Nikolas Greenwald stumbled across Vocaloid early in high school, and the unique musical subculture quickly became his main passion. At the time, he didn’t expect to be sitting in front of a computer only a few years later, at age 17, watching a live video of more than a thousand people singing along to his song in a country he had never been to before.
Categorized by its practitioners as concatenative synthesis, or the linking together of short samples of sound to create other sounds, Vocaloid creates artificial human singing through typed lyrics or melody. As the Red Bull Music Academy put it, “Users write lyrics, and then can adjust various aspects of the computer-generated voice afterward, such as pitch or how long specific syllables are delivered.”
Vocaloid was created in 2000 by computer scientist Kenmochi Hideki. Originally a research project at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, Spain, it soon after became a global phenomenon. In the time since, there have been four versions of the Vocaloid program, the most recent one developed in 2018. At the top of the genre, these “singers in a box” lead careers just like regular performers: They hold concerts and have substantial fan bases. The subculture may seem niche, even if it is impossible to ignore the presence of electronic sounds across mainstream music.
“It was for people who didn’t want to sing their own songs, for whatever reason,” Greenwald says. “I fell into this category because my voice was not great at the time. I enjoyed singing but I knew it was not for real.”
Now a student at Northeastern University, Greenwald’s first big break in the genre came when he got the chance to create a demo for Alys, the first French Vocaloid singer. Alys is not a human singer, but rather a voice produced from software.
“I knew it had much more popularity in Japan, it kind of had taken off there,” Greenwald says. “I wanted to break into the Japanese scene. With my very broken eighth-grade Japanese, I began writing.”
In 2016, at 17 years old, one of the songs he created for Alys was played at a Vocaloid concert at Le Trianon, a massive concert hall in Paris.
“One of the coolest exposure things was that they toured all over at anime conventions and actual venues,” Greenwald says. “The biggest thing was a concert they had called ‘Rêve de Machine’ in 2016.”
He then dove deeper into the subculture. At Northeastern, Greenwald had an international group of musicians from England, Portugal, Japan, and Germany help him create a song called “Town of Cats.” Suddenly, he had fans in Japan and discovered some people covering his song on a karaoke app there. Another popular cut, which he created with German vocaloid musician Kira, racked up 500,000-plus views online.
Doug Bielmeier, an associate teaching professor of music at Northeastern who worked as an engineer in Nashville for years, says that Vocaloid can be of use to artists in several genres, and that while it may not be a phenomenon in the US right now, the music industry is unpredictable and often gets behind experimental technology like Vocaloid.
“Singers and songwriters would spend a lot of money getting special musicians, getting vocalists, and getting studio time for a song that maybe no one would be interested in buying,” Bielmeier says. “[Vocaloid] is certainly something that can help with this whole process where people are trying to get demos of their songs so that they can be picked up by larger artists.
“If you look at the music industry’s track record, they are not really great at innovating technology or using innovative technology. … They tend to not take innovation and build a business plan around it but rather see a paradigm that already exists and build one around that.”
There’s a lot to build around. One of the most famous Vocaloid singers, Hatsune Miku (translation: “the first sound of the future”), boasts more than two million likes on her Facebook page and has worked alongside artists such as Lady Gaga and Pharrell. And she’s not even human; according to Crypton Future Media, which created Miku, “Hatsune has traveled an interesting path from vocal synthesizer product to beloved collaboratively constructed cyber celebrity with a growing user community across the world. She is also often called a global icon or ‘hub,’ because the culture around her encourages a worldwide creative community to produce and share Miku-related content.”
Murray Sandmeyer of the ReGame-VR Lab at Northeastern spends a lot of his own time producing and creating songs for musicians as well. Similar to Greenwald, Sandmeyer became interested in music through his love for technology. The futuristic style of it all just grabbed him.
“In high school, you feel the pressure to get into a good school and have a good career path, and computer science is a good, vibrant career,” Sandmeyer says. “That was my plan, to study both. … I started making hyper pop electronic music, and I quickly came to realize that I liked electronic music but that human element to it. Even if those vocals were high-pitched or fast, or [if] they were superficial, I still wanted that human element to it.”
Sandmeyer says that with the increased popularity of electronic music, it’s not actually necessary to be an extremely gifted vocalist to make good music. Record companies aren’t exactly fighting the trend.
“It’s even funny how a company so adamant to be against file streaming and audio very quickly saw the revenue stream created by it and evolved,” said Bielmeier. “When the first big [Vocaloid] hit hits the United States and someone makes a lot of money off of it, people might change their tune.”
“Vocaloid,” says Greenwald, “encourages people who do not have access to professional recording studios to still realize their music and instant access to their following.”
This article was reported in collaboration with Northeastern University School of Journalism assistant professor Meg Heckman’s Journalism 2: Intermediate Reporting class.