In 2000, a research project began at Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University. With backing from Yamaha, developer Hideki Kenmochi and his team began work on a revolutionary form of synthesiser software.
Initially, there was no real end goal. It was only much later that Yamaha would develop the software into a commercial product, which they christened “Vocaloid.”
Kenmochi’s research led to the creation of an application which allowed users to generate vocals by typing in lyrics and melody. Though these vocals were based upon recordings of real performers, any resulting work would be completely unique to the creator.
Essentially the team at Pompeu Fabra had birthed a “virtual singer.” It’s appropriate then that Kenmochi is known as ‘The father of Vocaloid.’
Numerous companies would go onto launch products based upon Vocaloid engines. However, it was Japan’s Crypton Future Media who, in 2007, achieved an unprecedented level of success with the first Vocaloid they both developed and distributed directly.
You may not know the app. You may not have heard her music. But if you’ve spent any appreciable amount of time online in the past 12 years, chances are you’ll recognise her:
Hatsune Miku – ‘the first sound from the future.’ An “Android diva” who has become a bona fide star in her own right.
Actually, calling her a “star” feels wrong. Not because, well…she isn’t a real person; but because Miku is so much more than that. She’s an icon at the core of a cultural phenomenon.
I’m planning to write more articles about the fascinating technology, extensive history, and impact of Vocaloids at a later date. Because, as friend of the site Neon Shudder remarked on Twitter:
The rabbit hole goes deep my friend. There is a lot of vocaloid content out there especially once you get off the rails of the more “mainstream” stuff.
This quote brings us nicely to Palm Fires’ Synthetic Reproduction. Initially, this article started life as a traditional review. However, discussing this EP requires context.
Details about Palm Fires are scarce. Their Bandcamp bio simply reads ‘Signs of love, rain still falls. Cyberpunk vocaloid musician.’ Associated social media accounts provide little else.
What we know for sure is that Synthetic Reproduction features Zero-G Limited’s AVANNA Vocaloid. Based upon the VOCALOID3 engine, it’s perfect for English language performances, as it features a soft voice with a ‘Celtic twist.’
AVANNA’s vocals are rich, emotive and, by virtue of being synthetic, really sell this ‘Story of digital love and heartbreak.’
In an instant, the opening lines of the title track establish a synthesis of flesh, emotion and the artificial. ‘In my wires, feel my heartbeat. Reproduction.’
Upon hearing ‘Reproduction,’ it’s tempting to assume that AVANNA is referring to procreation. However, to me it suggests a desire, a need, to replicate feelings and revive passions. Later lines feed into this:
‘Should we do the only thing, that would make me feel alive?’
‘Could we do the only thing, that would make me feel your love?’
This – combined with tight production and a Reese bass that I want to be fed directly into my wires – sets a disturbing yet initimate and sensual tone.
“Internet Crush” is an effective distillation of unhealthy, para-social “relationships.” Lyrically, it provides an escalating sense of yearning, confusion, desperation and obsession.
‘I can be everything you need. Can you hear me?’
‘Do you know the way I feel? Do you know the way I cry?’
‘Why don’t you know my feelings? Why can’t you understand me?’
The contrast between shimmering synths and unnatural vocals breed unease. A chaotic inner life is being invoked. One barely disguised by an even, manufactured delivery.
The final track, “Heartbeat Termination,” only relies on six lines. “Don’t let me live. Please let me die” and the title. Throw in ‘Kill me,’ ‘End me,’ and ‘I should be there,’ and you’ve got a meticulously crafted and emotionally resonant work.
Erasing any distinction between precise, bit by bit constructs and the organic nature of feelings beings is at the core of Synthetic Reproduction. This also makes it a testament to what Vocaloids have to offer musicians and audiences alike.
Despite lacking Miku’s level of fame, AVANNA is part of that Vocaloid “mainstream.” However, as software, she can be employed by anyone. There’s no agent, management or label standing between Palm Fires and a collaboration with an established artist.
Using AVANNA is essentially the same as handing your lyrics over to a flesh and blood singer. However, having another person sing your words makes them a little less your own. Their delivery and personality put spins on your work which might not arise if you were on the mic.
But the level of influence a producer has over a vocaloid closes that distance, while also enabling them to transcend their own boundaries. And as listeners, we’re also privy to something special.
While listening to Synthetic Reproduction, I was stunned by how easily I could relate to the lyrics. The use of AVANNA meant I was better able to fill in the blanks. It’s easier to step into someone else’s shoes when they’ve never really been worn.
Palm Fires are confident in their ability to make the most of this singular art form. And with Synthetic Reproduction, they’ve fully tapped into what makes Vocaloid music so unique, so powerful and so magical.
You can find Palm Fires here: