An Ethnographic Approach To Analysing Vocal Production In UK Contemporary Popular Music

Audio examples here:


This paper develops an innovative methodology for understanding the aesthetics of vocal production in UK popular music. Presenting field research into a commercial brand of pop with R&B and EDM influences, I argue that combining ethnographic and music-analytical methods can help disentangle the technological and economic factors which influence vocal sounds in this genre. Referring to field recordings and DAW session files, I delve into the minutiae of vocal production, illuminating songwriter-producers’ idiosyncratic uses of plugins in a vocal chain, as well as their intricate manipulation of pitch, dynamics and timbre. This focus on vocal production expands existing musicological work in this area exploring individual vocal processing technologies such as pitch-correction, and I am also addressing calls for an analysis of popular music that incorporates the language of music production. This paper, however, has a further focus on how circular relationships between technology and the songwriting industry ‘get into’ vocal sounds. In this genre, vocal production trends are inextricable from the labour process behind the completion of a track: songwriter-producers do most of the work in the earlier stages of producing a vocal, and this vocal gradually accumulates value as it is passed between record companies, managers and artists. Songwriter-producers are therefore under pressure to create a vocal quickly and to the required aesthetic standards, prompting the use of technology in a way that facilitates this work. Whilst this abstract force of the ‘industry’ is clearly felt, this analysis demonstrates how songwriter-producers interpret these aesthetic standards in unpredictable and sometimes contradictory ways. Combining ethnography with music analysis therefore demonstrates the role of individual aesthetic motivations in labour processes like these, and I argue that this specificity can be scaled-up to inform broader claims about the links between technology, economics and the aesthetics of popular music. 


Anna Thomas is a DPhil student in Musicology at The University of Oxford, UK. Supervised by Georgina Born, her research focuses on vocal production in UK contemporary popular music, combining ethnography and music analysis to study the use of vocal production technologies in commercial pop genres. Previously, Anna gained her BA in Music from The University of Cambridge, followed by an MSt in Musicology from Oxford with a particular focus on analytical approaches to popular music production.


  1. Hi Anna, thanks for an interesting paper. I’m combining ethnography with other methods in my thesis as well so it’s good to see how other people do this kind of work. Could you share a bit about how you got onto this topic? Are there any particular big-name studios, producers, singers etc that stand out to you as good/bad exemplars of this realm of production? Or perhaps you’re already a fan of particular producers? Also just to say, I can’t access the audio files on your google drive link currently, it says ‘Owner has prevented downloads and playback of this audio file’.

    1. Hi Ivan, thanks for your comments and sorry about the examples, I think you should be able to play them now!

      As for how I got onto this topic – in my undergraduate degree I ended up focusing on ideas of vocal intimacy and proximity in VR music videos, and subsequently my Masters thesis focused on the voice synthesis software ‘Vocaloid’, so I guess both of those fed into my current research. I’m also a singer myself, so that was probably a large part of it. My project was initially intended to be a primarily historical exploration of vocal processing plugins (especially pitch-correction), and the role of such plugins in consolidating particular vocal ‘styles’ or ‘idioms’ in Top-40 pop. However this ended up morphing into a fully-fledged ethnography with a present-day focus on how these technologies were being used by producers. I guess I’ve always been interested in how particular pop sounds become dominant or considered ‘industry standards’, particularly in music which is often given the (unfortunately vague) label ‘mainstream’, as this sound tends to be given less attention in academia – perhaps because it’s so notoriously difficult to define. And I always wanted to focus on voice as it seems to be so contentious – difficult to pin down, and there are so many discourses of authenticity, naturalness etc which surround it.

      In terms of producers – In the UK there are a songwriting team called TMS who have worked with Jess Glynne and Lewis Capaldi – they’re quite emblematic of this approach. There’s also Jack Patterson from Clean Bandit, as well as Mark Ralph and Steve Mac. A lot of the big name people in this genre do come from America though – e.g. I think Ariana Grande’s tracks are really exemplar of this kind of vocal production, and I know she works with Max Martin a lot and a guy called ILYA but I think she also does some of the comping herself. Ian Kirkpatrick who’s done a lot of Dua Lipa’s stuff is another obvious example. But I think because of the nature of pop songwriting and production and the way the roles are so fluid now, it’s sometimes very difficult to know who exactly has done what – and which decisions about the voice have been made when. So I find it difficult to pin down one person as having an identifiable vocal production ‘sound’! This is why I’m focusing on lesser known producers, and of course not sharing any names.

      Hope that answers your questions – and good to hear somebody else is doing combined ethnographic methods as well! I’m excited to hear how your research progresses!

  2. Hi, thanks, I really enjoyed your paper. I have the same problem with the Google drive link by the way! I had a question about the way some of the specific techniques you’re discussing in the vocal chain are transmitted. I wondered if you had any thoughts on how much of these kinds of processes are now in the public domain – there are countless Youtube videos for example about how to get certain kinds of ‘sound’ using plugins in a DAW environment. And if these producers are working in a very competitive industry, how willing were they to share their ways of working with you?

    1. Hi Peter, thanks for your questions and kind words about my paper. I know what you mean about the way these techniques are shared, and it’s actually been really interesting to see how producers feel about this. Initially, I thought it would be very difficult for me to gain access to this kind of information, but it’s actually been surprisingly easy. A lot of the producers I’ve spoken to have been very keen to share the complexities of their work with me. It might be partially because as a researcher and not a producer/songwriter they don’t think I’m going to steal their techniques! But I had also wondered if it’s also linked to the collaborative culture of this kind of ‘Top-40’ production – e.g. there is a huge group on facebook called ‘Make Pop Music’, where producers every day post questions asking for production help with this sort of thing, and others will readily share their techniques.

      It’s definitely the case, however, that experienced pop producers spend a lot of time honing their vocal chains, and they really prize their individual techniques and the way they have curated them over time. Depending on the track, a vocal chain can become incredibly complicated and involve several repeated iterations of sometimes 20-30 different plugins. Some of these experienced producers have told me that they think a lot of the YouTube videos out there are too simplified. For example, there are a lot of YouTube videos sponsored by different plugin companies (e.g. Waves, iZotope) which are aimed at producers who are just starting out and want to be able to achieve the ‘radio ready’ sound as quickly as possible. This is why I thought some might not be willing to share their ways of working – but unusually it doesn’t seem to have been the case!

      I think there’s definitely a dichotomy between the availability of YouTube tutorials democratising access to production, and the tendency for more experienced producers to want to validate the complexities of their craft in the face of such democratisation. This might be something to do with it.

      Another more obvious factor might be that the resulting ‘sound’ depends just as much on the singer’s voice and the way it has been recorded and arranged in a track, as well as the kinds of plugins used to polish it. So, even if you emulated a big-name producer’s vocal chain exactly, you probably wouldn’t get the same sound as it results from a whole host of other factors too. As I tried to show in my second example, a lot of the overall ‘sound’ of a vocal will come from the way it has been arranged (with the addition of BVs, harmonies etc) – as well as the individual plugins that are applied. So perhaps this might be why a lot of producers in this genre don’t seem to ‘guard’ their vocal chains so much.

      Hope that provides some answers your questions – this is something I’m thinking about a lot, so thank you for provoking these thoughts!

Leave a Reply