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electronic MUSICIAN

Lo-fi Recording: How To Trash Your Tracks

By Bruce Bartlett | March 3, 2008

Lo-fi is the opposite of hi-fi. Technically, hi-fi sound implies a flat frequency response with no noise, distortion, or other imperfections. In contrast, lo-fi sounds might have a narrow frequency response (a thin, cheap sound), and could include artifacts such as aliasing, hiss, distortion, or record scratches and vinyl surface noise.

Lo-fi really took off with rap music, in which the drum sound was the opposite of the usual polished studio sound. Instead of a tight kick, we heard a boomy kick; wide-range snare sounds with a full thump and crisp attack gave way to tinny, trashy snares that were all midrange. Lo-fi is also a component of some dance music and of course, punk is not about polite sounds, either.

No matter what type of music you do, though, lo-fi can add extra textures and colors that make a song stand out from the crowd. So, let’s look at a few ways not to take out the trash, but put it in.

LO-FI FREQUENCY RESPONSE

You can easily make a lo-fi effect simply by messing up a signal’s frequency response so it’s anything but flat. Cut the highs and lows, boost the mids. Or create a raggedy response with lots of bumps and dips. Some ways to do this are with EQ, mic choice, and mic placement. Here are some specific tips on obtaining lo-fi frequency responses:

  • Play a snare track through your mixer, and turn down the low frequency and high frequency EQ. Boost around 1kHz or nearby frequencies. Your snare sound will change from high-budget to bargain-basement; Beck’s “Soul-Suckin’ Jerk” from the album Loser is a good example of a lo-fi drum set.
  • Find a toilet paper tube, or a flexible plastic tube that extends gutter downspouts. Put the tube in front of a mic and sing through the tube. The resonances in the tube will color the sound in a wild way.
  • Plug a set of headphones into a mic preamp, crank up the gain (preferably to the point of distortion), and yell into the phones: You’ll have a sound unlike any “real” mic.
  • Record a child’s drum set with its small heavy cymbals and boomy kick drum. You might loop a hi-hat beat made from this set, and mix it with a full-range recording of a quality drum set.
  • Track down some cheap old mics at a garage sale, on eBay, or from vintage mic collectors. Record a few tracks using those mics. Their frequency response tends to be a complex series of peaks and valleys that you can’t duplicate with EQ.
  • Unusual mic placements are fun: Record a guitar amp or vocal with the mic placed in a wastebasket (Figure 1). Hit a cymbal with a cheap mic while recording its signal. Mic a snare drum from underneath for a thin, zippy effect. If you mic a crash cymbal at its edge, pointing toward the center, the sound will waver as the cymbal tilts when struck.

DISTORTION

Distortion adds harmonics that didn’t exist in the original sound. An obvious way to create distortion is to drive a piece of recording gear at very high levels—well beyond what it can handle. For example, record drums on a cassette recorder with the meters pinning. Or yell into a “bullet”-type harmonica mic so that the mic distorts. In a DAW, use a distortion plug-in such as iZotope Trash (Figure 2; www.izotope.com).

Guitar effects are, of course, great for adding distortion. Run a drum track through a guitar stomp box, or through a broken vintage compressor. Feed a vocal through a Line 6 Amp Farm plug-in, or their POD processor. Also consider recording some instruments on a cheap cassette recorder (Figure 3); the Rolling Stones did that to create the beginning of “Jumping Jack Flash.”

NOISE AND MORE

iZotope’s free Vinyl plug-in adds record scratches, hum, rumble, and other noises. Another way to have noises in your mix is to record noisy instruments! When the tubes in your tube guitar amp start to go, don’t throw them out but keep them in your “Lo-Fi Tools” drawer. Tubes on the verge of death often produce very interesting sounds (as do ripped speakers).

LEAKAGE

If your mixes are too sterile or studio-clean, consider recording some leakage. Leakage (also called bleed or spill) results from picking up an instrument by another instrument’s mic, like a guitar mic picking up the drums from across the room. Leakage changes the recorded sound of the drums from tight to muddy. In fact, some virtual drum instruments, like Fxpansion’s BFD and ToonTrack’s EZ Drummer, allow mixing in leakage within the drum set itself. It’s easy to create leakage while recording with mics: Just place them further away from the source than normal, and record all the instruments at once, without any baffling.

ROOM SOUND

In the quest for quality recordings, it’s standard practice to treat a studio’s acoustics, often to reduce early reflections (echoes that occur less than about 20ms after the direct sound from the instrument being recorded). Those early reflections tell the ear that the instrument was recorded in a small room. Normally we get rid of the reflections and replace them with artificial reverb, but a lo-fi recording often includes the sound of the room as part of the sound of the recorded instrument.

To pick up room reflections, mic farther away than usual from the source and leave the walls uncovered; use the room for its coloration, rather than rejecting the room. For a really spacious effect, consider recording several instruments in stereo with two mics. Pick up instruments or vocals in a hallway, a bathroom, a box, or even outdoors.

LO-FI AESTHETICS

It’s common to include hi-fi sounds along with lo-fi sounds in the same mix to make a statement to your listeners: “I can record hi-fi sounds, but I choose not to. The trashy sounds are due to a conscious choice rather than a lack of recording chops.” If you have nothing but lo-fi sounds in your mixes, it might sound like you don’t know what you’re doing. Just remember that the ear delights in complexity; the contrast of clean and dirty sounds, modern and vintage, can add a lot of sonic interest.

Digital Lo-Fi Tricks

Lo-fi is not just the province of analog recording; digital technology can create sounds so terrifying that small house pets will flee in terror. Here’s how.

Reduce your bits and/or lower your sample rate. Some DAWs offer lo-fi plug-ins that allow dialing in a particular number of bits or changing the sample rate, but if not, export your track and bring it into a digital audio editor. Most of these let you export at various bit resolutions and sample rates, or let you re-sample a file; converting to eight-bit resolution is the quickest way to add noise and hiss.

Abuse data compression algorithms. This again requires exporting a track and processing it in a digital audio editor, but this time, export as an MP3 or Windows Media Audio file with maximum data compression. The highs will get incredibly weird, and the sound will be muffled. Some editors offer algorithms designed specifically for extremely compressed speech; try these on music.

Reduce the level of a track dramatically, then export as a 16-bit file without dithering. By “dramatically,” I mean 70–80dB or so. When these low levels turn into 16-bit files, they’ll be extremely distorted from the quantization noise that occurs naturally at low levels. The more you lower the signal, the worse the sound.

Use dither as an effect. Try the same technique mentioned above, but this time, add dither to create a blanket of noise. Different dither types have different sounds; experiment to determine which one sounds better . . . I mean, worse.

Sing into a telephone answering machine. This is a little more complicated due to sync issues, but what works is to listen to the tracks on headphones but also send them through speakers. Call your phone number (e.g., call your landline from a cell phone or vice-versa), turn up the speakers before you start singing, then turn them down during the vocals. When you pull the signal off the answering machine, line up the section where you can hear the track with the same section in your DAW; unless your answering machine drifts a lot (unlikely with today’s models, which are based on digital technology instead of cassettes) the vocals will stay sufficiently in sync for at least several minutes.

Digital overload. Most DAWs and digital audio editors include DSP for adjusting a track’s level. Normalize the signal to reach maximum level, then amplify the level by 200% or so. You may need to do this several times to get an over-the-top distorted sound. Then, roll off the highs to reduce the amount of “spikiness” and round out the sound a bit. Tasty! —Craig Anderton

(Note: I recommend the album Mule Variations by Tom Waits—it’s a brilliantly creative lo-fi masterpiece. So is Beck’s Timebomb. Others are “digital hardcore” genre albums by Ronin, Technology Scum, and Cheap Czad.)

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