Low-fi: A term I fucking loathe at the same times as completely embrace. A production choice created out of poverty and necessity turned into a genre.
I get why the term was created and understand the origin of it. Record labels needed a way to sell a sound that was traditionally completely unmarketable. It started happening at a time when people were mostly used to hearing albums recorded professionally (or semi-professionally often on 1/2″ 8 track) as a way to get people to accept listening to packaged demos. Shitty recordings often done in people’s apartments on their off hours long before the idea of digital recording even really existed outside the most high-end of studios. It sacrifices complexity of sound for a sense of intimacy; an almost voyeuristic look into a person’s world. Fantastic examples of this are Springsteen’s “Nebraska” (though that went through months of clean up before being released), most of Lou Barlow’s recorded output, Flying Saucer Attack, or everything from Guided By Voices early catalog.
Now, Low-fi is a choice. Quality recording can be done on the cheap, and professional studios are more affordable than they’ve ever been out. Digital recording is at a point where if you are smart, save some coin and buy right, you can get a pretty good-sounding recording for a decent price. The choice is purely artistic, which is great. However, like all tools, it can be horrifically misused and do a total disservice to the songs you are presenting. Low-fi should be looked at as more of a tool used in certain situations, instead of a genre unto itself.
My real issue with low-fi is a lot of bands actually ruin their sonic potential at the very beginning. I get the capturing a mood thing, but a great pop song recorded on a falling apart four track from 1983 can only go so far in 2015. It will appeal to a small target audience of people looking for that specific sound and not go any further. It’s limiting your market from the outset, which is one of the stupidest business choices you can make. Unless this is a perpetual money-pit of a hobby, it’s probably best to spend the money and have someone record your final product or invest the time and money into learning how to do it right yourself. Still, a drum kit recorded in a garage will still sound like a kit recorded in a garage because the room itself just sucks. So, maybe rent a room with a good engineer and record drums there (and the vocals, never cheap out on the vocals). Again, like everything in music, it is situational. Find and use the tools you need to fit what you are doing.
I say this as someone who bounces all the fuck over. If the band I am in recorded happenstance, we’d sound like complete shit. We spend months working on minute details. I spend weeks coming up with sounds and working with various pedals (both hi-fi and low tech garbage) to craft sounds. I want those sounds to come through and not be lost in a wash of tape hiss or hard drive bleed. When I am crafting sounds that are supposed to sound like shit, I still want them properly captured. It’s the Nine Inch Nails principle; the sound might be an 8-bit sampler getting decimated by a z-vex fuzz factory, but recorded so you can hear every aspect of that destruction. The band I am part of is a product I love being involved with, and I want that product to be the best possible thing I can create. That means lots of time and money spent on making it sound as good as we possibly can. I’m investing in that product. Yes, this makes it sound like a purely commercial enterprise. It isn’t and probably never will be. I love working, writing and playing with this sort of purpose in mind. It’s a different mindset that pushes you forward. It makes you a better player and musician, because it forces you to think on a much larger scale. Nothing about it is low-fi beyond a trunk full of crusty, slowly dying gear from the beginning of the digital age.
The other side IS my Low-fi side. It’s shitty little songs and ambient guitar babble. It’s the stuff for me that I choose to release every once in a while. This is the music I work on late at night for shits and giggles. It’s not supposed to go anywhere, because it just isn’t music that really goes places. It’s done for other loner weirdos to listen to at 4am when they should be sleeping. I record this way as purely an artistic choice, and the fact that I like that sound and feel. I like the isolated feeling it has. I am willfully destroying any chance of polish or the incredibly small chance of making money off this shit to maintain a very specific vibe for a very small percentage of music listeners. Understanding how few people want to listen to this sort of thing is a long conversation you must have with yourself. You’ve willingly just taken the potential you might have and flushed it. Congratulations on choosing failure.
That’s not to say people haven’t achieved aspects of fame with this sort of thing, or made a comfortable living, it’s just that rarely happens now. Hell, it rarely happened then. It’s just when I hear someone speaking, who obviously has stars in their eyes, recording on an antiquated medium thinking they will take the world by storm, I get a fucking migraine. The best you can ever hope for is a very small group of fans that will listen to your music while sitting on the internet at some ungodly hour. Maybe they will buy your shit off bandcamp, if you’re really lucky. – SHANE