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In music, a virtual band (also called a virtual group, cartoon group, or cartoon band) is any group whose members are not depicted as corporeal musicians, but animated characters. Although it mostly deals with fiction, the band itself doesn't fall under that category, as they exist outside a television and film universe. 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 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, though the concept of the virtual band was first demonstrated by Alvin and the Chipmunks in 1958, when their creator, Ross Bagdasarian, accelerated recordings of his own voice to achieve the 'chipmunk voice'. There have since been numerous virtual bands that have recorded material. Computer animation, traditional animation, and vocal mixing and manipulation are common features.
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 virtual groups are animated characters, and, like any other fictitious character, have their own personality, voice, history, and playing style. For example, Alvin, the leader 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. Another example is Hatsune Miku who does not have a definite personality; because her way of being depends on the fans, her personality changes in each song made by the users of Vocaloid.
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 uses traditional animation and cartooning techniques. Others, such as Hatsune Miku, JuJu Eyeballs, Crazy Frog, Genki Rockets, and The Bots, are computer-generated.
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 or by putting it through a synthesizer (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.)
While the term had not been coined at the time, Alvin and the Chipmunks were the first virtual band to appear. Centered on 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.
The Archies were the first virtual band to appear in worldwide pop charts.
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 virtual melodic death metal band Dethklok.
Britain's Gorillaz was formed by Blur's Damon Albarn and Tank Girl's Jamie Hewlett in 1998 and produced by Deltron 3030's Dan the Automator. The group brought virtual bands to the musical fore again, with their scoring numerous Top 20 positions around the world The band has since released six studio albums: their self-titled debut album Gorillaz, Demon Days, Plastic Beach, The Fall, Humanz, and The Now Now, in addition to two B-sides albums and two EPs.
In 2007, Crypton Future Media and Yamaha launched Vocaloid 2, with the voice bank of Hatsune Miku. In 2009, Hatsune Miku had her first concert, Other Vocaloids include Kagamine Rin/Len, Megurine Luka, and Kaito.