How can poor audio quality sound so good? Even though we typically want high-quality samples and sounds in synths, the lo-fi effect has gotten extremely popular as a way to degrade a sound's quality for a nostalgic feel.
And honestly – the potential for producers to use it in their modern production is still huge.
This article will share what the lo-fi effect is and what key elements go into creating a lo-fi sound.
Let’s dive in.
What Is Lo-Fi Effect?
Lo-fi stands for low fidelity. In music, the audio effect uses plugins and technology to degrade a sound's quality with distortion and imperfections. These types of distortions are common in older vinyl records and tape machines.
The lo-fi effect has spawned an entire popular music genre called lo-fi, characterized by instrumental, often jazzy beats with nostalgic qualities.
When it comes to creating the actual lo-fi effect, there are many ways to go about it. But in essence, it’s about recreating the imperfect and distorted qualities in an otherwise clean digital sound.
Let’s explore how you can achieve the lo-fi effect in your mixes.
The 5 Essential Qualities Of The Lo-Fi Effect
What are the components of lo-fi sound? With analog gear, tape machines, tubes, transistors, and vinyl in mind, let’s explore what you need to achieve the timeless lo-fi effect.
1. Tape Saturation
Tape saturation is a classic lo-fi effect that mimics driving tape machines too hard, introducing a milder distortion type called saturation. Saturation adds harmonics and grit to the sound, making it warmer, noisier, and more analog.
In lo-fi, tape saturation works incredibly well to give your sounds, or an entire mix, a more vintage, analog feel.
2. Wow and flutter
Perhaps the most lo-fi effects of them all are called wow and flutter. Both are types of sound distortion that come from analog recording and reproduction devices when something happens to the spinning mechanics. If you’ve ever messed around with vinyl recordings, you know what happens when you tap the side of a record.
Depending on how hard you tap the record, or if you stop it, you create the famous wow and flutter effects.
Wow happens once per rotation and affects pitch. It's slower and typically targets lower frequencies. Flutter is a distortion that fluctuates faster, which causes a rougher sound.
The two audio effects characterize older recordings and are a must in lo-fi sounds.
Wobble is similar to wow and flutter because it targets pitch, but it's much more extreme. Wobble makes your sound go up and down in pitch rather than coming in once per rotation or causing higher frequency fluttering. This effect immediately takes your mind to a broken record – and when combined with other effects, it gives your sounds an undeniable lo-fi flare.
4. Cracks and noise
Of course, we need vinyl cracks and noises, one of the most classic lo-fi effects. When you hear it, your mind immediately takes you to old or perhaps broken vinyl records – and it’s a fantastic effect to give your sounds the sought-after dusty texture.
One of the main characteristics of a low-fidelity sound is its lack of higher frequencies. The sound is rough, more mid-focused, and edgier. You can recreate much of the same vibes with a simple filter by removing some of the higher frequencies.
Watch out, though, as you want some higher end to balance out your mix. But if you’re aiming for a lo-fi vibe on a specific sound, this is a great way in conjunction with other lo-fi effects.
Low-End Production For A Major Sound
We love sounds with texture and character. That could be one of the reasons for the vast impact the lo-fi sound has had on music. Just do a quick search on YouTube, and you’ll find playlists, 24/7 radio stations, and songs with millions of views, all playing dusty, lo-fi beats.
It seems that the sound awakes something within us. Perhaps it's nostalgia – a reminder of what once was. Or it’s just that these lo-fi beats are incredibly smooth.
No matter what – the lo-fi sound is here to stay. And the potential to introduce lo-fi effects in progressive house or techno music is still huge.
If you enjoy the lo-fi vibe, don’t be afraid to explore it in your music production. Use vinyl noise samples to layer on sounds, tape saturation on your leads or vocals, or go all-in with wow and flutter effects. No matter what, remember to always experiment and have fun.
One of the best lo-fi VST plugins to check out is RC-20 by xln audio. With six different analog and lo-fi effects to choose from, including filters, you can throw beautiful retro colors on any sound or track you wish.
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Thanks for reading, and see you in the next article.
About the author
Pelle Sundin is a Swedish music producer and writer, active with his chillout project PLMTRZ. He also produces psytrance. When he's not producing, he surfs, skates, and chugs coffee.