With the power of technology, Lee Hyun becomes MIDNATT
A look behind the scenes at Project L and the convergence of music and tech
Article. Park Soomin
Casting. Kim Myeongji, Park Soomin
Photo Credit. BIGHIT MUSIC
“Hello, I’m a rookie singer, MIDNATT!” At a press conference held May 15 at the CGV theater in the Yongsan District I’Park Mall for the digital single “Masquerade,” it was revealed that HYBE’s new artist MIDNATT was none other than Lee Hyun. “Masquerade” is a major departure from the slow ballads Lee Hyun typically sings. This shift to a dance track was punctuated by Lee Hyun’s newly grown facial hair. The song opens with a siren-like synth but then rewires itself into a dreamily upbeat dance number, with MIDNATT’s characteristic deep vocals flowing over the beat to add extra oomph. But the biggest change that takes place when he transforms into MIDNATT is the use of voice technology that adds a newly created female voice and allows him to record in six different languages. The music video for the song also leverages extended reality technology, also known as XR. “Masquerade” is the result of Project L, an undertaking that sits at the intersection of music and technology, which HYBE chairman Bang Si-hyuk had previously mentioned in an interview with Billboard.
“I felt like I was standing on the edge of something for the first time since I debuted as a singer,” MIDNATT said. “I was looking for a change of direction.” He spent a lot of time thinking about what his next move would be until he finally introduced himself as the “new” singer, MIDNATT. “Even though he’s long been a ballad singer,” Ri Woo Kang, BIGHIT MUSIC’s marketing team leader, said, the artist was looking to “move forward as a singer and work within different genres that follow current trends and not have to settle for one rigid image.” And it was MIDNATT himself who came up with the idea to give himself a new name. His desire to “become a different person and sing different music” was central to the Project L concept. “Midnight represents both the end of the day and, at the same time, the beginning of the next,” HYBE IM marketing strategy leader Kyungmin Lee said, explaining why MIDNATT—Swedish for “midnight”—was an appropriate choice. The project is the first that the artist has worked on that’s given him the freedom to start anew.
For this reason, the first item on the agenda for Project L was to “redesign everything from top to bottom,” Hitchhiker, who took charge of overall production for “Masquerade,” said. Lee Hyun approached the whole idea of becoming MIDNATT as an “ego paradox,” a term that refers to internal conflict arising from several egos existing within one individual. The song “Masquerade” explores this with its intricately paradoxical title. “If you pronounce MIDNATT not as ‘midnight’ but as ‘minnat’”—the Korean pronunciation shared with another term meaning “barefaced”—“the combination ends up reading as ‘barefaced masquerade,’” Ha Young Lyu, leader of HYBE IM’s global strategy department, explained. The intention was to make it “feel inherently paradoxical when you look at the song name and artist name side by side.” It also conveys a new future in which Lee Hyun is seeking to reinvent himself under a new name.
The lyrics to “Masquerade” show he not only accepts fusion of egos but openly embraces them. MIDNATT starts singing about the confused whirlwind of love and hate with the words, “So go on and leave me,” and when he sings, “Imma give you a warning / Don’t come any closer,” it’s clear he refuses to play with this love because he knows nothing good can come of it, but love seems to get the better of him as he repeats, “I love it love it love it too much.” “Although the song still contains lingering feels over the past,” Lyu said, “the song aims to convey the idea of figuring out what you want for the future and moving forward as you accept the past, present and future versions of yourself.” That explains why “Masquerade” opens with a mysterious atmosphere despite it being an upbeat synth wave dance song overall, and why MIDNATT’s vocals take on a progressively huskier and dynamic quality as the song progresses toward the chorus. MIDNATT and producer Hitchhiker worked together to try and create a new singing style so that the singer’s signature style would still be there and blend well with this new musical direction well at the same time. “I worked really hard to come up with new vocalization techniques and tones to fit the song, but I was always sure not to lose what makes my vocals unique or what makes my technique my own,” MIDNATT said. Hitchhiker also explained how they tried to capture the idea of different egos by layering several recordings on top of each other in the pre-chorus. “MIDNATT tried out several different singing techniques,” he said. “For example, singing all the backup vocals in falsetto or plugging his nose while he sang.”
The technology behind Project L helped bring MIDNATT’s ego paradox to life. The woman’s voice that sings during the bridge of “Masquerade” is an entirely new voice produced using Supertone’s Voice Designing technology and was envisioned to have the greatest possible contrast with the artist’s own natural voice to reflect the ego paradox. More specifically, the voice was created based on the artist’s vocals. Hyeongju Kim, a member of Supertone’s research team, said they grappled with how “the voice would crackle and sound awkward if we just increased the pitch” to create a voice in a more feminine range, and was assisted by Voice Designing technology to overcome the problem. They created female vocals to suit the musical concept behind and sound of the project and synthesized them with the artist’s vocals, designing new vocals that share the characteristics of his voice. “The voices created with Voice Designing sound natural and reflect the artist’s singing style and tone of voice,” Hitchhiker said. The technology allows creators to express themselves exactly as they envision. “I know my own singing style and way of pronouncing things better than anyone else,” MIDNATT said after hearing the results. “It was amazing. Even though it was definitely a woman’s voice, I could tell it was clearly me singing.”
Helping to release “Masquerade” in six different versions—Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, Spanish and English—was Supertone’s Multilingual Pronunciation Correction technology. “I focused on being myself and capturing my real voice, but I also thought I should make a decent attempt at my pronunciation in the other languages, so I practiced a lot for that,” and he was given an extra bit of assistance from the technology. “Multilingual Pronunciation Correction breaks the singer’s recorded vocals into categories like tone, pitch, stress and pronunciation and only adjusts the last one to sound more natural,” Hankyul Yoo, a rep with Supertone’s Content Development team, said. “It doesn’t mess with the artist’s originality or sense of musical expression but still allows them to sing in a way that doesn’t introduce language barriers so that international fans can fully understand the lyrics and provides a more immersive experience.”
It was only fitting then that Lee Hyun’s transformation into MIDNATT—an undertaking bigger than just “Masquerade”—live under the name Project L. Singing under a new name, performing a whole new kind of song—clearly MIDNATT is trying something new and fresh in the industry with the release of “Masquerade.” But in order to make that happen, it was crucial that he had all the right production tech, solid promotional power and the concrete plans needed to get him there. His goal with transforming into MIDNATT and releasing “Masquerade” was to write a new chapter in his life as an artist. And technology is helping bring to life things that once seemed entirely impossible. The landscape of the music industry is changing as traditional production methods are met with the introduction of new technologies. Project L is more than just an artist’s work but also an experiment in the convergence of music and technology. “Masquerade,” like typical music videos, is based on an idea and a script written to fit with the artist’s image. But when a video calls for grandiose spatial design and directing, XR (extended reality) allows creators to accomplish things that have never before been seen. XR technology is what allowed backgrounds that are important to the music video’s story, like sloping surfaces and an abyss, to exist, and they were produced at an XR studio. XR was particularly helpful in creating the vast, sweeping slopes seen in the opening of the video, using a combination of VR (virtual reality) to create the expansive backdrop and AR (augmented reality) that blended computer imagery and actual film in real time. “We can use new technology to overcome problems that were physically impossible to deal with before,” according to GIANTSTEP, the company that produced the music video for “Masquerade.” XR gives creators the fantastic power of being able to accurately construct their vision exactly as they intend. “You can see the elements synthesized together right before your eyes as you’re shooting, and you can make modifications directly on set and keep shooting.”
“I admit, I was hesitant about the technology,” MIDNATT said. “But I felt like, if I played around with it just right, I could use it as a tool that lets me create a fun, new paradigm.” Project L is not a one-man operation. Technologies like XR and those from Supertone allow artists to achieve whatever they want—even if they seemed unimaginable or impossible before. It was thanks to that willingness to experiment with new technology that the singer, now in his 16th year since his debut, was able to sing in six different languages and explore multiple egos in a fantastical world. It’s one example of the good technology can do for music.
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