I’m in a recording studio, working on a song, spending time and money like I’ve got both to burn. My cohorts and I execute take after take, piling on overdubs and effects, spending hours mixing, remixing, compressing all sounds into a pristine, vacuum-sealed pulp. It’s a kind of mania, this activity, not unlike some poor bastard casino gambler, operating in a clueless, timeless haze.
Finally it’s quitting time. Bill is paid, song is mastered, pressed up, and sent into the world. After some rest and brain recalibration, I find a battered cassette demo of the same tune, slide it into the tape deck, hit PLAY, and suffer an all-too-common songwriter’s dark epiphany: I made a terrible mistake. This tossed-off, lo fi version is better than the produced version.
The hairy, Hobbit-y little demo, crammed onto a tiny strip of delicate, distressed tape, is laden with hiss, the levels are off, mistakes abound, the singing is flawed, there’s distortion where there shouldn’t be, frets buzz and chairs squeak, and the ambient noise of the room and/or the outside world intrudes. But therein resides the soul of the song.
Granted, lo fi isn’t always the best way to capture one’s work. I love plenty of fussed-over, expensive, big productions. Some faves: What’s Going On, A Night at the Opera, Born to Run, Pet Sounds, Physical Graffitti, Nevermind, Paul’s Boutique, Achtung Baby, Odelay, Automatic For the People, Mylo Xyloto, etc. None of these would sound better, I don’t think, realized on four-track cassette tape, or through the pinhole microphone of an iPhone.
But some artists, even if they have access to cash, time, and pro equipment, realize (or, sadly, realized) such assets can actually impair the quality of their work. To wit: Guided By Voices, The Mountain Goats, Elliott Smith, Karen O, Daniel Johnston, Dum Dum Girls, The Thermals, Peter Case, Ween, Sebadoh, and lo fi slumming icons Paul Westerberg and Bruce Springsteen. All of these folks, through both necessity and choice, have made or make excellent, raw recordings that would only suffer if money and time were thrown at them.
Lo fi reminds us that notions of “fidelity” are subjective. Is it “truer” if it’s cleaner? Not necessarily. Whether it’s a 19th century wax cylinder, a strip of magnetic tape, or a digital file, sound recording results are, and always will be, impressionistic. Anyone who’s experienced exquisite live music knows no technology will ever be more than a touchstone to incalculable richness. Still, for the most part, the recordist’s primary objectives have been: 1) seize the most signals with the least amount of noise, and 2) isolate those signals/sound waves and manipulate them at will, like paints on a canvas.
Yet it turns out those long-held goals are not always in the best interest of a song. Some artists discover this by accident (like I did), while others reject infinite choice from the get-go, knowing that endless options, for them, lead to anxiety. And shitty work.
Interestingly, the advent of lo fi as an aesthetic, and the marketplace for same, coincided with the digital revolution, circa mid-80s, a time in which newfangled digital recording offered infinite layering of “noiseless sound.” Commercial music saved to floppies and hard drives was hyper clean and slick. As LPs and cassettes fell from favor, most consumers clamored for digital recordings played on digital systems, and still do. The equipment on which to enjoy the sparkly new output (or not) became cheap, MP3s flooded the increasingly ubiquitous internet, and, as shrill, digitally crisp sound waves radiated ever further into the world, many humble tape decks ended up in landfills.
But not all tape decks. At the same time as the aforementioned seismic changes, lo fi coalesced as a purposefully noisy, defiantly limited corrective to digital’s crystalline clarity and smorgasbord-of-possibility. That inspired corrective rose alongside digital advances, and blossomed into a genre that continues expanding.
Erstwhile DJ William Berger coined the term “lo-fi” when, in 1986, he began devoting a half-hour of his WFMU radio show to home recordings. He called this segment Lo Fi. Prior to this, music fans had enjoyed raw fare like Bob Dylan and The Band’s Basement Tapes (inspired by musicologist Harry Smith’s haunting and often cacophonous field recordings collection, Anthology of American Folk Music) the Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street, the Beach Boys’ Smiley Smile, McCartney’s first solo album, Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, many punk rock records, live recordings, and numerous bootlegs. But lo fi as an identifiable genre was not yet widespread. Tap “lo fi” into a search engine and you’ll see what Berger hath wrought.
The inexpensive cassette four-track recorder abetted the initial surge of lo fi musical acts (I owned two – they were not built to last) and many artists found their voices in these humble, dust-prone wheels and whirring belts. (Some artists, like John Darnielle/The Mountain Goats and Daniel Johnston actually preferred the sonic thumbnail quirkiness of the boombox.) One of the last gasps of analog technology, the cassette four-track produces a distinctive, compressed warmth. (Analog-hatin’ audiophiles deride this “warmth” as “just distortion,” but whatever.) The price to pay for the warmth is surface noise, hiss, and lack of clarity, but regardless, the results can be bracingly intimate, even with an ensemble recording (like Guided By Voices). While the cheap Radio Shack microphones and tape-bought-at-Eckerd’s render the music muddy and/or Lilliputian-sounding, an undeniable spirit ascends through the murk. The spirit, in fact, needs the murk, like a sprout that will not germinate unless there’s soil on top of it.
The Weeklings own James Greer, onetime Guided By Voices bassist, wrote eloquently (and hilariously) about recording GBV lo fi pop masterpiece “Game Of Pricks” on a four-track in a beer can-littered garage for the classic Alien Lanes album. Although the band later re-recorded a “radio single” version in a proper studio and played it more authoritatively and with fewer mistakes, Greer writes: “In my opinion, [the re-recorded] version is worse than the original album cut. It’s still really good: I mean, how badly can you butcher such a great song? But it’s missing something unquantifiable. And it’s that ‘something,’ that great unknown, that unsolvable mystery, whether born from spontaneity, authenticity, laziness, beer, or whatever socio-economic weather patterns were circling the sky that song-struck August night, which lies at the heart of anything worthwhile. It is my great hope that its source never be located.”
Move forward to the age of iPads and cheap and accessible digital technology, and, despite IMAX, Beats By Dre, and pro-sounding home entertainment systems, lo fi recordings, visual and aural, made via smartphones, laptops, the occasional antique four-track, etc., have found remarkably huge audiences. Every Mac sold contains mini-studio Garageband, which features several plug ins with which one can render crisp digital files lo fi (apps with names like bitcrusher, old radio, small amp).
The aesthetic extends to “found footage” movies (mostly faux lo fi, those flicks) and the growing user-generated-content marketplace of YouTube. If the quality is artfully “ragged but right,” it’s more likely to be received as “authentic” and compelling, and more worthy of multiple clicks/plays than if it had a big budget. As this material finds its way into the world, artists are making less money than ever, but regardless, countless hours of music are rising from the din, or rather, rising with the din.
A recent reminder of lo fi’s ascendancy: The music supervisor for the upcoming film People, Places Things, starring Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement, asked me to submit upbeat songs for the film. I sent files of nine songs, most of which I recorded in studios. The one he and the director chose, however, was a very raw, funky, hissy ditty I recorded on Garageband in my bedroom, with my then-eight-year-old son singing into a cheap microphone with me. But the exuberance we caught was what they liked. That, in fact, was all they heard.
Please find below a baker’s dozen of lo fi work, old and new, riddled with attributes you may perceive as flaws, soul, or both. (Individual YouTube vids and Spotify playlist, for your convenience. If you like, by all means, buy the tunes and help keep these kids in Maxell High Bias tape.)
1. Game of Pricks – Guided By Voices
As aforementioned, this 1995 lo fi pop classic came to life on a cassette four-track in a basement. They threw money at it, but it did not get better than this.
2. Crooked Mile – Peter Case
This track from Peter Case’s 2004 CD Who’s Gonna Go Your Crooked Mile was accidental lo fi. “It was a goof up,” says Peter. “The vocal microphone crapped out… was gone. But we had it in the [house] microphone, so we mixed that in to the guitar microphone… It’s much better than it would’ve or could’ve been.” Indeed. It’s stunning.
3. The Best Ever Death Metal Band – The Mountain Goats
Like most early Mountain Goats material, this is just John Darnielle recording himself on a very space-age-sounding but actually very primitive Panasonic RX-FT500 boombox. Like a cassette four-track, it produces its own distinctive sound: the tiny condenser microphone mashes everything together – room tone, Darnielle’s urgent, I’m-abut-to-lose-my-shit vocals, and the thrashed-yet-melodic acoustic guitar – into a fuzzy little black dwarf of sound. It’s all perfectly claustrophobic for this 2001 elegy to Cyrus and Jeff, who very likely would’ve recorded their death metal on this device in a hot room, just like Darnielle.
4. Roman Candle – Elliott Smith
In 1993, Eliiott Smith recorded the title track of his debut album in a basement on a borrowed four-track recorder, when he was still in 90s rock hopefuls Heatmiser. He had no intentions of releasing a solo album, but once indie label Cavity Search heard the material, they launched him on a path toward stardom. On this song, he’s introducing us to his intense, whispered style, park Nick Drake, part Paul Simon, interwoven in beguiling melody and menace, all swathed in tape hiss, room sound, and mild distortion.
5. Ooo – Karen O
Yeah Yeah Yeahs larger-than-life lead singer Karen O recorded this mini-song, like all cuts on her deliberately homespun, lovelorn 2014 solo debut Crush Songs, sometime between 2006 and 2010, likely directly into her laptop. As NPR’s Will Hermes wrote, it “sounds as if it were recorded onto a voicemail message through an early-20th-century flip phone.” Intimate-yet-otherworldly.
6. Blackeyed Susan – Paul Westerberg
This charming home demo ended up on Westerberg’s 1993 acclaimed debut solo album, 14 Songs, because, Westerberg claimed, he couldn’t recall the odd guitar tuning he’d stumbled on when he made the recording in his kitchen, and thus, could not re-record it in a proper studio. This is likely not true, but it’s a great story. My guess is he knew he wouldn’t do right by this humble, sweet song by buffing it up. I concur.
7. Truckdrivin’ Neighbors Downstairs (Yellow Sweat)
From Mellow Gold, the collection that catapulted Beck from quirky novelty to bona fide rock star via hit single “Loser,” this album cut is cassette four-track wizardry at its best, and features actual recordings of Beck’s actual neighbors screaming at each other (he cut that down to a merciful few seconds). He uses the vari-speed control, one of the few tricks one can pull on the four track, to slow his voice down to Barry White bass level, and invites us to come along as he leaves those neighbors in the dust.
8. Joy Without Pleasure – Daniel Johnston
Early on, genuine crazy person Daniel Johnston recorded several albums using a $59 Sanyo monoaural boombox, in part because no one could deal with him in a studio and/or he was so consumed by delusions, he wouldn’t set foot in one. Regardless, he made some great work, and this odd pop hymn, circa 1980, captured on the cheapest of equipment, seems completely content in the narrow confines of its medium.
9. Healthy Sick – Sebadoh
Sebadoh began as a way for Dinosaur Jr bassist Lou Barlow to get his own songs – most quite short – into the world, and eventually took over his life. As Barlow and his partner Eric Gaffney favored the cassette four-track, Sebadoh became early avatars of lo fi. This track is from 1989’s The Freed Man LP, which contained thirty-one songs.
10. Don’t Get 2 Close (2 My Fantasy) – Ween
It was an amazing time, 1993, when an album like Ween’s Pure Guava, made on a four-track, could come out on Elektra, a major label. This naughty Bowie/Bohemian Rhapsody homage is a true work of art, showing Gene and Dean Ween’s technical mastery and uncompromising deviousness.
11. Baby Don’t Go – Dum Dum Girls
Dum Dum Girls is the brainchild of singer-songwriter Dee Dee Penny. This cut, a cover of a Sonny Bono song from Dum Dum Girls’ 2010 debut album I Will Be, is a marriage of lo fi essence and pro production. Penny recorded the basic tracks, which were later sweetened by the legendary Richard Gottehrer, producer of Blondie and The Go-Go’s, and writer of “I Want Candy” and “My Boyfriend’s Back.” The ambient traffic noise and the telltale hiss of tape meld beautifully with perfectly rendered girl group harmonies.
12. No Culture Icons – The Thermals
The Thermals’ 2003 debut cost $60 to make and, thankfully, sounds like it. This tune in particular. Indie label Sub Pop loved it, pressed it up and released it, and the band soon graduated to better sonics and more refined (though not much) production, winning fame as a must-see live act that continues barnstorming to this day.
13. Atlantic City – Bruce Springsteen
Considered by many to be Springsteen’s finest hour, the album Nebraska, on which this song appears, was initially not intended for release. It was 1982, and Bruce was both tired and inspired, recovering from the extravagance of The River. As ever, desperate characters rose through the gloom of his creative mind, and he captured them via a little portable cassette four-track. Rather than stick to plan and flesh them out with the E Street Band, he had the good sense to give the rock a rest for a bit and trust in simplicity, reckoning his fans would respond positively to his barest work yet. He was right. A classic.