How To Go Lo-Fi With Tape

In the age of Lo-Fi Hip Hops’ burgeoning popularity, it has become de-rigeur in modern day production, in multiple genres, to achieve a sound that has a more real-world, gritty aesthetic as a direct counterpoint to the super slick and over-produced sounds of modern Trap and Dubstep.

Achieving the sought-after, lo-fi, gritty and saturated sounds desired, solely in-the-box, is difficult, but there are accessible and affordable ways to get there...

What is Tape?

A tape-machine or tape recorder records and plays back sounds using magnetic tape for storage. It records a fluctuating signal by moving the tape across a tape head polarizing the magnetic domains in the tape in proportion to the audio signal incoming. This process is the same from Reel-to-Reel recorders through to Cassette players (remember those!?).

Magnetic tape started being used for sound recording around 1930 in Germany and went on to revolutionize the music recording industry, allowing sounds to be re-recorded, edited and rearranged with minimal loss in quality. High-end magnetic tape used in Reel-to-Reel has remained the highest quality analog recording medium available; but this isn’t the type of tape we’re interested in here...

The Joys of Tape

The mass production of cassette players in the 80s and 90s are what we’re looking for here to really get some lo-fi grit going. The difference between these sort of tape players and the Hi-Fidelity Reel-to-Reels is the size of the tape; the tape on a Reel-to-Reel is between ¼ to 2 inches wide whereas a cassette tape is only around 0.15 inches, which means there is a lot less space to store audio information.

It’s the mechanics of these low-budget tape-machines that will give you the unique additions to your sound; the warbling as the speed of the tape changes or a subtle hiss of white noise. These characteristics can be applied to any of your generic DAW plug-ins and create a much deeper, analog, degraded and Lo-Fi aesthetic to even the most basic synth, drum or key parts.

The Process

1. First things first, you need to source a cassette tape recorder. You’ll be able to pick one of these up pretty cheap on eBay or in a charity shop. Anything basic will do, you don’t need anything fancy as it’s the grit and randomness that we’re after here, you just need something that can record audio and has a jack to output your recordings back into your DAW.

2. Take any synth or instrument (or drums or vocals for that matter!) part that you would like to apply this technique to. Get your tape recorder positioned next to your monitor; the closer you get, the more detail and apparent loudness will be recorded, further back and you’ll get a more ‘roomy’ sound. You can experiment with this. Hit record on your tape player, queue the part on your DAW and record the section you’re after.

3. Rewind the tape, open up a new audio track in your DAW and route the output of your tape recorder into your interface and record the tape playback into your session.

4. Sync your recording with the original content, remove any unneeded tails and you now have a Lo-Fi print of your original section.

5. From here you can apply EQ, compression and reverb to really gel the sounds together and give you a full, rich and Lo-Fi final product!

Get Experimental

The above is just the most simplistic take on what you can do with his process. There is no end to how far you can take it, or how much you want to degrade your sounds!

Saturation – The more information that you add to tape, the more subtle changes you’ll get. This can be exploited by layering and layering onto the same piece of tape i.e. repeating the process above over and over. You’ll get more distortion, compression, phasing, minor irregularities that will really be far away from the computer-clean audio that you would have started with.

Tape Delay – For the more adventurous, you can get a classic Tape Delay sound out of your recorder which takes the few milliseconds delay between the time the audio is recorded to tape with the record head and the time it's played back with the play head. However, with most basic recorders, they have a combined record/play head; this can be hacked but it will require some research and bit of basic engineering. The results will be worth it though!

Finally, if you can't get your hands on a Tape Recorder right now, there are several pretty good emulations on the market right now: Tape Plugins - though they aren't quite as hands-on and fun as the real thing!

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