What is Lofi?
Lofi or Low Fidelity music took the world by storm a few years back. It was a two pronged approach hitting from multiple angles and both paths converged around the same time. You are most likely familiar with the wave of Lofi Beats to chill and study to, and of course the Lofi House movement.
The latter was brought on by artists like DJ Boring who arguably made the anthem of the sound called Winona. Other culprits within the Lofi House sound are DJ Seinfeld, DJ Mall Grab, and Harrison BDP.
The Lofi sound wasn’t born from nothing, as is the case with any “new” or innovative genre, it usually stems from a sound that has already been established. For instance, the Lofi beats movement has been around for many years and essentially stemmed out of boom bap and jazzier styles of hip-hop.
Most would attribute the Lofi sound and signature loose sampling techniques to the one and only J. Dilla from Detroit. His unique take on sampling with the MPC was revolutionary and spurred an entire generation of producers and beatmakers to create and refine this undeniable sound.
Now that we are a few years removed from the initial boom of Lofi you are starting to see companies and individuals capitalize on the “sound” by releasing dedicated sample packs, tape emulation plugins, and pre-chopped jazz and soul samples ready for download.
This is beneficial for many young producers as it allows them access to this style of samples, plugins, etc. without having to break the bank and invest in record collecting, buying a sampler, and a host of analog gear. The only downside to this is that the sound itself starts to lose its originality and starts to become a little cookie-cutter.
When everyone has access to the same sounds, it becomes more difficult to stand out from the crowd. Thankfully with any style of music, the more accessible the tools are, the more barriers are broken down by young creative minds who tend to move things forward.
Whether you just purchased your first Lofi sample pack or you are a sampling aficionado we are here to help you achieve the Lofi aesthetic. These foundational tips will inject the soul that you are looking for when it comes to making Lofi beats and Lofi House music.
3 Tips to Refine Your Lofi Beats
You may be wondering why I’m using the word “refine” in this article. I’m using it in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek manner due to the fact that Lofi beats are usually a bit looser than most other styles of music. If you don’t know exactly what that means, then read on.
Here is a sample of the beat that we are going to work on:
1. Living off the Grid
Nowadays working in a DAW provides an unparalleled amount of control over our sound. We can get as technical as we want or we can let things flow freely. More and more beatmakers have chosen to ditch the classic samplers like the SP404, SP303, SP1200, or the MPC from Akai in lieu of working directly in their DAWs like Ableton Live, Logic Pro, or FL Studio.
The beauty of working with samplers was that it often forced the producer to have to play their beats by hand or play their sample chops. This allows for a looser swing or groove to the overall beat. These samplers gave you the option to work on a grid and quantize your sounds however, the fun really starts when we unquantize and start living off of the grid.
As you can see in the image below I’ve turned the grid in Ableton Live off before playing the hi-hat by hand. You can see that some hits are on the beat while others are not. This is one of the most important tenets of the Lofi sound. This is a technique that listeners will feel more than hear. Unless you are getting really wild with it, by taking things off the grid you are injecting either swing or shuffle into your patterns which gives your track its groove.
Let’s say for instance you are a terrible finger drummer, it’s ok I’m a part of that club as well. Feel free to draw in beat or even record your beat with quantize fully on. You can simply go in and “nudge” each sound to your liking. This can be a very effective way to achieve a looser, swing sound as you have complete control over every single sound. It is a little more time consuming, but the results can be worth it.
Either way, if you record yourself playing your beat or you are one to go in and nudge your sounds after they are laid out, your sample chops and percussion should be off the grid and hitting on different spots. This is one of the main techniques that will make your listener’s head bob.
Bonus Tip – Be sure to play with the velocity of your hits as well. Moving things around on and off the grid will get you most of the way to achieving your groove but the power of playing with the velocity or volume of specific hits will bring it home. By adjusting the velocity of hits throughout your pattern you’ll
- Achieve that groove
- Mimic the sound of playing a velocity sensitive sampler or instrument.
Living off the grid and playing with the velocity is what will give you the “human” sound that the Lofi aesthetic is known for.
2. Chop it Up
One of the fundamental techniques when it comes to making Lofi beats is the ability to creatively chop up samples. In a world where access to pre-chopped samples is so common, some of this style and uniqueness is falling by the wayside. Half the fun of actually sampling your own drums or melodies is that you get to decide how much of that sample you want to keep within your project.
This brings us to our next tip for refining your Lofi sound. There are some styles of music where you want your beats to be tight and to sit on the grid in short stabby bursts. Lofi isn’t one of those styles. For the most part, the character of a beat comes out when you combine samples that don’t have a tight start and end point.
You can obviously hear that the beat has a groove to it but let’s focus on the sampled snare for a moment. We’ve gone ahead and tightened it up so that it is a short and snappy sound:
In this example you can hear that groove becomes a bit tighter and more robotic. For some styles of music this is the desired effect. For this style of beat though, let’s allow the snare sample to play out a little more.
This sounds a bit different than the first audio sample right? The reason is due to the chopping of the sample. We intentionally left part of the sound from the original record in the hit as it provides a little more groove and character to the beat.
As you can hear there is another drum hit after the snare that I’ve decided to leave in. This gives the beat a little more groove. This technique is one that you can use on any sound within your track. Sometimes it’s a great way to add in little melodic sounds or sounds you didn’t intend to find to use but enhance your overall beat. Those are the little happy accidents in beat making.
Be careful though as this is something that can get a little too out of hand if you aren’t managing your chops. Like anything, it’s good to find that healthy balance between purposeful imperfections and complete chaos.
3. Filter, Filter, Filter
Another main characteristic of Lofi music is the absence of high frequencies within the samples and percussion. This wasn’t a technique that producers sought out when making music, it was simply a by-product of sampling old records.
When using analog gear, sampling vinyl, and so on there was an automatic warmth that was printed on their beats. Not only that but each of the samplers that I listed earlier have a very distinct sound that causes varying amounts of saturation and distortion; two things that will lead to the elimination of higher frequencies within your track.
Let’s say you are new to making Lofi music and you don’t have access to an MPC or a shelf full of vinyl. How do you replicate this sound if all you are working with are some samples you purchased and your DAW? Here is a quick way to achieve that Lofi sound in the box.
As you can here we have a pretty straightforward house beat. This is from a 909 sample kit and each hit is untouched. For most house or techno producers this would sound great as is. However, we aren’t most house and techno producers, we want this to sound a little older and more like we ripped it from a piece of vinyl.
A quick way to achieve this goal is to load up an instance of Echoboy from Soundtoys. You are probably thinking, “wait, I thought we were going to use a filter. Why are we using Echoboy?” Well, Echoboy is a versatile tool that can also act as a filter. Let me show you.
Go ahead and bus or group your hi-hat and clap and Insert an instance of Echoboy on that channel. We want to use the effect on both sounds. Then to achieve the filtered effect dial in the following settings:
Echo Time: Click the “time” button and bring the dial all the way down to 0.1 msec
Mix: Turn the Mix all the way up to about 90 – 95%
Saturation: Turn the saturation knob up to taste. Here we have it at about 4 db. This is to give the sound a little bit of sizzle.
Style: Echoboy is essentially an emulation plugin of famous analog and digital delay units. When using it as a filter you are essentially mimicking the sound of running a signal through one of these processors without any delay on it. It’s a wonderful way to get the characteristics of an old Binson Echo Rec or Roland Space Echo without having to spend thousands of dollars. Here we’ve chosen the AM Radio style.
Tweak Button: Click the Tweak button to reveal the hidden menu. There you’ll want to bring the width down to about 23 or to taste depending on how much space you want your percussion to take up.
Let’s take a listen to that beat again:
As you can tell this technique alone makes your beat sound a little more lofi and as if you’ve run it through some analog gear a few times. Also, don’t think that house music is the only place you can use this tip. Try it out on your Lofi beats or any other sound that you’d like to add a little character too.
Bonus – If you are interested in even more ways to get creative with Soundtoy’s Echoboy plugin, check out a recent blog post we did HERE.
The techniques covered in this article are the foundations of making a groovy, head bobbing Lofi beat. Go ahead and open a new project and try each one of these. You’ll find that you’ll start to add some warmth, some swing, and an overall feeling of groove to your tracks.