Somebodyrandom, a regular over at Vocaloid Otaku and one of the main editors on the Vocaloid Wikia, wrote an article for Vocaloidism on the subject of the Vocaloids produced outside Japan: how can the popularity gap between them and the Japanese Vocaloids be explained? Is it a problem of language, synthesis quality, or maybe fandom? Read on for some of her thoughts on these questions.
(The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Vocaloidism.)
It’s not gone unnoticed for some time now that we do not see the same reflections in the Vocaloids from Zero-G and PowerFX in terms of success. In comparison, Japanese Vocaloids are very popular. I’d like to think this was a single thing that could be singled out on one item, that everything is JUST linked to one problem. The reality is, this is a complex situation with a ton of things that have gone on for a while. If it were that easy to define, I wouldn’t have faced that many problems editing Wikipedia and the Wikia. I also apologise, I can’t really sum up a lot of this too much. This is possibly going to end up as one of the longest article Vocaloidism will face… I’m not a regular here I lurk.
For the sake of clarity, I’m going to avoid “Engloid” and refer to everyone capable of singing in English as “English capable” like I do generally at the Wikia. When I posted on Vocaloidism’s forums for the first time I was very shocked because on Vocaloid Otaku forums “Engloid” is used so openly. I also will define at this point “Vocaloid Fan” as a general person who like Vocaloid, there is quite a vast difference with a lot of fans being just general anime fans which I will cover later on.
When I first picked up Lola back in 2004 I found her in a stall at a con amongst some music based software. Now, Vocaloid was an expensive software even then, and there wasn’t yet a Vocaloid fandom. So when I first saw Miku I had NO IDEA that she was a Vocaloid and would not have guessed what she was at all. To me she was just some random anime character I started noticing on the net. I don’t know how it came to surpass, but at some point I bothered to take the time to look her up; my mind was blown I really WASN’T expecting what I got overloaded with.
I came to the Vocaloid Otaku (VO) forums just as Big Al was about to be released, I lurked there for a while before finally getting the guts to post. But after buying Al, I began to notice that the English capable Vocaloid were not really spoken about a lot. To make matters worse, no one really knew much about any non-Crypton Vocaloid anyway. I went to Wikipedia and noticed that it sort of reflected a lot of the problems that are still with the fandom. For a few months, I begged everyone at VO forums to help tidy it up.
A small note here: during the mid 2000’s, Wikipedia upset many anime fans who were editors there by enforcing strict rules of pratice, leading to a mass imigration to the Wikias we see around the net in many cases. I was admist that chaos. Many editors involved wiped their hands of the site and as I was amongst them it took a lot to bring myself to edit there.
Eventually, I decided the only way I was going to fix the problem was to come out of retirement (funny thing, the first time I edited Wikipedia reverted the entire page back to the bad version, haha). For the curious, that’s what it used to look like.
So the following months I bombarded it with links and information to pull the page together. In doing so, I pulled out information on the English capable Vocaloids like their reception, something that was difficult to find for Japanese Vocaloids.
This brings to the point made by a comment on the discussion page, that it was natural since the Vocaloid software was big in Japan that there will be more references. That WAS a good point, but I found if you leave out the English capable Vocaloids you lose the big picture and a GOOD chunk of Vocaloids history. In fact, it was looking over the English capable Vocaloids that brought to light the very first software to rival Vocaloid, Cantor. See? You leave out the English capable Vocaloids, you don’t notice these things exist!
From Postive beginnings to obscurity?
I will make it a point that every Vocaloid fan should at some point take a moment of their time to read up the views of the era previous to Miku. This is something I ask too much for perhaps? I don’t know, but for those who care to take the time, one article remains the most important for English based Vocaloids: “Could I Get That Song in Elvis, Please?“, from the New York Times.
I recommend every Vocaloid fan at some point read this article BEFORE they express their comments on English capable Vocaloids. It pretty much sums up the hopeful beginnings of Vocaloids, but also serves as a cornerstone for defining WHO the Vocaloids were aimed at: the professional muscian. Let me take you back to the early 2000’s, to the era before Youtube REALLY lept into action. At first, only those who took the time to make a website got attention on the net, but as the first big social networking sites like MySpace came along, providing access to many indie muscians, this switched. After all, you didn’t have to pay to host a MySpace account and it was easy to set up as such, you could also tell all your fans where your latest gigs were, your CD releases, etc, etc. It was a very easy service to use.
About the time of Sweet Ann’s release, times were begining to change, MySpace was about to suffer some major blows (I recently read an on-line report that 1 million users are leaving it a month) and other, better sites came along offfering better services. This removed a lot of the previous target audience from the English capable Vocaloids. I had friends who switched from MySpace to YouTube, for similair reasons a lot of indie music producers did.
I also noticed in recent months that the music software magazines had disappeared from bookshelves here in the UK, something that according to my local newsagents happened a while ago across the broad. Electronic magazines replaced the paperbacks, removing the need to even print a page. After all, your audience was already on the internet, they already have the skills to research. Don’t know what its like abroad in other countries, but you do pretty much everything on-line now. But this also means you have to pray someone reads up about your product, and with the English Capable Vocaloids, information can be few and far between.
Prima was spoken about in the New York times I believe, but I do note that I have difficulty finding information on the post-Sweet Ann era in terms of technical information. Here is one of the Sound on Sound pages for everyone to read, this style of reporting disappears after Ann, remember!
Vocaloid fans have to understand that the Vocaloid project was a BIG event to begin with, that undertaking the art of human speech was never going to be easy. The problems Yamaha faced with the complexity of languages as difficult and vast to define like the English language was never going to be easy and it’s easy for a native speaker to not even realise that things like a “schwa” exist even though half the words they speak might be using it (note: apparently though, American accents tend to skip it something I didn’t know about myself until recently). In fact, it’s actually pretty darn easy to appreciate a language that you are naive towards than one you’re very familar with and I don’t want to say anything controversial there about it so I’m going to have to skip over this part.
So what is keeping them down?
The English capable Vocaloid engine is lagging behind for a number of reasons, I apologise, some of these are more observations. I also cannot and do not want to add names that might lead to someone being trolled or abused on-line. I will note, Crypton once was reported to put the blame on British accent for Leon and Lola, however, I don’t tend to accept this excuse because the Japanese Vocaloids are popular. I will however take their comments related to a lack of avatar a bit more seriously as an excuse for not liking Leon and Lola.
- Notablity: Possibly the most noticeable thing is that there is a huge lack of work both fanart and song wise. It’s not that there are none, in fact off the top of my head I know there’s at LEAST 450+ English songs. But there’s also no big music makers using the English capable Vocaloids openly, Mike Oldfield is one of the rare who even admits it. Without someone to say “I’m using a Vocaloid” the English capable Vocaloids cannot gain fame. There is a report from last year that confirmed Miku had 22,000+ songs. When you think about it, 450+ seems like nothing at all doesn’t it?
- Bias: it’s actually pretty high on the list of problems. I can only define it as this state: “Why does this thing that sings in English not sound like this thing that sings Japanese?” I don’t mean to insult anyone with that comment, but this is the core source of a LOT of bias: the first encounter with an English capable Vocaloid after seeing a Japanese Vocaloid can be off putting. The second level of bias comes from the question “Why doesn’t this thing that sings in English sound like this other thing singing in Japanese?” At this point, a person will draw up their own conclusions, for the better or worst and too often it’s for the worst. The last level of bias is “I don’t like this thing that sings English because it doesn’t sound like the thing that sings in Japanese”. And really… This is where the problem lies, this can easily turn into something that spreads propraganda and lies amongst other fans, either intentionally or unintentionally with proof or without it. I’ll give an example: on the website “The Escapist Magazine” I actually found a Vocaloid topic where someone spoke about English Vocaloids. Someone made the comment of Miku being Japanese and how they want an English version (I guess they don’t know about English Miku…). At this point, another person jumped in and basically said that there were English capable Vocaloids but “all of them are sh*t”. This type of negative comments can prevent someone from not only looking them up, but also make it harder for them to love what they hear if they do look them up. In the process, it spreads the bias around.
- Expectations: Recently in an e-mail Bil Bryant (PowerFX) commented that fans are very passionate about what they love, but often force their desires onto Vocaloid that they’ve come to know. This sets a “standard” for ALL Vocaloids. Unfortunately, this restricts what the English capable Vocaloids can do freely. I’m amazed at what Guiseppe produces, who isn’t? It’s cover songs, but some of what is released is quite interesting and often a good demonstration of what you can do with Vocaloid.
- Image: I have been pointing out for several months that our blond haired image of Leon is technically incorrect, as the box states both him and Lola are “Soul singers”. Soul music has its origins in African American music. In fact, Lola and Leon are typical singers of their genre (Lola more so than Leon I note). The sole image of that blond Leon also restricts creativity; Leon is without an avatar at the moment (Zero-G mentioned in early 2010 this might change). Until the VY series this was something that was foriegn amongst the other Vocaloids, particularly since all Japanese Vocaloids had a mascot on the boxart. But I do note (for those who can’t be bothered to read), Cantor had pretty much the same style of boxart and I sometimes wonder if anyone believes me when I say “it’s a reflection of that era”. There are non-art based portrayals, personas every fan puts on a Vocaloid themselves (I always view Leon based on the fact he was the soul English male voicebank for 6 years based on a joke at VO forums). Still, there is also a lack of portrayals to contend with of any of Zero-G or PowerFX Vocaloids, and the ones they’re lumbered with are stuck into them because not enough people try to make their own version of Prima, Sonika, Big Al, etc. But in a nutshell they’re a reflection of the music industry they’re part of and fans have to understand that not every country has the same culture.
- Fandom: This is the hardest thing to direct a comment at. Because you CANNOT say anything about fans without some backlash and disagreements. Part of the problem is there is a distinct lack of a fandom, although a slowly building one is appearing. I would have to say that certain types of Vocaloid fans are worse than others although I will not blame anyone. I think the fans have to acknowledge that every time they call something bad, it can be thrown back at them at a later date. Back to the bias and the Escapist Magazine comment, if no one bothers looking up a Vocaloid how can it get a fandom? I know the English capable Vocaloids fans are quite passionate at times, to silly proportions, but I seriously don’t know any other Vocaloid fandom where you have to CONSTANTLY find this classification that’s been lumped onto them. Yet in the midst of all of this, with the building of such a passion there is a sparkle of strength… Their fandom is still small yet the English capable Vocaloids fans can often have some of the strongest voices because they HAVE to defend them all the time.
- Development: Its a GOOD time for development right now for the English capable engine. There’s a Zero-G Vocaloid on the way, a male Vocaloid from PowerFX, English Miku, two voicebanks due from Bplats… And now confirmation has come through for Luka Append that sets the table on her Append status! That’s now many voicebanks aimed at the English Vocaloid engine! Now is a good time to be a fan of English capable Vocaloids, we’ve never had it so good. But in the past, progress was slow. Zero-G works by a yearly budget, if Vocaloids sell well they get more budget, they do badly it effects the budget for the next Vocaloid. PowerFX are pretty much the same but they’re a much smaller company (perhaps the smallest of the Vocaloid companies). I’m thankful if they produce one every few years (owning all 3 Zero-G’s and Big Al, Al’s one of the most interesting to use although out of him and Tonio I myself always fall back to Tonio). However, there are far more Japanese Vocaloids than English and more studios, so if those studios each produce a Japanese voicebank at least once a year they’ll out pace the English capable Vocaloids.
- Quality: I had the pleasures of researching the Kagamine’s in recent months. If you heard a song by the Kagamine’s, based on a lack of who they are or even the Japanese language, would you even know their Act1 was pretty awful overall? A native speaker can not only identify this, but improve the vocals, in fact it is possible to write a song so clean you would never know that the Kagamine’s ever needed an Act2. If I look up the Gumi “Bad Romance” song that exists on Youtube, I’ll find comments along the lines of “even better than Luka and the Engloids”. I also note, from the odd occasional question at Yahoo answers, that this sort of comments can be a rather deceiving remark. People DO presume that English will be fairly easy to recreate with a Vocaloid who has only a fraction of the sounds needed for English. There are good examples out there as well of those who’ve succeeded, but I’d like to see the presumption that “I will be able to use Japanese Vocaloids for English very easy” disappear. I’m NOT going to say “don’t use a Japanese Vocaloid”… As a former anime fan I know how presumptuous people can be though and I’ve had to sit there and witness people buying games all the time in Japanese they struggle to play. Really it comes down to the idea that anything from Japan is good without first making sure they got that comment correct. There are some excellent works in English song genres from the western hemisphere, if you give them a chance some surpassing the Japanese producers.
- Language: I can’t really say it any simpler, but the English language was never easy to begin with. With many loan words, stress accents, etc… I really can’t say much more than “Unlike the Japanese capable Vocaloids they’re not so easy or precise”. I briefly used a Japanese Vocaloid demo last year and I admit for what I got out of it (which was nothing to write home about) it was much easier.
- No events: now redundant as someone went and made one now… But for the most part, not a lot happens. Whenever I see an event involving Vocaloids in Japan where most of the action happens, the Japanese capable Vocaloids are pasted everywhere, and no overseas Vocaloid site is in sight.
- Not popular at all: they are actually apparently really popular within their market, but that market is quite small, at least based on the English capable sector according to Anders. In fact the only way to overcome this is that more sales have to be made. As sales increase, demand increases and the market expands. But in the meantime, popularity in comparison to the Japanese, and popularity within their market are too very different remarks to make and Vocaloid fans have to accept that there is a world within the music industry that they barely know about.
- Acceptance of progress/achievements: when word began to spread that Lola, not Meiko, had been used for the theme of Paprika, I found some of the comments quite shameful. The worst was one that was along the lines of “No, Meiko sang this! Wash away the horror, wash away the horror…”. I hate to say it but when you update Wikipedia or a Wikia, that information slowly spreads but I do get to witness peoples’ reactions in the progress sometimes. For a few months after it was added to the wiki pages, I witnessed some of the reactions to the change of information. I was quite shocked how some rejected the idea of Lola being the singer, yet at the same time I was amazed at other comments that welcomed the results. At the end of the day I must confess, it really comes down to accepting that a Vocaloid was used for Paprika, it really doesn’t matter who it is. I do believe that if Meiko had been confirmed though the reaction would have been remarkably different.
- The media: “Miku was the First Vocaloid”… No Leon and Lola were the first on the market. And from our Los Angeles information pages Meet the Vocaloids: “In the past, creating songs with English lyrics had always been somewhat awkward”… for Japanese Vocaloids. I blame part of the problem is Crypton Vocaloids are giants and can sometimes dwarf other Japanese Vocaloids, but there’s a lot of things being said that are being done without acknowledging other Vocaloids exist. The other English capable Vocaloids beyond Luka are also being ignored in all this. The media can only base their comments on what they see, read or are told and Crypton are probably asking the media to care to take time out to mention their Vocaloids anyway. With so much courage it is hard enough to get people to realise they are a few of the now many Vocaloids without having to correct misgivings in the process. I have to say, the media can be some of the worst sources of information at times and even bigger spreaders of incorrect information than the numerous trolls.
- “Wrong Vocaloid…“: This is not so much of a problem but I have seen this as an excuse not to buy an English capable Vocaloid. There is a strong desire for English versions of Japanese Vocaloids it seems (withEnglish Miku I note when we finally got one the negativity was quite amazing haha!). So some are not buying the current Vocaloids because they’re waiting for that “one” voicebank they want. There WAS a suggestions topic again for voice types and genres at VO forums… Anders was very appreciative of the boat (note: it was a cruise ship, not a rubber dingy!) load of suggested voices.
I don’t believe the problems they face are capable of being removed over night and things will likely improve as time passes by. I will note in closing that most Vocaloid fans are attracted by the PVs in anime style, this is no secret amongst Vocaloid fans. However, take note, the English speaking music industry is a much stronger industry than the Japanese one. In fact, for Vocaloid to be certain of a solid future, it MUST secure its place in the English speaking industry otherwise it will lose the oppotunity forever. For that reason, English capable Vocaloids will have to continue being developed and we must be prepared to sit through the ups and downs while progress is made. Japanese music in the western hemisphere is a minority interest in comparison and most notable of all, now Miku is in the mainstream people are currently looking at Vocaloid. Not everyone likes anime, and many will be turned off of Miku because of her voice, we need to have something to keep those who do not like this kind of things interested.
I will point out a little note I have. Microsoft Sam was a free voicebank made for people to use. True you have to pay for Vocaloid but does that mean it’s not fun? I’m having a GREAT time with my 4 English capable Vocaloids, even if I publish nothing in the process. Did the fact that Sam was robotic, censored and lacking in his language skills prevent users having fun? No. In fact he has a number of Internet Memes and jokes related to him. A product is what you make of it, and Vocaloid is in the hands of the fans to control. Remember, the efforts we do now impact the future of the software and if we want to see Vocaloid become much more than it is we’ve got to be a little prepared to act as pioneers.
I think already we’ve made progress: before VO was hit by malware Anders took away with him a LONG list (I was the suicidal idiot who foolishly volunteered to write all our suggestions down for him in a list) of Vocaloid 3 suggestions on improvements. And the best bit was, the ideas that flowed between the fans that gave him suggestions were quite interesting… If anything, without Zero-G and PowerFX, we’d have absolutely no involvement, or very little, on the developement of the Vocaloid engine. I think this is our greatest asset right now, that a humble handful of fans can define a product that is aimed at everyone from amateurs to professionals from country to country and that some of our ideas will make it into the hands of the Japanese producers we all love along the way.
So I put to the table the question of why must some of us insist making negative comments about English capable Vocaloids, when in doing so they cut into one of the core links we have with Vocaloid? If it breaks, we might loose this little something, how will Yamaha react? It might not be easy for English Vocaloid to return… And not this, at some point, Leon, Lola and Miriam were NOT on sale anymore. It’s only because of renewed interest they are now.
I thank everyone who took the time to read this.