In music, a virtual band (also called a virtual group, cartoon group, or cartoon band) is any group whose members are not corporeal musicians, but animated characters. The music is recorded (and, in the case of concerts, performed) by human musicians and producers, while any media related to the virtual band, including albums, video clips and the visual component of stage performances, feature the animated line-up; in many cases (including all four of the Gorillaz albums, Gorillaz, Demon Days, Plastic Beach, and The Fall), the virtual band members have been credited as the writers and performers of the songs. Live performances can become rather complex, requiring perfect synchronization between the visual and audio components of the show.
The term virtual band was popularised with Gorillaz in 2000; however, the concept of the virtual band was first demonstrated by Alvin and the Chipmunks in 1959, when their creator, Ross Bagdasarian, accelerated recordings of his own voice to achieve the 'chipmunk voice'. There have since been various bands that have recorded material, including, but not restricted to, The Archies, Dethklok, Freen in Green, Skeleton Staff, and Mistula. Each group has used different animation and recording techniques to achieve their desired effect, the most common being computer animation, traditional animation, and vocal mixing and manipulation.
In recent years, the term has also come to be used for music groups who collaborate using the Internet, no longer requiring the members to be present in the same place.
The members of the virtual group
The members of virtual groups are animated characters, and, like any other fictitious character, have their own personality, voice, history, and playing style. For example, Alvin, the 'front-munk' of the Chipmunks, is considered mischievous, and Skeleton Staff's Guitarist Stanton is a party-going underachiever, furthermore, Freen in Green's bassist Sparky is sluggish and has been described as egotistical and pretentious, while Murdoc of Gorillaz is a middle-aged satanic bass player.
The style of animation used for depicting the characters varies. Some groups, like The Archies, Gorillaz, Dethklok, and Alvin and the Chipmunks, are hand-drawn characters, and much of their media use traditional animation and cartooning techniques. Others, such as Crazy Frog, JuJu Eyeballs, Genki Rockets, and The Bots, are computer-generated. Mistula and Milgrom are distinct from many of their counterparts by being animated using stop motion.
In the studio
The recording of the music is done by the human musicians and artists, whom the virtual artists emulate. In some cases, the singing is done by machines or synthesizer applications like the Hatsune Miku vocaloid. This is done using the normal in-studio recording process; see Sound recording for a detailed explanation.
In some instances, most notably The Chipmunks, manipulation of voices may be employed, either to achieve a desired vocal effect, or to make it dissimilar to the voice of the actual singer. The manipulation is done by either modifying the playback speed of the vocal track, for example speeding it up or slowing it down, or by putting it through a synthesizer (this process is called Vocoding).
Writing and production credits may be assigned to either the virtual band, or the human writers and artists involved.
One of two methods can be employed for live performances. The first involves animating the entire set, with little or no allowance for audience interaction, then 'performing' it as is. The major pitfall with this method is the lack of audience interaction, which can be vital during concerts. This is best suited to short performances, where audience response can be predicted.
The second, and more complex, method differs from the first in that allowance is made for a variety of responses and interaction. This means having a wide range of animated sequences ready to play, with matching spoken lines, in response to different reactions.
In both cases, extensive rehearsal is required to synchronize spoken lines and instrumentation with animated action. This can be eliminated by using pre-recorded music and speech, however doing so also weakens the actual 'live' experience.
(Some non-virtual artists and groups have employed a similar technique on some concert tours and performances. DJ Shadow, for example, on his In Tune and On Time tour, had pre-animated sequences, which were played on giant screens behind him while he performed the set. Again, a large amount of pre-tour planning and synchronisation rehearsal was required beforehand.)
Perhaps the most complex live performance by a virtual band was Gorillaz' performances at the MTV Europe Music Awards in Lisbon and the 2006 Grammy Awards. The group used a combination of computer-generated 3D imagery with 19th-century Pepper's Ghost technology to create lifelike holograms of the band members. There were also initial plans for a Gorillaz world tour using this technology.
History of virtual bands
While the term had not been coined at the time, Alvin and the Chipmunks were the first virtual band to appear. Centered around the 'front-munk' Alvin, his two brothers Simon and Theodore, and their manager/father Dave Seville, their voices were created by Ross Bagdasarian, Sr., who accelerated the recording of his voice to create the distinctive sound; the process earned him two Grammys in 1959 for engineering.
The success of the Chipmunks spurred on another group, the Nutty Squirrels, to join the ranks. A scat-singing version of Bagdasarian's creation, they made the American Top 40 with their song "Uh-Oh". Their success, however, was short-lived.
Virtual bands from television
The Archies were the first virtual band to appear in worldwide pop charts. In 1969, The Monkees rejected their manager's suggestion that they play the song "Sugar Sugar." Displeased about this, he took the song, and created a group who could be easily managed; basing it on the Archie comic that was popular at the time, he created the Archies.
During this time, other television programs, such as Josie and the Pussycats and The Muppet Show, began to include bands as part of the format (in the case of Josie and the Pussycats, the eponymous band was the show's focus). Some of the groups that appeared on these shows released mainstream recordings. Some bands, however, would 'break up' after the end of the show's run.
After The Archies, produced by Filmation, became a huge pop hit, Hanna-Barbera started releasing several cartoon TV shows with the adventures of rock bands, such as Josie and the Pussycats, The Cattanooga Cats, The Impossibles, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kids, Jabberjaw, and others.
Virtual bands still appear in television: the Chipmunks appeared in their own television show for much of the 1990s, and the Adult Swim show Metalocalypse features the group Dethklok. The VBirds, United Kingdom's first animated female group, appeared on Cartoon Network.
In the early 1990s, the Chipmunks were updated to fit with the more contemporary setting, and now played their own instruments; they released a CD of covers to accompany the new show, Alvin and the Chipmunks.
Media outlets were the first to bring the term into popularity, with the appearance of Britain's Gorillaz in 2000. Formed by Blur's Damon Albarn and Tank Girl's Jamie Hewlett, and produced by Deltron 3030's Dan the Automator, the group brought the virtual bands to the musical fore again, with their scoring numerous Top 20 positions around the world, and the World Record of being the Most Successful Virtual Band. The band has since released four studio albums: their self-titled debut album Gorillaz, Demon Days, Plastic Beach, and The Fall, in addition to two B-sides albums and two EPs.