Dem Lowdown, Dirty Lo-Fi Sounds

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.

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.

Misuse Microphones
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 final mixes.

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 cease-and-desist.

Teeny, Transistorized Battery Amps
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 cancellations.

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.