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Vocaloid is a vocal synthesizer released in 2004, created to “sing” by piecing together phonemes (sounds made by humans to create words and syllables) at different pitches with different settings such as vibrato, dynamics, pitch bends, and transitions.
Hatsune Miku (初音ミク) is an application developed by Crypton Future Media. Released in August 2007, using Yamaha’s Vocaloid 2 technology and voice samples of Japanese voice actress Saki Fujita, the program allows the user to synthesize and optimize the singer’s voice to sing any tune. It was first introduced to the Japanese market with an official anime character, who has since reached iconic status within Otaku culture as well as mainstream J-pop and online video culture as well.
Prior to the introduction of Hatsune Miku, the vocal effect was mainly referred to as “Vocaloid,” a voice synthesizer intended for the creation of songs. The user would choose notes, pronunciation, and voice effects to attempt to create a realistic singing voice. Soon Vocaloid 2, the second version of the synthesizer, was released with the Swedish Vocaloid “Sweet Ann” by PowerFX, but it remained little-known to the masses.
On August 17th, 2007 the “Hatsune Miku CV01 Vocaloid2” vocal synthesizer was released in Japan. The name comes from the Japanese characters Hatsu (初, First), Ne (音, Sound), and Miku (未来, Future, though written in katakana as ミク). Miku was advertised as a “Virtual Pop Star” instead of just a vocal synthesizer, using the sweet voice and cute character as major hooks. The software was tuned to create J-pop songs, but creating songs from other genres is possible.
The Japanese video sharing service Nico Nico Douga (NND) became known as the ground zero of Hatsune Miku sensation on September 4th, 2007, when NND user Otomania posted a vocaloid remix of another remix series “Leekspin” featuring a heavily-deformed version of Miku, now known as “Hachune Miku.” The video was well received in the video-sharing community, inspiring other NND artists to create and share their own remixes, cover songs, and fan art, as well as original compositions using the software. Since its debut, the original video has gained over 3,250,000 views (as of August 2011).
Nico Nico Douga
“Melt,” a Vocaloid track composed by Ryo featuring Hatsune Miku is one of the most popular Vocaloid songs with the highest viewership, comments and “mylists,” or NND’s equivalent of YouTube Favorites.
Another widely-recognized Vocaloid song is “Po-Pi-Po”, a nonsensical yet extremely catchy and upbeat song about a Japanese vegetable juice product. The original video features Miku dancing back and forth, kicking her leg up. Soon after, many fans followed suit with dance videos featuring other Vocaloids, fan Vocaloids, and anime characters to create their own remixes of “Po-Pi-Po” promo track.
A “Nico Chorus” is when a NND user takes several covers of a song and compiles them, switching around who’s singing when and often including the original Vocaloid, usually at the end. YouTube covers do, in fact, exist as well. There are a very few notable ones in comparison to the Nico singers, but some popular singers are there.
Miku Miku Dance Videos
In May 2008, a 3D modeling freeware program Miku Miku Dance (MMD) was released to help users animate and create 3D animation music videos set to Vocaloid tracks. Developed by Yu Higuchi (HiguchiM), the MMD program became a must-have tool for Vocaloid fans to create their own music videos, as well as parodies and re-enactments of pop culture references and current events, as well as tributes to other Japanese video memes like Geddan and the Vocaloid sub-meme “Po-Pi-Po.”
This program became so widely-used in Japanese video communities, NND users began hosting an annual “MMD Cup” contest, inviting the most talented MMD users to create their own videos and duke out who’s the best of the best.
MMD video series is similar to Gary’s Mod videos and Team Fortress 2 videos. MMD videos typically take the original audio from source materials and dub it over the footage of Miku characters recreating the original scene.
Crossover on YouTube
The Hatsune Miku videos also reached their western counterpart YouTube in 2008, spawning a fresh thread of remixes and mash-ups featuring English-language memes like “This is Sparta” and Portal’s ending theme song “Still Alive”.
Impact on Mainstream Culture
Similar to the Auto-Tune phenomenon on YouTube, the popularity of Vocaloid videos on NND soon reached the Japanese mainstream, receiving press coverage and endorsements by J-pop celebrities. Some remix artists were able to get their Miku-themed albums signed on by music labels like Sony Music Entertainment, including Supercell by Ryo, the artist behind several vocaloid hits like “Love is War” and “Black Rock Shooter” and a compilation of vocaloid songs titled Exit Tunes Presents Vocalogenesis feat. Hatsune Miku, which debuted at number one on the Japanese weekly Oricon album charts on May 31st, 2010.
Two live concerts have been held featuring Vocaloids, MIKU FES’09 in August 2009 on Miku’s “second birthday” and MIKU GIVING DAY 3’9, a promotional concert sponsored by SEGA for the upcoming Project Diva sequel. The performances were accompanied by character images of Vocaloids projected onto a glass screen.
Hatsune Miku has also been featured in several video games. Sega launched a series of interactive rhythms games with the release of its first title Hatsune Miku: Project Diva. The game became available on Sony PSP on July 22th, 2009. Another Hatsune Miku project was announced by Sega in April 2011.
Nintendo DS game 13-sai no Hello Work DS features Miku as one of the main characters. The action video game No More Heroes 2, a popular Wii title among Western otakus (or “weeaboos”), features a small segment of Miku’s singing on its soundtrack. In the Japanese version of online action game PangYa, a user campaign was launched in May 2008 to bring Miku into the game as a character and the request was fulfilled.
Fans have created various Miku-themed MODs, models, and character skins for popular games like World of Warcraft, Minecraft, and Valve Orange Box games. Hatsune Miku won the 2008 Seiun Awards in the Free Genre catagory.
Leading figurine companies like Good Smile Company and Max Factory have created figures of Miku and other characters in the Vocaloid series. Other fan merchandise includes small toys, towels, art books by fans, and even jeans.
In November 2009, Hatsune Miku fan Sumio Morioka (his online handle “chodenzi-P”) launched an online petition to convince Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency into installing a custom-built Hatsune Miku aluminum plate on the Japanese Venus spacecraft explorer Akatsuki. By December 22nd, 2009, the petition exceeded the requirements of 10,000 signatures and won the support of a JAEA professor. On May 21st, 2010, Japan’s first Venus probe Akatsuki was launched with three monochromic plates depicting Hatsune Miku and Hachune Miku.
Manga & Anime
In late August 2009, Yamakan’s Ordet animation studio announced a “Black Rock Shooter” anime series due in Spring of 2010, but after many delays, it was released online as an OVA on July 24, 2010. KEI, the original artist of Hatsune Miku, published his “Unofficial Hatsune Mix” manga, which consisted of several short stories centered around Miku and other characters from the Vocaloid series .
Asahi TV Documentary
In March 2009, the Japanese TV network Asahi aired a documentary feature about the Hatsune Miku phenomenon:
In the summer of 2011, Toyota announced that it would be sponsoring Hatsune Miku’s U.S. concert debut in order to celebrate the upcoming English expansion. Toyota announced their partnership alongside advertisements for their new 2011 Corolla.
In December 11th, 2012, an opera with Hatsune Miku as main character was premiered at Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media,  directed by Toshiki Okada and Keiichiro Shibuya, telling about Hatsune Miku realising she’s dead. Vocaloid’s programming was portrayed by Pinocchio-P,  a well-known Vocaloid songs producer. The opera was played again in March 24th and 25th, 2013, and in November, 2013 it will be premiered in Paris.
Hatsune Miku’s debut on David Letterman
On October 8th 2014, the holographic pop star made her US debut on the Late Show, hosted by David Letterman, with her song “Sharing the World” in order to promote an art show dedicated to her that would open in New York.
Vocaloidfan.com publishes a weekly feature called “Vocaloid Weekly Ranking,” ranking the latest Vocaloid videos by how many views, comments and mylists it received that week. There are weekly rankings for different sub-genres of Vocaloid as well.
Crypton, the developers of Vocaloid series, sponsors another Hatsune Miku fan community site called Piapro, which has become a popular hubsite where fans can host original songs, artwork, and music videos.
The leek was made Miku’s character item after the Ievan Polka video. Soon after, different items began being attached to different characters. The ones that seem to be set in stone are: a road roller for the Kagamine Twins, and often a banana for Len; ice cream for Kaito; a bottle of sake for Meiko; a tuna fish for Luka; a carrot for Gumi; and an eggplant for Gakupo. However, most other characters never had a set character item. For example, upon the release of Sonika in July 2009, fans debated over whether she should have a ring or a pineapple as an item. The notebook was never really set in stone as an item for Kiyoteru, despite its appearance in the box art. However, for some Engloids, fans like to make fun of the characters’ voice banks’ bad traits using fan art and undefined character items; for example, since users torrenting Prima often have their computers messed up due to a common error, she is often drawn with a dagger.
Official Spin-off Characters
Following Hatsune Miku in the Character Vocal Series is Rin and Len Kagamine, and later Luka Megurine. While more Vocaloids were released afterwards, and some earlier ones became popular as well, Miku still remains the most populsr.
* Rin and Len Kagamine
The second characters in the Character Vocal Series, Rin and Len were created to be 14-year-old twins. Despite the two genders and hence two voice banks, they were both released as one package, possibly since they were voiced by one actress, Asami Shimoda, whose claim to fame was a role in one game of the popular Japanese idol game series THE iDOLM@STER. The first version of the voice bank was apparently rushed, so a second version, “act2” was released (free to users that already owned this).
Len Kagamine, due to his young character profile, is often labeled a “shota” by the fans. Rin is displayed as an aggressive, stubborn character. These two characters are often portrayed as subjects of tragic song series, such as the famous “Aku no” series, where a prince disguises himself as his stubborn princess to save her.
- Megurine Luka
Megurine Luka is the 3rd in the Vocaloid Character Series. She is voiced by anime voice actress Yū Asakawa and is the first “Bilingual Vocaloid,” created to be able to sing fluently in both Japanese and English. Although her English voice bank has a Japanese accent present, Luka is still widely used for both English and Japanese voice banks.
- Meiko and Kaito
Contrary to what many fans may like to think, the first Japanese Vocaloids were actually Meiko and Kaito. They never received much attention until after Rin and Len Kagamine were released, and eventually the sales of these two Vocaloids (notably Kaito) soared.
- Gackpoid (Gakupo Kamui)
After the the wild success of the first two Character Vocal Series releases, INTERNET Co., Ltd. hired famous J-pop singer Gackt to voice the company’s first Vocaloid. With some collaboration from an enthusiastic manga artist, the result was Gackpoid, or Gakupo Kamui (typically just called Gakupo by fans).
- Megpoid (Gumi)
INTERNET Co., Ltd. was soon able to acquire Megumi Nakajima, a voice actress that rose to fame and became an instant hit with the anime soundtrack single, “Seikan Hikou” (the source of the famous “KIRA!” meme). However, the design for this character (made to resemble slightly the Macross Frontier character Ranka Lee, who “sung” the famous “Seikan Hikou”) was highly criticized by the fans, mainly for the strange way the torso was drawn. On the other hand, even to this day, Megpoid is considered the most realistic-sounding of the Vocaloids.
- miki/Kiyoteru Hiyama/Yuki Kaai
In December 2009, AH Software jumped into the Vocaloid race with three new characters – miki, voiced by a former bassist of a band Supercar who is now a solo singer; Kiyoteru Hiyama, a generically-designed teacher-like character, who is ironically most often used for rock songs; and Yuki Kaai, a young-child counterpart to Kiyoteru with a sweet, innocent voice. These three were highly criticized upon release; miki was said to be too similar to older Vocaloids, and the other two were bashed for being too generic (and wide open to pedophilia jokes).
In early summer 2010, the design for Lily was shown on an album for J-rock band m.o.v.e. A magazine famous for leaking Vocaloids soon revealed this design to be one for an upcoming Vocaloid voiced by the lead singer of that band, who announced her retirement and that the new Vocaloid would replace the singer in the band. In mid-August 2010, a trial version was released, and the full version was released later that month. Lily is the first Vocaloid made by Yamaha, the original makers of Vocaloid, but it’s being distributed by INTERNET Co., Ltd.
With the release of this Vocaloid and a demo came a huge wave of Vocaloid videos, mainly of Lily singing covers of old Vocaloid songs. Fans dubbed this the “Miku Effect” or “Lily Effect” – where Lily “has to sing every Vocaloid song ever made” to test how she sounds, according to one fan on YouTube.
- VY1 Miziki
Miziki, a new “genderless” Vocaloid by Yamaha was released late August, after Lily’s release. She had no visual character associated, but many artists have gone and created images for this genderless Vocaloid.
- Nekomura Iroha
Sanrio, the company that owns Hello Kitty!, and AH-Software worked together to release a new Vocaloid, whose name was presumed to be read as “Nekomura Iroha.” She was given a very loli-like look, but her voice is very deep in contrast. With the release of this video, there was also an announcement that a new Vocaloid is to be released October 22.
There are in fact English-speaking Vocaloids. The first Vocaloid programs were actually Leon and Lola by English company zero-g in March 2004, and at the time these programs won the 2005 Electronic Musician Editors’ Choice Award. Despite this, the two were criticized (mainly for sounding muffled and like the opposite gender). Soon, Miriam Stockley, a solo singer featured in hundreds of soundtracks, lent her voice to the program, and MIRIAM was released a few months later. The program was a step up from before, but the popularity still remained remarkably low.
In June 2007, the first Vocaloid 2 voice, Sweet Ann, was released by the Swedish company PowerFX. This was also the first use of a character design, which is agreed to be very creepy. She is still called the best English-speaking Vocaloid to date, followed by MIRIAM. In January 2008, zero-g released Prima, whose voice actress was a soprano. Although her voice is praised when used for traditional choir songs, her voice tends to sound muffled, likely due to the fact that she was made to be able to sing Latin and Italian.
Over a year later, zero-g decided to try out the “Character Vocal”-type approach, releasing a new character named Sonika, giving “her” a twitter account, a comic (done by accela, a huge Vocaloid enthusiast) and a personality. Instantly, she was bashed for her poor pronunciation and bad design. At the same time as a redesign contest held by the company, a package redesign was released, but fans still seem to want a re-do of the voice bank.
In 2007, PowerFX announced Big Al, an English Vocaloid with a deep voice. However, it took until late December 2009 for them to release it, with a much better voice bank than the original demos and a character redesign by accela, the comic artist for Sonika. Both English and Japanese fans took to the new Vocaloid very well.
In late 2009, a counterpart to Prima, Tonio, was announced for Febuary 2010. However, later the date was pushed to July 2010, which ended up being the final release date. There are rumors of more English Vocaloids yet to come.
Fanmade Vocaloid Characters
There is a large volume of images and videos depicting “Vocaloid OCs” or fanmade characters outside of the original Vocaloids, quite often with an entirely original design, “plot”, and character item. Due to the fact there is no official canon behind the series, most character attributes or conventions are fan-made and sometimes criticized for their imitative nature.
* Black Rock Shooter
First drawn as an original character by artist Huke, this character initially had no relation to Vocaloids whatsoever. It wasn’t until Ryo, a well known Miku music artist, thought Black Rock Shooter slightly resembled Miku and arranged with Huke to create the song “Black Rock Shooter”; in the process, Huke re-edited Black Rock Shooter to look more like Miku. The single rose to #1 on the Vocaloid Weekly Rankings for several weeks. The character would later be featured as a figure and its own anime series. Black Rock Shooter, or BRS, is now generally associated with Vocaloid, although she is not necessarily a “fanmade Vocaloid.”
- Haku Yowane (Voyakiloid)
The “Voyakiloid” series is a series of many characters created to make fun of bad fans. The first of the two was Haku Yowane, a drunk variation of Miku with a beer bottle as a character item. She was created to make fun of fans that did covers and songs of horrible quality, evidently because they were too lazy to do it well or in the right pitch. Fans created the “voice” of Haku by pitching songs in any kind of audio editor into a very, very bad pitch for the song. Later, however, a fan was able to create voice bank settings in the Vocaloid program to make the voice of Miku into one similar to the Haku voice used. Although Haku doesn’t serve the same purpose that she had when created, she is still a prominent character in the Vocaloid community.
- Neru Akita
(picture by TeraTerific90210123 on DeviantART.com)
A delinquent and somewhat snobby, Neru Akita is a girl who always gets things done her way. She is often portrayed as a rival to Miku, or even as a Miku-poser. She was created by users on 2ch, when certain users posted things like “Got bored. Going to bed.” and “Gonna go to bed. Follow me guys!”, and other users created a personification for these people. Neru Akita is a wordplay on “Got bored. Go to bed.”
Like Haku, a “voice” for Neru was created by pitching the different songs sung by Rin and Len Kagamine, and later voice bank settings were created to match the voices. She is portrayed as rude, lazy and usually texting the day away. (Her item is a cell phone.)
- Teto Kasane / UTAUloid
Teto Kasane is not actually a Vocaloid. She was first released as a prank, said to be the next Vocaloid. However, even after April Fool’s Day, she caught on and a voice bank was made for this character using UTAU, a freeware vocal synthesizer with a catch of the user being able to make their own voice bank on top of using others’.
After the creation and fame of Teto, a wave of UTAU characters was created, some much more famous. Even in Western/American fandom, fans can create UTAU voice banks and characters, hoping to become successful.
- Kagamine Kawaiine
A trending popular fanmade, ironically created to make fun of bad fanmades, is Kagami Kawaiine, created by user sango312 on YouTube. The user applies every “weeaboo” stereotype that they saw applied to the Vocaloid fanbase to the descriptions of the video and “personality” of the character. In addition, the character itself is intended to be a horrible recolor of Miku, the voice is pitched high enough to shatter anyone’s ears, and the abuse of “desu,” “kawaii” and other abused Japanese words is apparent throughout the videos.
Critics of fanmades have taken a liking to this character, agreeing with the creator on most, if not all, points made by the videos. However, the first video created using this character (which had no direct insults towards any fanmades or creators, but a note stating how these kinds of people bugged her and she made Kagami as a joke) was taken down months later after being flagged as a hate video, possibly by upset fans. Still, the creator continues to create videos with this character (on top of her own fanmade videos).
- Tako Luka
A character that emerged from the small “character item war” about Megurine Luka, which often happens when characters are released, Tako Luka is the Luka equivalent of Miku’s deformed form, Hachune Miku. There is no single video that seems to have caused her rise in popularity, unlike Hachune. However, she is another recognizable character in the fanbase.
On February 2nd, 2012, the anime news website Sankaku Complex reported that Hatsune Miku YouTube videos were being removed at an alarming rate due to a false copyright claim campaign. The article went on to criticize YouTube’s policies concerning video takedowns.
All this is possible because YouTube allows unverified third parties to issue takedown notices on any content they host, which usually results in a swift removal of the video which can only be reversed by a counter-notification.
The “savemiku” counter-campaign was launched to combat the takedowns and released the following statement:
Someone who doesn’t like Hatsune Miku getting popular in the world is deleting her high ranked videos with English titles on it by making fake reports that the videos are infringing a copyright.
We don’t know who is doing this.
The series of these acts may be caused by organized group(s).
It is under investigation by Miku fan volunteers.
If your video is deleted by a fake report, please submit a counter-notification here: http://p.tl/hZW6
To all Vocaloid fans, Let’s get her back. Don’t give up.
Vocaloid Otaku – VocaloidOtaku.net Forums – Providing Everything Vocaloid
Sankaku Complex – Save Miku: Hatsune Miku YouTube Videos Deleted En Masse
Rocket News 24 – Louis Vuitton’s Marc Jacobs creates high fashion Hatsune Miku
Pitchfork – "Holographic Pop Star Hatsune Miku Performs on "Letterman"":http://pitchfork.com/news/57031-holographic-pop-star-hatsune-miku-performs-on-letterman/