After the idol industry was jump-started in the late 2000’s and early 2010’s, we witnessed a lot of major changes in the industry, as is common with most new eras regarding the idol industry. With each era or movement of idols, there seems to be some elements that remain static and never-changing, and others where a shift of the accepted paradigm occurs. These changes may be a result of advancements in technology, changing of social norms, changing of audience tastes, profitability of idol activities, or otherwise, but this ability to be dynamic and continue through many decades is what keeps people’s interest in it.
The one factor that seems to have specifically changed consistently with each new major era of idols is the music, which is a major part of why I find the industry as interesting as I do. With each era of idols, we’ve seen new styles of music come into play, usually filtering many musical influences from different parts of the world into an eclectic mix of sounds, often even eluding classification and genres to simply just become an entity of it’s own as “idol music.” The ever-changing sound that this small and fairly niche industry has produced since it’s beginnings has kept me interested for the better part of the last 15 years, something that most other music industries have not been as consistent with.
In specific, I’ve wanted to discuss the vocals in the idol industry for a while now. It probably seems like an oxymoron to most people to discuss the intricacies of vocals in idol music, since idol music is generally dismissed as having some of the worst vocals of any kind of music in the world because vocals aren’t traditionally a focus of what idols do and most of the performers are very raw and untrained.
Ironically, I think maybe even because of the lack of importance placed on vocals for idol music, it has brought about the creation of a number of vocal production techniques that are fairly unique to this industry that allow the industry to keep producing mass amounts of music that fit the aim of the project its being produced for with minimal effort and time involved to get a final marketable music product. This is not to say that all idol productions employ these methods, since I think much of the music produced for idols does have higher focus on musicality and effort put into that aspect of their activities.
I’ll explore these ideas and present some examples here to further the discussion on modern production and hopefully get some input from some readers out there. I’ll start with a quick history of previous eras.
A Brief History:
Starting in the 1970s, the Japanese idol industry took off with performers like Candies, Pink Lady, and Yamaguchi Momoe at the top of the charts. The music from their era usually featured a very professional, organic recording sound for the vocals, free of compression, effects, or or post-production altering.
Besides the standards for the industry being more about organic recordings and trained performers around that time, I believe this style was also largely in part because the technology to alter vocals in post-recording techniques wasn’t quite there yet, so idol music producers showed a little more care during the recording and making sure that the girls they chose to sing the songs could actually sing them properly.
As a side note to the 1970s, the popular trio Candies even started to pioneer what I consider an early form of cute or “moe” vocals to appeal a little more to the typical young idol image that many fans crave. Here’s a preview of their cutesy vocal style (press the play button below):
The superstar duo Pink Lady had a mature vocal style that was a bit closer to enka or traditional Japanese style vocals, just adapted for strong pop music instead of going for a more standard/young vocal sound like many other idols of the era. Here’s an example of their style:
As for solo artists of the era, most had a style inspired by Yamaguchi Momoe, with a somewhat neutral but clear and organic vocal style without relying too much on the cute or the mature side of things. Her sound was close to your average 1970’s American singer, adaptable to many different styles of music. Here’s a sample of her more cutesy sound:
When the 1980’s hit, technology was starting to change rapidly, including that of musical instruments and recording techniques, while we didn’t see too much heavy use of these advancements in the early 80s, it definitely came prevalent later in the decade. Electronic keyboards, drums, and synthesizers became very frequently used instruments of choice for a majority of idol music in the 80’s, more than likely because it conserved on costs and trouble of recording and mixing organic instruments, since things could be done digitally.
The 80’s also saw a huge increase on the frequency and the amount of idols hitting the scene, and naturally, also an increase in the amount of idols that faded away not long after their appearance. Idol music in the 1980’s was a mixed bag of leftover sounds from the 1970’s and a few new styles that inched closer to the kinds of things we see in today’s industry, with performers like Onyanko Club, WINK, Moritaka Chisato, and Matsuda Seiko at the forefront.
Arguably one of the most popular and successful idols of all time, Matsuda Seiko, who retained a vocal style close to the 1970s idols, with a very organic sound, and a clear, distinct singing voice and just a touch of cuteness when appropriate. Here’s one of her biggest hits, “Natsu no Tobira,” for an example of her sound:
The massive idol group Onyanko Club from AKB48’s overlord producer Aki-P showed one of the first appearances of the now-popular compressed group vocal style, where there are dozens of voices singing in unison with very little individual timbre standing out in the mix. This is an early appearance, when the compression and number of voices on the track hadn’t quite reached the level of his later works like AKB48, but here’s an example of this with their hit song “Sailor Fuku wo Nugasanaide,” you can listen here:
New wave synth-pop duo WINK brought a trademark harmonized vocal style to the scene with typical 80s vocal recording featuring heavy echo effects and backup harmony tracks. This became a common style for a good amount of idol artists in the 80s as well. Here’s one of their most popular songs that clearly demonstrates their sound:
Moritaka Chisato was another major solo artist that debuted towards the end of the 1980s, and she brought a very distinct voice that mixed traditionally cute, borderline nasal-y idol singing and a folk-y singer/songwriter voice, with her music floating between both idol music and the folk-y or ballad type songs. Here’s a sample of her vocal style, if you’ve somehow never heard it before:
Much like the 1980s, the 1990s started out as musical leftovers from the previous era and started to progress into something new around the mid-point of that decade. In the early 1990s, the idol industry went through a bit of a drought where most music listeners in Japan turned their ears to more rock and R&B music from outside the idol industry (B’z, Amuro Namie, TRF,) with very few new idol performers appearing on the scene outside the anime seiyuu scene. We mostly saw a continuation of the careers of 80s idols up until 1997 when ASAYAN’s idols Heike Michiyo and Morning Musume were created.
Once ASAYAN and Hello!Project hit the scene, it started a bit of a new influx of idols in the late 90s, and while many new popular idols in the 90s were associated with ASAYAN or Hello!Project, there were a few other newcomers from this period like SPEED and MAX.
MAX had a different take on being idols, where they focused on more of a mature R&B/dance image instead of being cute idols, and their vocals reflected an early 90s R&B style, with heavy layering of backup vocal tracks to fortify the vocal sound, similar to how Hello!Project did with many of their singles from the 1990s. Here’s their jazzy pop/R&B sound:
Performers like SPEED generally had very raw vocal production with an untrained idol vocal sound, which is something we still see commonly in today’s idol industry. The idea that raw and somewhat unprofessional singing can be endearing to the fans has persevered and become a staple of the idol industry for many producers. This was a concept that other idols (including Hello!Project) also used in the late 90s which continues today. One of the more clear examples of this raw sound is SPEED’s 1998 single “All My True Love”:
As for Hello!Project idols in the 90s, they didn’t really have a distinct vocal production sound, they stuck with a pretty standard rock vocal style with clean and fairly raw vocals, though they brought in a bit of the compressed group vocal style popularized by Onyanko Club at times, only not to such an extreme as Akimoto’s attempts. Here’s a demonstration of their rock-vocal verses with a switch to a group vocal style at the chorus with their biggest song, “LOVE Machine”:
Besides the Tsunku groups continuing to march on through most of the 2000s until AKB48 took off in 2007, the more mainstream idol industry was almost entirely dominated by Avex artists like Dream, BoA, and Otsuka Ai. Within the 2000s, we also saw a large dominance by male idol groups from Johnny & Associates, such as NEWS, Kat-Tun, Tackey & Tsubasa, as well as a rising in popularity from Shibuya-kei type performers, often categorized as idols, such as Perfume.
There weren’t really many major advancements or changes in the production style of the vocals themselves during most of this period. Most idol releases in the early 2000s had vocal production that just hovered around the styles that already existed from previous eras, following the general production methods of Avex or Tsunku’s raw, Hello!Project style vocals.
Most of Avex and Johnny’s music followed a production style with their idol acts where vocals were very professionally produced to sound clean and on-key, but without very obvious and heavy editing. For groups, both camps usually had some group vocal saturation, but with some more individual timbre mixed into the front of the mix to make it stand out a little more than something like the previously mentioned Onyanko Club group vocals. Here’s a sample of Avex’s group Dream and Johnnys’ group NEWS to demonstrate the styles they usually went with in this time:
Also, as mentioned, towards the end of the 2000s, we did start to see the swelling of popularity for the group Perfume, who were one of the first Jpop acts to adopt the overproduced vocal sound, using heavy vocoder and auto-tune techniques, leaving very little human vocal timbre behind the sound you’re hearing. This became a much bigger trend a few years later (which I’ll discuss next) but here’s a sample of the style they adopted in the late 2000s, with their song “Polyrhythm”:
Modern Idols (2010-) and the Idol Sengoku Jidai
The 2010s have opened up the idol industry to what has become it’s most diverse era so far. Even in the first four years into this decade, we’ve seen hundreds of new idols appearing on the scene and releasing more eclectic and varied styles of music than any previous era before. I’ll review some of the more common vocal styles and production techniques that have dominated idol music since the turn of the 2010s and give some examples here.
Even though Perfume and a few more unknown idols in the late 2000s started using electronically altered vocal production, the electro-vocal fad has become one of the most popular styles in the 2010s, more than likely because of Perfume’s massive success. I usually separate the different levels of electro-vocals into a few different categories based on some intricacies and amount of editing or distance from human timbre.
First up is the lightly-edited kind of electro vocal where you can still hear the human voice timbre come through on the recording. For most purposes of idol music, I think this is the most preferable style of electro-vocals, since it still gives the timbre of the person singing that lets you connect with the voice and the song on a basic human level. Popular performers who have used this style would be AKB48 graduate Ono Erena and former Hello!Project diva Kikkawa Yuu. Here’s some examples of this style:
Next would be the style where the vocal effects almost completely removes the human timbre from the recording. This is the style that Perfume started in the late 2000s, but now has been popularized by a number of other idols like Morning Musume, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, and many Kpop groups. Here’s a few samples:
Kyary Pamyu Pamyu:
Lastly, the most extreme level of electro-vocals is Vocaloid music itself, where the human quality of voice is completely lost and the sound exists of entirely modulated recordings. Examples of this are anything from the Vocaloid genre (originally generated from the Vocaloid PC program) such as Hatsune Miku. Here’s a sample of Vocaloid vocals:
Anime, Moe, Dempa:
Music that comes from or is written for anime has been a pretty major part of the idol industry since the early 90s, but lately it seems to even sometimes surpass most traditional idol music in terms of popularity and recognition. While a lot of anime-related music has a pretty standard rock sound and production techniques, there are a few elements of it that go hand-in-hand with the idol industry or are being used often by the idol industry.
One of the biggest crossover elements between modern anime music and modern idol music is the “moe” type singing and songwriting. Moe is the term generally used for something that is extremely cute, almost to the point of being disgusting, and it’s a style that’s used all over Japan in any kind of entertainment or marketing today. While idol music has basically always been about being cute, the moe movement has taken that to a new level, where there are certain vocal styles and techniques used to have a singer’s voice become very high-pitched or cutesy (often via pitch-shifting,) on top of often using very cutesy intonations, sounds, and lyrics. Here’s some popular moe vocal production examples:
Beyond idol music that is simply cute for the sake of being cute, there’s also the dempa music scene, which often relies heavily on moe, among many other elements, but it puts more of a focus on being quirky, weird, and eccentric. The biggest idol group out today who uses the high-pitched, rapid-fire dempa vocal delivery and production on cute vocals is Dempagumi.inc., though there are many other performers from the dempa scene who use it as well. Here’s an example for moe dempa vocals from Dempagumi.inc:
Large Group Vocal Styles:
The first major vocal production technique to mention when it comes to larger idol groups is the compressed group vocals, which has already been mentioned a few times in this writing with Onyanko Club and to a lesser extent with Hello!Project, but as of the late 2000s, AKB48 and their sister groups have been the forerunners of this style, using it on nearly every recording they produce. There are other large modern groups who use this style including Avex’s SUPER☆GiRLS, and LinQ, but the 48 family is the most prominent and frequent user.
With this production style, dozens of voices are all mixed together to create a wall of sound that’s constantly coming at you and doesn’t give you a chance to listen more closely to the individual timbre of certain singers or examine it more closely, since all the voices are layered over each other time and time again with almost no true lead vocalists during these parts.
This provides a very flat, impersonal feeling to the vocal production, and as many have described it, it makes the music more easily digestible for your everyday person, since it doesn’t draw your attention in too much or give you too much to analyze when it comes to the vocals, often ending up not being terribly remarkable from a musicality standpoint. A Western equivalent to this theory would be something like supermarket music or “muzak” where it is made un-intrusive and doesn’t cater too much to any specific listener too much, so it can be used in many various public situations to be background music that won’t alienate anyone in particular.
Here’s some examples of the compressed group vocal style, all courtesy of AKB48 and friends:
On the more pleasurable side of group vocals, we have what I’d call clean group vocals with leads. This is a bit of a continuation of some of the styles established in the 2000s with idol groups, but now that recording technology is just a little more advanced, modern music produces some nicer results with the same main idea in mind.
This is a style where there are still many voices in the mix, but there are always one or a few designated lead voices that stand out on top of the collection of voices in the background, and they usually have a good degree of separation in the mix, with the crowd vocals in the back of the mix and the leads that stand in the front. Some current groups that use this technique are Sakura Gakuin, Idoling!!!, or Sanmyu, and here are some examples from each:
Smaller Group Vocals:
Smaller idol groups with less members seem to be the most standardized areas of idol music in the current market as far as vocal production is concerned. I only really notice two major categories of vocal production for smaller groups, since they aren’t aiming to make the music match the image that the group has 20 or more members, so they usually keep it pretty simple.
I feel the only major distinction between the two categories is the level of effort put into making the vocals sound more presentable, as opposed to intentionally leaving the vocals sounding extremely raw and untrained.
If you listen to smaller groups like THE Possible, AeLL, StylipS, or i☆Ris, you hear lots of individual timbre in the mix, but you can hear that a little extra care was put in to make sure everything was on key and melded perfectly with the instrumental and backup vocals. There may be a little bit of vocal editing at play with some of these groups, but not enough that it’s distracting or even instantly noticeable. Here’s some examples of the above mentioned groups:
On the other hand, when listening to groups like Momoiro Clover Z, Team Syachihoko (or any Stardust Promotions group) as well as many of the indie idols who haven’t gotten the financial backing to have proper studio production, you’ll hear the raw, treble-heavy production that may go off-key or get a little screechy or dissonant at times. This is often done intentionally to give the fans a little more “raw energy” to latch onto from the recording, but to a trained ear, it may be unlistenable. Here’s a few examples of very raw group vocal production:
Momoiro Clover Z:
Solo Idol Vocals:
As I’ve expressed in many previous writings, there really aren’t very many solo endeavors from idol artists in the current industry, so there isn’t much to mention about their vocal production, but some of the few differences worth mentioning seem to come into play regarding whether the solo idol in question is within the AKS/48 production machine or not.
Unfortunately, many of the solo idols within the AKS machine end up suffering from the same compressed, flat-sounding vocal production that their main groups have as well, just applied to one person’s voice instead of about 50 people’s voices. Iwasa Misaki is a rare exception within the world of AKS, though, as she’s produced entirely as a traditional enka artist, and the results are generally great, as her voice fits the part without much studio production needed on the vocal recordings. Here’s some clips to demonstrate the difference:
There’s also a few other random solo artists out there, like those from Idoling!!! (Yokoyama Rurika and Endo Mai) as well as the recently retired Mano Erina from Hello!Project, but they all follow a pretty standard and clear vocal production style. While Mano’s music did have some slightly noticeable editing from time to time, the Idoling!!! artists are about as clean and clear as you can get. Here’s some examples to demonstrate the difference in sound between the two styles:
I know this was a long read, but I hope this was interesting for some and maybe takes you down memory lane with some of the old songs here like it did for me. I’m happy to hear any discussion or points you’d like to make, so feel free to contact me on social media or in the comments here, I’d like to hear from you guys. As always, thanks for reading.