Voices - Some Assembly Required

Jitter Doll begins. The drums pulse, setting the fast, hypnotizing rhythm, with the guitar in the background, a slight static for emphasis, and wonder. Matsudappoiyo (maht-soo-dah-poi-yoh) begins singing, clear and strong, as the English subtitles scroll across the screen. His voice rises. I can feel the emotion, the confusion, the desire to know, as he sings about love, life, and God, wondering if they are real or just human constructs used to understand the world. Not only does Matsuda have an amazing voice I can't help but adore, he also sings about ideas that concern me, that I wonder about. He is everything I look for and hope for in a singer. I scroll down to the comments as the song finishes its dramatic ending, curious to see what other people think of the song. I read the first comment and discover... Matsudappoiyo, my favorite singer, is a Japanese computer program? Wait. He was created to sing any song using a synthetic voice? What the heck? This can't be true. I was just thinking how much emotion he puts in his songs, but he has no emotion. He's a computer program. How is that possible?

I research other synthetic voices, called UTAU (oo-tah-oo), and their cousins the Vocaloids. I could download them onto my computer to make whatever song I wanted. Not only that, but I could change their pitch, treble, tone, anything. I had been admiring a computer program! They also all have an avatar, an image which is associated with them. Matsuda has blue hair with white highlights and always wears a tie. Another avatar is a cross dresser that likes to wear Victorian-style dresses and lacy hats. They're fun to watch and listen to, but they're not human, so why do people love these anime-looking computer constructs that don't always sound the same from one song to the next? Why do the Vocaloids have live concerts filled to bursting with loyal human fans screaming their names? Even though I like the synthetic singers, whenever someone asks me who my favorite singer is, I kind of shrink. It's uncomfortable and embarrassing to admit the singer you like isn't even human. Maybe because it means their songs aren't real, that the emotions and thoughts behind them are as fake as their singers. I don't know. So, I did the one thing I thought could give me the answer: research.

UTAU and Vocaloids, although produced by different companies, basically function the same way. A human voice is recorded singing every sound for every note in the desired language. Japanese has 500 different sounds, while English has over 2,500. These sounds are then put together to form the song. Add some music, and you have a singer. I have actually watched some Vocaloids sing. Not the avatar, but the actual computer program, and it was disturbing. A human voice comes out, but what I saw on the screen was just a series of lines with lyrics above them. That's it. If this is what we saw instead of the avatars, I doubt people would be as attached to the singers, but even people who create songs using Vocaloids and UTAU still talk about them as if they were people. Not as strongly, perhaps, but they still say “he” or “she” instead of “it.” But not everyone reacts as if they have personalities.

My 19 year-old brother likes the synthetic singers, but to him they are just sources of music. They have no personality, no identity beyond their voice and the song at that moment. He still loves their live concerts, but he likes them more as a show of advanced technology rather than as people performing. There is one exception to this though, Luka. Luka is a synthetic singer that generally sings songs from the viewpoint of an insane person, and my brother loves her for it. She is the only one he views as having a personality.

So why are people like me different, or should I say, why are Vocaloid and UTAU fans different from fans of flesh and blood singers? Are they different?

There is a theory related to humanoid robots called the Uncanny Valley that helps to explain why they might still be considered fake. The theory states that people do not like artificial objects that look extremely human-like, because there is always something that's “off” about them. This is one reason why Wall-E can capture our hearts while the Terminator gives us the creeps. One is human enough to relate to, while the other is too human, becoming a perversion. This also explains why synthetic voices, with their anime-like faces, can gain our affection. They are human-like, but clearly not human. They fall into the “Goldilocks” zone, the perfect spot between two extremes, that is “not too hot and not too cold.” But because each person falls on a different point of the Valley, some might consider Vocaloids too human, or not human enough to be in the Goldilocks zone. My brother, who has trouble with human faces, can't make this distinction, while I can, which may explain why he only judges them by their songs, and I fall for the avatars. But if this was the only reason, why don't more people love synthetic singers?

Another reason for people's reaction might be their voices. Even though they sound human, except for a few instances, I have always been able to tell a synthetic singer from a human singer. Matsuda is my favorite because he sounds the most human. This human sound-alike value is the most common compliment I see when I read the comments. In general, since they are adjustable, people are considered good Vocaloid users if they can make them sound human. The reason is, despite their human voices, there is always a slightly artificial sound to them. The best way to describe it is an electronic tone. Some people like it, some people don't. I still like human voices, and I need a real voice every now and then, but it doesn't stop me or take away from my experience listening to Vocaloids and UTAU.

I have also read comments on songs where people say they were afraid synthetic singers would replace human singers, and they wouldn't listen to them for that reason. They were afraid that, since synthetic singers are so versatile and can be used by the average person, they would take over the music world. They have wider ranges, can sing in many different languages, are more accessible, and, in essence, can become anything the creator desires, while humans cannot. These fears of the new and the unknown, while not as prevalent as the reasons I have already mentioned, could be one explanation why some people only think of them as voicebanks, the proper term for their voices. Personally, I doubt synthetic voices will ever replace human entertainers because you can never really interact with the synthetic singers on a personal level.

I don't know why some people think of Vocaloids and UTAU as nothing more than computer programs. I don't know why some people treat them like they exist, at least on some level. Maybe it's their voices, their faces, the fact they can sing anything and do, or their ability to be downloaded. Maybe it's because they are foreign, or they're new and not well understood. All I do know is, I listen to Vocaloids and UTAU because their songs say something, because they mean something to me. I listen to them like any other teenager listens to “real” singers. But with new self correcting microphones and techno pop, are human singers any more real? Does it honestly matter?





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