New Britneyology

Listening to Britney on Headphones! Part 2

Posted by: Karenannanina on: July 9, 2011

I sometimes think I need to update my database of Britney Spears vocal conspiracy theories like Symantec updates its antivirus protection. Something new arrives every day. The latest was mentioned in the comments on my last article, and was an allegation that Britney doesn’t sing the chorus on “He about to lose me”. All I want to say about that is…. if people listened to music using CDs and good headphones, these theories would never arise, and if they did, nobody would believe in them.

My Sennheiser HD580 headphones and Sony XA20ES audiophile CD player make all the details transparent, and I am happy to confirm that there’s no reason to believe that Britney doesn’t sing the chorus. Throughout most of the song, the chorus is divided into a stereo pair of Britneys as is customary these days, but at the beginning of the final repeats, it shifts to the center “channel” for about 10 seconds, and during that brief period you can hear a deeper voice, also in the center, behind Britney’s. If that’s of any interest to you! The “three dimensional” capabilities of headphones allow the elements of a recording to be isolated and identified much more easily.

When CDs are converted to compressed media such as MP3, much of the detail in the sound is stripped out to save on storage space, but the detail removed can make fine distinctions hard to detect. And once the detail has been removed, the remaining sounds are packed together and large areas of similar sounds are “averaged” to compress and reduce file size even further, resulting in even more sound loss. The biggest loss is in harmonic frequencies, which are essential in giving a sound, such as a human voice, its unique and identifiable character. To listen to this degraded standard of sound on the usual little in-ear phones is to degrade the listening experience even further. As one specialist audio blogger puts it, “most people aren’t enjoying their music at its best, and don’t know what they’re missing out on.”

There are distinctions between backing vocals, background vocals and “additional background vocals”, which are all terms you will find in the credits on Britney’s albums. Once you’re in a position – using your good-quality headphones – to identify the different “threads” in a mix, you will often find that Britney is singing most of her own backing vocals, even when she’s not credited – but it may be difficult in a complex mix to separate them from a multi-tracked lead vocal. The “background” or “additional background” vocals lie even deeper in the layers of what you’re normally hearing. On Britney’s recordings they are often extremely subtle in effect.

In case you may ever think that you’re getting confused and imagining her voice in places where it isn’t actually present, there are some “control” experiments available. On the “Oops I Did It Again” album, there are several tracks (such as “Satisfaction” and “What U See Is What U Get”) where Britney’s voice only appears on the center “channel” and all vocals to right and left of center are clearly not hers. On some tracks there are “fanchoirs” in addition to the backing vocals, and you can easily tell their sound apart from Britney’s. Once your ears become accustomed to the harmonics of different voices, you can always keep track of hers.

Aside from the truth about conspiracy theories, what else do we discover as we roam around Britneyland with our headphones? Something I find fascinating is the different ways her voice has been presented since the beginning of her career. On the “Baby One More Time” album, it seemed like a straightforward feature showcase for a new, young, talented singer. On every track, her voice was planted at center, right in front of the listener, in plenty of space, in a natural acoustic. She sang in a middle register that seemed natural for her. There wasn’t a synthesized or vocoderized “effect” in sight. But you can detect an effort to give her voice an added physical impact in “Deep in my heart” by placing a percussive bass guitar apparently right in front of her, and in “The Beat Goes On” her voice has extra reverb to blend with the initial retro-style context. It’s interesting to hear how, even at that early age, she adapts to different songs. In “E-mail my heart” you can hear a greater warmth, tenderness and smoothness than you ever detect on speakers, and on “I will be there” a much harder edge.

Another reason to listen on headphones is to pick up some of the subtleties of production, and there are plenty of them here. For example, the blend of elements makes “Baby One More Time” seem pretty funky – almost gritty – on speakers, but on headphones you discover a surprising degree of refinement and a much cleaner mix than you might have suspected. You can also strand out the different layers of sound, and isolate some strange little details, like the panting sound to right of center at the start of Verse 1 that changes to a keyboard chord in Verse 2, or the very deep bass notes at 1:55. Note how Max Martin was doing the same thing with choruses in 1998 as Darkchild was doing in 2010.

“Soda Pop” turns out to be surprisingly interesting, although most people don’t rate it as a song. Britney has three quite separate vocal lines, at left, right and center, and there’s also a voice that chimes in JUST off-center at left and right at 1:45. But, although her voice is present in all directions, she isn’t involved in any of the harmonies. Eric Foster White was the producer, and he uses exactly the same techniques in “I will still love you”.

Moving on to the “Oops I Did It Again” album, you can hear that the overall A&R and production philosophy hasn’t changed much. It’s still a showcase for a featured artist, but this time there is greater disparity in the styles of the productions. Some are more expensive and elaborate, with real string sections featuring on “When your eyes say it”, “Dear Diary”, “Heart” and “Girl in the mirror”. “Don’t go knocking on my door” has an identical acoustic to most of the BOMT album – a much smaller, more intimate setting than Max Martin’s “Oops I Did It Again” (the song) which is sonically fuller, with an over-arching synth and big chords and a more reverberating, less intimate ambiance that also encompasses Britney’s voice.

Max still makes tracks to this formula, but it has never been something he’s stuck with. For example, on “Where are you now” the production is simple, acoustic, with all the necessary stillness and calm, and the elements placed carefully to leave space for a fine vocal performance. This album finds Britney extending the scope of her vocal performance from the straightforward strength and power of “You got it all” and “Girl in the mirror” through to the high, sweet, girlish voice of “Dear Diary” and the soft, breathy, sweet, affectionate treatment of “When your eyes say it”. If Britney had a serious talent deficit, it would have been exposed on “Where are you now?”, but her vocal is simply beautiful – smoother and better integrated than anything on her first album.

Any odd details to be observed in passing on our headphone tour? Once you’ve noticed them on headphones you can often hear them on speakers too. For instance, in “Stronger” did you notice what sounds like a very deep synthesized male voice going “oh-oh-oh” in the first few bars of the verse? It sounds even more like that in the second verse. There’s a lot more reverb than usual around Britney’s voice, and almost subsonic sounds like distant thunder here and there. On “One kiss from you” there’s a strange metallic noise that stands out sharply at left and right during the verse, and an extremely spatially focused bassline. On “When your eyes say it” the string and choral sounds swell impressively across the virtual “soundstage”.

And now, the “Britney” album before our tour takes a break. There’s a long and dishonorable tradition of making disparaging remarks about Britney’s singing, and much of it dates back to this era. The novelty of “Britney Spears the pop phenomenon” was wearing off and the media decided it was time to take her down a peg or two. It was all too easy to take cheap shots based on ignorance and prejudice and it’s sad to reflect on how many people, even within her fanbase, accepted the generic criticisms without question. She sang a couple of songs in an innocent, childlike voice so that meant her voice wasn’t what it had been; was weak, whispery or whatever. No matter that she sang other songs with plenty of power and edge.

It was an unhappy coincidence that this was the era when Britney, with typical modesty about her own status and enthusiasm for the talents of others, began to make the song the star, instead of herself. While just about every other singer was adapting songs to fit the characteristics of their voices, Britney was doing the exact opposite. On “Britney” she delivers her interpretations of the needs of each individual song, using a wider and more diverse range of styles than on any of her other albums. With a good sound source and good headphones you can get involved in her characterizations, enjoy her variety and subtlety, and come to a better understanding of what she’s trying to do.

You hear her conscious use of a higher register and a more urgent timbre to her voice in some of the songs, deploying more enhancements, sounding less warm, comfortable and natural than before, and you may wonder if Britney, or her A&R team, had decided that the time for showcasing her as a new teenage sweetheart, with material to match, was over and it was time to appeal to a maturing fanbase with tougher material and more imaginative mixes. You may observe that, on some tracks, the double-tracked stereo pair to left and right are louder than the center channel, and her voice appears to be more a flavor in the mix than the center of attention. But it’s not like that all over the album, and with headphones you can appreciate those songs where an unobtrusive acoustic is giving her voice its rightful place, and space to shine.

Finally, this album is famous for its “noises offstage”, random sound effects, overlapping lyrics, whispered asides, giggling and laughter, and with good headphones you can hear all of this far more clearly, and in three dimensions. It’s like being transported into the middle of a small group of people listening to music, getting in the groove and having a lot of fun. It’s something I would hate to miss out on!


  • Sarah G: You should write an In-Depth of Glory or even Mood Ring (that's a groovy tune)
  • Sarah Giansanti: First off, yeah! I've missed your writing haha Secondly, I've always been baffled of how people can say Britney's not a singer... Derr, that's her
  • Aline: Great article as usual. Please Karen, never stop writing for the site. I love your thoughts about our queen!