Why Not Go Lo-Fi?

11/10/2015

When the age of laptop production hit the music scene, everything changed. It's far easier to make a clean, polished mixdown: high-quality plugins, no worries over hiss, dodgy connections or synths going faulty, great sample packs, and all for less cash than it used to cost for one day in a big studio. What's not to like?

The unintended upshot of all this is that a lot of the more popular stuff out there can sound polished to the point of blandness. But a lot of producers are eschewing this approach, instead taking their sound in a much more lo-fi direction – from the likes of L.I.E.S in house and techno to Illum Sphere and Kowton in bass music and grime. It's music that has character and personality, and it's much more interesting as a result! So let's take a look at how you can harness some of these techniques to make your stuff stand out from the rather polite crowd....

Get Out Of The Box

This is the most obvious suggestion, but that's because it really works. Send your beats, samples or synths out of your laptop and into whatever you have around – or can borrow off a friend. Pretty much anything is good here: do you have an old DJ mixer? Smash some beats into the reds and record them back in, to see how the distortion sounds. Or the opposite; send a very low level through the mixer and when you record it back in, it will be full of noise and hum. Got an old hi-fi with a tape recorder in it? Genuine tape saturation at your fingertips. Blag a guitar pedal off an indie-loving friend; distortion or delay, it's all good – and remember, a wah-wah pedal is just a resonant bandpass filter which is great for pads and ambience. In this game, the less 'premium' your hardware is, the better; you want to be using something that no-one else has thought of, to get a distinctive and characterful sound that is yours and yours alone.

Use Distortion

You don't have to get out of the box to distort things, of course. There are plenty of quality distortion plugins out there than can add grit, graunch and character to your sounds quickly and easily. Overdrive them just a touch to chop the top off your transients, or crunch them up completely. Or reduce the bit-rate of your channel; at 10 bits, you'll notice some hiss creeping in. At 8, it will sound rather cheap and very hissy – go down to 4 bits and it will be completely degraded. Brilliant.

Go Off Grid

One of the things that can make a track sound overly tidy and polished is an overuse of quantisation. If you get things off the MIDI grid you can get a more natural, human feel, and make it more interesting too. It's something that hip-hop producers have known for years – make a groove really sit back by pushing the hats late, for instance. And of course, sampling live drum breaks means you'll already be getting that human, off-grid vibe. Sampling them off an old crackly vinyl? Even better!

You don't have to be a great keyboard player to be able to play your synths in 'live', however. You can play things in as erratically as you like, and if they're too far off the grid then just partially quantise them. In Logic, this is called Quantisation Strength, while Cubase calls it 'Iterative Quantise'. Whatever the name, the effect is to move your notes towards the grid, but not all the way. As a result, you can keep some of the character of your playing, but without some of the more obvious mistakes! Similarly, if you're recording audio from a hardware synth, try and jam it in live, instead of using MIDI. If there are any serious mistakes you can always drag the audio region to where you need it to be – or do another take. But the results will always be that bit more interesting than simply sequencing it.

Pitch It Down

A simple tip, this. Pitch your samples down, especially percussion. This will make them weightier, crunchier, and will also smear the transients so that they don't sound so crisp and well-engineered. Pitch things down far enough and you can completely transform the sound into something else entirely. It's another tip that hip-hop producers have been using for years, as they sample a live break and need to slow it down to 80 or 90BPM to get the right flow. It's no coincidence that those beats always sound so chunky and fat.

Sample Some Ambience

If you want the hiss and crackle of a lo-fi sound, then why not just sample some? Vinyl crackle, tape noise, some processed and tweaked white noise – all of these and more can be layered into your track to sweep away the impression of clean, sterile softsynths, and make things sound a bit more real. It's a bit of a shortcut, but let's not forget the golden rule of production here – if it sounds good, use it!

There are plenty of ways to get a good, interesting lo-fi sound in your music, but the basic one is probably this: break all the rules. Whatever you've been told to do in your mixdowns, do the opposite. It may sound weird, strange or horrible, but that's always preferable to boring!

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