If you're Japanese, you may have heard of Hatsune Miku. She(it?) is a Japanese pop star who(that?) doesn't exist. Back in 2004, Yamaha developed a signal processing application that allowed users to enter lyrics and a melody and have it rendered out as a singing voice. Stresses and intonation can be added an adjusted and other effects like vibrato and changing tones can also be applied.
It was initially used by musicians to add backing vocals to tracks without having to get a performer into the studio. People like Mike Oldfield started using it and Yamaha started producing singers-in-a-box in association with various companies - you bought one software package containing Vocaloid and a single singer's voice. It went pretty and soon there were a range of voices available.
|Vocaloid 2 interface|
When Yamaha released the second version of the Vocaloid software, Crypton Future Media (who had previously developed the Meiko and Kaito voices) created Hatsune Miku and everything went nuts. Hatsune Miku was based on the voice of the very real anime voice actress Saki Fujita who had also sung the theme tunes to a few anime series. For some reason, the Hatsune Miku voice became massively popular and soon hordes of Japanese were banging out Hatsune Miku songs in their bedrooms and studios.
By August of 2010, just three years after the release of the HatsuneMiku Vocaloid, it was estimated that there had been over 22,000 original songs written for it and over 100,000 sings including cover versions. There was just one problem: Hatsune Miku was just a voice and although the pop-buying public will buy music without ever seeing the performer, there was a real desire to have a visual Hatsune Miku.
By this time, Vocaloid albums were being released and charting well. One album (Exit Tunes Presents Vocalogenesis feat. Hatsune Miku) opened at the number one spot on the Japanese Oricon charts and went on to sell very well indeed.
By now the only thing missing from the Hatsune Miku phenomenon were live concerts. But thanks to digital projection on transparent screens, Hatsune Miku performed her first, ahem... live concert in August of 2009.
It might seem pretty crazy that people actually paid to go and watch a concert given by a synthetic voice and a projected rendered image, but it was a huge success. A series of transparent screens and eight projectors made for an almost 3D holographic style of projection. What I find particularly odd is that the band plays live.
Now just in case you're thinking this is some mental thing that only Japanese people get involved in, there have been concerts performed worldwide. There's even one coming up in Scotland in which you can get involved if you'd like. And that's what's become so very interesting about this. We're all used to synthetic music these days; whether it's the Simon Cowell-manufactured acts that dominate the UK pop charts or the sample-heavy DJ-led acts that make up the club scene. What's different about Hatsune Miku is that she doesn't really belong to anyone and so, in a very real sense, she belongs to everyone.