New Technology; Old Values

Audio recording has always been more about art than science. That’s one of the key reasons it’s so much fun. Every time the big guys make leaps toward the “perfection” of audio technology, some little guy comes along, bucks the trend and creates a classic recording on a shoestring budget in a garage.

From the beginning, many recordists rebelled against the sterile quality of digital sound. From this resentment came a movement to add hiss, distortion, noise and other imperfections to their new releases. The trend was loosely called “lo-fi,” which is the opposite of high fidelity, or “hi-fi.” It became a recognized style of pop music in the 1990s.

The wars over pristine vs. more vintage sound have continued for years. Some radio stations complained in 1993 that Mariah Carey's recording of “Dream Lover” had a defect when, in fact, old-fashioned needle scratches were mixed into the tracks intentionally.

At first, Carey's record company, Columbia, decided to remove the ticks from the master tape but decided to drop any changes when the song hit the top ten on Billboard’s charts. A hit record can do wonders to legitimize technical “imperfections."

A key reason for the retreat toward lo-fi audio over the past decade has been a yearning by both artists and their audiences for more genuine performances. Many feel that super clean, over produced recordings come off with a cold perfection that is too slick for many music lovers.

There began a trend toward dirtier tracks that continues to this day. Tape hiss, guitar-amp noise and low-level garbage are often added to music. In an earlier era, those artifacts would have been cleaned up. Now lo-fi sensitivies, with its noise and artifacts, has become part of the music itself.

Not only do many major artists still prefer analog over digital recording, but many have achieved commercial success with lo-fi. These artists include Beck, Sebedoh, Liz Phair, P.J. Harvey, Sheryl Crow and perhaps most famously, Bruce Springsteen.

The staple hardware of lo-fi recording began by using cheap microphones, multitrack analog tape recorders, tube electronics and classic instruments. For the purist, vintage recording tape was a must, though almost impossible to find.

The lo-fi movement didn’t happen overnight. Back in 1982, Bruce Springsteen recorded his sixth album, Nebraska, in his basement on a four-track cassette Teac Portastudio 144. The recordings were originally intended as demos, but were released as recorded. That album, which became a hit, gave new life to the lo-fi movement.

Teac Portastudio 144, the cassette-based 4-track recorder Bruce Springsteen used 1982 to make Nebraska.

Teac Portastudio 144, the cassette-based 4-track recorder Bruce Springsteen used 1982 to make Nebraska.

Now, well into the digital era, lo-fi recording has gotten easier to accomplish. This is where the creativity part comes in. In lo-fi, the signal’s frequency response is anything but flat. That means different things — from cutting the highs and lows and boosting the mid-range, or perhaps creating lots of dips and bumps in the response. There is no right or wrong way.

Some manipulate the sound with older, inferior microphones through pipes, telephones or even toilet paper tubes. Others experiment with unusual microphone placements or add distortion by overdriving gear or distorting the mics. Some engineers use old, spent vacuum tubes to distort guitars even further than one can go with pedals. Even torn speaker cones can help create unique sonic effects.

Today, plug-ins are more popular than ever. These range from free to costly. iZotope’s free Vinyl plug-in adds record scratches, hum, rumble and other noises to recordings. The company's distortion plug-in, Trash, helps degrade the mix with assorted artifacts. Some DAWs include lo-fi plug-ins that allow dialing in a particular number of bits or changing the sample rate.

Users can change sound attributes by re-sampling the file. When converting a file to eight-bit resolution one can add noise and hiss. When a 16-bit audio file is exported without dithering extra distortion can be created. Incorrect use of data compression algorithms can create oddball effects.

Microphone bleed, which can pick up nearby instruments, can also add interesting effects. This is simple to do. Place the microphones further away from the source than usual and record all the instruments together. The results might be surprising.

Room treatment also takes on a different role with lo-fi recording. Normally, recordists try to get rid of room reflections. With lo-fi, the sound of the room is often part of the sound of the recorded instrument. Again, with the walls uncovered, move mics away to get and use the color of the room. This can add a unique sonic flavor to your sound.

Another effect is to normalize the digital audio file to reach maximum level, then amplify the level by about 200 percent. Doing this repeatedly creates a distorted sound. Then, roll off the highs. This audio “torture” can also create a sound some artists may prefer.

Though we have noted a number of methods to trash recorded audio, it should be remembered that all this is simply an exercise in finding a creative tool for achieving a preferred signature sound. One engineer’s trashed sound may sound like uncreative garbage to another. This is one of the joys of experimenting with audio.

With all this experimentation, it is refreshing to observe that a lot of people are now returning to the basics in audio recording to search for something new and different. The choices are infinite. Of course, the real artistry in recording has always been in the imagination, not in the hardware. But that’s a lesson that each generation seems to have to re-learn. 

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