Sonika is Zero‑G's latest virtual vocalist for Yamaha's Vocaloid 2 singing synthesis engine. As SOS has covered the basic operation of Vocaloid in previous reviews, all I need to say about the basic engine here is that it is PC‑only and can be used via a stand‑alone editor, Rewired from the stand‑alone editor to a host sequencer, as a VST plug‑in that can play back files created in the stand‑alone editor and as a 'real-time' VSTi plug‑in. My previous experience of Vocaloid and Vocaloid 2 has always left me impressed with what the technology can achieve given the complexity of the human voice and, as a tool for creating backing vocals or purposely electronic‑sounding lead vocals, Vocaloid is a viable option (check out the many examples to be found on YouTube). However, creating a genuinely convincing 'natural' lead vocal is a different matter, and the degree of editing required to even get close is probably enough to deter most users from trying.
The singing style of the vocals created is dependent upon the character of the sampled voice and, while Sweet Ann did 'lounge' and Prima did 'operatic', Sonika seems to be aimed at the purest of bubblegum pop. Indeed, the packaging includes Sonika's vital statistics — age 17, height 167cm and weight 58kg — and while big voices do sometimes come out of small frames, in this case what you see (virtually, at least) is pretty much what you get. That being the case, the voice sounds at its most natural at a fairly high register (phrases centred around C4 seemed to work best) and things are definitely more Stephanie from Lazy Town (just ask any three-year old about Sporticus!) than Alison Moyet or Tina Turner.
As with previous vocalists I've used, I found it quite easy to create simple backing vocal parts of the 'ooh' or 'aah' variety using Sonika. The real‑time plug‑in mode offered by Vocaloid 2 provides a very intuitive way to sketch these out, although the final results are of a higher quality if the full editor is used. Zero‑G's experience in creating the vocal databases does seem to have made it easier to approach the nirvana of a lead vocal from software, but I suspect that session vocalists can continue to sleep easy until Yamaha invest the R&D required to push the Vocaloid engine to another level. Until then, for those with a hankering for some sugar‑coated, pop backing vocals and the occasional novelty lead vocal without booking the local diva, Sonika is a viable alternative. For those who dare, check out the user-posted demos on YouTube — Sonika does '99 Red Balloons', anyone?