku to global sub-cultural superstardom. On the other, however, it represents a tender kind of violence; programming Miku as a keyhole surgical manoeuvre. Vocaloid as a prosumer audiophile clinic offering radical, sci-fi vocal-plasty all for just £139.99 (RRP).
Perhaps that’s a dichotomy native to the avatar, a figure onto/into which we project ourselves, but also one to manipulate, push around and puppeteer. Complicating this is Miku’s identity (she’s a 16 year old cutesy, sickly-sweet ponytailed girl); how much she’s a reflection of the male gaze, how much of just sincere, juvenile innocence is hard to unravel. It’s simplistic, but Miku means many different things to many different people.
It is a fact, though, that Vocaloid software has been particularly fascinating for a splinter group of experimental musicians, and the contributors here are all in some ways attempting to unpick this knotty cultural phenomenon (or at least begin to to describe its nodes). There have been Miku operas made, there have been classical cross-over projects, she has appeared in video installations, but few of these projects have engaged in quite the same way with the intricacies of Miku’s vocal mechanics.
In these seven wildly different skirmishes into the fringes of Vocaloid fandom, Miku and her voice are reframed, re-appropriated and repurposed as a humanoid character, a VST, a string of code, a cipher for cultural nostalgia, a mess of wires, chips and resistors. What rests at the bottom of this obscure uncanny valley? What is revealed below the meniscus of pop visage? Given open-source freedom what do we pour into those artificial vocal crevices?
Perhaps one could look at New Vocal Solutions (sampler) as a scout-sub, making a first dip into those exquisitely modelled water-physics – this is what we brought back to dry land.
You can stream and download the album for free here.