by Bruce Bartlett 2003

It's an exciting time for home recording. We have low-cost digital recorders, clean little mixers, MIDI, and good-sounding cheap mics. All these tools make it affordable to record with sonic purity and accuracy. That's a wonderful development.

But now that anyone can record high-quality sounds, it's not such a big deal anymore. Sure, there's a place for clean, accurate recordings. But in many of today's records, you'll hear instances of lo-fi sound: fuzzy vocals, tinny drums, and hissy guitars.

Lo-fi is the opposite of hi-fi. "High fidelity" means flat frequency response, no noise or distortion, and low wow & flutter. In contrast, lo-fi sounds might have a narrow frequency response (a thin, cheap sound), and might include noise such as hiss or record scratches. They could be distorted or wobbly in pitch.

Also, the lo-fi attitude snubs its nose at "clean" recordings. "Clean" can mean a lot of things: free of noise, free of leakage, or free of early sound reflections in the studio. So a lo-fi sound might have tape hiss, some leakage, and some room acoustics as part of the mix.

Lo-fi really took off with rap music, in which the drum sound was the opposite of the usual polished studio sound. Instead of a tight kick, we heard a boomy kick. Instead of a wide-range snare with a full thump and crisp attack, rap gave us a tinny, trashy snare that was all midrange.

Want to put some lo-fi sonic interest in your mixes?Let's look at a few ways to trash those clean sounds that are so easy to record.


A flat frequency response in a mic or mixer tends to give an accurate, natural sound. If the response is flat, all the musical fundamentals and harmonics are reproduced in their original proportions. So the recording sounds accurate or hi-fi.

You can easily make a lo-fi effect by messing up the response. Cut the highs and lows, boost the mids. Or create a raggedy response with lots of bumps and dips. Some ways to do this are with EQ, mic choice, and mic placement.

Play a snare-drum track through your mixer, and turn down the LF EQ and HF EQ. Boost around 1 kHz or nearby frequencies. Your snare sound will change from high-budget to bargain-basement.

Or try recording a child's drum set with its small heavy cymbals and boomy kick drum. You might loop a hi-hat beat made from this set, and mix it with a full-range recording of a quality drum set.

Find a toilet-paper tube, or a flexible plastic tube that extends gutter downspouts. Put the tube in front of a mic and sing through the tube. The resonances in the tube will color the sound in a wild way.

You might track down some cheap old mics at a garage sale, or on Ebay, or from vintage mic collectors. Record a few tracks using those mics. Their frequency response tends to be a complex series of peaks and valleys that you can't duplicate with EQ.

Mic placement has a huge effect on the response, too. For example, a guitar miked near the sound hole sounds bassy and thumpy, near the neck sounds clear, and near the bridge sounds woody and mellow. A sax miked deep inside the bell sounds just weird, with some notes much louder than others. You could mike a guitar amp speaker from the front and back with two mics. Try flipping the polarity or phase switch on one of those microphones. Miking a snare drum from underneath gives a thin, zippy effect. If you pick up a crash cymbal off its edge, the sound will waver as the cymbal tilts when it is struck.


Distortion is the addition of harmonics that did not exist in the original sound. Here's an obvious way to create distortion: drive a piece of recording gear at very high levels -- beyond what it can handle. For example, record drums on a cassette recorder with the meters pinning. Or yell into a "bullet" type harmonica mic so that the mic distorts. Some DAWs let you play samples at low bits rates (8 bits or fewer) to create some nasty digital grunge.


Another way to add distortion to a track: feed the signal through an effects box with a distortion setting. Run a drum track through a guitar stomp box, or through a broken vintage compressor. Feed a vocal through an Amp Farm or Line Six Pod processor. You might record some instruments on a cheap cassette recorder. The Rolling Stones did that to create the beginning of "Jumping Jack Flash."


Record some record scratches from an old LP or 78, loop them, and mix them with your clean tracks. Or turn up all your mixer faders and record the mixer's hiss.

Another way to add noises to your mix is to record noisy instruments! You might find an old, creaky upright piano and do the keyboardtracks with it. Or use an old guitar amp with blown tubes to record a sound full of hum and hiss.


If your mixes are too sterile or studio-clean, you might want to record some leakage. Leakage (or bleed or spill) is the pickup of an instrument by another instrument's microphone. For example, if a guitar mic picks up the drums from across the room, that pickup of the drums is called leakage. Since the guitar mic picks up the drums at a distance, the leakage changes the recorded sound of the drums from tight to muddy.


Normally we try to isolate instruments or mike close to prevent leakage. But if you want to add some creative leakage to your mixes, mike a little farther away than you normally do, and record all the instruments at once.


In the quest for clean, tight recordings, it's standard practice to cover the walls of the studio with sound-dampening material. This reduces early reflections, which are less than about 20 msec after the direct sound from the instrument being recorded. Those early reflections tell the ear that the instrument was recorded in a small room. Normally we get rid of those early reflections and replace them with artificial reverb. But a lo-fi recording often includes the sound of the room as part of the sound of the recorded instrument.

To pick up room reflections, mike farther away than usual and leave the walls uncovered. Use the room for its coloration, rather than rejecting the room.

Want to make a synth track more organic and spacious? Run the synth track through a guitar amp, and mike the amp in stereo from several feet away. The guitar amp rolls off the highs and adds distortion as well. You could even record a vocal or harmonica through the amp this way.

For a spacious effect, consider recording several instruments in stereo with two mics. Pick up instruments or vocals in a hallway, a bathroom, a box, or even outdoors.


It's common to include hi-fi sounds along with lo-fi sounds in the same mix. This makes a statement to your listeners: "I can record hi-fi sounds, but I'm choosing not to. The trashy sounds are due to a conscious choice rather than a lack of recording chops."If you have nothing but lo-fi sounds in your mixes, it might sound like you don't know what you're doing -- you have no command over the recording process.

So, your mix might be mostly pristine, full and sparkling... but tainted with a guitar that sounds like it came through a telephone. The contrast of clean and dirty sounds, modern and vintage, can add a lot of sonic interest.

The ear delights in complexity. We can add some of that to our recordings with intriguing, colorful lo-fi sounds.

Bruce Bartlett highly recommends the album "Mule Variations" by Tom Waits. It is a brilliantly creative lo-fi masterpiece.

Bruce Bartlett is the author of "Practical Recording Techniques 
3rd Ed." published by Focal Press.

Copyrighted 2003 by Deltamedia. May not be reproduced in whole or part without permission