Tech \ Technique \ Gear Tips

Get that lo-fi sound

A beginner's guide to getting down and dirty in the studio

2017 Sep 18     
2 Bit Thugs

Want to give your productions that grainy, lo-fi sound? Chris Lyth has some ideas that might help

Whether out of financial necessity, for aesthetic reasons or as a rejection of more mass-market, commercial production values, the lo-fi sound has always run seemingly in parallel with its shiny, polished. big room cousin. With pristine, crystal-clear audio now affordable to all, the desire to dig in the dirt is conversely an all-too-sweet taboo. So how do you go about adding a touch of the lo-fi to your sound? Here are a few ideas to try out...

Get organised. If you are about to embark on a sound sampling session, set up your DAW so that it’s easy to send a sound out and then record the processed sound back in. It’s always worth keeping your DAW recording, as you may catch something cool and unexpected.

Run your drum track though some guitar effects and back into your DAW. Do many different takes with different pedals and settings, and tweak away while you're recording. If your DAW has a split Audio To Midi function, split a long section to MIDI and without too much effort you have your own lo-fi custom drum kit to save in your sound library for future use.

Take your reverb to the depths of grunged-up depravity by placing a speaker in another room and a mic at a distance from the speaker. Then send your signal to the speaker and record the sound of the room using the mic. Blend your clean source with the room mic signal. Using a room like this for colouration gives you a unique-sounding reverb as no two rooms sound the same. For a super spacial version, record in stereo with two mics. If this is not an option, customise your reverb sounds by adding some saturation after the reverb. This clouds much of the detail and makes the reverb sound less hi-fi and plastic-y.

Using EQ creatively can turn a beautifully recorded sound into a skip-o-matic version without much effort expended. Try cutting off all the low frequencies bellow 350Hz and all the high frequencies above 4kHz and give a boost at around 1kHz or there about. This gives the classic telephone receiver sound that is often used on vocals, but can sound great on drum loops as well. As a general mixing strategy it’s an idea to knock off the high frequencies to blur the high-end a little as lo-fi is not synonymous with a polished silky top end.

Limit the stereo field. Lo-fi productions are not known for their expansive, widescreen soundscapes, so it’s a good idea to pan minimally and keep your parts in mono. Many plug-ins are very 'stereo' in nature, and are programmed to sound lush and impressive, but we can easily put paid to all the programmer's hard work by, for instance, recording it through a guitar amp.

Field recording is great not only for getting lo-fi sounds, but for building up your own unique library. Everyone has access to commercial sample libraries so it’s a great way to build up a personalised sample bank. Capture sounds from the real world and then reprocess them with plug-ins such as bit crushers, or by re-recording through cheap mics or FX pedals. It’s a good idea to use a decent mic to do your real word recordings as you have the versatility to reprocess and degrade, but also have the hi-fi version as well.

Try some extreme saturation. Drive your audio through a cheap cassette recorder: the sound of analogue tape being overdriven has yet to be replicated authentically, to my ears at least, by distortion plug-ins. It sounds that bit more alive and visceral, and of course every tape machine has its own sonic aesthetic. Head to eBay and pick up old tape recorders and dictaphones with the sole purpose of abusing the hell out of them. Kicks, snares, bass, vocals and hi-hats all respond well to being pushed hard into analogye tape. Some recorders have pitch settings that can add further murk to drum loops when you pitch them down.

Most DAWs give you the option of changing the bit-rate for exporting your audio, so it would be almost a dereliction of duty not to experiment by exporting your loops at lower bit-rates. Often lower bit-rates impart a hazy quality to proceedings. For extra wooze on melodic lines, try detuning synths very slightly or adding in a tiny bit of LFO drift.

Layering is useful for when you want the best of both worlds, and let's face it, generally this is most of the time. So if you want a low, solid bassline, but want it really noisy and with a unique timbre, then:

1. Keep a copy of your pristine original.
2. Send it to, for example, a guitar amp with a ripped speaker cone, or a sampler recording at a low bit-rate.
3. Record and then layer.
4. Play with EQ, for example by cutting out the high frequencies of your pristine copy and allowing your lo-fi version to dominate the high frequencies while your pristine version takes care of the big low-end. This technique will work on any sound source, but drums in particular, and is great for maintaining body along with the grit.

Old samplers can be picked up very cheaply these days, and machines like the Akai S range and my own personal fave, the Roland S760/ 770, have their own unique timbres. They are, by modern standards, dinosaurs in terms of their clunky operating systems, but nothing really matches the slight grit and digital artefacts produced by these guys. Time-stretching drum loops and pads on hardware samplers in particular can create sounds that are worth the asking price alone. Many producers are still clinging on to these and it’s easy to see why.

If you are looking for something a little more subtle and just want to give your track a washed-out feel, you could do a lot worse than picking up a four-track portastudio. You can then bounce down your stems individually to tape and get lots of lush tape noise and artefacts. Bouncing down from one channel to another repeatedly is a good way get a little more crosstalk and noise into your mix.

Most of the techniques here are aimed at giving your track texture, atmosphere and a good fistful of attitude, but as with all things, balance is key. If everything is smashed up and sounding distressed, there's every chance that your mix will sound awful. Often it’s best to use such sounds as focal points against a backdrop of well recorded parts, but that's only a suggestion. Music would be mightily dull if there was only one way to go about creating it!

Words and pic: Chris Lyth





Tags: Lo-fi, distortion, dirt, fuzz, studio, production, tips, technique