The Voice Encoder: Is It Really the Easy Way Out?

With most situations in life, there are seemingly painless routes that lead to great rewards but come hand-in-hand with a catch. In the first-person shooter Doom, it’s the BFG – its powerful plasma blast has a massive damage radius but if you end up within it, you end up frying yourself. In import tuner-based arcade racing games, it’s the Nissan Skyline – a powerful 4WD machine, but without the proper breaking and accelerating techniques you end up driving into walls. In Texas Hold ’em, it’s pocket aces – it’s a good hand to bet big with but I’ve seen it fail more than succeed (of course that’s dependent on the community cards, but I digress). As a “career”, it’s crime – it pays well but you usually end up in jail or dead. In the case of the music industry, the vocoder seems to be the easy way out of actually having to be a good vocalist and still be able to sell. Turn on the radio these days and you’ll probably bump into a song that uses it, but in the technopop world it’s hard to find a song without it. It is this effect that serves as technopop vocalists’ greatest weapon and also their biggest crutch when improperly used. It’s easy to apply, hard to master, but when used appropriately, it should enhance the musical experience instead of take away from it.

Technically, a vocoder requires two sources of audio to operate – the modulator (the voice) and carrier (the synthesizer). Both sources are fed into either a hardware or software vocoder and it spits out the vocal with the characteristics of the synthesized sound, including pitch. For more information, read this article on the Fruity Vocoder used in FLStudio or watch this tutorial from on how to use the Fruity Vocoder in FLStudio. After a few hours of tinkering, I couldn’t achieve the technopop vocalist sound. Apparently, the sound of the carrier used makes a world of difference. I realized that the quality of the carrier make the largest impact on how intelligible the modulator is when fed through the vocoder. I used the 3xOsc synthesizer which is a highly customizable, 3-oscillator, subtractive synthesizer, capable of generating a countless amount of sounds. Trying to come up with a sound to carry my voice was quite the challenge.

Mastering the vocoder effect is no easy feat. Even when it comes to the professionals, vocoder abuse happens often enough that regardless of when producers use it properly, their tracks still receives the same scrutiny as tracks that don’t. A recent and obvious case of vocoder abuse is from the group portable with their “hajimesasenai” single. With the way their vocalists sound with the vocoder, you’d think that they had only one. I could give them the benefit of the doubt and think that maybe their vocalists just have similar vocal qualities, but THAT similar? I don’t know. It could just be the audio quality itself preventing me from differentiating from each girl. It’s not that their vocal quality is particularly bad but its nothing too memorable since there’s nothing that separates each girl’s vocals. Another example would be cosmeticROBOT’s “merushimerodi” where initially I found the difference in voices to be minimal. I can pick out specific traits, but without being able to see or know anything beyond that, even the video doesn’t help with properly identifying them. The few videos they have of themselves up on YouTube are horribly lit and focus more on the dance and stage, ignoring their faces unlike most technopop lives and PVs. Also, their dancing is nowhere near as intricate as Perfume’s moves.

Back when my fascination with Perfume started and before I saw and pictures or videos of the trio, without a vocoder, I could only pick out two vocalists. Then again, the only song I had was “sweet donuts” and Kashi’s voice was the only one I could consistently pick out while picking out A-chan and Nocchi was 50/50. As time progressed, I could start hearing the subtle differences with the vocoder on top of Perfume’s vocals and as their voices began to mature, their individual styles really started to shine through. Kashi managed to stay cute and nasal regardless of being vocoder or not. A-chan also managed to stay cute but maintained her richer quality; she remains the best vocalist from the trio but loses a lot of it through vocoding. Nocchi kept her unique airy quality that compliments and rounds out the trio’s vocals perfectly, both with and without vocoder. These traits became more obvious with their later tracks where Nakata started cutting down on vocoder usage.

Aside from causing rich vocals to lose personality, the carrier also controls the pitch of the modulator and “fixes” any tonal irregularities. In my experience, you could just talk then play a melody using the carrier and it would sound like singing. This allows one to question the vocal integrity of technopop vocalists. There are two sliders on the Fruity Vocoder panel that allows modulator and carrier pass-through. Having both at 0 and the vocoder effect at the default 80%, my voice was barely intelligible at best. This leads me to believe that, with Perfume, Nakata allows a lot of modulator pass-through and we do hear a lot of Perfume’s real voices, especially in the more vocally developed Perfume tracks. What he does with the vocoder is enhance performance by adding little digital flavour. Nakata ranges with Toshiko in capsule with some songs with a lot of vocoder (“Eternity”, “Get Down”, “Starry Sky”) and some songs with minimal to no vocoder (“glider”, “dreamin dreamin”, “jelly”). With MEG, Nakata tends to keep most of the vocals intact with a lot of small touches during long holds and when something fun happens on the instrumental side of the track. This is, of course, not including MEG’s club-style songs (“MODEL”, “MAKE LOVE”, “SUPERSONIC”). With Suzuki Ami, he gives her the Perfume treatment but with a totally different instrumental arrangement and more club-like technopop styling. Even though you can hear the digitizing effects of the vocoder, you can still hear a lot of her natural voice. It complements the instrumental and the genre styling like PB&J. Outside of Nakata’s clients, Aira Mitsuki should get a mention. Her producers makes heavy use of the vocoder similarly to Suzuki Ami, enhancing the vocals more than damanging.

One thing to remember while reading this is that the vocoder is just an effect, a filter – like reverb, delay, overdrive, equalizing, and the like. Imagine a metal guitarist playing clean. Would his solo be as epic? Not so much. It’s not like adding effects to metal guitars take away from the experience either; if anything, they add nothing but awesome. Another thing to think about is that the human voice is just an instrument. After watching the video posted in this contemode LJ Community post, we learn that Nakata believes that modifying regular instruments, like the piano, bass, and drums, through effects and filters has been well explored and that voices are still an unknown area. The main difference between a human voice and an instrument is that we are able to say words while manipulating tones, allowing a story or idea to be told while singing. Words have always been the most direct form of communication and lyrics are the fastest way to get your feelings across through music. For those who lack abstract imagination, trying to feel a song through music may be awkward and just plain hard to do; Lord knows I don’t understand a thing that happens in ballet. Nakata himself says that we’re still ways away from getting a voice to emote. Putting aside the pitch control aspect of vocoding, would adding effect to a voice be any different than adding effects to a guitar? Would using a whammy-bar be considered cheating? I believe that no is the answer to both questions.

So can the vocoder be a bad thing? Yes and no; it’s dependent on how it’s used. When used properly, it adds another layer of complexity to the already artistically rich world of music. When abused, it does nothing but hurt the genre, and more importantly, the industry. What can we do to stop hurting the industry? Not support bad music. I guess this has already started since we haven’t heard from portable since late last year. cosmeticROBOT‘s blog has seen recent updates. I haven’t been keeping up with MEG and capsule but both are still active and recovering from single and album releases. Perfume’s upcoming single “One Room Disco” is available for preorder along with their “BUDOUKaaaaaaaaaaN!!!!!” LIVE DVD and it doesn’t seem like they’ll be losing steam anytime soon.

TechnoPop and Me and You

On a whole, electronic music is simple and repetitive. Everything sounds the same as everything. Starting from the bottom of the sound spectrum, most electronic music is kick drum led in simple quadruple metre. Next comes the bassline and possibly the low synth. In the mids, we have the snare, mid-percussion (bongos and other percussion), and most of the dominant instruments, such as the vocals, and main melody. In the highs, we have the higher percussions (cymbals) and the high synth which tends to compliment the main melody. Now that we have all the ingredients, here’s the generic method for putting it all together:

Start with the kick. Gradually add mid-percussion. Use a bit of the main melody or vocals to tease the listeners. Throw in the bassline. Sit for 16 measures. Tease with a bit more of the main melody in another level or vocals. Fill in and breakdown. Use a pad or high-synth to keep interest. Gradually add bassline and mid-percussion. Build, build, build using any combination of snare, mid-percussion, and mid-synth. Climax. Combine everything for the chorus. Optionally, continue for another verse. Repeat chorus again. Add one more flavor in either high or low synth to the mid-synth main melody for the final chorus. End with crash cymbal or deconstruct by subtracting the main melody, then bassline, then percussion, then kick.

That’s a recipe for success if I’ve ever seen one. I know what to expect when it comes to electronic music. But since it’s so repetitive and predictable, why do I keep coming back to it? Call me easily amused and a sucker for a thumpy kick drum and catchy tunes. The simplest changes in instruments – like a quick EQ shift on the kick and snare, a slight change in a drum loop or bass line, modifications to the main melody – all of them change the song enough to keep me interested. It’s like using a different type of cheese for a dish: same idea, different flavor.

Diving a bit deeper into the staying power of electronic music, I find that the artists that stay with me invest a lot of emotion into their music, or at the very least bring out some strong emotions from me. I wouldn’t know anything about the artists personally but, from a hobbyist composer’s perspective, I try to put as much of myself or as much emotion I can into each piece I finish. As simplistic and predictable as it sounds to the average person, each song I end up liking tells me a story or makes me feel as immersed as I would in a good book, movie, or video game. In the on-going party that is electronic music, I’m here for the thump of the kick drum, but I stay for the emotional roller coaster each song has the potential for.

Now take popular music from Japan; on a whole, it’s pleasant, happy, and diverse. Take the ingredients from electronic music, stir in smoothly, and you have Japanese TechnoPop. It’s like mixing the energy of Happy Hardcore, minus all the emo and ecstasy, with the tempo and instruments of Electro and House, and then wrap it with rice and seaweed. Cut into slices. Serve immediately.

(For the remainder of this article, I’ll be refering to Japanese TechnoPop as just plain TechnoPop. I know it exists outside of Japan but I’m here to showcase the Japanese stylings of it. I would like to shout out to FreezePop, even though they’re synthpop, and Justice, even though they’re death disco; they’re all under the same umbrella of cool.)

By no means is the following a definitive guide to TechnoPop, but from my experience with the genre, most songs can be classified into one of these forms:

Electro/Technopop is the first of the forms because it was the first in existence. This is predominantly thanks to capsule’s Nakata Yasutaka in his FRUITS CLiPPER era which really skyrocketed his form of TechnoPop into the mainstream. It follows the basic elements of TechnoPop and only slightly deviates to add uniqueness. He has some examples of Electro/TechnoPop before FRUITS CLiPPER, namely Glider and Teleportation from the L.D.K. Lounge Designers Killer album, but for the most part, Nakata’s sound ranged from Bossa Nova and Lounge, to the French-flavoured CafePop, to the early makings of Happy TechnoPop.

Club TechnoPop showcases the partying side to TechnoPop and is identifiable by the minimal (if any) vocals and constant repetitive synth that’s there just for being music. I find it most useful for creating ambience. It’s like the Elevator Music of TechnoPop. By no means is that statement meant to take away from the musical integrity of Club tracks but without paying attention to it, it could slip by without any recognition. Examples of this are MEG – MAKE LOVE, capsule – REALiTy and Suzuki Ami – SUPER MUSIC MAKER. 

Epic TechnoPop is Club TechnoPop with a story that you can’t help but pay attention to and listen and love and get lost in. Overall, this is my favourite form of TechnoPop since it tends to play at my heartstrings. Examples include Suzuki Ami – FREE FREE, Aira Mitsuki – GALAXY BOY, and Perfume – edge. 

Hard TechnoPop is another form of Club TechnoPop like how Rock and Hard Rock are similar but different, kinda like what Big Beat is to the Breakbeat family of music. These are the percussion and low-synth led TechnoPop tracks with aggressive undertones. Examples of this are Aira Mitsuki – YELLOW SUPERCAR, capsule – FLASHBACK and MEG – MODEL.

Happy TechnoPop is recognized by its blatant use of quick high-synth hits or other high-synth melodies and cutesy vocals. It doesn’t always have to be cute on purpose but I’m sure that each Happy TechnoPop track was made to bring smiles to people’s faces. Examples of this are Perfume – Sweet Donuts and capsule – Tokyo Smiling. 

Pop TechnoPop is the last and questionable form similar to North America’s Pop genre; it really isn’t a genre but it kind of is. It picks and chooses from other TechnoPop forms and, at the same time, can be used to cover anything else that doesn’t fit in any other form, like the alternative rock genre of North America. The best example of Pop TechnoPop is Perfume’s Secret Secret because it takes from Club because of the memorable main melody, Epic from the timeless instrumental and vocal performance, and Happy because they’re Perfume.

The most obvious reason why TechnoPop sticks with me is because it marries two of my favourite genres: Electronic and Japanese (the Japanese music I listen to tends to be happy and uplifting or emotionally charged). You’ll notice that I don’t factor lyrics into why I like TechnoPop. I don’t have a strong enough grasp of the language to really factor it in. I take whatever I can understand through listening and enjoy the occasional translation if it pops up, but the fact that I don’t understand the language doesn’t bother me or take away from my enjoyment of the music. It’s kind of like a cherry on top: the ice cream below is the same regardless.

This is another reason why I enjoy Electronic and Japanese music as much as I do. Electronic music, for the most part, is mainly instrumental (Hence the genre “vocal trance” – you wouldn’t need the word vocal if it was expected; that would be redundant.) and doesn’t need need lyrics or vocals to be understood or enjoyed by the masses. On the other hand, we have Japanese music which I don’t understand due to the language barrier. Call me delusional but I think that I can feel what the lyrics are trying to convey through the instruments used and how it’s arranged. I read translations later to see if it fits and, more often than not, it does. So like Electronic music, I feel that enough of the Japanese music I listen to, and mainly TechnoPop, transcends language when done correctly. I believe that composers and artists are doing their job when a listener can enjoy a song to its fullest, regardless of any sort of musical theory knowledge or language barriers.

For myself, TechnoPop isn’t just dance music with a Japanese twist – it’s got everything I love about music and more. It captures the energy of electronic but is as diverse as Japanese music. I have such a strong connection with the music that lyrical content just serves as an enhancement to the tracks with vocals I already enjoy. As a fan of both electronic and Japanese music genres, I find it hard to keep myself from listening to it and every new track keeps me coming back. It would be sad if it ended up being just a fad for some, but my interest with it was never because of the masses enjoying it. I was a fan of it since before Polyrhythm, before it hit the mainstream. I was a fan of it before I knew of its existence. I will remain a fan of it until I die.