I’m going to spend a decent proportion of my free time over the next week kicking around some ideas regarding lo-fi music.
It’s a wide term – lo-fi – more difficult to pin down than I imagined before I began this post. Some folks will happily define, say, early 1980s hardcore as lo-fi, or the records Jack Endino made for Sub Pop at Recriprocal. Others will say ‘lo-fi’ and mean the sort of home-recorded cassettes released by folks like Robert Pollard and Lou Barlow. I’m happy to work with a pretty wide definition of lo-fi and will use it to refer to any music made on equipment below that of professional standard (in any given era), and if a song or record under discussion is a marginal case (mid-fi, so to speak), I’ll say so. But it’s worth acknowledging that when a lot of people discuss lo-fi music, they refer exclusively to home recordings made using Tascam Portastudios and the like.
These were/are machines that combine some of the functions of a mixing desk and multi-track tape machine into one small box, allowing the user to record two, four or sometimes even eight tracks to metal cassette tapes. Once recorded, the user can alter the volume and EQ of the tracks independently, and even add effects, to create the desired balance. (Digital Portastudios are still manufactured, and many people hang on tenaciously to their old analogue machines.)
Cassette multi-tracks provided a means of recording home demos several wide notches above playing into the built-in mic of a boombox, but several notches below older consumer reel-to-reel machines like my grandfather had. These sounded quite a bit better (because of their higher tape speeds) than Portastudios, but the most common ones among home users were mono machines, which precluded overdubbing. But what cassette multi-tracks did was allow musicians, whether amateur or professional, to record home demos and try out arrangement ideas at the same time, because of the overdubbing facilities.* Famously Bruce Springsteen used an early Teac (Tascam) machine to record what became Nebraska – just his voice, guitar and harmonica, and a few touches of organ, tambourine and glockenspiel, all played by Springsteen himself.**
All this is quaint by today’s standards. For the same sort of money my Tascam 414mkII cost in 2000 (by which time these analogue machines were being superseded by digital multi-trackers), today you can buy a USB audio interface, capable of recording 24bit/96k, with four mic/line inputs. It will be theoretically capable of zero-latency monitoring. A ‘light’ version of a DAW (digital audio workstation) will probably be bundled with the hardware, and this ‘light’ software will give you at least 48 virtual tracks (possibly more, maybe even unlimited), bussing capabilities beyond the wildest dreams of anyone using a 414mkII 15 years back, the ability to work with virtual instruments and MIDI, and 8 inserts and sends per track (yes, per track).
It’s a very different world now.
Yet something very like lo-fi still exists. People still make music that sounds like lo-fi. People still self-identify as lo-fi artists. Which leads me to wonder how much of the lo-fi-ness of lo-fi is actually an aesthetic choice, how much is a product of letting the untutored loose with equipment they don’t really know much about, and how much is a product of the equipment’s limitations. I’m planning a series of posts on lo-fi, some focusing on specific artists and engineers, others more general or philosophical, but I wanted to begin with a little practical experiment.
Since I moved over to digital recording for home demos in the mid-noughties, I got bitten hard by the recording bug. I’d always been interested in it, I’d always recorded friends as well as myself, but in the last four or five years I’ve worked a lot harder at recording and mixing. I’ve learned a lot about the history and theory of recording, interned in a local digital/analogue studio, done some freelance work out of another local studio, picked the brains of every engineer I’ve met, studied other people’s records for hours on end and generally tried to pull myself up to a level where I could make respectable recordings of any sound source put in front of me. So I’m in a much better place now to evaluate what a cassette four-track machine is actually capable of, given a bit of know-how, some moderate musicianship and a bit of care and attention, than I was when I actually used these things regularly (when really I was fumbling around cluelessly in the dark).
To that end, I’m re-recording an old song of mine on my 414: bass, drums, guitar and vocal, no bouncing (so that everything stays in the same generation). This is a song I’ve recorded a couple of times before: once with my old band and once on my own playing all the instruments. And since this song is around seven years old, I’ve even got my original, very slapdash, four-track demo, recorded in Marsala Road, Lewisham, late summer of 2006. It’s one of the last songs I wrote before going over to the digital domain.
I’m a geek, so I find the process of recording – whatever the medium – endlessly fascinating. If you don’t, check back in a week or two, when normal service will be resumed. If you’re interested, I hope to have finished the Portastudio recording of this old song by the end of the weekend. Let’s unravel the mystery of lo-fi together!
If you want to hear it for context, the one-man-band, mid-fi, digital version (I’d call it hi-fi but for the horrific lossy MP3 compression and the addition of Soundcloud’s own artifacts), is here: https://soundcloud.com/rossjpalmer/find-out-in-time-acoustic-mix
My precious… It was old tech even in 2000, but I was devoted to my Tascam 414
*In his recent South by Southwest keynote speech, Dave Grohl demonstrated a means of ‘overdubbing’ with two tabletop tape recorders he used as a teenager in his bedroom. I’m sure he wasn’t the only kid doing this back in the day, but it’s pretty sweet in its ingeniousness. The video’s on youtube. He demonstrates the technique about 10 minutes in.
**Bruce was a wealthy man even in 1982, and he could easily have put together a studio space in his house that was semi-pro or even genuinely pro, with proper 16- or 24-track analogue machines and a real desk, but perhaps the novelty of this little Portastudio appealed to him, or perhaps he wanted to take it on tour to demo new songs on the road.