Looking across the musical spectrum, you’ll find most genres eventually get split in two. The polished versus the unpolished. The hyper-produced, pristine half, and the alternative, grit-filled sounds of the underground. But what is initially labelled “the underground”, won’t always stay that way.
There are the DIY sounds of 90’s indie rock, to the fuzzed out beats you’ll find on Youtube playlists toting, “24/7 lo-fi chill hip hop beats to study and relax to” – in a musical landscape constantly aiming towards gloss-covered sonic perfection, at some point, both producers and listeners continue to bring the polar opposite to the forefront.
This is the story of the constant rise and fall of lo-fi music. Regardless of genre, you’ll hear similarities across the board. In its purest definition, lo-fi music is just as the name suggests – using a mix of production techniques or older music technology to replicate or create a low fidelity sound quality. The tones found in lo-fi music range as far as any other kind of music does – from moody and melancholy, to dreamy and warm, to crushed and distorted.
And because of this variety, no single genre can really claim complete ownership. If you look close enough, you’ll find lo-fi elements in music just about everywhere in 2018. From psychedelic rock bands like early-period Tame Impala, to the heaving European dancefloors moving to some Mall Grab, to the preludes of Drake’s “More Life” playlist.
Looking back through history, there’s a clear call and response pattern to every popular musical movement, where genres find themselves naturally moving away from the professional and polished, and back to the musical basics. Think Chicago/Detroit minimalist house, proto-punk, or 90’s pop-punk. Is it a part of a search for musical “authenticity”, or just a firm rebuttal to the sounds of the popular and commercialised? Some say so.
Brendan Zacharias is a house producer, mixing and mastering engineer at Cirrus Audio, one half of Anthony Fade and a Liveschool trainer. In his career so far, he’s mixed and mastered tracks for house acts like Charles Murdoch, Seekae, and Jensen Interceptor.
“There’s a fight against super polished and overproduced sounds in electronic music. On one end of the spectrum, there are some very basic or ideas/melodies which are hyper-produced, where the focus is more on the sound production than the music itself,” says Brendan.
Slamb is a Sydney producer making soulful house music. “A lot of electronic music is very high on the production. Super clean mixes and mad compressed tunes. When everything starts to sound the same, and then suddenly someone comes along and messes with it a bit, they’re going to stand out. It’s all cycles,” he says.
And once you become aware of it, it’s hard to ignore. You take notice of that ever constant screeching riser, the ear-pounding drop, and the high pitched vocal chops. And it’s not that we’re not about phenomenal heavy sound design in electronic music – but when making your own creative decisions, it’s interesting to notice and acknowledge trends, and see how the other side of music responds accordingly.
“Traditional production techniques usually always aim to reduce artefacts and maximise clarity. But the use of distortion and other processes goes against the grain, actually taking the focus off the production elements and highlights the choice of samples, melodies and movement within the music,” says Brendan.
That sense of movement is abundant in one of lo-fi’s most recent success stories – lo-fi house. Australia’s winner in this field is Newcastle-born Jordan Alexander, otherwise known as Mall Grab. From the release of his debut EP ‘Feel U’ in 2016, he relocated to London almost immediately, following a burst of European demand for his low-key house heaters.
With a clear focus on groovy melodies, rhythm, and sample selection, Mall Grab was one of many rising into a scene of hazy house in 2016. And he isn’t just an artist for the hardcore house nerds. Taking the stages of some of the world biggest music festivals, some of his tracks online are sitting well into the millions.
Take his track, “can’t (get you out of my mind)”, which is currently boasting a tasty three million plays on YouTube. It throws a dose of muted jazz piano, a soulful distorted guitar riff, a sample from Alicia Keys’ “Feelin U, Feelin Me” and crushed percussion lines, into a dreamy, vibrant heater. It’s this combination that is so consistently effective in lo-fi house – combining emotional compositions with a beat ready for the club dance floor. With the use of warmer, worn out sounds, alongside the grainy VHS style visuals, it’s not hard to see why the listeners are flocking – the senses of nostalgia glow strongly through lo-fi.
Mall Grab came up alongside artists like DJ Boring, Baltra, Ross From Friends, and DJ Sinefield, each toting their own take on house music with an old-school feeling. These are the artists who spun the focus from the clean and clear, to the muted and moody.
But two years on from lo-fi houses’ soaring heights, some say the wave has come and gone.
“The pioneers are the ones that do an interesting take on an already existing genre, perhaps stylise it further in a musical sense or in terms of how it’s produced/processed. That then creates the characteristics of what defines this new genre or sound, and sadly from that point onwards, things start to slowly become more generic as artists begin to rely on those defining features of a genre, rather than create new and interesting music,” says SLAMB.
So is the lo-fi over just yet? Sort of, and not really. Both the genre’s legends and up-and-coming acts are still pumping out lo-fi house on the regular. As for if they choose to label it lo-fi house? That’s a separate thought altogether. With or with without the name tag, don’t expect the lo-fi sound to be going away any time soon. Musical actions spark a reaction, and often, that reaction takes on the form of the lo-fi.