Lo-fi (from the term "low fidelity") is lower quality of sound recordings than the usual standard for modern music. The qualities of lo-fi are usually achieved by either degrading the quality of the recorded audio, or using certain equipment. Recent uses of the phrase have led to it becoming a genre, although it still remains as an aesthetic in music recording practice. Many lo-fi artists use inexpensive cassette tape recorders. The term was adopted by WFMU DJ William Berger who dedicated a half hour segment of his program to home recorded music throughout the late '80s under the name lo-fi.
Lo-fi's roots can be dated as far back as a set of live cylinder recordings created in 1900–04 by Lionel Mapleson from a catwalk 40 ft (12 m) above the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. The sound quality of these "Mapleson Cylinders" is very poor (more so since they are one-of-a-kind artifacts that have been further worn down by being played over the last century); the aesthetic quality, though, partakes in the electric, authentic feeling of an unedited event being captured in real time. In the same historical period, commercial field recordings of folk music had begun to be created in many nations of the world, recorded catch-as-catch-can by early record producers such as Fred Gaisberg of HMV. The description of "lo-fi", however, would be slightly amiss, since the recordists used the best available equipment of the era in order to capture and reproduce the sound as faithfully as possible. With technology being what it was however, the resulting recordings would be considered quite crude, or "low-fidelity", by today's standards.
In a later era, Buddy Holly recorded some songs in a converted garage. Some posthumous Hank Williams demos were also overdubbed for commercial release. In the 1960s and 70s visual artist Jean Dubuffet would also record improvisational pieces of spoken word and vocal and instrumental compositions to magnetic tape regardless of skill or technical quality. However, it was not until Bob Dylan decided in 1975 to officially release a set of The Basement Tapes, first recorded as music publisher demos in 1967, that the first lo-fi pop music milestone was reached. The music was really not originally intended for general release, the recordings, made on a consumer-quality Ampex quarter-track machine with two microphones set up for "dual mono", made a virtue of their flaws; with their asides, laughter and unselfconscious looseness, they defined the authenticity of the lo-fi experience. As a historical matter, in the years between the production and the official release, the popularity of these particular recordings also created the first market for pop bootleg records, which as a listening experience came to include seemingly every scrap of certain rock artists' off-the-cuff and unreleased work, including home recordings. A seminal early example of this was the 1976 home-made debut album Phonography by pioneer DIY popster R. Stevie Moore. Also, famed songwriter Lou Reed produced a version of the self-titled 3rd album by his band, The Velvet Underground. Its lo-fi, cramped sound became known as the closet mix. It was highly influential to up-and-coming indie lo-fi groups.
Lo-fi recordings became more commonly heard in the late seventies to early eighties with many electronic acts. In Monte A. Melnick's biographical book, On the Road with the Ramones, Thomas Erdelyi considers the band's first record to be a "great lo-fi album". Suicide's debut album is a large collection of lo-fi classics, which Bruce Springsteen took inspiration from on his 1982 lo-fi album Nebraska. Other classic lo-fi's to appear around this time include Throbbing Gristle's "United", Thomas Leer's "Private Plane", The Normal's "TVOD/Warm Leatherette" single, and The Human League's "Being Boiled". Another UK classic lo-fi band is the Young Marble Giants.
As a term to describe a musical genre, lo-fi is mainly associated with recordings from the 1980s onwards, when cassette technology such as Tascam's four-track Portastudio became widely available. Prime early exponents included Daniel Johnston, New Zealand band the Tall Dwarfs who recorded on Chris Knox's 4-track and released on Flying Nun Records, The Bilders (period 1978-81), who recorded in a bedroom, Beat Happening and the Olympia, Washington label K Records. In the early-mid-1990s (1991–1999), lo-fi found a wider audience with the success of such acts as Aphex Twin, Beck, Blur, Enrico Curreri, Sebadoh, Guided by Voices, Smog, Spookey Ruben, Mercury Rev, Sparklehorse, Spare Snare, Pavement, Modest Mouse, Neutral Milk Hotel, Operation Ivy, Rooney (UK band), Liz Phair, Will Oldham, Yo La Tengo, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Ween, David Kilgour and later (1999–2003) Elliott Smith, The Apples in Stereo, Dr. Dog, The Olivia Tremor Control, Elf Power, Beulah, Of Montreal, Mike Rifone, Sufjan Stevens, Joanna Newsom, Iron & Wine, The Shins and Boards of Canada.
Often lo-fi artists will record on old or poor recording equipment, ostensibly out of financial necessity but also due to the aural associations such technologies have. The growth in lo-fi coincided with the growth of extreme slickness and polish associated with the multitrack pop recording techniques of the 1980s. Lo-fi can therefore been seen as a counterculture movement, though exponents rarely identify themselves with any political persuasion.
Many artists associated with the lo-fi movement, such as Bill Callahan, Bob Log III, or Weird Paul Petroskey, have frequently rejected the use of finer recording equipment, trying to keep their sound raw instead, whereas others such as Guided by Voices, Clutch, and The Mountain Goats slowly moved to using professional studios.
The black metal genre embraced the lo-fi idea during the late 1980s and early 1990s as it strived to distance itself from pop music. Most bands recorded their albums on extremely low budgets, using four-track recorders and any other equipment they could use. The greatest example is the Darkthrone album Transilvanian Hunger, though almost all of their albums have an intentionally "lo-fi" sound quality. The band started as a clean, well produced technical death metal band before evolving their style and almost singlehandedly producing the low quality production style that would become common place in the black metal scene. Varg Vikernes of black metal band Burzum was also known to purposely use extremely lo-fi recording techniques on his albums. On the album Filosofem, Varg was said to have intentionally asked a local store for the cheapest microphone they had, and they sold him a headset, which he used to record vocals on the album. For guitar he was said to have used a distortion pedal to drive a stereo receiver, which made the extremely fuzzy, buzzing guitar tone found on the album. The term "raw" is generally preferred to "lo-fi" in black metal circles.
Currently, there is a growing scene of lo-fi bands in the United States and Canada. Notable bands and solo artists include Two Gallants, Bark Bark Disco, Chaoticum, Wavves, No Age, Times New Viking, Rogue Wave, Best Coast, Ty Segall, Kurt Vile, Sleep Good, Gonjasufi, Ghosts of Pasha, Vivian Girls, Señora Lola, The Scarfs, Former Ghosts, Zola Jesus, Sweet Valley Slumber Party, Lake, Emily Reo and Glass Graves.
There is also an even newer trend of lo-fi goth bands, which incorporate influence from noise music, deathrock, new wave, and hardcore punk. This scene grew out of an influx of ex-deathrock revivalists into the indie music scene.
In Brazil (since 2009), the lo-fi genre is disclosed through the compilation called Recife Lo-fi created by Zeca Viana, also musician and producer. Recife is a sunny coastal city located in northeastern Brazil known for a diverse popular culture.
Lo-fi music can also refer to low fidelity music created with low end synths, 8-bit computers, and circuit bending.
- Allmusic entry for lo-fi
- Lo-Fi: In Search of an Honest Aesthetic by Jonathan Maier
- Lo-Fi music group at last.fm
- Low Fidelity Living - Free Online Lo-Fi/Noise Compilation
- Lo-fi on Avant-Avant
- Recife Lo-fi: Collection of Lo-fi songs of groups and solo musicians from Recife city, located at Pernambuco state, Brazil