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A Wow Factor: bass and lo-fi recording

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In recent years, the term “lo-fi” has been tossed around a lot in the music world, specifically in reference to “lo-fi hip-hop”, a form of downtempo electronic music that has garnered immense popularity through online live-streams curated by DJs like ChilledCow. Especially amongst younger listeners, the term “lo-fi” has become largely synonymous with this type of music, and I think that’s actually quite a shame, as it somewhat obfuscates the long, incredibly diverse history of lo-fi music. Lo-fi is not, and has never been, the exclusive domain of beat-makers and producers, and those of us who express ourselves primarily through an instrument can actually stand to gain a lot from understanding the tools at our disposal when it comes to recording at suboptimal fidelity.

Put very simply, “lo-fi” emcompasses all recorded music wherein auditory imperfections or outdated recording technologies are employed as a deliberate choice. A fancy studio setup may allow for a more crystalline capture of your guitar or your voice, but for one reason or another, simply recording everything into your phone’s notes app or recording everything through an old cassette recorder can give an aesthetic impression you feel matches your artistic vision more closely.

Those unacquainted are naturally led to ask: What reasons? Why on Earth would you want your music to sound quote-unquote “worse” than it otherwise could? Well, the answers to those questions have actually changed a bit over the years. In the early 1980s, when home recording technology first became affordable to working-class musicians, a lo-fi sound was a bit less optional (after all, they couldn’t exactly afford anything better), but it also tended to act as a sort of countercultural signifier. During this time, commercially-produced music was becoming more and more polished, processed, and manufactured, and for many a punk band or folk singer, eschewing that polish and cleanliness meant also to reject the impersonality and money-first mindset of the mainstream music industry. Often these recordings harkened back to the raw and wild sound of very early rock and roll, at a time when rock music was starting to be slowly but surely muscled off of, or subsumed by, pop radio.

This resonated with subcultures dissatisfied with the direction the music industry was headed, to the point where much of that ethos is still closely associated with the notion of lo-fi recording today. However, since the turn of the century, the gulf between what one can accomplish with major-label backing and professional equipment and what one can accomplish all on their own has steadily shrunk, and nowadays it’s very much possible for an independent musician to put out music that sounds just as good as that of a chart-topping superstar. Thus, the aesthetic goals of lo-fi have shifted, if not entirely than at least noticeably. As I alluded to earlier, lo-fi is very much still alive and well in punk and folk circles. A punk or black metal record can benefit from a dirty, slapdash sound, and folk’s emphasis on lyricism and authenticity can shine through with all possible bells and whistles stripped away. And even the lo-fi “chillhop” that has taken the internet by storm has arguably found such mass appeal thanks to the sounds of vinyl crackle and tape hiss lending the music a lived-in, homey feeling that would be difficult to capture otherwise.

Now that the use of cheap or outdated recording technology is almost entirely optional, It’s actually somewhat pragmatic to ask ourselves what in particular the use of such equipment can do for any one instrument in particular. We have the ability now to record only one or two select parts of a song in a lower fidelity. Say, for instance… the bassline. I’ve actually experimented a little myself with this idea, and in doing so I’ve found that bass is fairly well-suited to lending an otherwise hi-fi recording a bit of that lo-fi grit. Specifically when recording through a cheap cassette recorded, the bass doesn’t tend to pick up as much “flutter” (tape wobble heard in higher frequencies), and instead picks up more “wow” (tape wobble heard in lower frequencies), which can be EQed to not interfere with a kick drum or other instruments occupying the low end of your mix and give a very nice-sounding, warbling tone. Additionally, I’ve found that only having one track in your mix picking up ambient room noise can lend, albeit to a lesser extent, some of the intimacy or rawness of a lo-fi recording, without sacrificing a great amount of clarity across the board.

Historically, The bass guitar has often been the victim of lo-fi recordings. The list of hardcore punk or black metal albums where bass is either nearly-inaudible or completely absent is both long and illustrious. But nowadays, we as bassists have a chance to approach lo-fi recording not as an unfortunate necessity that will mitigate our contributions, but as a tool to enhance our music. And I for one am excited to see what we do with it.