You have the latest digital recording gear, capable of
producing sound so clean that producers from
decades past would kill for fidelity half as good as
you have it, and now you want to go Lo-fi. Perhaps
you feel that many modern production techniques like
isolation, multitrack recording, and now, digital, have
robbed that “essence rare” of musicians performing
simultaneously in a room that is far from acoustically
balanced, with limited mics, where feel and performance
trump pristine recording.
Naturally, there are several philosophies wound up
in the Lo-fi genre, but the basic trend appears to be
an aversion to your recordings being accused of
being “clean.” While clean may mean different things
to different people, anti-perfection notions like noise,
leakage, and early room reflections are encouraged.
Here are a few tricks to grunge up your tracks.
Hitting a small-diaphragm condenser with a lot of
vocal, guitar, or whatever will bathe the source in a
hideously skritchy mike overload. Try putting a mics in
metal trashcans and use that setup for basic tracks.
Handheld cassette and digital recorders usually
have mics with built-in limiters that will squash the
bejesus out of loud inputs. Record drums with the
meters pinning, or scream a vocal take into the
recorder, sample it into your DAW, and dig the crispy
preamp distortion/tape saturation. Do it back and
forth a few times to build a tsunami of noise.
Wall of Crud
Back in the early sixties, everybody was blown away
by Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” production. Unfortunately,
wannabe disciples were SOL, because Phil
wasn’t telling anybody how it was done. In a blatant
attempt to reverse-engineer this money-making
sound, producers tripled up on players and piled on
the echo and reverb, creating a sludgy-lame monument
to Spector’s trademark tone.
To approach this level of sonic gunk, copy-andpaste
multiple versions of each track ’til the summing
mixer chokes, then start slathering the reverb on—
don’t even worry about types and early reflections
and all that—till it sounds like an overloaded 12-bit
midiVerb—just like they do to entire Bollywood soundtrack
The Robert Johnson
Blair Witch Explosion
When Henry C. Speir stood Robert Johnson facing
the corner of a room in the Texas Brunswick Building
and stuck a mic in front of him, he most likely thought
he was getting some sides on the cheap, not creating
the archetypal Lo-fi setup. Singing and playing guitar
into a corner, with a single mic, into an ancient mono
analog field recorder has to be the Lo-fi trifecta.
Miking a singer in a corner is an acoustical nightmare,
fraught with early reflections coming at the mic
from two sides, robbing “presence,” which gives the
tracks their hauntingly thin vocals and boxy guitar
that sound so awesome-fi. Since the release of The
Complete Recordings, the presently definitive collection,
the blues-obsessed believe that the American
Record Company somehow screwed up the original
primitive mastering process, and the tracks that we
have heard all these years are actually about 20%
faster than they should be, which just makes it even more deliciously Lo-fi. So try speeding your track up
20% or so and see if Beelzebub’s lawyer calls with a
Any hipster producer worth his mystique will show up
to a session with a small, transistorized practice
amp—the smaller, the better. Feeding drums, vocals,
bass—just about anything—will reward you with the
sound of tortured Chinese electronics. Mike up that
tiny speaker and record the results. Add a delay
stompbox with a mic, and by alternately moving the
mic closer and farther from the amp’s speaker and
tweaking the delay time, you have an endless repertoire
from the Jimmy Page Theremin Amateur Hour.
Tubes. Toilet Paper, That Is.
The cardboard tubes left over from toilet paper, paper
towels, and birthday wrapping paper can be stuck on
the end of a SM-58, creating frightening levels of
weird resonance and phase cancellation. Experiment
with different lengths of tube until you arrive at a
sound you like, then compress the daylights out of the
resulting track. If you are using plug-ins rather than
hardware compression, try multiple instances of compressors
for a really baked sound.
The big hoses from shop vacs are another gift
from the Lo-fi gods. Stick a condenser mic in each
end and point it at the drum kit. You will be blessed
with a dark, stanky stereo drum mix that sounds like it
was recorded at the Cryptkeeper’s home studio. The
bendy nature of the hose means you can position
each side to emphasize particular drums in the kit. Of
course, massive over-compression adds to the overall
lowness of fi.
Bad Stereo Miking
The classic X/Y setup using two cardioid
microphones, capsules placed as near as possible
to each other at 90-135-degree spreads, create
optimum avoidance of phase cancellation while
picking up a nice stereo field. Messing with this
setup seems to be an obvious method to create a
truly wretched sound.
Instead of crossing the mic capsules, place them
parallel and pointed at the source. The closer they
are, the higher the frequencies that will be phasemangled;
move them apart and mids and lows will get
tweakier. Mono the track and the phase problems will
become apparent, so adjust to taste.
Also try taping your best condenser to the worstsounding
dynamic in your collection, with the elements facing each other. I have achieved wonderfully
trashy room sounds with this method.
Dead Rooms Tell No Tales
Sure, the über-dead-sounding rooms in nice recording
studios eliminate those short (less than 20ms)
early reflections so engineers can digitally force ambience
with artificial reverb, but that’s not our Lo-fi bag,
baby…we want all those nasty reflections to do their
evil things, so tear down those blankets and egg
crates from the wall and love your room, warts and all.
To accent the room reflections, avoid close-miking—
pull your mics back a couple of feet from the source,
and soak in all that sick room coloration.
Let It Bleed
Conventional recording wisdom dictate that we try
to isolate each instrument to prevent sounds from
other instruments being picked up by the mic.
Leakage, however, is a Lo-fi staple, and we want to
encourage it. To get the most from leakage, avoid
close-miking the instruments and record everything
at once—preferably in mono—to accentuate phase
If you want to add this effect to previously
recorded tracks, a wonderfully Rube Goldberg
method of “re leaking” is to dig up enough P.A.
cabs, monitor wedges, and bass cabs for each track
you have recorded. Set them up in the spot where
the instruments would be if it was a session, and
mic the speakers from at least 12" away, and throw
up a couple of room mics to catch the ambience.
Send the tracks to the speakers and record the
whole mess on new tracks, complete with suitable
bleed and garage ambiance.
Magnetic Tape Saturation
Cassette four-tracks are like instant Lo-fi boxes,
because of the high degree of tape saturation they
can achieve. Tape saturation occurs when the magnetic
particles on the tape are so overloaded that they
can no longer accurately reproduce sound cleanly.
The best method for purposely creating tape saturation
is to record as loud as possible, without clipping
the sound—so don’t just peg the meters and think
you’re doing the job. Set the recorder to the slowest
tape speed possible and turn off DBX or Dolby. The
slow tape speed and teeny heads on the cassette
four-track will saturate with definite Lo-fi warmth.
Bounce the tracks a couple of times on the cassette
for more hiss and wow and flutter, then sample the
whole mess back into your DAW. Repeat the process
until you have your preferred degree of fi.