Lo-fi (originally spelled low-fi, from the term "low fidelity") is an aesthetic of recorded music in which the sound quality is lower than the usual contemporary standards (the opposite of high fidelity) and imperfections of the recording and production are audible. These standards have evolved throughout the decades, meaning that some older examples of lo-fi may not have been originally recognized as such. Lo-fi only began to be recognized as a style of popular music in the 1990s, when it became alternately referred to as DIY music.
Harmonic distortion and "analogue warmth" are sometimes wrongly suggested as core features of lo-fi music. Its aesthetic is actually defined by the inclusion of elements normally viewed as undesirable in professional contexts, such as misplayed notes, environmental interference, or phonographic imperfections (degraded audio signals, tape hiss, and so on). Pioneering, influential, or otherwise significant artists include the Beach Boys (Smiley Smile), R. Stevie Moore (often called "the godfather of home recording"), Paul McCartney (McCartney), Todd Rundgren, Jandek, Daniel Johnston, Guided by Voices, Sebadoh, Beck, Pavement, and Ariel Pink.
WFMU DJ William Berger is usually credited with popularizing "lo-fi" in 1986, but the term did not gain mainstream currency until a few years later. At various points since the 1980s, "lo-fi" has been connoted with cassette culture, the DIY ethos of punk, indie rock, primitivism, outsider music, authenticity, slacker/Generation X stereotypes, and cultural nostalgia. The notion of "bedroom" musicians expanded following the rise of modern digital audio workstations, and in the late 2000s, lo-fi aesthetics served as the basis of the chillwave and hypnagogic pop music genres.
The definition of "lo-fi" (usually spelled as "low-fi" before the 1990s) evolved continuously between the 1970s and 2000s; the term was added in the 1976 edition of the Oxford Dictionary under the definition "sound production less good in quality than 'hi-fi.'" Before the 1990s, there was virtually no appreciation for the imperfections of lo-fi music among critics, but this changed after the emergence of a romanticism for home-recording and "do-it-yourself" (DIY) qualities. Afterward, "DIY" was often used interchangeably with "lo-fi".
Whoever popularized the use of "lo-fi" cannot be determined definitively. It is generally suggested that the term was popularized through William Berger's weekly half-hour radio show on the New Jersey-based independent radio station WFMU, titled "Low-Fi", which ran from 1986 to 1987. The program contents consisted entirely of contributions solicited via mail and lasted from 6 to 6:30pm on Fridays, which was a prime time slot. In the Fall 1986 issue of the WFMU magazine LCD, the program was described as "home recordings produced on inexpensive equipment. Technical primitivism coupled with brilliance." By the end of the decade, qualities such as "home-recorded," "technically primitive," and "inexpensive equipment" were commonly associated with the "lo-fi" label.
In 2003, the Oxford Dictionary added a second definition to their "lo-fi" entry: "a genre of rock music characterized by minimal production, giving a raw and unsophisticated sound," a reflection of the connotations "lo-fi" had received since the 1990s. A third was added five years later: "unpolished, amateurish, or technologically unsophisticated, esp. as a deliberate aesthetic choice."
The notion of "bedroom" musicians expanded after the rise of laptop computers in many forms of popular or avant-garde music, and over the years, there was an increasing tendency to group all home-recorded music under the umbrella of "lo-fi". "Bedroom pop" loosely describes a music genre or aesthetic in which bands record at home, rather than at traditional recording spaces. It is also connoted with DIY. By the 2010s, journalists would indiscriminately apply "bedroom pop" for any music that sounded "fuzzy". In 2017, About.coms Anthony Carew argued that the term "lo-fi" was commonly misused as a synonym for "warm" or "punchy" as opposed to music that "sounds like it's recorded onto a broken answering-machine."
Lo-fi aesthetics are predicated on idiosyncrasies that arise during the recording process. More specifically, those that are generally viewed in the field of audio engineering as undesirable effects, such as a degraded audio signal or fluctuations in tape speed. Recordings deemed unprofessional or "amateurish" are usually with respect to performance (out-of-tune or out-of-time notes) or mixing (audible hiss, distortion, or room acoustics). Musicologist Adam Harper identifies the difference as "phonographic" and "non-phonographic imperfections". He defines the former as
... elements of a recording that are perceived (or imagined to be perceived) as detrimental to it and that originate in the specific operation of the recording medium itself. Today, they are usually the first characteristics people think about when the subject of 'lo-fi' is brought up. ... recording imperfections ... fall loosely into two categories, distortion and noise.
Exact definitions of "distortion" and "noise" vary and sometimes overlap. The most prominent form of distortion in lo-fi aesthetics is harmonic distortion, which can occur when an audio signal is amplified beyond the dynamic range of a device. However, this effect is not usually considered to be an imperfection. The same process is used for the electric guitar sounds of rock and roll, and since the advent of digital recording, to give a recording a feeling of "analogue warmth". Distortion that is generated as a byproduct of the recording process ("phonographic distortion") is typically avoided in professional contexts. "Tape saturation" and "saturation distortion" alternately describe the harmonic distortion that occurs when a tape head approaches its limit of residual magnetization (a common aspect of tape recorder maintenance that is fixed with degaussing tools). Effects include a decrease in high-frequency signals and an increase in noise.
|Todd Rundgren's "Sounds of the Studio" from Something/Anything?, YouTube video|
"Non-phonographic" imperfections may involve noises that are generated by the performance ("coughing, sniffing, page-turning and chair sounds") or the environment ("passing vehicles, household noises, the sounds of neighbours and animals"). Harper acknowledges that the "appreciation of distortion and noise is not limited to lo-fi aesthetics, of course, and lo-fi aesthetics ... does not extend to all appreciations for distortion and noise. The difference lies in the ways in which distortion and noise are understood to be imperfections in lo-fi." He also distinguishes between "recording imperfections" and "sonic imperfections [that] occur as a result of imperfect sound-reproduction or -modulation equipment ... Hypothetically, at least, lo-fi effects are created during recording and production itself, and perceptibly remain in master recordings that are then identically copied for release."
DIY music predates written history, but "lo-fi" as it was understood after the 1990s can be traced to 1950s rock and roll.AllMusic writes that the genre's recordings were made "cheaply and quickly, often on substandard equipment. In that sense, the earliest rock & roll records, most of the garage rock of the '60s, and much of the punk rock of the late '70s could be tagged as Lo-Fi."The Beach Boys' albums Smiley Smile (1967), Wild Honey (1967), and Friends (1968) were a trilogy of lo-fi albums recorded mostly in Brian Wilson's makeshift home studio; the albums were later referred to as components of his "Bedroom Tapes".Pitchfork writer Mark Richardson credited Smiley Smile with "basically invent[ing] the kind of lo-fi bedroom pop that would later propel Sebadoh, Animal Collective, and other characters."
In the early 1970s, there were a few major recording artists who released music recorded with portable multi-tracking equipment; examples included Paul McCartney (McCartney, 1970) and Todd Rundgren (Something/Anything?, 1972). Produced shortly after the Beatles' breakup, the home-recorded McCartney was among the best-selling albums of 1970, but was critically panned. In 2005, after an interviewer suggested that it was "[perhaps] one of the first big lo-fi records of its day", McCartney commented that it was "interesting" that younger fans were "looking back at something like that with some kind of respect," and that the album's "sort of ... hippie simplicity ... kind of resonates at this point in time, somehow."
Something/Anything? was recorded almost entirely by Rundgren alone. The album included many of his best-known songs, as well as a spoken-word track ("Intro") in which he teaches the listener about recording flaws for an egg hunt-type game he calls "Sounds of the Studio". He used the money gained from the album's success to build a personal recording studio in New York, where he recorded the less successful 1973 follow-up A Wizard, a True Star. Musicologist Daniel Harrison compared the aforementioned Beach Boys albums to Wizard, "which mimics aspects of Brian's compositional style in its abrupt transitions, mixture of various pop styles, and unusual production effects. But it must be remembered that the commercial failure of the Beach Boys' experiments was hardly motivation for imitation." In 2018, Pitchforks Sam Sodsky noted that the "fingerprints" of Wizard remain "evident on bedroom auteurs to this day".
With the emergence of punk rock and new wave in the late 1970s, some sectors of popular music began to espouse a DIY ethos that heralded a wave of independent labels, distribution networks, fanzines and recording studios, and many guitar bands were formed on the then-novel premise that one could record and release their own music instead of having to procure a record contract from a major label. Lo-fi musicians and fans were predominantly white, male and middle-class, and while most of the critical discourse interested in lo-fi was based in New York or London, the musicians themselves were largely from lesser metropolitan areas of the US.
Since 1968, R. Stevie Moore had been recording full-length albums on reel-to-reel tape in his parents' basement in Tennessee, but it was not until 1976's Phonography that any of his recordings were issued on a record label. The album achieved some notoriety among New York's punk and new wave circles. Matthew Ingram of The Wire wrote that "Moore might not have been the first rock musician to go entirely solo, recording every part from drums to guitar ... However, he was the first to explicitly aestheticize the home recording process itself. ... making him the great-grandfather of lo-fi." Asked if he supported the "DIY/lo-fi pioneer label", Moore answered: "I agree that I am or should be recognized as a pioneer, but that's mainly just happenstance, the fact that I was doing it so long ago, before it was such a popular modus operandi. ... I definitely had no 'plan' to rush and become known as the very first modern DIY pioneer." When a 2006 New York Times article referenced Moore as the progenitor of "bedroom pop", he responded that the notion was "hilarious" in light of his "bitter struggle to make a living and get some notoriety, I scoff at it."
In 1979, Tascam introduced the Portastudio, the first portable multi-track recorder of its kind to incorporate an "all-in-one" approach to overdubbing, mixing, and bouncing. This technology allowed a broad range of musicians from underground circles to build fan bases through the dissemination of their cassette tapes. Music critic Richie Unterberger cited Moore as "one of the most famous" of the "few artists in cassetteland [that] established a reputation, if even a cult one." From 1979 until the early 1980s, Moore was a staff member on WFMU, hosting a weekly "Bedroom Radio" show. Berger's "Low-Fi" program followed thereafter, effectively to establish lo-fi as a distinct movement associated with the spirit of punk.JW Farquhar's home-recorded 1973 album The Formal Female, according to critic Ned Raggett, could also be regarded as a forerunner to "any number of" independent lo-fi artists, including R. Stevie Moore and the underground Texas musician Jandek.
Throughout the 1980s, the indie rock spheres of the American underground (bands such as R.E.M.), along with some British post-punk, were the most prominent exports of lo-fi music. According to AllMusic, the stylistic variety of their tapes often "fluctuated from simple pop and rock songs to free-form song structures to pure noise and arty experimentalism." Similar scenes also developed among DIY cassette-trading hip-hop and hardcore punk acts. One of the most recognizable bands was Beat Happening (1984-1992) from K Records, an influential indie pop label. They were rarely known as a "lo-fi" group during their active years, and were only noted for their pioneering role in the movement after the term's definition evolved in the mid 1990s. Elsewhere, WFMU DJ Irwin Chusid was responsible for inventing and popularizing the "outsider music" category--much of it overlapping with lo-fi--which he championed in the 1980s. Adam Harper credits Daniel Johnston and Jandek with "form[ing] a bridge between 1980s primitivism and the lo-fi indie rock of the 1990s. ... both musicians introduced the notion that lo-fi was not just acceptable but the special context of some extraordinary and brilliant musicians."
During the 1990s, the media's usage of the word "indie" evolved from music "produced away from the music industry's largest record labels" to a particular style of rock or pop music viewed in the US as the "alternative to 'alternative'". Following the success of Nirvana's Nevermind (1991), alternative rock became a cultural talking point, and subsequently, the concept of a lo-fi movement coalesced between 1992 and 1994. Centered on artists such as Guided by Voices, Sebadoh, Beck, and Pavement, most of the writing about alternative and lo-fi aligned it with Generation X and "slacker" stereotypes that originated from Douglas Coupland's novel Generation X and Richard Linklater's film Slacker (both released 1991). Some of the delineation between grunge and lo-fi came with respect to the music's "authenticity". Even though Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain was well known for being fond of Johnston, K Records, and the Shaggs, there was a faction of indie rock that viewed grunge as a sell-out genre, believing that the imperfections of lo-fi was what gave the music its authenticity.
In April 1993, the term "lo-fi" gained mainstream currency after it was featured as a headline in the New York Times. The most widely-read article was published by the same paper in August 1994 with the headline "Lo-Fi Rockers Opt for Raw Over Slick". In contrast to a similar story ran in the paper seven years earlier, which never deployed "lo-fi" in the context of an unprofessional recording, writer Matt Deihl conflated "lo-fi" with "DIY" and "a rough sound quality". He wrote:
Alternately called lo-fi, referring to the rough sound quality resulting from such an approach, or D.I.Y., an acronym for "do it yourself," this tradition is distinguished by an aversion to state-of-the-art recording techniques. ... In a world of sterile, digitally recorded Top 40, lo-fi elucidates the raw seams of the artistic process.
The main focus in the piece was Beck and Guided by Voices, who recently become popular acts in the indie rock subculture. Beck, whose 1994 single "Loser" was recorded in a kitchen and reached the Billboard top 10, ultimately became the most recognizable artist associated with the "lo-fi" tag. As a response to the "lo-fi" label, Guided by Voices bandleader Robert Pollard denied having any association to its supposed movement. He said that although the band was being "championed as the pioneers of the lo-fi movement," he was not familiar with the term, and explained that "[a] lot of people were picking up [Tascam] machines at the time ... Using a four-track became common enough that they had to find a category for it: DIY, lo-fi, whatever."
At the time, music critic Simon Reynolds interpreted the seeming-movement as a reaction against grunge music, "and a weak one, since lo-fi is just grunge with even grungier production values." In turn, he said, lo-fi inspired its own reaction in the form of "post-rock". A reaction against both grunge and lo-fi, according to AllMusic, was chamber pop, which drew heavily from the rich orchestrations of Brian Wilson, Burt Bacharach, and Lee Hazlewood.
"Lo-fi" was applied inconsistently throughout the 1990s. Writing in the book Hop on Pop (2003), Tony Grajeda said that by 1995, Rolling Stone magazine "managed to label every other band it featured in the first half [of the year] as somehow lo-fi." One journalist in Spin credited Sebadoh's Sebadoh III (1991) with "inventing" lo-fi, characterizing the genre as "the soft rock of punk". Grajeda noted a pattern where every time "lo-fi" was covered by the media, the article "never fails to point out the increasing attention lo-fi receives in the media, while simultaneously failing to acknowledge their own role in contributing to the development of that trend."
Several books were published that helped to "canonize" lo-fi acts, usually by comparing them favorably to older musicians. For example, Rolling Stone's Alt-Rock-a-Rama (1995) contained a chapter titled "The Lo-Fi Top 10", which mentioned Hasil Adkins, the Velvet Underground, Half Japanese, Billy Childish, Beat Happening, Royal Trux, Sebadoh, Liz Phair, Guided By Voices, Daniel Johnston, Beck and Pavement. Richie Unterberger's Unknown Legends of Rock 'n' Roll: Psychedelic Unknowns, Mad Geniuses, Punk Pioneers, Lo-Fi Mavericks & More and "the community of like-minded critics and fans surrounding him" were especially pivotal in establishing modern notions of the lo-fi aesthetic. According to Adam Harper: "In short, Unknown Legends bridges the interests of the [1980s] and the [Cassette Culture] Generation and those of [the 2000s], providing an early sketch, a portent - a 'leftfield blueprint', perhaps - of 00s movements like hauntology and hypnagogic pop".
The "lo-fi" tag also extended to acts such as the Mountain Goats, Nothing Painted Blue, Refrigerator, Chris Knox, Alastair Galbraith, and Lou Barlow. "Other significant artists often aligned with 1990s lo-fi," Harper wrote, "such as Ween, the Grifters, Silver Jews, Liz Phair, Smog, Superchunk, Portastatic and Royal Trux have been largely omitted owing either to the comparative paucity of their reception or to its lesser relevance to lo-fi aesthetics."
From the late 1990s to 2000s, "lo-fi" was absorbed into regular indie discourse, where it mostly lost its connotations as an indie rock subcategory evoking "the slacker generation", "looseness", or "self-consciousness".Pitchfork and The Wire became the leading publications on music, while blogs and smaller websites took on the role previously occupied by fanzines.
The rise of modern digital audio workstations dissolved a theoretical technological division between professional and non-professional artists. Many of the prominent lo-fi acts of the 1990s adapted their sound to more professional standards and "bedroom" musicians began looking toward vintage equipment as a way to achieve an authentic lo-fi aesthetic, mirroring a similar trend in the 1990s concerning the revival of 1960s space age pop and analog synthesizers. R. Stevie Moore was increasingly cited by emerging lo-fi acts as a primary influence. His most vocal advocate, Ariel Pink, had read Unknown Legends, and later recorded a cover version of one of the tracks included in a CD that came with the book ("Bright Lit Blue Skies"). At the time of his label debut, Pink was viewed as a novelty act, as they were virtually no other contemporary indie artists with a similar retro lo-fi sound.
Previous lo-fi artists generally rejected the influence of 1980s pop radio that informed most of Pink's sound. Afterward, a type of music dubbed "hypnagogic pop" emerged among lo-fi and post-noise musicians who engaged with elements of cultural nostalgia, childhood memory, and outdated recording technology. The label was invented by journalist David Keenan in an August 2009 piece for The Wire, which included Pink among his examples. Pink was frequently referred to as the "godfather" of hypnagogic, chillwave or glo-fi as new acts that were associated with him (aesthetically, personally, geographically, or professionally) attracted notice from critics. According to Pitchforks Marc Hogan, each of those tags described what was essentially psychedelic music. Adam Harper reflected in 2013 that there was a growing tendency among critics such as Simon Reynolds to overstate Pink's influence by failing to acknowledge predecessors such as R. Stevie Moore and the Cleaners from Venus' Martin Newell.
In the late 2010s, a form of downtempo music tagged as "lo-fi hip hop" or "chillhop" became popular among YouTube music streamers. Several of these channels attracted millions of followers. Lo-fi hip hop has characteristics reminiscent of hypnagogic pop, namely the use of pop culture references to invoke nostalgia in listeners.