Lo-fi Music: The Basics You Need To Start Making it

Lo-fi has taken on a lot of different meanings in recent years.

The term low-fidelity once referred only to the quality of a sound signal.

Specifically, a sonic signal of a poorer quality—usually one produced by cassettes.

But today, the grainy, warbling sound that came from tape recordings and cassettes has given birth to an entire genre of music and production style.

Lo-fi music now refers to an entirely instrumental brand of sample-based hip-hop beat production—and its sprawling community of beatmakers, listeners and live streaming playlists.

The genre has exploded in popularity over the last few years, especially on YouTube.

So you might be interested in learning more about the new genre. Especially, if you want to create lo-fi tracks of your own.

In this article we’ll look at everything there’s to know about lo-fi music—the music theory behind it, the different production techniques used to make it and where to get the best lo-fi samples.

What is lo-fi music?

Lo-fi music refers to a genre of music produced with low-fidelity signals, typically re-creating the hiss, warble and saturation of recordings made with a tape machine. Most lo-fi music draws on hip-hop influences—especially its typical drum patterns.

Lo-fi vs. lo-fi music

While today the term lo-fi refers to an entire genre of music, lo-fi traditionally referred to low fidelity sound signals.

In the past, lo-fi was not a compliment. In fact, most producers worked their hardest stay away from a “lo-fi” sound.

In the past, lo-fi was not a compliment. In fact, most producers worked their hardest stay away from a “lo-fi” sound.

But now, with the marvels of DAWs and digital music production, a certain nostalgia for the warbling sound of cassette recordings has returned.

Today lo-fi producers use a slurry of modern production techniques to bend samples into hip-hop tracks that evoke the sounds of 90s car stereos.

How to make lo-fi music

Making lo-fi music is surprisingly simple—even if it relies on some slightly more complicated jazz theory.

That’s because it’s sample-based. You don’t necessarily have to know how to play certain chords on the piano or guitar when you can just sample them.

Today’s lo-fi producers bend samples into tracks that evoke the sounds of 90s car stereos.

Pretty much anyone can get started making lo-fi beats with a handful of samples and a free DAW like GarageBand.

Let’s explore a few of the most basic elements behind making lo-fi music.

1. Sample in a DAW

The first step is to learn how to sample in your DAW.

There’s a few techniques you can use, and we’ve created tons of content around the subject before.

But as a basic start, you’ll either want to drop samples directly into the timeline of your DAW project or you’ll use a sampling plugin to chop the sample according to its transients.

Of course, you’ll need some good samples to work with—let’s take a look at the kinds of sounds you should be looking for.

2. Hip-hop drum loops

Lo-fi music is based on hip-hop. Specifically, it almost entirely borrows the style of drum production found in 90s and early 2000s hip-hop.

Hip-hop loops with snappy snares, thuddy kicks and hissing hi-hats are staples in this genre.

But snares, kicks and hi-hats aren’t all you should focus on.
There’s plenty of lo-fi music out there that uses samples of bottles, pots and pans, stick clicks and pretty much any odd percussion you can imagine.

There’s plenty of lo-fi music out there that uses samples of bottles, pots and pans, stick clicks and pretty much any odd percussion you can imagine.

Lo-fi lends itself towards recorded samples of live percussion elements, even if some sub-genres like lo-fi trap lean towards electronically produced samples.

Live recorded samples are more popular since they’re easy to manipulate and break down into lo-fi territory and because recorded drums just sound jazzier.

Speaking of jazz…

Lo-fi chord progressions

Lo-fi chord progressions are mostly just simplified jazz chord progressions.

You’ll hear many lo-fi producers applying jazzy two-five-one chord progressions with more complicated 7th and 9th voicings in their lo-fi tracks.

We’ve written about chord progressions before, including jazz chords. So take some time to brush up on your basic music theory if you want to write a really good lo-fi track.

Even if you don’t play guitar or piano, knowing a little theory will help you know what to look for when searching for the right jazzy samples.

Lo-fi instruments

When you’re writing a lo-fi track, think like a jazz composer.

Lo-fi music crosses over with jazz in many ways— but with a lot of loops. So you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the instruments that jazz music commonly uses.

Most jazz is built on top of a rhythm section that consists of drums, double bass and piano. So these instruments should absolutely be part of any lo-fi arrangement you create.

Of course, you can always add some spice with saxophone, trumpet, guitar, trombone, harp… just listen to a couple classic jazz records and you’ll get the idea.

Common lo-fi production techniques

Okay now comes the fun part.
The production side of lo-fi music is really what defines the genre.

The production side of lo-fi music is really what defines the genre.

Here’s four basic production techniques that almost every lo-fi producer uses.

Tape saturation

Tape saturation is the main effect that gives lo-fi its sonic qualities.
Really, you should read up on how tape machines work.

But in short, tape saturation is the main effect that tape machines are still beloved for. In short, it’s what happens as you add more audio to a tape.

Tape saturation is caused by the physical limitations of cassette tape.

When you record more and more audio to tape it compounds subtle distortion, compression, phasing, small irregularities in pitch, roll-off of high and low frequencies and general changes in resonance across the frequency spectrum to create a “saturated” effect.

Essentially, tape saturation is that thin, warbling sound you associate with lo-fi.

Of course, if you don’t need a tape machine to get a tape saturation effect, there’s tons of tape saturation plugins out there that effectively emulate the effect of recording on a tape machine.

Sidechaining

The next production technique you hear all the time in lo-fi music is sidechaining.

You can dive deep into how it works in one of our previous articles, but the sonic effect is easy to explain.

Next time you listen to a lo-fi playlist, pay attention to a certain pulsing rhythmic effect that makes the entire track duck in volume every time the kick drum is struck—that’s sidechaining!

Essentially that’s what sidechain compression does—every time a specific sound occurs (in most cases a kick), the entire track ducks to make the kicks more audible adding a rhythmic element to the track.

You can easily learn how to set up a sidechain effect in your DAW if you follow this tutorial.

DAW swing

Like jazz, lo-fi music doesn’t strictly adhere to a grid-like understanding of rhythm like rock or electronic music.

Instead, notes are loose and slightly off-kilter.

In jazz, this rhythmic feel is called swing.

But lo-fi music isn’t swung exactly. Rhythms are instead played “in the cracks”—meaning the beat isn’t perfectly straight but nor is it perfectly swung.

This effect was pioneered by beatmaking legend J Dilla, who learned how to use his MPC to place notes off the rhythmic grid to create a rhythmic feel called MPC Swing.

Later, with the introduction of DAWs, the term became known as DAW swing.

With any DAW you can add the exact swing feel you want in your track, whether you want a classic MPC swing pattern or your own custom swing pattern.

Adding DAW swing in your DAW is easy and we’ve written about it in-depth in other articles.

Lo-fi audio effects and lo-fi VSTs

Lo-fi music makes use of a ton of audio effects.

You’ll hear phaser, reverb, pitch bending, chorus, delay… the list goes on and on.

Getting acquainted with exactly what each audio effect does is a great way to level up your production skills and improve your tracks.

We’ve written a lot about different ways to use audio effects in your music production, so dive in a play with some knobs!

And of course, there are so many lo-fi VST plugins out there to help you hone your sound.

How to find lo-fi samples

Be careful when hunting for samples to use in your lo-fi tracks.

Sampling copyright is still a murky area and your tracks might get taken down if you haven’t cleared your tracks before release.

Your best bet is to use royalty-free sample markets like LANDR Samples, where you can freely use any of the samples you download.

There are so many amazing lo-fi sample packs out there to sift through.

I guarantee you’ll find something amazing, especially because these sample packs are formatted to be easy to arrange, chopped and crafted in your DAW.

Lo-fi music forever

Lo-fi is a music trend that isn’t going away.

Just a simple YouTube search will provide you with so many playlists that your tracks could be featured on.

There’s a huge community of lo-fi music lovers out there, so if you feel called to write some lo-fi tracks there’s tons of support out there for you.

Get out there and make a lo-fi beat to chill out to!

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