Perhaps you've already heard of Hatsune Miku, the virtual pop star from Japan who has inspired video artists, laptop composers and cosplayers over the past few years and recently turned up in a commercial for Toyota Corolla. If not, here's the short version: Hatsune Miku is the most popular character in the Vocaloid family of synthetic voice software. Look her up on YouTube and you'll find a score of songs and videos created with her voice and image. Go to an anime convention and you'll see lots of young women sporting the long, blue pigtails and headphones that have become the virtual pop star's signature look. Established bands, like Japanese indie pop group The Aprils, have collaborated with her and she's even sold-out concerts.
Most recently, locals Stephanie Yanez and Polo have championed the virtual pop star. Yanez is a singer, a former winner of Anime Expo's AX Idol competition, who has appeared at numerous anime conventions and even a cosplay cafe in Tokyo. She frequently performs in Los Angeles with guitarist Polo, who also plays in the bands Nirf and Nvr-Ndr. Their latest song "Ultimate Miku World" is a duet between the very human Yanez and the synthetic Miku. The song is part of a promotion for TinierMe, a Second Life-styled site geared towards fans of Japanese pop culture who are running an exclusive video until May 20 called "Hatsune Miku and Stephanie Yanez's Digital Dream Concert." Following the end of the TinierMe run, the song will be available on iTunes.
Yanez became interested in Miku when the animated singer first appeared on TinierMe.
"I heard of her [before Miku came to TinierMe]," she says. "I knew who she was. I didn't quite understand what she was. "
"When Hatsune Miku arrived on TinierMe the first time, I started getting really into her," she adds. "I started listening to her songs and some of the other Vocaloids, but I really liked Hatsune Miku."
After some of her fans suggested that she record a track with Miku, Yanez, who is a "virtual idol" on TinierMe, approached the company about doing a proper collaboration. When the idea was approved, she approached Polo to work on the song with her.
"Polo is the one who really worked on Hatsune Miku's voice," says Yanez. "There was no way I could touch it. It's really hard."
We emailed Polo a few questions about working with the program. He says that he started playing with Hatsune Miku last February, after seeing some videos on YouTube.
"First, I tried to make an easy melody and with funny lyrics," he says. "I made her say, 'Wake up, Polo! Let's go to Guitar Center!' in Japanese in a simple melody, accompanied with rock guitar. It was really fun!"
Since Vocaloid has a reputation for being a difficult program to master. We asked Polo about his experience learning it.
"When I first started using it, I made her melody only through midi. I thought it was okay but she couldn't sing well," he says. "Her singing and pronunciation felt too much like a robot. She had no emotion and her key was always too low. I decided to check online on how to use Vocaloid programs. Thankfully, I found some Vocaloid's fan website that really helped me out a lot. She sings really well now!"
It took about two weeks for Yanez and Polo to work on the song.
"Whenever I work with Stephanie, I usually make the melody and the chords with an acoustic guitar first," says Polo. "The process for this was about the same. After I made the melody and the chords, I passed it to Stephanie and we created the lyrics in Japanese for both Stephanie's and Miku's parts."
Yanez says that she wanted the song to focus on Miku.
"I wanted it to be a tribute to her," she explains. "That's why it's called 'Ultimate Miku,' how I'm this human girl but even though I'm human, I'm connected to this pretend girl."
She continues, "Even though she's not real, when you hear her sing and stuff, you feel connected."
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Polo says, "We included a lot of words relating to the digital world, because of the cyber world Miku was supposed to live in. I also included a lot of instrumental parts that would give off the 'digital world' feel to the song," adding that bassist Taiki and keyboardist Koichi helped complete the song.
The guitarist/producer acknowledges that putting together human and synthetic vocals was no easy task.
"It was definitely a big challenge for me to work on a song with both a human singer and a synthetic one," says Polo. "Stephanie has her own groove and Miku's groove is really constricted and limited because she's a program. Both are so different. I ended up buying a 'melodyne,' which is a software for editing musical notes and groove for vocals. It's kind of like an autotune."
He adds, "Even though both Stephanie and Miku have such different characters, I tried to match their singing styles as similar as possible, while keeping their own singing character. It was really difficult but I'm quite satisfied in the end."