Lo-fi: Bad Technique or Valid Movement?

As a student in a music technology program, one would think that I would strive to engineer and mix recordings so that they sound the best they can. For the most part, I do. However, there is a part of me that loves doing the opposite. Don’t get me wrong, I love the sound of high fidelity recordings. There’s just something about the aggressiveness of an overdriven acoustic guitar, vocal, synthesizer or snare. Giving everything just a little grit can add immense emotional expression the song wouldn’t have had if it were a pristine recording. The over-compression and über polished nature of popular music of all genres can sound much too manufactured and unnatural. 

Though the trend of lo-fi is often imagined as just bad technique, lo-fi is equally, if not more so a broad cultural response to the glossy, compressed norms of popular music and an integral part of vintage culture as a whole.

Generally, you won’t find lo-fi recordings on mainstream radio. Of course there’s the occasional Nirvana or Beck song, but those songs sound significantly cleaner than the lo-fi music that will be described here. In fact, any song off Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska is probably as low fidelity as you can get on the radio. Lo-fi is generally regarded as music that has properties that would not be allowed in a high fidelity (hi-fi) recording. Distortion, hum, feedback and even mistakes characterize lo-fi, or what some call “pure sounds”. It is not a coincidence that the rapid accessibility of multi-track tape recorders such as the Tascam Portastudio in the 1980s coincide with the origins of lo-fi. These musicians soon turned into amateur recording engineers as a makeshift studio became available in their own home. The quality didn’t hold a candle to the professional studios, but you could still record yourself and other people on one recording with a multi-track. Flash forward almost forty years and we are currently in a state where home recording has rivaled the sounds of professional studios. Tame Impala’s Currents, which is one of the most sonically grandiose records of the decade, was recorded entirely by band leader Kevin Parker in his home. So in the era of digital recording, where making music sound decent has almost never been easier, why is there a movement that has tapped into the almost inaccessible sounds of lo-fi?

Tascam 414 Portastudio 

Folk singer/songwriter Angel Olsen has an undeniable vintage quality to her voice and music. Her rich and haunting vibrato reminds me of Roy Orbison and her acoustic guitar ballads sound like early Leonard Cohen. It’s only fitting that her debut EP was originally recorded in a kitchen with a built-in computer microphone. It was then strictly released on cassette. The EP consists of just acoustic guitar, vocals and an eerie empty-hall like atmosphere. It feels more like a demo than a released record, but that just adds to the character and her aesthetic. If the EP was polished and sounded like it was recorded in the digital era, it would not convey her aesthetic or the character of the songs as well. Plus, with releasing it only on cassette and then expanding to vinyl, the nod to vintage and throwback culture is evident. The lo-fi aspects of these recordings bring a humanity to Olsen. 

In a time when it’s easy to feel detached because of the increased glamorization of society through things like social media and easy editing, lo-fi essentially provides a rebuke to this and lets the listener feel as if they are participating in the creation of something, rather than being a passive receiver.

Car Seat Headrest is the project of Seattle-based singer/songwriter Will Toledo. He began recording songs under the name Car Seat Headrest in 2010 as a high school senior.  Toledo recorded the cult-classic concept album Twin Fantasy (Mirror to Mirror) in 2011. The record took me several listens to get used to the harsh sound quality; in fact, it took me about a year before I could really get through the entire record. As time went on,  I was able to truly appreciate what I was listening to. Despite the at-first unbearable distortion of the drums coupled with the crunched guitar and overdriven vocals, Twin Fantasy (Mirror to Mirror) is a fantastic record about a failed relationship in the context of mental health, drug use and sexual confusion at its core. Toledo used the free recording software Audacity as a digital workstation and used the built-in microphone on his laptop to record the instruments, both of which contributed to the album’s severe abrasiveness. While Toledo later embraced lo-fi with records like How to Leave Town and Teens of Denial, his original sound was not necessarily an aesthetic choice. Car Seat Headrest’s Twin Fantasy (Mirror to Mirror) is an example of a lo-fi result due to the lack of ability as a beginner recording engineer and a lack of resources, which effectively does uphold the stereotype that lo-fi is often bad technique.

As a broke college student/aspiring songwriter, I’ve recently started experimenting more with lo-fi. I’ll usually record in my dorm, which is not by any stretch a decent sounding room. However, as an aspiring recording engineer, it’s my job to make aesthetic decisions based on my surroundings and resources. Since I haven’t had a chance to record in my new dorm, I’ll describe the situation I was in last semester. My dorm last semester had a big “room sound” due to the high ceiling, narrow width and tile floors. In other words, there was basically no chance of me being able to record just the sound of the acoustic guitar. I couldn’t (still can’t) afford sound panels or more recording accessories than what I already had, so I had to make do with my environment. As a result of this, I used the sound of the room to my advantage and embraced its atmosphere by not trying to get a perfect sound. I’d play from a distance from the microphone and use the sound of the room to add character to the recording. I’d also record vocals from a distance to have a consistent effect. In that situation, lo-fi was both an aesthetic choice and an inevitable result due to my resources and surroundings.

The effects of the sterile and over-produced sounds of modern pop music have contributed a great deal to the rise of analog techniques and lo-fi recordings.

The lack of human personality can cause listeners to feel removed from the song and the performance. We all look for a personal connection and authenticity; the current rustic trend in interior design (exposed brick, warm tones, low sheen, wooden furniture) is yet another example of people seeking authenticity. Rather than use modern styles and accessories, rustic aesthetics are in because they hark back to a seemingly simpler, tangible and engaged time. This trend is something that is perceived to have more of a personal touch, much like lo-fi. The perceived absence of aesthetic personality in pop music has also contributed to the rise of vintage culture. Tangible techniques are becoming increasingly appealing to artists in an age where digital technology has somewhat taken away the personal connection to whatever medium they express themselves with. Even with the significant advancements in technology, I don’t believe we are far enough away from analog systems or ways of life to see them disappear completely in our or our children’s lifetime. Several generations need to pass and phase them out. For now, we’re stuck in the middle and can enjoy the best of both worlds.

Cover Photo: Liam Carroll- lcarroll@uarts.edu 

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