Texture in Music 7: Lo-fi Texture

Image Credit: Drew Dale

Image Credit: Drew Dale

Drew Dale

Lo-fi music is somewhat bewildering at face value. Why, after all, would anyone want to make their music sound worse? With that question, though, comes the assumption that music must be perfect, without any technical flaws to speak of, if it is to be considered ‘good’. But given that music is a subjective art form, it makes sense for artists to make their music flaw; often the best, most compelling music is so beautiful because of its imperfections. So, whether it is done to make the music appeal to nostalgia, feel more organically human, or simply to shrug off the notion that music must always convey emotions seriously, the use of lo-fi texture is a critical feature in modern music and the essential humanity it represents.


(If you’d like to stay up to date with my explorations of musical texture, be sure to check out the running playlist below).

Crackle and Pops: The Birds Don’t Fly This High – Lone and Oktember – GAS

From the days of vinyl recordings, crackle has been an ever-present feature in music. With digital recording, crackle can be completely eliminated (though digital artifacts like pops and clicks are the modern equivalent), but many artists choose to include such impurities for the emotional impact they provide. In “The Birds Don’t Fly This High,” Lone liberally applies crackle throughout to add warmth to the track, subtly phasing it, creating an organic flickering feeling. His laid-back but catchy drums and twinkling harmonies, shadowed by the pumping sidechain of the kick, are lit up by this fire, the crackle becoming a blaze to ward off the darkness of the night. GAS aims for a more muted sound in the ambient techno of “Oktember,” a 15+ minute long epic of drifting pads and driving percussion. On top of everything is the ever-present crackle, seemingly bringing to life the snapping twigs of the Königsforst forest, a place of importance to the producer since his childhood. His intent of bringing the forest to the disco is realized here as the impurities and ambience of his music speaks to the dark natural landscape under the trees, a place of mystery and meaning.


Hiss: Ghost Writing Pt. 1 – Tim Hecker and Therm 5 – K. Freund

Hiss is another relic of older recording media, in this case tape recording, that has stuck around into the present day, warming even the coldest tracks with its presence, enfolding the listener in the nostalgia of the recordings of yore. Tim Hecker uses this nostalgia to enhance the haunting soundscape of “Ghost Writing Pt. 1,” a beautifully cold ambient piece that seems to speak to past, present, and future all at once. The hiss throughout the song feels like a cold winters sun, feebly attempting to revive the lost frosted memories of a time long forgotten, creating a fragile, scrawling bridge between eras that might shatter under the scrutiny of any but the most attentive listener. The spoken word and acoustic samples of “Therm 5” also rely on the same connection to the past to truly evoke what was lost, the hiss (0:46-end) serving both literally and metaphorically as degraded audio and a symbol of things forgotten. Especially in light of the odd, almost playful intro, the rest of the song truly has the feel of something half-buried and dust-coated, an artifact nearly smothered by the sands of time. Hiss, then, is a reminder that we mustn’t forget the past; even if we must accept that it is gone, the meaning it has for us is something that remains.


Lo-fi mixes: Bubble Butts and Equations – Actress, Shootin 2 Much Meth – Viper, and Dahabo – Gulled Simba

Meaning in music is great and all, but what about music that just for fun? As songs like Zomby’s “Fuck Mixing, Let’s Dance” imply, music needn’t always be so serious, and sometimes it can even be good by being bad, at least from a technical standpoint, not to mention that what is typically considered technically competent is very informed by Western notions of what makes ‘proper’ music. “Bubble Butts and Equations” subverts this concept with a mashing kick, distorted beyond recognition over a roughly eq’ed open hi-hat sample, bleeping chimes, and low-passed saw synths. The mix here feels incredibly rough in the most satisfying way, a Frankenstein’s monster of electronic sounds smashed together to create a rousing dance track. “Shootin 2 Much Meth” is a rough and ready Southern hip-hop anthem courtesy of Viper, the incredibly prolific cloud rapper who famously released close to 350 of his 1500 total albums in 2014 alone. Viper’s raw vocals and ambling drums clearly weren’t treated to a real studio mix (and how could they be with Viper’s insane rate of release), but informal quality suits them well, drawing out the haze of Viper’s voice amidst the violet sludge of his production. Viper has turned this DIY sound into an aesthetic, in the process taking sounds that many might consider unappealing and turning them into the tools of an artist at play. All these songs straddle the line between intentional and unintentional lo-fi, and nowhere is this truer than the Somali banger “Dahabo.” The song my not follow typical Western production techniques in terms of vocals and stereo imaging, but this only serves to make the song more interesting and fun, an experiment in mixing freed from the restrictions of ‘good taste’. The vocals, synths, and drums come together in a whirlwind of fun, showing that sometimes it’s best to take music, and life, just a little less seriously.