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The World Is Hers: How Hatsune Miku Is Changing Everything

by Carlo Santos,

Hiroyuki Itoh would like to explain himself.

As the CEO of Crypton Future Media, the parent company of "virtual idol" Hatsune Miku, Itoh sits in the driver's seat of a very crowded pop-culture bandwagon. And before everyone gets too excited, he wants people to understand what this bandwagon is about.

"Hatsune Miku is a [piece of] software," he says, "built on the Vocaloid technology developed by Yamaha. [Vocaloid] is an engine that produces a singing sound, and we obtained a license from Yamaha to develop products based on that."

In other words, declaring oneself a fan of Miku is like being a fan of the KORG Triton keyboard, or the Fender Stratocaster guitar. You're rooting for a musical instrument—one that must be installed on a PC, and comes in a box with an anime-styled illustration on it, but still, an instrument. And the Vocaloid brand name itself doesn't refer specifically to Miku and her colorful friends, but rather, to the sound synthesis engine they run on. Taken literally, being "a fan of Vocaloid" is like being a fan of a particular brand of guitar strings.

But who cares about playing semantic games? As with any emergent subculture, words have a way of taking on their own meaning. These days, "Vocaloid" refers to the entire meta-verse that has blossomed from that one innovation. Vocaloid is the infinite repertoire of songs created by home-studio producers using that software; Vocaloid is the gallery of images and videos that go with each song; Vocaloid is every meme and storyline spawned by those images; Vocaloid is the family of characters representing each particular voice bank; and as anyone who attended Anime Expo will tell you, Vocaloid is the fanbase dressing up as those characters in all their variations.

It is a viral effect that has surprised even Wataru Sasaki, Crypton's marketing director. He says that he is struck by "the way it's being utilized through video-sharing sites like YouTube and Niconico. It's spreading among peers through these sites—really, word of mouth. It's become popular in various countries [in such ways that] there really haven't been any prior examples." In a world where most mainstream entertainment is still run by a heavy corporate hand, the self-propelling nature of Vocaloid has turned everything upside-down.

"In a way, it's been a struggle to find out how to best work with such phenomena," says Sasaki. "We believe that it's best to get feedback from fans about ... how best to handle things, how to do what's best for the fanbase. We're not in a hurry to make money on this."

Left: Hiroyuki Itoh. Right: Wataru Sasaki.

Crypton was founded in 1995, a time when even MP3 was still an infant technology, YouTube was a decade away, and the idea of anthropomorphizing everything with cute anime girls was yet to take off. "Our goal was not originally to work with Vocaloid or to create a [voice synthesis] software," says Itoh. "Crypton was set up as a company that works with sound in general—any software that has to do with sound."

If Itoh is jokingly called "Miku's father," then her grandparents are the folks at Yamaha, who unveiled the original Vocaloid engine in 2003. "We knew that such a technology existed, and wondered if there was anything we could do with that," says Itoh about the early years. "We already had an existing relationship with Yamaha, so we were able to contact them and create a product out of it."

But it's not as if Miku just descended from the heavens as a fully formed synthesized singing angel. Her roots can be traced back to some very humble forms of sound technology, as Itoh explains. "In Japan, [voice synthesis] software is reasonably popular and is used in places such as train stations, where trains may be announced, or [on board] when the train station is being called. Telephones might have an answering system that is driven by Vocaloid." (Imagine that: one of Miku's relatives is the dreaded robo-phone that works the customer service hotline.)

"At first, there was no software that worked with a [synthesized] singing voice," Itoh continues. "I wasn't sure how much need there was for such a software. Or, for that matter, what merit there would be in creating a software that could make a PC sing."

It was that uncertainty that guided Itoh's next move—ultimately one of the smartest moves in Crypton's history. "In 2004, I created our first [Vocaloid] software, Meiko, and attached a cartoon character to it. I did that because a software that [simulates] a person singing is not an essential need to human beings. I figured, in order for it to appeal to people and be loved by people, it needed to have a human touch, and something like a cartoon character was the right tool for that. It had a reasonable amount of success, and of course that led up to the concept of Hatsune Miku."

And everyone knows what happened next.

Maybe the secret of Hiroyuki Itoh's success is that, as Crypton's founder, he is more a business person than a music, sound engineering, or even software person. Itoh laughs when asked if he is a musician at all (he's not), then admits that he majored in Economics. "Nothing to do with sound," he says. "I guess that, in successfully marketing Vocaloid, I did use some of the skills I learned."

At his keynote speech on Day 1 of Anime Expo, Itoh puts on his businessman hat as he breaks out a formal slideshow presentation about Hatsune Miku and the cult of Vocaloid. He provides the customary rundown about who he is and what his company does, then goes over the list of official Crypton-produced Vocaloid "characters" (or, to be technically correct, software packages).

Hatsune Miku, the eternal 16-year-old born on August 31, 2007, remains the star of the show to this day. Second to her in popularity are the Kagamine twins, Rin and Len, whose distinctive yellow trim and boy/girl pairing are almost as ubiquitous as Miku's green-and-gray on the cosplay circuit. But the most versatile voice, from a music producer's perspective, is that of Megurine Luka, a 2009 product who boasts a deeper range and the ability to "sing" in both Japanese and English. Some fans also wave an old-school flag for Meiko and Kaito, whose voices were built on an earlier generation of Vocaloid technology but are still core members of the Crypton family.

Non-Crypton Vocaloid characters have also entered the subculture, such as Megpoid, based on voice samples of seiyuu Megumi Nakajima and modeled after Macross F's Ranka Lee, and Gackpoid, built on the voice of J-rock superstar Gackt. Other enterprising souls have even developed an open-source synthesis engine called Utauloid (from the Japanese word utau, "to sing"), the most famous of which is the pink-and-curly-haired Kasane Teto.

It may feel strange at first to talk about music software packages as if they were real people. But just as Itoh predicted when he first created them, that's exactly what has made them so appealing. The inspiration that these characters provide has resulted in 366,000 Vocaloid-related videos on YouTube and 92,600 such videos on Niconico, a statistic that Itoh proudly shows off in his presentation.

The Piapro collaboration workflow.

Then there is the multimedia spillover that has resulted from this growing meta-genre. The Crypton-owned website Piapro (an abbreviation for "Peer Production"), features over 450,000 Vocaloid-inspired creations in word, sound, and image. Even more remarkable is how creators inspire each other: under a shared-content policy, one Piapro user might produce a song, then another will listen to it and draw an accompanying illustration, and yet another might run with the concept and produce a short animated video. All that matters is that the originator is properly credited under the site's rules.

Some Vocaloid fans have even gone beyond the realm of the arts and into feats of engineering. The most well-known of these is MikuMikuDance, a 3D animation program where a Hatsune Miku character model—or any character model, really—can be made to lip-sync and dance to a given song. More subtle in scope is VocaListener, which analyzes input from a real human singer, then automatically adjusts the settings in the Vocaloid program to match that voice. Even offhanded flights of imagination can become reality: an odd-looking touchscreen keyboard nicknamed "Ano Gakki" ("That Instrument"), which was featured in the Hatsune Miku video for "Innocence," has been replicated as a real working instrument. (A less ambitious version can also be downloaded as a smartphone app.)

What this all means is that there is a bustling creative ecosystem run almost entirely by the fans. Ultimately, that may be Crypton's greatest gift to the world: not Hatsune Miku or the Vocaloid software itself, but the way in which it is used. An entire form of entertainment has been built not by corporate overlords, but by its consumers. The corporation is only there to give them a few tools and rules, then they sit back and see what happens next.

The Crypton/Vocaloid ecosystem.

Still, there are a number of corporate-sponsored events that make the Vocaloid experience come alive. This year, Anime Expo played host to Mikunopolis, the first ever "live Vocaloid concert" outside of Japan. It is nothing more (and nothing less) than CGI animation projected onto a clear screen on stage, but with a good viewing angle and a healthy suspension of disbelief, the illusion is still impressive. Even more impressive is that every song on the setlist was, obviously, fan-made—not a product churned out by songwriters slaving away in Crypton's basement, but the creations of genuine musicians expressing themselves through the Vocaloid medium.

However, the concert also revealed what limitations remain. The magic of Miku stops working outside of about 40 degrees in each direction. Sometimes the vocals, unable to adjust, get lost under live instrumental accompaniment. And for all the innovations in voice-synthesis technology, those with more sensitive ears feel that Miku still sounds like a robotic squirrel being strangled. But what is it they say about real-life idol singers in Japan? "Idols are perfect because they are imperfect." It is those imperfections that make Miku so fascinating: an ongoing work-in-progress that everyone can get involved with.

Who knows what the future holds? Crypton has already promised us that an English version of the Hatsune Miku software is on its way, while a new and improved Vocaloid engine is under development in Japan. That will mean a new cast of characters, including a voice bank that can even sing in Korean. Crypton's original Vocaloid line continues to evolve with "Append" add-ons that bring new tone colors to their voices. And somewhere, unknown to any of us, some mad genius is probably working on an idea that will change the world of Vocaloid forever.

As many people know, the name "Hatsune Miku" is a pun on "the first sound of the future." But as the Vocaloid culture expands, the name is becoming increasingly inaccurate. She is no longer the sound of the future. She is the sound of right now.

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