LO-FI; Unpolished, but Aesthetically Pleasing.

A DIY producers dream; Lo-Fi music is the sound from the underground. Unpolished and grit-filled, these musical landscapes that have completely captivated the modern electronic music enthusiast. From music to study to, to Hip Hop's raw mood. Lo-Fi music is one for the bedroom producers, to say the least.

The lo-fi sound traces back to the 80s, corresponding with the low-fidelity, do-it-yourself producers. It was an angst to the professional sound. Artists would deliberately distort their sounds, warping their content, misplay notes, and create interference to achieve phonographic imperfections. Common aesthetics include degrading vinyl crackle, tape flutter and hiss, analogue warmth, and saturation.

The lo-fi sound quickly became a purposeful craft, and has grown massively over the last 30 years, proving to be a go-to aesthetic for many aspiring artists and music producers.


So what is Lo-Fi?

It's mood music. It's cozy, relaxing, chill. It's mellow, nostalgic, whimsical. It's known to be sad, emotionally disjointed, cheerful, and comforting. It's relies on simplicity, rather than complexity, and a mere fault or mistake can result in creative genius.

Lo-Fi comprises repeated samples, and simplified beats, which the producer will effect, with the goal of achieving an interesting groove to captivate the listener. The addictive nature of this sound is the fact that the listener doesn't have to over-analyse the music, as there is usually very few elements. Heavily criticised as being "lazy", this musical style can engage the mind in more ways than just one. If you're a fan of this music, you would have .gif covered videos all over YouTube. Many are compiled playlists dedicated to your senses. Some for sleeping. Some for studying. Some for just chilling the fuck out.


The act of searching for the perfect sample is an art in itself. Artists that do this well, produce celestial soundscapes, that trigger feelings of nostalgia, and forcibly put the listener into an ethereal state of contempt. This is one of the main reasons that the Lo-Fi genre has done so well. Including that of it's raw characteristics. Some producers like to polish and build their repertoire around quality obsession. Others, with the Lo-Fi bug, like to saturate, and distort their organic sounds, and ultimately preach the 'less-is-more' attribution.


Down-low Lo-Fi

DIY music predate noted history, but the lo-fi genre, as it became known in the 1990s, can be traced back to the 50s Rock N Roll era. Most music of that time was produced fast and at very little cost. Often with below standard recording equipment. In saying that, a vast amount of garage rock, and punk of the late 1970s, waved the "lo-fi" flag. As an example, Brian Wilson's makeshift home studio, saw the likes of The Beach Boys, Wild Honey, and Friends, all considered "Bedroom Tapes". Pitchfork journalist, Mark Richardson labelled The Beach Boys album Smiley Smile as the one that paved the way for that kind of lo-fi bedroom pop.

The 1970s also saw Paul McCartney, and Todd Rundgren utilising portable multi-tracking technologies to release their music. McCartney of which, produced one of the best-selling albums of the time, with the release of his solo album criticised as the first of the lo-fi successes.


The late 70s into the 80s saw the emergence of an Indie movement. Known as Cassette Culture, or Outsider Music, the development of Punk and New Wave, and in some cases Pop Music, began to form a DIY ethos that proclaimed a flood of indie labels, distribution networks, fanzines, and studios, and the novelty of creating a record without the contract widdling major labels, was a premise that lingered among many artists and bands. You can now see how this has grown over the last 40 years.

1979 saw Tascam introduce the Portastudio; the first ever portable multi-track recorder of its kind. It incorporated an 'all-in-one' approach to overdubbing, mixing, and bouncing. This allowed an abundance of underground musicians to build fan bases through the distribution of their cassette tapes, an grew a somewhat cult following for the artists involved.

Throughout the 80s, the underground indie rock scene were becoming the most prominent exports of the lo-fi culture. Artists like R.E.M., experimented with a variety of stylistic forms. Fluctuating between simple pop and rock, free-forming song structures, to pure noise. These arty accords set high standards among the tape scene. Similarly, scenes were developing in the hip hop and hardcore punk genres. The DIY cassette trade off was highly active, and artists, fans, and indie labels were gaining substantial recognition.

The 1990s was the "Alternative" era. Media labelled 'indie' as music produced away from the industry's major labels, an the US viewed these styles as 'alternative'. After the success of Nirvana's Nevermind in 1991, the alternative scene became a cultural talking point. To the extent that, Generation X's music was argued that of being 'authentic'. It was believed there was a faction of indie rock that viewed grunge as a sell-out genre, adopting lo-fi's "imperfections" into its own. Matt Deihl wrote of this as lo-fi soared into the mainstream. He said

Alternatively called lo-fi, referring to the rough sound quality resulting from such an approach, or DIY, an acronym for " do it yourself", this tradition is distinguished by an aversion to state-of-the-art recording techniques... In a world of sterile, digitally recorded Top 40, lo-fi elucidates the raw seams of the artistic process.

Retrieved from: Harper, A. (2014). Lo-Fi Aesthetics in Popular Music Discourse [Ebook].

Beck, and Guided by voices were gaining mainstream popularity due to this Lo-Fi culture. Beck, whose 1994 single "Loser" was recorded in a kitchen and reached the Billboard top 10, ultimately became the most recognizable artist associated with the "lo-fi" tag. As a response to the "lo-fi" label, Guided by Voices bandleader Robert Pollard denied having any association to its supposed movement. He said that although the band was being "championed as the pioneers of the lo-fi movement," he was not familiar with the term, and explained that "a lot of people were picking up Tascam machines at the time ... Using a four-track became common enough that they had to find a category for it: DIY, lo-fi, whatever."

Lo-fi music. (2018). Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lo-fi_music#CITEREFHarper2014


According to Adam Harper:

"In short, Unknown Legends (Richie Unterberger's Unknown Legends of Rock 'n' Roll: Psychedelic Unknowns, Mad Geniuses, Punk Pioneers, Lo-Fi Mavericks & More) bridges the interests of the 80s, and the Cassette Culture Generation, as well as those of the 2000s, providing an early sketch, a portent – a 'leftfield blueprint', perhaps – of 2000s movements like hauntology and hypnagogic pop"

As a result, along came the chillwave, hypnagogic pop and glo-fi.


The rise of the DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) revoked a speculative technological separation between professional recording engineers and producers, and those who were "non-professional" artists. Many artists, made famous for their prominence in the lo-fi subculture, began adapting to a more professional standard, as the modern bedroom producer began looking to vintage, analogue equipment, to achieve that sort-after lo-fi aesthetic. This resulted in a type of music called "hypnagogic pop", which grew from the lo-fi culture, as post-noise musicians started to engage with elements of cultural nostalgia, childhood memory, and outdated recording technology. Essentially, a psychedelic musical form. Then, in later years, a form of downtempo music labelled lo-fi hip hop or chill-hop, which gained popularity among YouTube music streamers. It became an internet sensation in its own way, attracting millions of followers.


Lo-Fi Techniques

Lo-fi, as we know it, is heavily known for its DIY methods. Many producers have dove in head first into the self-claimed production bliss. From chasing that "analogue warmth" back in its younger years, to layering tape machine plugins, and warped vinyl effects in today's DAW universe. Producers love to produce, and the experimentation of these combined efforts has grown immensely. Here's what musicradar.com defines as some of the go-to techniques for producing this genre, from their 2008 Tech article, 'Add some Snap and Crackle to your Pop' - 9 crackly lo-fi production tips:


  1. Grab some classic samples Check out Goldbaby's free vintage samples for some all-important graininess. We recommend downloading The Tape606, featuring the sound of a Roland TR-606 drum machine recorded on a valve quarter-inch tape machine. Other highlights on the site include a TR-808 recorded onto a cranky old cassette.

  2. Tape it up It can be time-consuming, but sending your sound out into the analogue domain is a great way to introduce some warmth and dirt. You can pick up a tape deck for next to nothing from any online auction site, so buy one and get recording - you may find it addictive.

  3. Go simple Why not try making a track on the move using your laptop? It doesn't matter if you don't have a MacBook Pro crammed to bursting with all the poshest software: that cranky old overheating 500MHz slab will do the trick. When you're severely limited by the amount of CPU you can use, you'll start to throw out all kinds of unnecessary extravagances. Like reverb.

  4. Sample yourself An ever-effective lo-fi technique involves using only instruments made from samples. A trip to your local charity shop will provide you with all manner of weird and wonderful sample sources, particularly if you grab some nasty old vinyl. Surface noise and dirt can always be manipulated in exciting ways.

  5. Adventures in infinite sound Pick up some of the stranger free synths from the wilder regions of the internet and get creative. Try noise-based synthesis with Majken's Chimera, or experience the madness of Greenoak's semi-modular Crystal. Master an esoteric sound source to make your music really stand out.

  6. Dubstyle The sounds of dub and experimental reggae can be interesting sources of lo-fi inspiration. Head over to The Interruptor's website and check out some of the freebie plug-ins on offer to all dub enthusiasts. If you want that instant Boards of Canada pitch modulation effect, you could do a lot worse than grab the Wow and Flutter plug-in. There are some great lo-fi delays on offer, too.

  7. Shut that DAW You may be used to working in a high-end sequencing package, but why not try out something a little more limited? Give a self-contained package like the venerable but endlessly wonderful Propellerhead ReBirth (above) a try - an 808, a 909 and two 303s are all you need!

  8. A fine vintage Tired of modern computers that purport to do everything? Yeah, we all feel that way sometimes. What you need is a dedicated music system like the Yamaha CX5M! Released in 1984, this MSX-based behemoth sports a four-operator FM synth and, like all truly classic gear, is still supported by a community of avid enthusiasts. There's a dedicated website if you fancy taking the plunge.

  9. Feel the love Lo-fi music is often about the romance of old gear or software - it should really focus on the emotional side of music-making rather than its cold, mechanical side. If there's something on the fringes of music-making that's always fascinated you, like the strangulated bleeps of an early Atari or the strange fuzz that guitar amps constantly seem to produce with very little encouragement from their owners, why not get out there and explore your own musical oddity? You never know what great new sounds you'll uncover in the process.

As contradicting as this sounds, a lot of these techniques can be produced inside your DAW. Though, the search for old-school tech still plays a huge role in, today's plugins and software instruments can do what's needed to fulfill the sound requirements of this genre. And it can end up much cheaper for the aspiring bedroom producer. Check out MixedByTheAcademy's video on How To Make A Sampled Lofi Hip Hop Beat in Logic Pro X:

Mixed By The Academy. (2017). How To Make A Sampled Lofi Hip Hop Beat in Logic Pro X [Video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7utXOtj0Pho&t=3s


Here the guys use an old jazz sample (found on youtube), cut it up using the flex editor, and drop it into an EXS24 Sampler. Working with a simple chord progression to carry the loop, they then build a push-pull type hip hop beat, starting with the hi hats. From there, they process the drum sounds, EQing and Compressing, to achieve the illusion of a lo-fi sound. They utilize tape saturation plugins, side chaining, and warped vinyl effects to achieve the lo-fi goal. Simple production, but very effective to say the least.


Here's a more comical rendition of lo-fi production, though it does prove that anything can be sampled to produce the sounds needed for you lo-fi tracks:

How every lofi hiphop song is made and how to make it. (2017). [Video]. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gPMZYpK8h3g&t=248s


Here's my interpretation of the lo-fi sound. I created an electronic, jazz inspired hip hop track, inspired by all the things i've learnt about this genre. It consists of a jazz piano lick which I played, then looped as a sample. A vocal sample, which was cut close to the transient, then stretched to give nice texture. A synth bass, again looped. Some extra luminous sounds to blend. And a broken hip hop beat. Super fun to create, and super easy, proving the extent any bedroom producer can go to. Check it out:


WORKS CITED

  • Best of Trip-Hop & Downtempo & Lo-Fi & Nujazz Tracks. (2018). [Video]. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F3OFIuIXcSo

  • All You Need To Know About Lo fi Hip Hop | Soundontime. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.soundontime.com/lo-fi-hip-hop/

  • Harper, A. (2014). Lo-Fi Aesthetics in Popular Music Discourse [Ebook]. Retrieved from https://ora.ox.ac.uk/objects/uuid:cc84039c-3d30-484e-84b4-8535ba4a54f8/download_file?safe_filename=AHarper%2B-%2BLo-Fi%2BAesthetics%2BThesis.pdf&file_format=application%2Fpdf&type_of_work=Thesis

  • Lo-fi music. (2018). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lo-fi_music#CITEREFHarper2014

  • Understanding the popularity of Lo-Fi music production - Liveschool. (2018). Retrieved from https://blog.liveschool.net/understanding-the-popularity-of-lo-fi-music-production/


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