The biggest event at NekoCon this year (even more so than Mike McFarland!) has to have been the VOCAMERICA concert; the first (relatively) major Vocaloid concert made entirely by Western producers. Sure, we’ve had Miku Expo here in the US for a few years now, but that was part of a bigger worldwide tour and frankly there are so few shows they have in the US that it’s almost impossible for most Vocaloid fans to go without a WHOLE lot of cash to drop on it. VOCAMERICA is still small so the accessibility issue is still there, but if this gets enough momentum going, it could be the start of something that may never eclipse Hatsune Miku in terms of popularity but can be enjoyed by more fans of the genre; especially those outside of major cities. Some of you may be wondering, just what IS a Vocaloid and who is this Hatsune Miku person? Okay, if you’re reading this to begin with, you PROBABLY aren’t asking those questions, but let’s answer them anyway!
While the word Vocaloid can mean several different things, it’s most literal definition would be software developed by the Yamaha Corporation that is a singing voice synthesizer. Basically, you can arrange voice clips (someone saying a vowel or a collection of them saying words) and arrange them to make a song. Now when WE think of Vacaloids, it usually refers to the products that are made to go with that Vocaloid program, i.e. voice banks so you don’t have to record your own. Hatsune Miku is one such product developed by Crypton Future Media, and is the most popular Vocaloid out there. Now either through expert skill or by sheer luck (I’m guessing both), the persona they associated with their Hatsune Miku voice bank product became a HUGE sensation and spawned several other products with their own characters associated with them. Not only that, by using holographic technolgy Crypton Future Media has been able to have concerts with these characters that have been HUGELY successful in their own right. So Vocaloid is the program, Vocaloids are the voice banks that go INTO the program, and Vocaloids are also the characters that were created to be associated with those voice banks because humans have a cognitive bias to anthropomorphize everything we see which made Crypton Future Media a CRAP load of money!
Now one of the key aspects to the success of Vocaloids (aside from well-designed anime characters) is that these voice banks can be used for commercial purposes once you buy them, so fan content is not only easily accessible but in some ways profitable. Now I’m sure that SOME RESTRICTIONS MAY APPLY, especially with the big name ones from Crypton Future Media, but the technology turned out to be a great way for musicians to make their mark while also bolstering the popularity of the technology. The wide spread use of Vocaloids extends far beyond Japan and there are now several well-known producers of Vocaloid music out here in the west with their own English voice banks. Oh look! This leads us nicely to VOCAMERICA. How about that!?
Voca USA! USA!
Now I could sit here and try in vain to accurately explain what this is with all the authority and expertise I brought to my explanations of Vocaloids in general (by which I mean NO authority or expertise), but instead of subjecting you to that, I reached out to the creator of VOCAMERICA and they were kind enough to answer a few questions! EmpathP (real name Aki Glancy) is the owner and operator of Empathy Studios and orchestrated the entire project from the ground up! Let’s hear what someone who actually knows what they’re talking about has to say!
Thank you so much for talking with me today! We’ll go through the basics right off the bat. What is VOCAMERICA and how did this project come about?
VOCAMERICA initially started out as a way to promote the VOCALOIDS DEX and DAINA to the general public. DEX and DAINA are VOCALOIDS that I was heavily involved in the production of (having provided the voice for DAINA). Originally the idea was to promote DEX and DAINA via a very small performance of their demo songs at one of my panels that I might do during my con season. However, as we began production, I started to conceive a bigger scheme. No one yet has ever attempted to make a life VOCALOID concert featuring ONLY Western VOCALOIDS. There are a number of factors into why that is, but as I was very well acquainted with the companies in question who hold licensing for these VOCALOIDS, and as I am especially passionate about their continued success, I decided that I would take the plunge into creating a live musical event. I managed everything myself, the companies didn’t provide any assistance (monetary or otherwise). I was able to hire on a number of extremely talented young animators and choreographers to help me bring the show to life. Production started in January of 2016 and lasted through our first show in November.
So you come up with this idea, bring all these talented people together, and pull off a successful Kickstarter that netted quadruple your intended goal. Before that though, you needed a way to show it to the world. Did NekoCon approach you or did you approach NekoCon about the first VOCAMERICA concert being held there, and how did you feel it all turned out? Were there any unforeseen hurdles leading up to the concert or lessons you learned from the experience that will help future concerts?
I approached NekoCon initially. They were a convention I was familiar with and I thought they would be a decent sized event to have a first show at. As the venue is within driving distance of my home, it was also most ideal when it came to transporting things like my merchandise and equipment. During the production of the concert, there were one or two hiccups we DID experience, and at one point my own physical health came in to play which caused irregular patterns in my behavior which I was severely embarrassed by later when I was on the mend. As you can imagine putting on a concert (even in ideal situations) is a stressful process and I was managing this entire project by myself. But regardless of all of that, the folks at NekoCon were extremely gracious and understanding hosts and I’m so thankful to them for featuring my first show and believing in my project. I truly believe the final result spoke for itself. The show (in my realistic opinion) went PERFECTLY. Their crew was able to work with what I brought and I like to think they had fun working with lighting effects and filming. I think more than anything, this first concert taught me a lot about managing and producing not only a good show, but also merchandise and promotional materials as well. I can guarantee you that our next planned show is going to blow people out of the water.
What got you into Vocaloids, and do you have any advice for someone just getting started? Any preferred tools to work with or books/websites/wikis/etc to read on the subject?
I was introduced to VOCALOIDS initially from the internet meme “CaramellDansen”. I saw a 3D animated video of a bunch of “nendoroid” versions of the (at the time) existing VOCALOIDS dancing to the CaramellDansen bunny dance and was intrigued by them. After a little research I learned that they were mascots for a synthetic vocal program. Once I dug a bit deeper and heard some of the music I just became hooked. It would be several years later that I would actually begin my own career in the software. I think what captured my imagination the most was the melding of both the audio and visual aspects of VOCALOID and the fact that it is a musical genre/phenomenon that is almost entirely fueled by indie producers and fans. If I was to give advice to people wishing to start out with VOCALOID, I always advise them to learn basic music theory, and to start working with programs in their native language. They may be tempted to start out using synthesizers like Hatsune Miku who are the most popular due to their recognition in Japan. But if you want to truly get a grasp for the software you should seek to begin with your primary language first and work your way from there.
With Miku Expo in the US, her appearance on David Letterman in 2014, and VOCAMERICA being a huge success on Kickstarter, Vocaloids seem to be more popular than ever. At the rate things are going, do you think that they could break into mainstream music anytime soon?
The fact of the matter is they HAVE begun to break in o mainstream music, though you may not have noticed it. Producers like Porter Robinson, Susumu Hirasawa, and others have used VOCALOID without drawing attention to the software itself. At its core, VOCALOID is a musical instrument. What you see related to VOCALOID is at I call the “community culture” and it is essentially what the fans and producers helped to give birth to. What I predict is more instances where you have mainstream musicians or music producers using VOCALOIDS or similar synthesizers, but choosing NOT to draw attention to it. They won’t announce that they used “AVANNA” or “DAINA” on their songs. They’ll simply use the software for its intended use: to make unique music.
The concert is called VOCAMERICA and uses English Vocaloids as opposed to ones produced by Crypton Future Media or other Japanese companies. How do you feel that the project being developed by Western creators has distinguished it from its Japanese counterparts?
For starters, the project ITSELF was a huge risk. As you may already be aware, the Western VOCALOIDS are simply not as popular as the Japanese programs are. There are many factors going in to this, but I think one of the main reasons this is the case is because the Western ‘LOIDS are not advertised in quite the same way as the Japanese ‘LOIDS are. As someone who works with these companies and believes in the future of these software, I wanted to do all I could to bring these VOCALOIDS to an audience who may already have a love of synthetic singers, but have no idea that there’s an entire Western branch waiting to be explored. Also, almost all of our songs in concert are written by Western Producers and were (primarily) in English. That in itself is very novel for most audiences who have seen Hatsune Miku or IA perform live but may not be able to understand what they’re singing as the songs are written in Japanese.
Looking at the aesthetic designs for the singers as well as the music that was performed, there still seems to be a heavy Japanese influence. Do you feel that VOCAMERICA can expand beyond what we traditionally see from Vocaloid creators and that there’s a place in the concert for genres of music more prominent in the US like rap, jazz, country, ska, punk, etc?
I absolutely believe that VOCAMERICA will continue to include new genres. In fact, I just recently held a song writing contest for a few new VOCALOID singers that we plan to include within our show. The songs were of ALL shapes, sizes, and genres which I found very exciting. The interesting thing with VOCALOID (in particular Western ‘LOIDS) is that we have singers who have been designed to perform in VERY specific genres of music. As such, when I held this contest, I received several entrees that has been tailored not only for those particular ‘LOIDS, but also for their recommended genres. I can’t wait to hold more song writing contests and encourage new producers to try out their own styles. The more varied the songs in our show, the better. Also, I won’t lie, I would love to see DEX and DAINA rap on stage.
To go a bit deeper into this topic, most of the music on the album has a very consistent tone and sound that I seem to hear in other Vocaloid music outside of VOCAMERICA and Hatsune Miku. I am very far from an expert on music, so the only way I can describe it is as electronica with heavy emphasis on lyrics about emotion and “feels” for lack of a better term. For someone on the outside looking in, do you feel that this is an accurate description of the Vocaloid scene and the music that Empathy produces? If so, is there a reason that Vocaloids have been so consistently used for this kind of music?
I think for many producers who are currently considered popular today (and indeed who are also featured on the first official soundtrack) were influenced by early VOCALOID music styles, as well as specific styles of American music that appeal to them. One of my best friends (and one of the producers featured on the album), known as CircusP has always been heavily influenced by American pop singers and producers such as Lady Gaga. My other best friend and one of my closest collaborators, Kenji-B (known as nostraightanswer in the music world) has always been influenced by unique and artistic sounding electronic styles of music. Incidentally Kenji-B is also the voice provider of the VOCALOID DEX who we of course feature as one of our main stars. My own music style generally consists of piano and strings, though I am now currently dabbling in electronica as well. I don’t know if in the end we are truly influenced by the musical styling of our Japanese associates, or if we simply “write what we like”. What I DO notice, however, is more western producers coming out of the woodworks making music that is ENTIRELY their own.
We’re a little over six months since the Kickstarter, the first concert went over very well at NekoCon (I remember the long lines for autographs afterwards), and you’re preparing for the second one later this year. What does the future hold for Vocamerica and what can we do to support it going forward?
My primary goal at the moment is to book as MANY shows as possible. I am hoping if we get enough bookings for this year, I can arrange with the companies to start selling tickets for the show. The tickets wouldn’t be expensive, but it would be a way for us both to make a profit AND send money to the companies to help fund further Western VOCALOID development (aka: you scratch my back, I scratch yours). Thanks to our kickstarter, we will ALSO be adding SEVERAL new performers to the show. We have in total 8 new synthesizers we’ll be adding thanks to kickstarter funding. And above all else, I hope we can continue to sell concert merchandise and get new products made…to help me pay off the crippling debt I’ve accrued from funding this project, hahaha! The best way currently that people can support VOCAMERICA is through pledging to our patreon page. We will also be building a website in the near future where people will be able to see announcements on shows, watch clips, and meet out cast and crew.
VOCAMERICA’s Pateron can be found here: https://www.patreon.com/EmpathP
Well that about does it for my coverage of NekoCon 2016! All that’s left is the Swag Review and Grab Bag unboxing where I look at all the stuff I bought at NekoCon. Spoiler Alert! I SPENT TOO MUCH MONEY!!
Hatsune Miku. Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hatsune_Miku
Is Hatsune Miku a better pop star than Justin Bieber? – Today I Learned [Polygon] (2014, June 24). YouTube – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Kb_WBChA5U
Vocaloid. Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vocaloid
VOCALOID 101 [Vocaloid Education] (2013, August 15). YouTube – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_vQK39yKp5o