Sunday, June 28, 2020

Lofi music in the digital age

Hey all,

I recently wrote a paper for a university assignment regarding the current state of lofi music, specifically surrounding digital recording. I thought I might as well share it here. The references used are still included, as while some of them were there just to satisfy the assessment requirements, some I found incredibly interesting. Specifically, Adam Harper's thesis "Lo-Fi aesthetics in popular music discourse". While I didn't manage to make it through the whole paper, it was clear it had a wealth of information on lofi/diy music, a genre which doesn't seem to be the focus of much academic writing.

This paper is written in a fairly academic way, I would have preferred to write in a bit more normal and straightforward manor but alas, this is what I had to do for my assignment. I really didn't want to go through the whole paper and re-write it in my own style so I've left it, for the most part, as is. Although, I have added various comments (in italics) and also more fully fledged sections that weren't in the original

Introduction to this writing & lofi aesthetics

In our current age of digital recording, perfection has become the norm. With the capabilities for unlimited multitracking, and a breadth of effects and processors, musicians are able to easily create maximalist instrumentations where every detail can be fine-tuned and finessed. However, the anomaly of low-fidelity music (more commonly known as lofi) intrigues me, as it could be considered a rebellion against the highly refined mainstream. Presently, ‘digital music’ suggests a perfect, quantised sound, which lofi stands in stark opposition to. But the digital domain isn’t only limited to these clean characteristics it is reputed for. Digital music has many of its own lofi aspects, and although it is not as well-known as a lofi medium, digital lofi artists can be closely compared to those who operate in the analogue domain. Throughout this paper I will look at the various forms of lofi, both in the analogue and digital domain, and how the lofi from the 90’s and earlier has evolved in novel ways, yet retains ties with its predecessor.

What is generally defined as lofi has changed over time, not only in terms of sonic characteristics, but cultural position. As Harper states, “At its most crudely sketched, lofi was primitivist and realist in the 1980’s, postmodernist in the 1990’s, and anarchist in the 2000’s” (Harper 2014, 5) Additionally, the term ‘lofi’ wasn’t even used in regards to a genre or style of music until the late 80’s, with the first appearances being on the WFMU radio station where it was described as “home recordings produced on inexpensive equipment. Technical primitivism coupled with brilliance” (WMFU 1986)

Despite the proper terminology only appearing more recently, there are many examples of lofi music made and released through the 60’s and 70’s. A prime example is J.W. Farquhar’s 1973 album The Formal Female, which has been credited as an inspiration for many lofi artists. The starkly lofi recording quality of this album was not necessarily desired. During the recording process Farquhar would soundproof his apartment to remove background noise of “sirens, buses, and gunshots” (Farquhar 2007). Clearly Farquhar did not intend for this album to be lo-fi, but made do with the limited equipment that he had. However, 20 years later the crude aesthetic and sonic qualities of this album became coveted by aspiring artists such as Guided by Voices, Sebadoh, and Beck. Looking even further forward to the past 10 years, Farquhar’s raw and simplistic guitar, primitive drum machine, and poorly recorded vocals can be heard in music such as Phil Elverum’s 2017 album as Mount Eerie, A Crow Looked at Me, even though the sonic context of the two albums are quite different. The Formal Female was recorded on a 4-track tape recorder, utilising a dirty, messy sonic environment, whereas A Crow Looked at Me was produced using a computer and DAW, resulting in a clean, dry, and digital sound. Despite this, both albums make use of a sparse atmospheres, minimal instrumentation, and are firmly planted within the lofi genre.

In my research, I couldn't find nearly as much references to Farquhar as I could to R Stevie Moore, however to my knowledge Farquhar released his album first and suited the discourse & comparison better. I Moore's music to be more rock-oriented with lofi aesthetics, whereas I was more interested in music where the lofi aesthetic was fully integrated into the music. The absolutely shit recording means of Farquhar's album was great in this regard, the sonics as well as the instrumentation (possibly performance at times) could be considered lofi.

Not dissing Moore, I absolutely love his music.

A major reason I wanted to focus in on lofi music in the digital age instead of as a whole is that I often find people assuming that as a music genre, lo-fi is limited to an analogue medium. However, I stand strongly against this perspective. While majority of lofi music in the past has revelled in these analogue imperfections, the digital age has presented us with a brand-new sonic palette for lofi music.

Lofi in the digital age

Since the 90’s, the term ‘lofi’, similarly to ‘indie’, has been shoehorned into a specific style of music. (Harper 2014, 37) In my experience, this has largely been due to the advent of ‘lo-fi hip-hop’, a style of music largely based on sampling old jazz and soul records over soft and crunchy drum loops. Inspired by instrumental hip-hop artists like Nujabes and J Dilla (Cortez, 2018), this genre mimics techniques used by early hip-hop artist by using DAWs and modern digital samplers such as the SP404. (Arena, 2017)

While this genre can definitely be considered lofi, and is made using digital production means, I would not deem it as ‘digital lofi’ music. Instead of embracing the digital realm and its unique characteristics, lofi hip-hop artists attempt to emulate an analogue sound through effects such as tape saturation and vinyl crackle. On the other hand, artists like Crywank and Jordaan Mason regularly make use of digital recording and production to its full extent by incorporating its flaws into their music.

I was talking to a friend about this. How there are kind of 4 main types of lofi (at least in terms of their aesthetics.

Firstly, the 'authentic' lofi. Recorded onto tape or cassettes. crunchy, gritty, very analogue. Examples include many of the acts of 90's and earlier. Sebadoh, Beck, Farquhar & Moore. Second is the 'authentic digital' lofi, what I've focused on in this paper. Clean and sterile to a uncomfortable degree, Jordaan mason, Bon Iver's For emma. Then there's the lofi hiphop to study slash relax to, which uses digital means to mimik an 'analogue' or 'vintage' sound. I'm not a huge fan of the genre but have nothing against it. Then theres a bit of a hybrid setup, which is really just a blend of the three aforementioned styles. This one is kinda hard to pin down I guess, as it takes elements from all different styles. I'd consider myself to be in this category.

The sound of digital lofi

Here, I will look into three ‘effects’ associated with digital lofi music. While these wouldn’t be considered an effect in the traditional sense of reverb or compression, they are flaws and imperfections which are found throughout the digital recording and production process, similar to how analogue lofi artists utilised the analogue recording medium and tape as an effect in their music. (Harper 2014, 18)

    Digital clipping

When working in any DAW, audio signal that is pushed too loud will cut off once it reaches its maximum level. This results in digital clipping, a harsh and brittle distortion. (Huber & Runstein 2010, 214, 491) It is widely regarded as something that should be avoided, especially during the recording process, as once a sound has clipped, it is difficult to restore. (Gottlieb 2007, 265)

The use of clipping in digital lofi music has proved to be a unique effect that can be compared to the use of distortion pedals and tape saturation in the analogue domain. It can be heard on the two following tracks by popular lofi artists, Bon Iver and The Microphones.

  • ‘Skinny Love’ by Bon Iver on the 2007 album ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’
    • At 1:17 on the vocals
  • ‘I. the Sun’ by The Microphones on the 2003 album ‘Mount Eerie’
    • At 6:20 on the horns
    • Looking back over this paper, I don't think that this case is an example of digital clipping. To my knowledge this album was mostly analogue. But the distortion on this still provides the same function, very harsh and brittle.

In Skinny Love, the use of clipping on the vocals creates a disparity between the performance and the recording, the soft and acoustic timbre of the song is suddenly interrupted by an abrasive and non-musical distortion. Even in more aggressive music such as I. the Sun, it’s a very noticeable effect. In these cases, the clipping provides two things: space between the artist and listener by bringing the recording medium to the forefront, while contrarily contributing to a greater sense of intimacy in the recording. When a singer pushes their performance so hard that they clip the recording, it can help a listener better connect with the message and emotion of the song.

    File rendering practices

Following in a similar vein of noticeable effects in digital lo-fi, the use of ‘improper’ rendering practices can result in recordings and songs sound low quality and ‘wrong’. One of the most common examples of this is rendering a song at an overly-low bit rate using a lossy audio format such as mp3. While 320kbps is considered high quality among these lossy formats, audio is still fairly well preserved as low as 128kbps, yet venturing below 100kbps can give the song a water-y texture which clouds and smears the elements of the mix together. (Huber & Runstein 2010, 212)

While reducing the bit rate creates a softer timbre, lowering the overall bits results in a very aggressive and grainy style of distortion, which can also be heard in modern electronic music. Reducing the bits by a small amount is instantly noticeable, yet it leaves the source sound fairly unchanged. A very grainy high frequency appears, but the more the sound’s bits are reduced, the more the distortion becomes a full frequency glitchy, crushing effect which completely obscures the source sound. (Huber & Runstein 2010, 213) An example of this can be heard 40 seconds into the Volcano Choir song, Dote. It provides a similar effect to the clipping in Skinny Love. A highly digital sound is imposed upon a very human performance, creating a jarring listening experience.

    Digital noise floor

Lastly, the noise floor in the digital domain, or lack thereof, is a feature which sets it apart from analogue recording. While there can be some noise generated by A/D converters and interfaces, there is nowhere near as much noise as cause by tape hiss. (Huber & Runstein 2010, 513) This is often considered a strength of the digital medium, yet it can pose its own specific issues. Songs can sound incredibly empty without a noise floor. To combat this, effects and techniques can be used to create a bed of sound which everything sits upon, such as introducing a small amount white noise, or using reverb at low volumes to place the elements in a cohesive space.

However, a characteristic of many digital lofi albums and songs is they can feel incredibly empty. By refraining from the above effects while producing a song with sparse and minimal instrumentation, the lack of any noise floor is able to provide a chilling and intimate atmosphere. Bon Iver’s album For Emma, Forever Ago is a prime example of this. On the track The Wolves, a huge instrumental build suddenly drops to nothing at 4:25, allowing the following lyrics of ‘Someday my pain’ and minimal guitar work to grip the listener in an emotionally intense moment.

The lack of a noise floor really sets digital lofi apart from analogue, at least in my mind. When 'used' well, it can be totally haunting in a way that you couldn't really achieve otherwise.

Concluding thoughts

Throughout this paper, an argument has been made regarding the modern sound of lofi music: that even though it is often associated with the analogue recording mediums of cheap tape and cassette players, it can in fact have a digital sound. Similar to how lofi artist from the 90’s would utilise the flaws of tape as an effect and instrument in their music, digital lofi artists are able to do the same through the various flaws and imperfections apparent in the digital recording domain.

Overall, I think its pretty obvious how much I enjoy lofi music. I hope some of yall found this interesting or useful. Below are the references I used in APA 6 formatting, peace & love.


Arena. (2017, January 18). Lo-Fi Hip Hop and the Legacy of Sampling Technology. Retrieved from Arena:

Cortez, K. (2018, April 25). YouTube & Chill: A Glimpse Into The World Of Lo-fi Hip-Hop. Retrieved from Genius:

Elverum, P. (2003). I. the Sun [Recorded by The Microphones]. Washington, USA.

Farquhar, J. (2007). The Formal Female. Liner Notes. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA: Brainblobru Records.

Gottlieb, G. (2007). Shaping Sound in the Studio. Boston, Massachusetts, USA: Thomson Course Technology.

Harper, A. (2014). Lo-Fi Aesthetics in Popular Music Discourse. Oxford, England: Wadham College.

- This paper by Harper is fantastic, one of the only thorough academic papers regarding lofi music & culture

Huber, D. M., & Runstein, R. E. (2010). Modern Recording Techniques (7th Edition ed.). Burlington, Massachusetts, USA: Elsevier Inc.

Jon Mueller, C. R. (2009). Dote [Recorded by Volcano Choir]. Fall Creek, Wisconsin, USA.

Vernon, J. (2007). Skinny Love [Recorded by Bon Iver]. Wisconsin, USA.

Vernon, J. (2007). The Wolves (Act I and II) [Recorded by Bon Iver]. Wisconsin, USA.

WFMU. (1986, Fall). Program Schedule. LCD, p. 3.

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