Music’s Ugly Duckling: The Low Down On Lo-Fi
Photo: Jonas Ahrentorp
Music’s Ugly Duckling: The Low Down On Lo-Fi
— Written by Mitchell Tan
If you have ever decided to really knuckle down and get some work done at any point in your life, chances are you would rather be doing that work with some kind of background noise. Although podcasts and audiobooks have seen a huge resurgence in popularity, nothing seems to have the same kind of permanence as well, music. Whether you are a full time employed professional, working at an office or home, or even a part-time (and very poor) student cramming for your exams at 4 am the day-of, music seems the logical choice when it comes to fuelling one’s productivity. Blasting your favourite bands, chiming along to your favourite bars, music is not exactly a foreign concept or new invention, it really goes hand in hand with everything we do as humans.
However, in recent years an interesting niche within music has sky-rocketed into popularity especially amongst teens, twenty-somethings and citizens of the internet. A particular style of music (less so a genre, as it encompasses so much more than that) has become the go-to for relaxing or just getting shit done. Lo-fi or low fidelity music has been at the top of everybody's study/chilling playlists, whether it be consciously deciding to listen to the ever-popular faux-radio live streams on YouTube, Spotify’s curated playlists or even just enjoying lo-fi music without being aware of the fact, it seems that wherever you go, especially on the Internet, you cannot escape it.
Photo: Knxwledge for NTS Radio - a well known lo-fi producer. Photo: NTS Radio
So What Is Lo-Fi?
In music, ‘fidelity’ is often used as a synonym for quality. Although this is not entirely correct, the definition of the word has shifted over time, but generally describes how closely a copy of a sound emulates the original, such as how well the sound of a recorded saxophone is conveyed in the stream of a song. Defining the word has little does little for explaining the concepts of ‘hi-fi’ and ‘lo-fi’, as both have almost become appropriated buzzwords in today’s age (take Jay-Z’s Tidal for example - boasting high fidelity music streaming). Hi-fi is a combination of many, often subjective elements of a recording of music. These elements include little background noise or distortion, high bitrate (amount of data transferred/processed per given time), flat frequency responses and natural sounds to name a few. However, lo-fi is not simply just the ‘opposite’ of this, as it does not necessarily denote poorer sound quality these days.
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Although lo-fi was initially used as a descriptor of poor quality recordings, it evolved to describe whole movements of music. It was in rock ‘n’ roll’s nature that recordings were done on the fly, without care for proper procedures or nitpicking the finer details. Such was the attitude of the times. From garage rock in the ‘60s to punk in the ‘70s and post-punk in the ‘80s and beyond, the disregard for the established institutional conventions of striving to produce perfect replicas of live sound went hand in hand with the rebel soul of rock n roll. Naturally, the lo-fi tag has continued to carry with it an underdog and rebellious undertone. As time progressed the idea of intentionally producing lower (sound) quality music became a way to express departure from the norm and expressing one’s individuality in an unadulterated way.
First Image: J Dilla for Rolling Stones. Photo: Rolling Stones
Second Image: J Dilla and notable 90’s hip-hop producer Nujabes. Photo: BeBee
The Influence Of J Dilla
One of the most influential figures in the modern movement towards ‘lo-fi’ music, especially within hip hop is none other than J Dilla. Dilla, born James Dewitt Lancey, was an American hip-hop/neo-soul producer that rose to prominence in the mid-’90s. Not only did he skyrocket to fame during this pivotal time in music history, but he also works tirelessly behind the scenes propelling many of history’s greatest musicians to the height of their game by weaving in meticulously craft beats and backing tracks. Acts like A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Erykah Badhu, can attribute some of their mass appeal to J Dilla. It goes without saying that Dilla was gifted, with his mother even recognising his ability for pitch recognition even from a young age. But, it was not this raw talent that set him so far apart from his contemporaries.
The late 20th century saw a very rapid shift to everything digital. From the advent of the Internet to the proliferation of digital devices everywhere, it goes without saying that the landscape of music was forever changed. The drum machine was the biggest asset to hip-hop. The Roland TR-808 and LinnDrum Machine were two of the biggest sounds of the ‘80s and early ‘90s, finding their way into every hip hop song at the time (and many songs today too). These electronic machines allowed drums to be synched perfectly and exactly to the beats of any piece of music (through a process now known as ‘quantization’) and provided the same stock sound and rhythmic precision every single time.
J Dilla's own MPC3000 now at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Photo: NMAAHC
Dilla utilised the MPC3000 (MPC standing for MIDI production centre), a sampler that was widely utilised in the industry at the time. What made him stand out was not his equipment, but his approach to it. Integrating imperfections, slight deviations in timing that would not usually make musical sense, J Dilla humanised drum machines with signature off-kilter beats, basses and samples. Dilla’s effort to make machines more human has had a lasting impact today. Many of the lo-fi hip hop artists today that you find cluttering playlists have been influenced by J Dilla’s signature beat-making style, whether they are cognizant of this or not.
DAW. Photo: Reverb
How Do You Make Lo-Fi Music?
A common theme is present here, whereas technology develops, so too does the musical sound that accompanies it. One of the bigger developments of the last decades opened the door to the masses, allowing any and everybody to become a budding music producer. DAWs or digital audio workstations are programs that run on about any digital device from your smartphone to your laptop allowing music production. Think your Garageband’s, your Logic’s, your Ableton’s. Early DAW’s were very limiting, in terms of storage, processing speed, usability and were mostly off limits due to the massive amounts of money required to invest in entire systems devoted solely to the running of these programs. However, a driver for lo-fi’s current resurgence is the sheer accessibility of these music production programs today. Garageband is a perfect example of this, nowadays coming free with most Apple products. Its ease of use and accessibility are second to none and is the perfect vehicle for anybody wanting to mash together a few loops to create something tangible. This, combined with lo-fi’s inherent amateur-like aesthetic (with little regard needing to be paid to proper mixing etc.), are a match made in heaven, allowing people to further the lo-fi style by creating music on the fly.
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Many professional musicians have also embraced the lower end, beginner friendly DAWs. The intentional lack of production provides a stark contrast to the majority of over-produced music with heavy and thick production that would be found bumping on radios all over the world currently, instead, seeking a more natural and organic sound, one that many could identify with. One of the most notable is Steve Lacy, multi-instrumentalist and producer of The Internet fame. Lacy’s first ever solo project (not as a part of the Internet, or on production credits for other artists) released in 2017 [very creatively] titled “Steve Lacy’s Demo” hones in on the concept of DIY, lo-fi neo-soul. The very short 13 minutes run time spread over 6 tracks are all exclusively produced and performed by Lacy, almost everything solely on his iPhone. Bass and guitars were input via a $90 accessory called an iRig, which essentially allows any mobile Apple device to act as an amp or recording, allowing direct digital input. Vocals were done raw into a stock iPhone microphone and drums were programmed in Ableton, all being combined and processed within the free Garageband app on Lacy’s own iPhone. Only 18 at the time, Steve Lacy embodied the ethos of a new generation of producers and musicians, displaying the amount of power that anybody has access to and a small glimpse of what was possible with such little money and specialised equipment, subverting his own and others expectations of what it took to create music, something Lacy labelled “the bare maximum”. Another notable act around the industry for embracing the lo-fi aesthetic is Will Toledo’s “Car Seat Headrest”, an indie rock band/project. Toledo has long been creating music pushed by his own strong DIY ethic, producing album after album from 2010 as ideas came to his head. The very name of the band references his habit of recording the lyrics to his songs in the backseat of his car, to provide some semblance of privacy without access to a studio.
Steve Lacy. Photo: Forbes
The Current Day Of Lo-Fi Music
This new age of music creation is not something reserved solely for the established musician, or someone with formal training, and that’s the beauty of it. A shining example of this is Clairo, who rocketed to fame in 2017 on the backs of several singles, such as “Pretty Girl” and “Flamin’ Hot Cheetos”, which were released and YouTube, garnering millions of views. Clairo recorded songs with whatever she had around her, which she herself claimed was “pretty shitty”. She quickly became ‘bedroom pop’s’ new poster girl, and spawned many many others, (especially on YouTube). The influence that YouTube has had on lo-fi music in recent times cannot be understated. Not only has it been the hub for cover artists and up and comers like Clairo, but the new wave of chill lo-fi hip hop beats has also been huge. 24/7 radio streams have swarmed YouTube music, with the biggest (and perhaps the first), anonymous channel ChilledCow having the most recognisable. These streams are accompanied by idyllic GIFs of anime girls studying, intermittently gazing over the picturesque scenery located just outside of their windows. As for the actual music on display, these lo-fi hip hop beats are rather barebones, driven by a strong programmed drum combined with layers of synths, organic sounds (such as birds) and even sound effects to make them come across as more low fidelity than they actually are (such as vinyl cracking, typical of playback of damaged vinyl). Often, samples are found scattered throughout, referencing other bits of music, or more commonly, pop culture catchphrases such as snippets from movies and anime (the latter being huge in popularity), directly referencing more traditional hip-hop’s love of the chopping of samples.
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At first glance this style of music may seem extremely vapid, lacking any kind of substance or genuine thought. This may be true, but analysing it in such a way is both ignorant and misses the whole point of the lo-fi music. Lo-fi has always represented the DIY perspective and in this context is meant to provide something that is essentially background noise and pleasant listening. It also represents accessibility, knowing that many of these very small producers who are getting some time in the limelight have little that distinguishes them from you and me, and can serve as motivation for any and everybody just to give it a crack and try out making a song of their own. Heck, I even made a crack at it with a short two-minute song I made on my phone whilst procrastinating (check it out below). In a world of over-production, where digital music has bestowed producers with the ability to meticulously change every detail of a song, there’s something refreshing about listening to songs that someone else on the other side of the world made on their phone just for fun. Lo-fi isn’t just some transient fad, it’s been around for decades and will probably stick around so long as people find joy in just creating music themselves.