Angharad Thomas (University of Oxford, UK)
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 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 economics ‘get into’ vocal sounds. In this genre, vocal production trends are inextricable from the labour process behind the completion of a track: producer-songwriters 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. Producer-songwriters 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 producer-songwriters 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.