How to Make Lo-Fi Hip Hop
Over the last 5-10 years, lo-fi hip hop has exploded in popularity with channels like Lo-Fi Girl (formerly Chilled Cow) earning more than 931 million streams. While it may sound simple upon first listen, lo-fi hip hop can actually be surprisingly complex to create. In this blog, we'll break down the basics and show you how to make lo-fi hip hop tracks like a pro, along with a few of our favorite tips for getting your tracks to hit the right vibe.
What Is Lo-Fi Hip Hop?
Before we get started, let's talk about what lo-fi hip hop actually is. Each piece of equipment you use to record a sound imparts its own unique sounds and imperfections on the recording. Only top-of-the-line recording equipment is able to capture audio without coloring the sound. Things like tube mics, tape machines and analog audio equipment all impart their own unique sonic signature on the sound—full of imperfections.
As recording technology continued to advance throughout the 70s and 80s, there was an industry-wide push for more "high fidelity" recordings. However, as more and more labels began pumping out hyper-polished, crystal-clear recordings, a counterculture of lo-fi artists began popping up, taking pride in their rough and gritty recordings.
The term "lo-fi" was coined in 1986 by William Berger, a DJ for WFMU—New Jersey's longest running freeform radio station. Over the next few decades, it would be used to describe an array of artists in a variety of different genres.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, artists like J Dilla and Nujabes began experimenting with a new sound that laid the groundwork for lo-fi hip hop. They combined dusty, down-tempo drum loops from vintage soul and R&B records with soft, mellow jazz samples and an anime inspired aesthetic—a style that was popularized by commercial bumpers on Toonami and Adult Swim.
Now that we've covered the basics, let's talk about some tips for making lo-fi hip hop beats.
Anatomy Of A Lo-Fi Hip Hop Beat
Lo-fi hip hop has a few key characteristics that set it apart from other similar genres. Much like the legendary Roland TR-808 was integral to the development of hip hop in the early 80s, the E-mu SP-1200 sampler played an important role in defining the sound of lo-fi hip hop.
In addition to its "crunchy digitized drums, choppy segmented samples, and murky filtered basslines," as described by the Village Voice, the E-mu SP-1200 sampler had a limited 26.04 kHz sampling rate, which gave all of its recordings a gritty, distorted sound. Additionally, the lack of high-end frequencies gave tracks a dark, vintage feel.
There are no rules when making music, but most lo-fi hip hop tracks feature the following elements:
A swinging, down-tempo drum beat
A groovy, filtered bassline to add movement
Soulful piano or guitar chords
A lead melodic instrument
Ambient textures and sound effects
Additionally, since lo-fi hip hop tracks typically do not feature vocals, many producers like to include samples or clips from other forms of media to keep the listener entertained.
Once you've got a basic track going, check out these mixing and production tips to help you dial in a proper lo-fi vibe.
Use Reference Mixes
Just like any sub genre, there's no one-size-fits-all approach to mixing a lo-fi hip hop track. That's why it's important to listen to a few reference mixes before you get started. REFERENCE is the perfect tool for quickly comparing tracks. Insert REFERENCE on your mix bus, drag a few of your favorite tracks into the Wave Transport and toggle between your mix and the references to make sure you're on the right track.
Listen closely and take note of any key differences and make a plan for what you need to change about your track to get it to sound more like the references. If you're not quite sure what the problem is, check out the Trinity Display for detailed information on the exact EQ balance, stereo width and compression changes you need to make.
Roll-Off the Highs (and Lows)
One of the keys to a lo-fi sound is a lack of high and low end. After all, most low fidelity audio equipment (like the SP-1200) feature a low sampling rate with a limited frequency response. Additionally, old-school recording mediums like vinyl and cassettes tend to roll-off the high-end from recordings—especially as they get older.
Thankfully, you can recreate this effect fairly easily in your DAW. One method is to use a basic EQ to roll-off the highs and lows from the mix bus, but this can sometimes make your track sound weak or dull.
Instead, try using a separate EQ on each track to fine-tune the amount of highs and lows for each track. You'll still remove both highs and lows from most tracks, but in varying amounts. For instance, you'll probably remove more highs and less lows from the kick—and vice versa for the hi-hat.
Tools like MIXROOM and BASSROOM are great for shaping your sound. Unlike a traditional filter, BASSROOM's fixed EQ bands are perfect for creating a soft, gradual roll-off while still being able to pinpoint problem frequencies in the low-end. Likewise, MIXROOM can be used to sculpt the high-end across the stereo spectrum with advanced mid-side controls.
Create A Dusty Vintage Aesthetic
In addition to affecting the frequency response of a track, lo-fi audio equipment tends to be noisy. After all, the whole point of hi-fi recordings is that they don't introduce additional noise or distortion. On the contrary, lo-fi hip hop tracks are typically full of clicks, crackles and pops. It's part of the aesthetic to embrace the imperfections caused by lo-fi recording equipment.
If possible, try to capture some authentic lo-fi noise by sampling a track from a vinyl record or cassette tape. If you're not into sampling, try to record at least one element of your track using analog lo-fi audio equipment, such as a vintage drum machine or sampler. If that's not an option, you can try to source samples designed to emulate that sound.
If you're not able to incorporate any authentic lo-fi noise into your track, you can introduce these elements using plug-ins. Tape machine emulators are great for emulating the pitch modulation (also known as flutter and wow) caused by the machine oscillating back and forth. Or use a vinyl effect plug-in to simulate the sound of a vinyl record. Some even allow you to adjust the amount of dust, scratches and warp effects.
Another key component of lo-fi hip hop is harmonic distortion, or saturation. Low fidelity recording equipment tends to impart a lot of saturation or even downright distortion on tracks. However, this type of distortion can often be unruly and difficult to work with.
Instead, try adding harmonic saturation using a plug-in to control the amount of distortion. IGNITE is a powerful dynamic harmonic distortion plug-in that makes it easy to dial in the perfect amount of saturation on any track.
To maintain the lo-fi vibe, it's important not to add too much saturation to the highs or lows. Use IGNITE's filter to focus on frequencies between 100 Hz and 10 kHz to help add warmth to your mix without making tracks sound harsh. You can also adjust the threshold setting to trigger only during the loudest parts for a more dynamic mix.
Pitch Shift Tracks For A Darker Feel
Lo-fi hip hop tracks tend to sound dark and dreamy, typically due to pitch shifted samples. Oftentimes, jazz and soul samples are too fast to work with modern hip hop beats. In order to align the two, you need to slow down the original sample.
In the early days of recording technology, it was impossible to slow down a piece of audio without also lowering the pitch. Many low fidelity recording devices are still limited in this way, making it common to pitch shift samples in lo-fi hip hop songs.
Thankfully, you can easily recreate this effect in your DAW without having to break out your turntable. Most DAWs feature built-in stretching time stretching capabilities, making it easy to adjust the tempo of the sample to match your session.
From there, simply use the built-in pitch shifter plug-in to lower the pitch of the sample by a few steps. The combination of the slow, stretched samples and the deep, pitched-down audio create the perfect lo-fi aesthetic.
Add Some Reverb To Glue It All Together
Nothing screams lo-fi like a cheap digital reverb. There's even an entire sub-genre of lo-fi hip hop called “Slowed + Reverb” in which, you guessed it, the track is slowed down and drenched in reverb for a dark, ambient vibe.
When working with sounds from a variety of different sources, such as digital drums, sampled loops, synths and analog recordings, it can be tough to make your mix sound cohesive. Digital reverbs like the AMS RMX16 are perfect for glueing tracks together by making it sound like they're all coming from the same space.
Plus, reverb helps wash out the mix and can reduce the detail and clarity of harsh tracks like cymbals, piano or guitar. Just remember to roll off the high-end, otherwise the reverb will sound overly-bright and ruin the dusty aesthetic you worked so hard on.
Check Your Mix With LEVELS
Last but not least, it's important to check your track for technical issues before printing the final bounce. I know, I know—lo-fi is supposed to embrace imperfections! But that doesn't mean you need to keep every mistake.
Use LEVELS to check for problems with peaking or phase, then decide if you want to correct them or leave them in. LEVELS also makes it easy to make sure your mix is the proper volume for streaming sites. Use the LUFS tab and select a preset for the streaming destination of your choice to make sure your track is within the recommended guidelines.
LEVELS can even help you make sure your low-end is in check! Simply mute your kick and bass tracks and use the Bass Space tab to make sure the rest of the mix isn't mucking up your low-end.
Use these tips next time you're writing a lo-fi hip hop beat to help you dial in the sound you're looking for! Or check out our blog for more production tips.