Lo-fi House: The gritty accident that reshaped the underground house scene.
Lo-fi house is the newest trend in a vast array of house subgenres. The sound of the underwater basement style house music has been popular for a few years now popularised by names such as Mall Grab, DJ Boring, Subjoi, Baltra and a whole host of others.
Pages like Strictly Lo-fi are good indicators of how fast the lo-fi community is growing. Launched in 2017 this when from 0 to 10,000 members and as of 2019 it has 20k members (with around 2k on their waiting list) - artists such as Ross from Friends and Kettema all have used this Facebook page to grow their audience.
As the rough and mysterious Bandcamp releases grow, traditional Record labels that seek to be aggregators of good house music are slowly bridging more into the trend of distorted and rippled lo-fi.
Take Brame and Hamo for example, gone are the lush shimmering rides and sleek basslines of “Ghetto for You” or “Hotshot” (2016)- they’ve been replaced. Instead we get the distorted clicking and roughness of “Hurt you” or and “Roy Keyne” (2018).
How has lo-fi house become so prominent? I’ve thought about this quite a lot and as an audio engineer as well as an avid club and party goer I’ve seen three things that narrow it down:
Redlining & pushing a live set to new extremes.
Firstly, I'd like to speak practically about Lo-fi and its benefits for live DJing. DJing a house party or a less than quality system in a small club is common. It’s the next step up for bedroom DJ's who are putting their craft to work.
In these sorts of circumstances redlining is very common. For those who don't know redlining is boosting the output gain on your mixer so high that it exceeds the 0db threshold. DJ's who are familiar with sound systems will know the classic sarcastic comment " if you’re not redlining you’re not headlining. "
Although, a lot of DJ's playing crowded house parties in basements sort of see no choice but to boost the signal into the red to fill a less than ideal room with sound. Playing a track at 0 dB or under on a decent sound system should (if the song is mixed and mastered properly) give good auditability to each element of the track. If it’s a bad room with bad speakers however, DJ's trying to get it louder will just boost the signal- trying to bring up some of the quiet elements of the track.
When doing this, since DJ Dannyxx01 from Manchester is pushing a signal against a threshold, he is treating the mixer like a limiter/saturator. Pushing a soundwave far enough with a hard-wall reshapes the soundwave; you'll know it when you hear it- it gives the track that buzzy, donk sort of sound. This is where lo-fi comes in. Want your sound loud??? Well luckily lo-fi has the answer…
Making things loud and clean is somewhat of an art in producing. To bring up the volume of your instruments in a track it’s done most commonly with harmonic saturation and compression. Light saturation/distortion make noises sound louder (RMS) even though the signal isn’t technically louder in db. To be a producer of lo-fi house, saturation and compression are key. In most lo-fi tracks, the source signal (drums and synths) are distorted heavily and the RMS (the perceived loudness of a track) is also super high because of it.
For an aspiring producer to be able to make a track that is the same loudness level as commercial tracks this quick technique of over saturation and excess compression does the job- however it’s cost is the music’s fidelity.
Of course some artists have taken the distorted sound-wave trend to an elite art form- check out Ross From Friend’s- “Romeo Romeo”. The sounds in this track may sound badly recorded or unmixed but it’s beautifully intentional- there is full control over the sounds in this piece. As for the bedroom Ableton user there isn’t control but rather compromise.
Paying the price of mediocre mixing, the aspiring producer can now play his new track effectively if there is distortion from redlining the previous track- it doesn't really matter- everyone’s fucked anyway. The distorted sound is no longer a failure of your sound system set up, instead, it’s now a "stylistic" attribution to your mix.
Fulfilling a new purpose for house.
Technical limitations rebranded as stylistic choice is a fair characterisation of the Lo-fi sound, but its accidental aesthetic is done so well. One of the drawbacks of over saturating and over limiting is that things that are already quite harmonically dense are added to even more. Basically, everything that is in the high frequency range when saturated are even more audible rendering them completely abrasive to the ear. Take a high-hat that’s already quite cutting in the mix-- with added saturation it’ll have the sonic equivalate of a scraping plate and ripping match added to it.
But keeping all that warm midrange and bassy energy is important! So, the compromise is simple, just filter off any high frequencies- they'll still poke through because they are being heavily saturated!
Job done. We’ve lost all the high-end in our track and it’s also loud.
One of the by-products of this technical strategy to keep things loud (but listenable) is a completely new atmosphere to house music. With Lo-fi, house doesn't have to be filled with crazy toe tapping energy. Tracks with a slow melodic groove can be executed quite nicely. Also, mountains of complex sounds can be filtered away- leaving a murky and curious element in the mix behind. This is sort of like the bread and drippy butter of Lo-fi - putting samples in a space that is ambiguous and unknown.
Sampling old songs and making them into something weird and mysterious is another trope of Lo-fi. Take Adryiano – “Dreams With” and absolutely brilliant example of this. This trend is probably due to Abelton’s 9 wonderful warping feature that makes it simple for producers to edit samples and it adjusts the tempo of a sample automatically. Back in the early days of house sampling was a lot more difficult. Samples would have to first be recorded from an original source like vinyl then ran through something like an MPC or EMu and would have to be done in a studio with floppy discs to store samples on. Here is Thomas Baltinger of Daft punk speaking on the subject in 1998:
Sounds like quite a process. Today however, sampling has never been easier: a producer can pull in an obscure 80’s track and get to work on a kick drum.
Some of lo-fi's roots can be traced back to vapour-wave, which is similar in trying to cultivate a bubbled and close-but-so-far kind of sound. You can see many remanences of the 2000's vapourwave scene in LF house: the palm trees, the 80's graphic design and the ridiculous DJ names. Vapourwave (before it was a meme) steered the direction of online and underground niche music quite a lot in the mid 2000’s. Youtuber wosX gives a very good history on it. Vapour music basically slowed down records to the point where they were unrecognisable or sampled records to an obtuse degree; creating as a sort of opaque digital interpolation. Similarly, Lo-fi attempts the same idea for the dancefloor- sped up and slowed down warped and muffled samples laying on a beat. This really attempts a sound that house music has heard before but not intentionally.
Give a listen to Black Traxx - Doctor's Housecall (1992) for an unintentionally lo-fi record. It’s an incredible track but because of the era it was made it doesn’t push all the buttons in having a large clean sound. The Black Traxx record almost sounds so scratched and broken when compared to a fruity, densely textured ‘Hot Creations’ track or something to that affect. Lo-fi takes the mysterious rough and nostalgic image of a track like this and pushes it to extremes.
Lo-fi fulfils a new role for house music: to be the soundscape of an underground party. House music was very about the big fantastic dancefloor, however, with a scene so big some gems can be lost in the heat and excitement. Everyone was having too much fun to notice what song was on, the banger you heard is like a dream you were sure you experienced for real. It’s muffled and unreachable- the party next door that you can't get into.
It's easier for producers and better for DJ’s
Ultimately... producing lo-fi is a lot easier than getting that clean sound to poke through perfectly. I've briefly discussed how some of the techniques to how Lo-fi house is constructed, heavy saturation and creative distortion of particular elements, high frequency filtering and sampling. Trying to organise and process everything to sit perfectly in a mix is quite a task- and even some tracks that are mixed and mastered well with a high RSM still sound a little bit grating on the ears (all tech house, mate). Since the lo-fi technique is fairly simple, for some Ableton DJ's simply to whack on “Aggressive Mastering” (from the Ableton Audio effects presents) has allowed creative lines of thought in making a track to be quicker.
Producers can jump from ideas faster and build new bits on the track without having to tweak every frequency. Also, because the technique for making these tracks are so accessible it means a high proportion of producers can complete tracks and have them finished off- meaning both time to make a track and the amount of tracks available in the Lo-fi genre is rapidly growing.
As Bandcamp and Soundcloud tracks grow, for the more selective DJ’s the pool available music becomes larger and deeper. DJ’s love a white labelled record, these are types of tracks you can’t trace back to anywhere or tracks that are limited/unavailable in some way. I think emerging artists have been playing on this idea too with a slew of absurd track names.
Overall, I really like it. It’s the gritty accident that reshaped the underground house scene. Poppy clean mixing is a tiresome skill and whether it be the skill deprivation of newer producers or time optimisation of experienced producers- Lo-fi house has cemented a sound unique for its time. It’s created a whole new world for house music and added to the ever-growing mountain of mp3s, cd’s and vinyl’s out there. The first time I listened to Lo-fi, I imagined a tired studio producer in the 80’s who’d been commissioned to mix down a massive pop radio album… After spending hours mixing shrieking vocals and harsh drums he takes just 5 minutes away from the desk to play on the TR-909 drum machine… he starts a little beat and records it on tape - playing a few notes of the Yamaha DX7 and the Juno to go along with it. He finishes his little jam session to himself and listens to the track back… it’s weird and fast but quite soulful and reflective of his exhaustion. After giving the 6-minute cassette a listen, he throws it in the garbage, leaves the studio and drives home.
I’d like to leave you with this from producer Eco Virtual the idea of “Remaining unknown” which I think ties together the production, the style and the culture of lo-fi in one.
Written by: Arif True