What Does Lo-fi Actually Mean?

Comes With Fries
Dec 2019
Andy Tudehope

I wanted to take a moment to look into a term that is so loosely used in music, that I feel that its meaning has been misinterpreted or lost along the way. The term I am referring to is Lo-fi. It gets thrown around by musicians and music listeners alike, like a piece of fruit in a school playground. ‘We wanted to keep it lo-fi’ will say every up and coming band who didn’t have any control of this but are rather just covering themselves incase anyone says the recording of their music could improve. I am not calling these people out - I myself have said it for a number of releases without even really understanding what I was saying. For me it meant crackled recordings and hip hop that sounds quieter than usual.

The entire ‘Soundcloud Rap’ movement is based around this idea of Lo-fi recordings. ‘We just don’t want to sound like all those big famous rappers’ they say. Yeah, I am sure that being slightly worse sounding and less accessible is your aim here. So let’s take a step back and together gain an understanding as to exactly what is going on with the term that is Lo-Fi, in order to fully appreciate it’s meaning when spoken about.

The term, Lo-fi was first mentioned in 1958 when a critic wrote of Bob Crosby’s - Bob Cat’s in Hi-fi: ‘This is in no way Hi -fi but rather lo-fi due to the fact that none of the original Bob Cats are in the recording.’ It’s first use was to insult Bobby for the fact that his original band weren’t used. An easy low blow review from a clearly unimpressed critic.

It was then thrown around a few times in the 60’s and 70’s in a similar vein until it found a home within the concept of recording.

Just like capitalism and mullets the term lo-fi finds itself truly born in the 1980s. A time of exponential technological growth and development. It is the opposite of Hi-Fi (High Fidelity) and alludes to the idea of DIY production quality in music that comes from home recordings. This was the initial meaning of the term and it was seen as a problem or imperfection in the soundscape of recordings. Did this mean that all home-recordings from that point onwards were lo-fi and all lo-fi recordings alluded to the idea of amateur music?

In a paper written on the discourses of Lo-fi music A.C Harper - seems to think not. He argues that if we take all music recorded after the inception of the term in poor recording conditions and label it as lo-fi, we are unravelling the term. He even goes onto state that lo-fi goes beyond music and can be used to describe parts of travel - 'Stylish travelers seeking lo-fi experiences are cruising cross-country in Airstream trailers' - New York Times 2007. He further goes on to state that lo-fi is not a genre or mode but rather a coming together of the modern and postmodern to create a style of recording. It is above all things an aesthetic of the music.

Now the study from Harper whilst immensely riveting does go onto to get quite dense in lingo and theory. So let us carry on in our own adventure. We now know what lo-fi signified on its inception in the 1980s - Amature recordings made at home. We have an origin but just like Joquin Pheonix’s - Joker, an origin story is all about the arc. Ending up far from where we began. Jump ahead 30 years to today and the term lo-fi has taken on a whole new meaning.

The bedroom recording artist now has access to programs and equipment that can create recordings similar, if not better to that of the producer in the studio. Producers will argue differently and of course their set up and skill set allows for more range in recording but theoretically, the bedroom artist does have this potential.

This has however change what lo-fi means. It is in modern day and not just the DIY recording of the bedroom artist. In fact producers with their 24-track recording desks, swivel chairs and backwards hats are now in fact attempting to create a ‘lo-fi aesthetic’ in their music which is recording at the highest quality. The idea of imperfection in recording has become trendy and sought after just and like the mullet it has found its way into the 21st century. In fact in 2008 the Oxford dictionary added this definition for the term - Unpolished, amateurish, or technologically unsophisticated, especially. as a deliberate aesthetic choice.' - It is the use of the word deliberate that has created an entirely new meaning.

These imperfections come through the recording process whether it be cracks in mic from too much air coming through it or distortion on guitar notes that clips the recording just slightly. Their purpose? To create feeling of connection to the listener. Whilst our minds feel at ease with a ‘Perfect’ recording, it is these pops and cracks that create a connection somewhat similar to hearing the song live. It is real, it is imperfect. It is human.

Beginning at the turn of the ‘Bedroom Casette Reording’ era, the concept of Lo-fi has seen itself grow to something initially seen as derogatory in music rooted in indie rock to something that is sought after from musicians and producers. Similar to the flamboyance and excess of the 80’s - Lo-Fi has hung around and become a staple sound in music. Personally, I can now see its significance and importance in music. It is about the feeling it creates for listeners. It feels personal and perhaps slightly more ‘real’ than polished sounds. Of course, it needs to be used in a considered manner, but does seem to hold its own. So next time your friend tells you their new album is lo-fi, maybe consider the fact that they are in fact a genius with artistic consideration and merit that are truly aware of what they are putting out.

Lo-fi Music Originals:

Daniel Johnston

R Stevie Moore



Lo Fi Music Now:


Blue in Green -Theo Parishh