What Determines Whether Songs In Anime Get Dubbed?

by Justin Sevakis,

Dustin asks:

The English dub of Love Live! transitions from English dialogue to the original song performances of the Japanese seiyuu. In other cases like The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, the insert songs are sung in English. What's the process of dubbing an insert song, and what might motivate a company to do that?

Dubbing songs is fun. When you work on the dub staff of a show, most people are working from the mindset of trying to recreate the entire experience of watching it in English, and that would include the songs. But re-recording vocals for music is an entirely different craft than dubbing anime, and there are usually some pretty serious roadblocks for ambitious dub staff in dubbing songs, be they insert songs, or opening/ending themes.

As it was the American anime publishers' natural inclination to dub music alongside the rest of the show, the more ambitious dub studios would attempt just that back in the 90s. Shows like Record of Lodoss War, Bubblegum Crisis, Magic Knight Rayearth, Irresponsible Captain Tylor and Ranma 1/2 got either their opening/ending themes dubbed, or an insert song or both. In more recent years, Funimation has dubbed a few of their theme songs (such as One Piece and Ouran High School Host Club), and Bang Zoom did it with The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. But it's not something that happens very often.

The decision to dub music was contingent on a few factors. The first factor was whether a karaoke version of the song was available. Bubblegum Crisis is the only dub I can think of that actually had a cover band produce completely new versions of the songs. Manga Video occasionally replaced the music to a show entirely, either because no isolated music and effects audio tracks were available, or because they thought the original music made the show a significantly harder sell (such as with Space Adventure Cobra movie, Cyber City Oedo 808 or Dominion Tank Police).

In one case, ADV Films tried to dub an insert song by using a filter to try to process out the Japanese vocals in the idol singer sequences in Galaxy Fraulein Yuna Returns. Not only did this completely throw off the mix of the rest of the song, but the dub cast (inherited from an earlier project from another dub crew) couldn't sing. Like, at all. The result was pretty embarrassing for everybody involved.

The second factor is whether the dub staff considers themselves capable of recording a vocal track and mixing it properly with that karaoke version. This is where some of them get into trouble: a lot of dub crews think that they're way better at this than they actually are. Many of the engineers and creative staff behind anime dubs have a music background of some sort, and a good number of voice actors are musical theater types.

There are a few examples of well-dubbed anime songs, but their overall quality is, frankly, pretty low, indicating that dub crews usually greatly overestimate these abilities. Many of those involved don't know how to cut together multiple performances, apply proper vocal processing or reverb, how to double-up vocals, use auto-tune, or any of the other tricks used by actual music producers. Comparing these performances to the original Japanese versions, they can sound like the work of amateurs.

Some of the dub studios that have decided to abstain over the years include Streamline Pictures (who left the songs from Fist of the North Star movie without any vocals -- unfortunately greatly diminishing the emotional power of the ending in my opinion), and Taj Productions, who famously had Lina Inverse switch to Japanese in Slayers.

The last, and possibly the biggest factor, is the Japanese producers. Back in the 90s, when communication between Japan and the American publishers was pretty limited, the dub teams could get away with a lot of things, and simply went ahead with their work without any input or permission from the show's licensors. Nowadays, the licensors closely scrutinize pretty much every aspect of the show's release. Very very little slips through the cracks.

While there are exceptions, generally the show's original music team does not want a team of people they've never met from a foreign country mucking about with their songs. If the music is part of a strategy to promote real-life musicians (and it often is, especially with idol shows like Love Live), then the dubbed version of the show is useless for that purpose. If the management company or agency of those musicians happens to be on the production committee, then forget it! That music is sacrosanct, and nobody is ever allowed to touch it, ever.

These days, dubbed songs happen so seldom that most dub crews simply default to not doing it. For it to happen, someone usually has to push for it to happen. Sometimes it's the licensor, sometimes it's someone on the U.S. side who really really wants it to happen. But dubbed music will probably always remain a rarity.

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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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